Nationalist myths are not Marxism
Jack Conrad argues against the left-nationalist claim that Scotland is an oppressed nation. Indeed, prior to the 1707 Act of Union Scotland was not a nation
Given the September 18 referendum and Alex Salmond’s ‘yes’ campaign, it is hardly surprising that various left groups and individuals have been captured and effectively turned into Scottish National Party minions or satellites. Colin Fox, spokesperson of the Scottish Socialist Party, sits on the ‘yes’ campaign’s advisory board. So do Pat Kane and Elaine C Smith. At a slightly further distance there orbits the Radical Independence Campaign. It unites a strange collection of leftists, greens and pacifists, not least the International Socialist Group established by Chris Bambery after he split from the Socialist Workers Party. As can be seen from their publications, press releases and blogs, there has been a total collapse into Scottish nationalism. The “Scottish Workers’ Republic is a dream we hold in our hearts and minds”, says Bambery.1 “Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be for all of us,” runs the RIC’s main slogan.2 Meanwhile, having been no-platformed by Women for Independence, Labour for Independence and Generation Yes, Tommy Sheridan, the disgraced former Scottish Socialist Party MSP, is being paraded around the country by the Socialist Campaign for Independence to give a leftwing cover for Salmond’s cause.3
Of course, before they spectacularly fell out, before they became irreconcilable political enemies, before they viciously denounced each other as liars in Edinburgh’s court of sessions, Tommy Sheridan happily put his name to Imagine, a book written by Alan McCombes (then editor of the SSP Scottish Socialist Voice). Herein the former chums repeated the standard nationalist tropes of medieval Scottish resistance to English expansionism, the gallant role of William Wallace and the bitterly resented loss of hard-won independence. According to Sheridan-McCombes, Scotland had been “evolving as a rudimentary nation-state” till the 1707 Act of Union was forced on a bankrupt Scottish elite. Afterwards the country was “stripped of all political and economic autonomy” and turned into a sort of colony of the English/British ruling class.4 Historic revenge will come through separation from Britain and the winning of a Scottish socialism.
Naturally, the usual leftwing celebrities were lined up by the publisher (Kevin Williamson’s Rebel Inc) to give back cover endorsements. They proved very obliging: “I commend it”, wrote John Pilger, Ken Loach pronounced it “excellent” and Tony Benn went into characteristic overdrive. “It is one of the very best books that I have ever read on the subject of socialism”, he gushed.
When was Scotland?
National romantics of all stripes, establishment historians, would-be freedom fighters, TV academics and the plain cranky are all prone to automatically place the beginning of Scotland far back in the mists of time - to the ancient Picts, or the arrival of the Scots from Ireland, or perhaps the accession of the mac Alpine kings in the 9th century. That, after all, is how standard history tells the story. That is what children are taught in Scottish schools. Indeed virtually every country that exists at the present moment in time is projected back into prehistory by the propagandists of nationhood. A common sense reflected in the history sections in libraries and bookshops and their arrangement into neat, alphabetically ordered national sections - Albania, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany … Scotland.
Slightly less fanciful is the notion that Scotland achieved national consciousness and therefore nationhood in medieval times. The ‘wars of independence’ against ‘England’, the famous 1320 Declaration of Arbroath and William Wallace’s stunning victory at Stirling Bridge are cited as clinching evidence. McCombes-Sheridan confidently state that “Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe” going back to the 13th century and the struggle against Edward I.5
A ‘theoretical’ underpinning for this widely accepted account was supplied by the ‘official communist’, John Foster - international secretary of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and a Glasgow university academic. Unlike most Marxists, who link nations with the rise of capitalist relations of production, he maintains that the Scottish nation was almost entirely a “feudal creation”. The “founding elements” of Scottish law, language (lowland Scots) and literature (the so-called ‘markers’) all “stem from the last three centuries of the middle ages”, he claims.6
According to this version of history, the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 thereby become as much expressions of Scottish national resistance against English colonialism as a dynastic struggle between the deposed Stewarts and the newly installed Hanoverians. The Stewarts pledged to restore the Edinburgh parliament. As a result, in 1745 Charles Edward Stewart “built mass support in the highlands and passive support even in the Presbyterian lowlands”.7
Scotland’s popular culture as it comes down to us today is supposedly therefore one of national resistance against foreign domination. Not surprisingly, Britain and Britishness are dismissed as nothing more than an elitist unity, a fragile and fading imperial construct, beneath which the ‘real’ nations of England, Scotland and Wales lie ready, waiting for their moment of freedom - the left-nationalist version, of course, culminates in a Scottish socialism or a Scottish workers’ republic.
Yet it is a fundamental mistake to project today’s nations backwards in time. Medieval kingdoms did not have a predestiny to form modern states that were to move through the stages of establishing national consciousness before finally finding their rightful contemporary boundaries. Most medieval kingdoms disappear in the constantly interrupted course of history: eg, Mercia, Navarre, Arelat, Sicily. Modern states do though, invariably, invent for themselves, and crucially their citizens, a history constructed on the basis of drawing on traditional stories and supposedly ancient ideologies. This work of inventing nations, as emphasised by Patrick J Geary, professor of history at the university of California, amongst many others, was begun in the late 18th and early 19th century by the “creative efforts” of politicians and nationalists.8 Subsequently their work was continued and elaborated by a whole army of paid persuaders. That does not mean that nations are imaginary, in the sense that they do not exist. But Marxists are surely obliged to provide truthful explanation, not embellishment.
Eg, official France claims origins in ancient Gaul, forgetting that the French language is Latin, not Celtic in root and that the name ‘France’ itself derives from 4th and 5th century Germanic conquistadors. Vercingetorix - the 1st century BC chieftain of the Arverni - is painted as a precursor of the 1940s French resistance by the French Communist Party. His social position at the top of an exploiting warrior elite is ignored. Marine Le Pen and her Front National have developed a whole cult around Joan of Arc. The mission of the ‘Maid of Orleans’ is said to have been ‘England for the English and France for the French’.9 A code nowadays for Islamophobia and expelling illegal migrants. In the process of reinvention, the other ‘Frances’ of Burgundy, Brittany, Gascony, Provence, etc are ignored by all sides in favour of an Île-de-France, which supposedly inevitably swept all before it from the year 1000 onwards.
There were, of course, regional and linguistic commonalties in the pre-modern world, but they should not be equated or confused with our present-day notions of nation and nationalism. Take the Greeks of ancient Hellas. These people spoke a common language, albeit with distinct dialects. They shared the same common territory, but fought innumerable wars against each other. They had a recognisably common culture vis-à-vis barbarian outsiders, but they were not united economically. Scattered, self-sufficient peasant agriculture, tribal identity, petty artisan manufacture and painfully slow internal communications saw the Greeks living in numerous rival poleis. There was no Greek nation. Objective conditions did not allow it.
The same applies to medieval Europe. Virtually everyone was a Christian and regularly attended church. Besides the commonality of religion there was the commonality of class. Members of the feudal ruling class, however, had far more in common with each other culturally, psychologically and economically across the frontiers of crown domains than with the exploited peasants below. The masses themselves had lived relationships that were constrictingly narrow - essentially local, being determined by village, manor and church dioceses.
To the extent there was a wider popular consciousness, it was regnal - one founded on loyalty to the monarch or the institution of the monarchy. Hence Kentish peasants in 1381 could imagine a bond between themselves and the boy-king, Richard II. Needless to say that bond was not national. The first language of the Anjou and Plantagenet kings of England was not English, but Norman French. Moreover, these kings of England were also overlords in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as being feudal magnets exploiting large tracts of France. Indeed, as far as surplus extraction was concerned, these ‘English’ kings derived most of their wealth and therefore accumulated political-military power from their French, not English, possessions. In that sense Henry II of England is best thought of as Henri of Angevin.
As to ‘nation’, it is, of course, an ancient term. For example in the 3rd century Vulgate edition of the Bible the Greek word, ethnos, and the Latin, natio, both referred to the original Middle Eastern tribal formations whose “dismal fate” is recounted in the book of Jeremiah. Natio was transformed into nacioun in the first English versions of the Bible and became ‘nation’ in the authorised version of 1611. For the authors and translators of the Bible, ‘nation’ was something more than a state or kingdom. It corresponded to a ‘people’ who were assumed to be a natural, inherited community of tradition, custom, law and descent. ‘Nation’ referred therefore to the gens or populus, who were presumed to have a common biological descent.
Origin myths were used to establish and explain the commonality of people. For example, in medieval times the Franks were traced back to the arrival of exiled Trojans in the Rhineland. Hence, if the nation was defined in ethnic or biological terms, then it was based on the possession of a common language: ie, language makes nation. During medieval times university students in Prague were therefore organised into four ‘nations’, as were the knights of the Hospitallers in the Levant: eg, the ‘Bohemian’ and ‘Frankish’ ‘nations’. The material fact of language could only but produce a distinct consciousness, when confronted by others. The medieval kingdom of Scotland was, we note, home to not one common language or ‘nation’: more like four.
A medieval ‘nation’
So what of medieval Scotland? We have already referred to the so-called ‘Scottish wars of independence’. My view - which still upsets left nationalists in Scotland - is that the popular belief that William Wallace, and following him Robert de Bruce, led some sort of liberation struggle against the English is a combination of 19th century myth and Hollywood hokum. As for the celebrated Declaration of Arbroath - written in Latin and purportedly representing the Scottish equivalent of the American declaration of independence - it did not acquire that iconic status till modern times.
In essence the conflict between ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’ after 1296 was no different from the Wars of the Roses: ie, an internal struggle between rival feudal interests, whose ideology was based on past notions of fief and vassalage, not future notions of nation and nationality. The Norman aristocracy in Scotland were ‘traditionalists’ defending their ability to exploit their serfs without anyone higher up the feudal ladder grabbing the bulk of the surplus. Edward I was the ‘revolutionary’ centraliser who wanted to do just that.
During this medieval period both ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’ were little more than geographical expressions. There was then no war between Scotland and England. Rather wars by the kings of England in Scotland - a crucial distinction. In this context the Declaration of Arbroath - which took the form of an appeal by the earls and the feudal elite in Scotland to pope John XXII in Avignon - was to all intents and purposes no different from the Magna Carta in England, the Charter of Ottokar in Syria or the Golden Bull in Hungary. Lurking behind the fawning appeals to the pope and the stirring phrases about “good men” and being “for freedom alone” there was indeed the fight over “riches”.10
Under the banner of fighting for their ancient liberties, the ‘traditionalist’ barons were determined to limit the ‘revolutionary’ centralising power of a hegemonic crown, so that they could secure the greater share of the surplus product squeezed from the downtrodden peasantry. The preamble is typically medieval: the “Scots nation” from “Greater Sythia” sail through the Pillars of Hercules (Columnas Herculis). Having dwelt in Spain and Ireland for 400 years, they move to Scotland, where they triumph over Britons and Picts and survive attacks by “Norwegians, Danes and English”. If, as nationalists claim, Scotland was a proto-nation in the 14th century, then logically so must be the Britons and Picts. However, the purpose of the Declaration is crystal clear. It was an attempt to gain papal backing for the aristocracy in Scotland.
There is no continuity between the forms of consciousness displayed in the Declaration of Arbroath and that of the modern Scottish people. The kings and nobles of both England and Scotland were feudalists - with a Norman French-derived culture (they married wives from across the whole of north-western Europe). This ‘cosmopolitan’ class entertained no modern-day notions of nation. The idea of a national liberation war would have been utterly incomprehensible to them. It was merely that their realms of exploitation, commonality and rivalry invariably overlapped and conflicted with other feudalists.
‘Scottish’ nobles - such as John Comyn - fought with Edward I in his conquest of Wales. The ‘Scottish’ Balliol family still held lands in France. Robert de Bruce, the Earl of Carrick, was a vassal of Edward I. As we have noted, the Plantagenet and Anjou ‘English’ kings themselves occupied tracts of France - notably Gascony, Aquitaine and Poitou - and often actively promoted claims on the French throne. The ‘English’ armies of Edward I and II used in Scotland were recruited in large numbers from domains in France, Ireland and Wales. Crucially, though, their wars in Scotland were solidly based on establishing feudal, not national, rights.
Edward I certainly sought to incorporate the territory of the kingdom of Scotland into his feudal empire. At first the means were peaceful. The Treaty of Birgham in 1290 set out terms of a future dynastic union through the marriage of Margaret, the ‘Maid of Norway’, and Edward’s son. The interests of the ruling elite in Scotland would have been left largely unaffected. The merger was to be of crowns with no disturbing change. There was to be no 1066-type takeover.
As we know, the United Kingdom had to wait for another three centuries or so before seeing the light of day. Margaret died and triggered a constitutional crisis in Scotland. Edward I quickly moved to assert his overlordship. John Balliol was appointed king under Edward’s sponsorship and duly paid homage to him in December 1292.
Internal feudal contradictions in Scotland and Edward’s onerous demands placed on his vassals drove king John to rebellion. Instead of meekly accepting Edward’s domination, the ‘Scottish’ feudalists raised an army - including commoners - at Caddonlee. But the Scots were comprehensively routed in a 17-day blitzkrieg. Edward I stripped a captured Balliol of his feudal trappings in a humiliating ceremony held at Montrose Castle in July 1296. His tabard, hood and knightly girdle were torn from him.
Yet, though Edward’s means shifted from those of peaceful diplomacy to naked force, this ran in parallel with his individual fief-vassal relationship with the great Norman families in Scotland. Here lies the explanation for the ‘sinister’ role of the elder Bruce, etc, and the constant shifts in alliances, as the ‘Scots’ feudalists gradually turned the tables on the ‘English’ - Stirling Bridge being a crucial early battle. But there were, of course, no national patriots, defeatists, collaborators or traitors in the modern sense. After winning at Bannockburn in 1314, the ‘Scottish’ nobility sought to expand its influence into Wales and Ireland. And the ‘war of independence’ continued as an internecine conflict between the Bruce and Balliol families.
Left nationalists not only cite the Declaration of Arbroath, but William Wallace and the social composition of the army which fought with him at Stirling Bridge and for Bruce at Bannockburn, as proof of a popular nationalist consciousness. These fantasists actually put Wallace and his army in the same league as Spartacus, Wat Tyler and the Levellers: ie, a revolutionary class movement from below. According to Thomas Johnston (1882-1965), writing in his influential The history of the working classes in Scotland (1920), those responsible for the defeat of the ‘English’ army in 1314 “were the working class, and it was their charge on the field that won the battle of Bannockburn”.11 Obviously the presence of urban plebeians and peasants is meant to show that the ‘wars of independence’ had a popular character.
So did Wallace lead a slave revolt? Bannockburn, won under Bruce, the future Robert II, involved no decisive action by commoners. Stirling Bridge did. However, there is a huge difference between rallying an army of commoners and being an army of and for the commoners. The fact that Wallace’s forces at Stirling Bridge in 1297 consisted mainly of foot soldiers and his tactical deployment of pikemen in tightly-packed schiltrons hardly demonstrates nationalism or national consciousness.
There have been popular mobilisations in support of rival elites since the dawn of history. The Greek city-states and their peasant-citizen armies being a case in point. Surely the ability of Wallace to form a peasant-plebeian army rested not on any nationalism or national idealism: rather the ideology of regnal solidarity, upon which the Declaration of Arbroath draws inspiration. While some middling elements might have been provoked by Edward I’s tax demands, the mass of peasants would have remained politically inert as a class. The idea of illiterate peasants - who lived short, brutish and localised lives - embracing modern notions of nationalism is stretching the imagination to breaking point.
For the sake of left nationalists in Scotland, it is also worth stressing the fact that Edward’s army assembled before the battle of Falkirk in 1298 included 4,000 cavalry ... but also some 25,000 infantrymen - “paid, voluntary unpaid and feudal elements”.12 It is true that Edward represented a rich feudalism. His elaborately armoured and expensively mounted knights were the tank divisions of the day. It is also true that the kingdom of Scotland was a poor feudalism and could afford neither the same numbers of infantry nor heavy cavalry.
That the ‘English’ feudalists suffered defeats at the hands of the ‘Scots’ feudalists is testimony not to a people’s war. Rather military incompetence. At Bannockburn the ‘English’ army under the command of Edward II fought on “cramped and hemmed in”, almost suicidal, terrain and, no doubt due to aristocratic arrogance, launched a “headstrong” frontal cavalry charge, against massed pikemen. And it is worth noting that in later battles, such as Dupplin Moor, Halidon Hill and Neville’s Cross, the ‘Scottish’ armies employed tactics “modelled” on those used by Bruce Bannockburn. However, such attempts to emulate Bruce ended in “disaster”.13 The ‘correct’ tactic at Bannockburn, which soon became standard, was to unleash the English and Welsh longbowmen. These equally plebeian, though highly skilled, forces would wreak decimation on any stationary formation. They would fire arrows at a rate “three or four times” faster than a crossbow and with equal accuracy and reach.14 The longbow even proved a match for the elite of French feudalism. Needless to say, neither Crécy nor Agincourt make Edward III and Henry V leaders of a slave revolt. By the same logic Wallace and co’s reliance on pikemen proves nothing in and of itself, except that the kingdom of Scotland was a poor feudalism.
All in all, the suggestion that Wallace led a revolt from below in the manner of Spartacus and Wat Tyler is unconvincing. Following Edward I’s victory in 1296, many nobles languished in England awaiting ransom. Others had been injured and were unable to take to the field. Some were temporarily cowed. The imposition of Edward I’s puppet parliament and plans for a deep feudalism provoked widespread opposition, including from small landowners. However, no ‘natural’ leadership stepped forth willing to fight. It was into this vacuum that Andrew de Moray emerged in the north and William Wallace in the south. Moray was the son and heir of a leading baron. Wallace had a less elevated lineage. He was the son a Renfrewshire knight.
In the summer of 1297 the Moray-Wallace campaign made rapid progress. Nevertheless, over these two “commanders of the army of the kingdom of Scotland, and the community of that realm” stood two great magnets - Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, and James the Stewart, Wallace’s own lord. The respective roles of Moray and Wallace are much obscured by the fact that the former died of wounds inflicted at Stirling Bridge. Either way, Wallace became Guardian in Scotland not in the name of the people, but the “illustrious king” in exile. He was Balliol’s regnal champion.
Wallace was, however, no military genius. He only successfully fought one set-piece battle: Stirling Bridge. When his army met the ‘English’ feudal host at Falkirk in July 1298, the longbowmen destroyed his schiltrons. His status as Guardian was fatally undermined. The resistance of the high aristocracy receded still further. They opted for a peace deal. Like Bruce, after 1309 Wallace was forced to turn to guerrilla or ‘secret’ warfare and raiding the northern English counties. A risky business. In August 1305 Wallace was captured near Glasgow and taken to London where he was tried, found guilty of treason and executed.
Wallace was used many years later by the forces of radical democracy in inspiring poems, novels and songs. The same can be said of Hereward the Wake and the long-held beliefs in pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon liberty and opposition to the Norman yoke. But to confuse origin myths for actual history is foolish and certainly not worthy of anyone who calls themselves a Marxist.
Most historians who think that the kingdom of Scotland was a proto-nation or a nation before the 1707 Act of Union also take the view that it was maintained afterwards through various institutions. Namely the kirk, an education system based on lowland Scots and law. Here we have the so-called key ‘markers’ of Scottish nationhood. A flimsy and unconvincing construct. If we can discover no modern sense of nationhood before 1707, the suggestion that these ‘markers’ were the bearers of national consciousness can only but be the result of circular reasoning. The whole idea of institutional continuity as a form of national consciousness is profoundly flawed anyway.
How can a kirk sermon, a legal decision or a classroom lesson be the leading edge of national consciousness? If they played the role assigned to them, then they must have possessed a similar social salience prior to 1707, and yet none of the three institutional examples can be convincingly cited.
Education was not mentioned in the 1707 treaty. There was, though, something approaching universal education in Scotland in the 17th century. But it was religion which was central. Doing his best, the local minister would teach Latin, French, classical literature, sports … and catechism.15 The parish school was essentially an outpost of the kirk.
As to criminal and civil law, here we have not popular consciousness: rather bureaucratic continuity, which is by definition fundamentally undemocratic. Till the Act of Union the post of sheriff was typically heritable - in 21 out of 33 sheriffdoms. Held by the local baron, they would ruthlessly exploit their position “to profit themselves, not the king”.16 The whole system reeked of corruption. Under these circumstances would a peasant proudly quote a judgement made by one of those grasping barons, if asked what makes them Scottish? Hardly.
Crucially, for the mass of people in Scotland to have felt themselves to be Scottish, they would have had to be aware of significant differences between themselves and people of other nationalities. Experience of the law, the kirk and education would not have resulted in that. The English, Irish, etc, had only a marginal or passing presence. Many within the kingdom of Scotland would, though, feel ‘other’ through contact with the institutions of law, religion and education. People in the Shetlands and Orkney still spoke Norwegian and most in the highlands spoke Gaelic. In the meantime, the majority of Scots would have viewed what cheated or hoodwinked them as no different from death and taxes. They did not think about these institutions as unique markers of Scottishness, because they were seen as parts of normal life.
There was nothing akin to the phenomenon in Ireland, where proto-national consciousness coincided with religion after 1690. Both Gaelic-Irish and Anglo-Irish became Irish-Irish with the persecution of the Catholic religion, the imposition of the Anglican religion and the influx of Protestant settlers from England and above all Scotland into north-eastern Ulster. No-one denies the role of Calvinism in Scotland and the Presbyterian state-within-a-state form of government. But the majority of Scots had no reason to view the kirk as part of their identity. It was taken for granted.
Having touched upon and dealt with the false claims of a Scottish nationhood prior to 1707, we must of necessity discuss Scotland’s past and present in light of the Marxist theory of what modern nations are, how they are formed and why the categories of economy, language, territory, psychology and culture are vital in this respect. These categories and what they mean for our understanding of Scotland, Britain and the United Kingdom will form the subject of future articles.
1. C Bambery A people’s history of Scotland London 2014.
3. Sunday Herald June 15 2014.
4. T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, pp179-80.
5. Ibid p178.
6. J Foster, ‘Capitalism and the Scottish nation’ in G Brown (ed) The red paper on Scotland Edinburgh 1975, p142.
7. T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p180.
8. PJ Greary The myth of nations Princeton 2002, p16.
11. Quoted in N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, p50.
12. D Simpkin The English aristocracy at war Woodbridge 2008, p183.
13. M Brown Bannockburn Edinburgh 2008, p133.
14. A Jones The art of war in the western world London 1988, p157.
15. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Scotland#Origins.