The myth of the English yoke
Was Scotland subject to an English takeover in 1707? Does Scotland suffer from English internal colonialism? Jack Conrad questions the myths and assumptions of Scottish nationalism
Since the 1789 French Revolution ‘the nation’ has emerged as the main ideology of the ruling class (or would-be governing elite) and bourgeois society in general. Nationalism is now the paramount means of mass mobilisation. Both crusade and jihad have been nationalised. Millions of ordinary people have willingly sacrificed their lives for the motherland, fatherland, homeland (ie, a deflected expression of the common interest).
In his influential book, Benedict Anderson testifies to this extraordinary power of the national ideal: “Dying for one’s country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a political grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association or perhaps even Amnesty International cannot rival, for these are all bodies one can join and leave at easy will.”1
Yet the fact of the matter is that the nation is the recent product of history and the product of deliberately remaking all of history in the national image. Every country nowadays has its popular historians, TV professors and well-remunerated scholarly experts, who manufacture and maintain the nation in the collective imagination. Universities once exclusively taught the classics, metaphysics and the lives of the saints. Now they have entire departments devoted to promulgating national history. Real events, peoples and causes in the distant, and not so distant, past are thereby remade in the national image.
It is not only the establishment. Mesolithic settlers, Neolithic cattle-herders, Pictish peasants, Anglo-Saxon incomers, Viking raiders, Gaelic clans, Jacobite rebels, the lowland enlightenment, the highland clearances, Red Clydesiders, Labour voters, poll tax protestors - all find themselves crammed into Chris Bambery’s A people’s history of Scotland (2014). Indeed, showing his complete surrender to the standard tropes of rightwing Scottish nationalism, the comrade seriously tells us that “a good account of [William] Wallace’s life” can be found in Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart.2
In many respects, when it came to this version of history, Germany led the way. Eg, in the early 19th century the Society for Older German Historical Knowledge sponsored a huge collection of documents called the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. It purported to chronicle German history from Roman times to 1500. National historians, composers and poets strove to create in the mind a German nation-state that in reality was fragmented into countless petty and not so petty kingdoms. Hence well before Germany there was the idea of Germany.
“Every nation,” Hegel claimed, in a youthful work, “has its own imagery, its gods, angels, devils or saints who live in the nation’s traditions, whose stories and deeds the nurse tells her charges and so wins them over by impressing their imagination.”3 Nations were deemed to have their own unique character and destiny. According to Leopold Ranke - the father of German historiography - between the global and the actions of individual actors there was the “primeval” nation.4 Certainly the inculcation of national identity politics proved a great success. In 1871 Otto von Bismarck carried out his revolution from above and united Germany to widespread acclaim.
Victorian Britain introduced a modified version of this approach. Royal history has been fused with the history of the British state and projected backwards onto the distant past. Of course, the fact that its core-state arrangement of ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Ireland’ was the accidental results of feudal marriage-bed deals and the fortunes of war could be conveniently ignored or marginalised. Ditto pre-capitalist relations of exploitation and reproduction, working class collectivism and organised manifestations of internationalism. Garnering support for imperialism and especially the widening franchise surely explains this phenomenon. Mass trade unionism, cooperative associations and demands for universal suffrage forged an elemental working class consciousness. Hence, those above came to agree with Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke, the vice-president of the Committee of the Council on Education in Palmerstone’s second, 1859-65, ministry. Despite being a thorough-going reactionary, and a defender of ‘wealth and intellect’, he famously declared, following the 1867 reform act, that now “we must educate our masters”.5
In practice that meant inculcating monarchical patriotism. Primary and secondary schools duly teach history along strictly national lines: England, Scotland and Wales (Northern Ireland can be put aside as a special case). These nations are the subject matter of history, and history is viewed as teleological. Past events are interpreted through the prism of a long journey that eventually culminates in the second, glorious, Elizabethan age.
There have, of course, been radical elements militantly opposed to the establishment. In the 17th century republicans such as John Lilburne and Gerrard Winstanley took over the late medieval myth of Anglo-Saxon liberty that supposedly existed before William le Bâtard and the Norman yoke.6 Nevertheless, while the history was bogus, there was more than a grain of truth in what they said. The aristocratic elite were obviously alien. The houses of Normandy, Blois, Anjou and Plantagenet were proudly Norman-French and indeed they “strained every nerve to maintain their foothold in Europe”.7 For the Levellers and Diggers James I and Charles I were members of a foreign ruling class too.
Such popular perceptions have repeatedly arisen. After all, the glorious revolution of 1688 saw James II (James VII of Scotland) driven out by a Dutch invasion which put William of Orange onto the throne. He reigned alongside his wife, Mary II, as William III. True, he spoke English, but only as a foreign language. The Hanoverians were likewise non-English. In point of fact the first two Georgians spoke German as a first language and, of course, ruled Hanover (nowadays deemed the “most boring” city in Federal Germany8). As for the governing class - ie, the capitalistic aristocracy - their dreams might have been in English. Yet in waking hours, whenever the opportunity arose, they separated themselves off from the lower orders with French phrases, tastes and manners.
Only under the impact of the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 did the aristocracy fully nationalise itself. The royal family eventually following suit, albeit at a considerable delay. During World War I the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas morphed into the Windsors (despite that, till recently, they married other European aristocrats - eg, the Duke of Edinburgh, born in Greece as a prince of the house of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, the Greek and Danish royal family). However, the American and Napoleonic wars turned the tables on the radicals who initially supported their American and French fellow thinkers. It was they who were now branded non-national. Counterrevolutionary wars abroad thereby helped forge a counterrevolutionary Hanoverian-Tory regime at home.
Scotland as victim
It is hardly surprising then that all varieties of Scottish nationalism assume that the kingdom of Scotland was a nation prior to the 1707 Act of Union. In their jointly authored book Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan even boast that “Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe”, dating back to the 13th century.9 The mental cage sponsored and promoted by the UK state since the late 19th century is never seriously analysed or questioned. Thanks to state generosity, official history was drilled into schoolboy skulls as a matter of routine. Scotland is imagined from the prehistoric all the way to the September 18 “revolution”.10 Scotland is and has been throughout historic time and will be from here and perhaps to eternity. Yet notions of ancient or feudal nations are completely ahistorical. Yes, there was from the 9th century a single monarch reigning over most of what is now Scotland. But that hardly equates with the unity of the people living there. The same can be said of 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of Great Britain and Ireland. His subjects spoke four indigenous languages (English, Irish Gaelic, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic).
As with the English radicals of the 17th century, Scotland, post-1707, is painted by the more deluded Scottish nationalists as an oppressed nation.11 In this case it is the English yoke. Put another way, Scotland is to this day ruled by foreigners. Eg, the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement believes it is struggling for “national liberation”.12 Another left nationalist, Bob Goupillot, a “republican communist”, writes that a Scottish office and secretary of state for Scotland “smacks of colonialism” and that, “whilst being on a different scale to the Irish, Scots have experienced elements of national oppression which need to be acknowledged by others and overcome”.13 Along similar lines Mhairi McAlpine boldly declares that the “struggle for Scottish independence is, at its heart, an anti-colonial struggle”.14 And, on the far fringes, there is the Scottish National Liberation Army. It calls upon English “settlers” to “leave, leave!”15
Yes, in 1707 there was bribery and corruption. The Act of Union was not a democratic agreement between two sovereign peoples. Neither Scotland nor England were democracies of any kind. Hence no need for the well-worn Daniel Defoe and Robbie Burns quotes. The aristocracy in Scotland voted for what was perceived to be in their sectional interests. That, at least in part, explains why there was widespread opposition. However, that happened both in Scotland and England. Popular opinion on both sides of the border resented and protested against the 1707 Act of Union.
Yes, the initial effects of the merger were not positive for Scotland and, yes, there was 1715 and 1745 ... often portrayed as a “national rising”.16 Yet, after 1746 and the battle of Culloden, there was rapid economic development and with that came a dawning of British national consciousness, including in the highlands. In point of fact, many highland Scots willingly, even enthusiastically, joined the British military caste. Jacobitism was almost effortlessly swapped for a cult of a Greater Britain. The lowlands bourgeoisie and highland lairds alike were enrolled into the British ruling class.
Protestantism, inter-continental wars with absolutist Spain and France, joint colonisation of Ulster, North America and Australasia - an empire of work colonies - made and remade consciousness. Likewise the joint building, administering and maintaining of the vast British - not English - empire of exploitation in the Caribbean, Africa and India. For the rich and powerful, Scottishness meant sharing in the spoils. The “more outspoken” presented themselves as North Britons ... and even superior to the feckless English.17
However, for Scottish left nationalists, Britain is an entirely artificial, or royal, construct. Within the state prison house of Ukiana, the oppressed nations of Scotland and Wales suffocate, but await their moment of freedom. Almost laughably, a “pre-bourgeois” Britain “inevitably” leads to “second round” of nationalist breakouts.18 In other words, after the failures of 1715 and 1745 there comes September 18 2014. Only when national independence has been finally secured will the road to a (national) socialism be opened.
Anyway, for Scottish left nationalists, the nation (country) is Scottish, the state and the ruling institutions are British or English. According to this two-dimensional viewpoint, Scotland must therefore be counted as an oppressed nation. The immediate task being self-evident. Scotland must join those who successfully fought for liberation: the Zapatistas in Mexico’s Chipas province, Bolivarian Venezuela and Fidel Castro’s Cuba are held up as modern-day “examples”.19 Amongst them, amongst the angels, is where Scotland’s future lies. Morally very convenient. Britain established a worldwide empire, traded in black slaves, raped India and butchered American and Australian natives. Not Scotland.
Countering this nonsense is hardly difficult. By definition national oppression involves all classes. There are upper and lower classes in every colonial country. But the upper classes lose out economically to the imperial power. They have no state with which to defend and advance their interests. National oppression therefore sees the exploitation of the upper classes too. Another awkward fact, for left nationalists. There has definitively been universal suffrage throughout Britain since the 1928 Representation of the People Act (when equal voting rights for women were finally conceded). Between then and now a clear majority of Scottish electors have supported unionist parties in UK general elections. Eg, in 2010 the SNP won six seats, while Labour got 41, the Lib Dems 11 and the Tories one.
Undoubtedly, the mass of Scottish people in 1707 did not think of themselves as British, but the same can be surely said of those in England and Wales. Though the idea of a British commonality can be traced back to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, it tended to be associated with plans for feudal overlordship to be extended across the whole of the archipelago. In other words, ‘revolutionary centralisers’ such as Edward I sought to add to their realms of exploitation. Nevertheless, leading elements amongst the intelligentsia started to look towards some sort of equal union. John Mair (c1470-1550) wrote A history of Greater Britain, as well England as Scotland (1521) when he was principal of the University of Glasgow. He wove the story of England and Scotland together and suggested an eventual political union between the two kingdoms. Mair wanted to end internecine conflicts and bring about a strong Britannia which would lead Europe against imperial Spain and papacy. A project enthusiastically taken up by the well-read Scottish king, James VI, who was, of course, painfully aware of the instability of his old realm - his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, had been forced to abdicate and his father, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was butchered by assassins when he was only a couple of months old.
In his accession speech to the Westminster parliament, on March 19 1603, after he had been crowned king of England, he stated that god had not only united two great feudal lineages, but two peoples with a common “language, religion and similitude of manners”. They live on one island “separated neither by sea, nor great river, mountain, nor other strength of nature”.20 After advice from spin doctors - north and south - he took to presenting himself as James I of Great Britain and Ireland.
Attempts to bring together the English and Scottish kingdoms in a political union floundered due to a refusal by the English elite to treat their Scottish counterparts as equals. However, conditions changed. On the one hand, there was the abject failure of the Darien scheme in the 1690s. The bid to establish a specifically Scottish trading colony in Panama ended in financial ruination for the kingdom’s aristocracy, bourgeoisie and even many town councils. On the other hand, in England there was the decisive triumph of capitalism. What Oliver Cromwell began William of Orange completed. Compared with other European powers post-1688, England stood out as a beacon of bourgeois liberty and economic dynamism. And, in order to prevent its old enemy, absolutist France, regaining a foothold in Scotland and launching a counterrevolutionary war, the ruling class in England was prepared to make substantial concessions: namely a financial bailout, along with access to vast new markets and high office in the swelling military, political and bureaucratic apparatus.
Left to itself, Scotland would in all probability have stagnated, decayed and fragmented under the impact of rival feudal interests - the fate suffered by Poland provides a telling example of social retrogression.
Culture and the internal
Scotland does not correspond to anything remotely resembling the standard colonial experience. Fully aware of this, advocates of Scottish nationalism turn to softer, more pliable, more devious categories, such as internal colonialism or cultural imperialism. James D Young (1931-2012) wrote of Scotland being a victim nation and “the colonial dimension being real and tangible”. And yet what this amounted to, in his own words, was the English ruling class displaying “colonial attitudes”.21 The British - ie, the English and lowlands Scots - ruling class doubtless displayed “colonial attitudes” in the highlands during the early 18th century, but that certainly does not apply to Edinburgh or Glasgow. McCombes-Sheridan likewise bitterly complain of Scotland suffering from a “warped and distorted” national identity ... because of the magnetic pull of the 50 million-plus population of England.22 A formulation redolent with xenophobia. In similar vein, Bob Goupillot claims that a “section of the [Scottish] population, including a large portion of the working class”, feels “forcibly subsumed under English/Britishness”.23 Is he advocating a Kulturkampf (culture struggle) to eradicate English/British influences?
The idea of internal colonialism was introduced into the debate around Scotland by the American sociologist, Michael Hechter, in the 1970s. Basically Hechter - a rational-choice theorist - discussed the UK in terms of an English “core” colonising the so-called Celtic “periphery”: Scotland, Wales, Ireland and to a lesser extent Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Thus Scotland was supposedly characterised by economic dependence, lower living standards and an industry which served the “core” as an auxiliary. According to Hechter, the process of internal colonialism commenced with the union of the crowns in 1603 and accelerated after the union of parliaments in 1707. Indeed he fields evidence which purports to show that national inequality persisted till 1966 - the point where Hechter closes his study.24 As one critic, Krishan Kumar, acerbically comments, he seems to have written his book “without ever having set foot in the British Isles”.25 His ignorance of British realities are, though, fundamentally historical.
In my opinion Neil Davidson has done an excellent demolition job on Hechter’s thesis. He fields the examples of the three leading non-agricultural industries of the 18th century - coal, linen and tobacco. Far from Scotland exhibiting backwardness and peripheral features, it took the lead in terms of technique, per-capita production and capital accumulation. After the 1707 union - in particular following the final defeat of the Stewart dynasts and the highland threat at Culloden - Scotland experienced a ground-breaking industrial revolution and a spectacular economic boom. Similar leaps were repeated in the 19th century. Engineering and shipbuilding in Scotland accounted for a huge tranche of the world market well into the 20th century and Scotland was found on the cutting edge of technological change and innovation. As a consequence, far from being a “peripheral” economic region in Britain, Scotland - or more precisely, the lowlands - lay at the “core”.26
Scottish aristocrats, capitalists and middle class careerists thrived through promoting and participating in the British market, the British state machine and the British empire. Glasgow was one of the premier industrial workshops of the world and on a par with Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Belfast and Cardiff. As for Edinburgh, it was a global banking centre second only to the City of London. What goes for the economy can also be seen in terms of the cadre who staffed civil society and the state. Well-trained doctors, soldiers of fortune, men of letters, politicians on the make headed south and often did extraordinarily well. Eg, even during the first half of the 18th century 25% of all regimental officers were Scottish.
Then there are the politicians. Henry Campbell Bannerman, Herbert Henry Asquith, Andrew Bonar Law, James Ramsay MacDonald and Alec Douglas Home stood at the apex of British politics in the 20th century. Each of them held the highest office of prime minister. After his 1997 general election victory Tony Blair (Edinburgh-born) appointed a whole pack of Scottish ministers. One of them being Gordon Brown, his chancellor and successor. In terms of population there has, in fact, been a massive imbalance against the English. Andrew Neil - the millionaire Scottish broadcaster - waspishly refers to a “Scottish Raj”.27 Such a situation, where the ‘colonised nation’ provides the leading personnel for the ‘colonising nation’ in such numbers, is uncharacteristic, to say the least. So is its economic ranking. A recent SNP press release trumpets Scotland’s relative wealth. Out of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 34 members, an independent Scotland would count as the 14th richest in terms of per capita GDP - “ahead of France, Japan and the United Kingdom as a whole”.28 Characteristically the ‘colonised nation’ is bled white by the ‘colonising nation’.
What of cultural imperialism? The argument here is that the subjugation suffered by Scotland was not of the overt type imposed on Africa and Asia. What Scotland experienced took place in the sphere of consciousness. Scottish culture was deemed second-rate compared with English-British culture, which was, however, sneakily imposed upon the Scottish population by members of the Scottish elite. Enlightenment thinkers - Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Mackintosh, James Burnett, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, William Robertson - coming in for particular opprobrium.
Not that the Scottish reformation and the associated education system escapes criticism. According to the self-confessed “ultra-nationalist” Siol nan Gaidheal (Seed of the Gaels), well before the 1707 political union, it was supposedly a “tragedy for Scottish culture that the English Bible was introduced to Scotland” without the slightest effort to “adapt its language to Scottish practice”. As for the parish school system, it “emphasised literacy”. Hence it became “essential for English to be taught as it was written in the Bible and spoken by the minister in the kirk”.29 So god’s appearance as an Englishman and not as a trueborn Scot is blamed on the unpatriotic, treacherous educated classes of Scotland. The very subtlety of this cultural imperialism means that the mass of the population were hardly aware of the English poison being drip-fed into their Scottish heads.
Actually what happened in the 18th century was not cultural imperialism, but assimilation - always a two-way process. Between Scotland and England there was cross-fertilisation, synthesis and the emergence of something higher, something new, something more than the sum of its parts. There was a strong, often brilliant and certainly unmistakable Scottish input, which both changed Englishness and created Britishness. Adam Smith furnished the economic theory which mapped out Britain’s capitalist future. David Hume’s scepticism provided the foundations for the utilitarianism and rationalism of the British bourgeoisie. James Mackintosh created modern English history with his History of the revolution in England in 1688. James Mill argued in defence of the East India Company, championed public education and popularised Ricardoism. Walter Scott took the myth of Anglo-Saxon liberty and the Norman yoke and gave it a conservative twist, in what was also a parable for post-1746 Great Britain, by positively resolving the contradictions between the two ‘races’. Thomas Carlyle opposed democracy, but expressed a sincere, if romantic, sympathy for the lot of the poor, along with an influential critique of capitalist industrialisation.
None of these men were regarded as English quislings or agents of English cultural imperialism. Far from viewing themselves as ‘inferiors’, these intellectuals believed themselves to be of the best sort, superior beings, and, as we have shown, they actively shaped the emerging sense of Britishness. Hence, if England influenced and inspired Scottishness, as it undoubtedly did, so Scottish intellectuals transformed England through remaking it as part of the British national formation.
A process that might legitimately be called internal colonisation occurred in the highlands. But were the English the colonists? Culloden was not the defeat of the Scots by the English, as nationalist mythology has it. Nor was the horrible persecution which followed carried out by England. Such claims obscure the state, societal and class content of the conflict. The battle of Culloden in 1746 saw the professional Hanoverian army utterly rout the highland warriors fighting on behalf of Charles Edward Stewart and his father. The technology and disciplined military techniques of the new 18th century cut through the individual bravery of clan society. However, this defeat was inflicted not by England: rather by a combination of lowland Scots, German and English regiments in the pay of the British state.
At Culloden, and during the military occupation of the highland glens that followed, the British state first smashed clan society militarily and then proceeded to destroy its social fabric. Some of the worst atrocities were carried out under the command of lowland Scots officers. Nationalists might argue that these men had absorbed hostile English cultural attitudes towards their fellow countrymen. However, the antagonism between the lowlands and the highlands dates back many centuries, to well before the union of the crowns in 1603. Lowlanders generally viewed highlanders as barbaric, uncouth and lawless. To even travel in the highlands was to enter bandit territory and risk life and limb.
Crucially, the highlands were not incorporated into English culture; rather the British ascendancy. Clan society was not Scottish society, nor was Gaelic the language of Scotland. To conflate the two is to make an elementary mistake. The fate of the highlands was therefore not the fate of Scotland.
Moreover, it needs to be stressed, for the highland lairds Britishness presented a golden opportunity for enrichment. Once defeated, they eagerly turned from scratching a living from tithes and instead embraced the cornucopia offered by capitalism. Those responsible for the highland clearances - the mass expulsion of the peasant population from the land - were almost without exception not only Scottish, but highland aristocrats. These grandees used Scottish agents to carry out their ‘modernisation’, along with Scottish policemen and Scottish regiments to crush resistance. The native Gaels were uprooted by their own lairds and forced onto ships bound for the US or Canada. That or - hungry, bedraggled, footsore - they made their way into the dark, blood-sucking factories and mills of Glasgow. All for the sake of “primitive capital accumulation” and turning the “whole country” into a giant “sheep-walk”.30 Yet, while the clearances were time-concentrated, they were in essence no different from the dispossession of the English peasants that happened through the enclosures, carried out 400 years previously.
However, after being deported, the majority of highlanders played a genuinely colonial role in their new American home. Native Amerindians were for the most part unable to distinguish between the awful treatment meted out to them by highland Scots and that of any of the other European colonists they came into contact with. Equally significant, highland Scots in America often became fiercely pro-British. Former Jacobites proved to be some of George III’s most loyal subjects. Even the celebrated Flora Macdonald, the famous saviour of Bonnie Prince Charlie, turned Hanoverian after she migrated to North Carolina. Her husband, Allan, mobilised highland settlers against George Washington’s American revolutionaries. His men were decked out in full highland costume - tartan plaid, a large blue bonnet with a cockade of black ribbon, a tartan waistcoat with gold buttons and tartan hose.
Ideologically they were still prone to look fondly back to a lost feudal past. Not forward to the democratic future.
1. B Anderson Imagined communities London 1991, p132.
2. C Bambery A people’s history of Scotland London 2014, p23.
4. S Berger, ‘The invention of European national traditions in European romanticism’ in S Macintyre, J Maiguahca and Attila Pók (eds) The Oxford history of historical writing Vol 4, Oxford 2011, p23.
6. See C Hill The Norman yoke London 1955.
7. J Lindsay The Normans and their world London 1974, p247.
9. T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p178.
11. Interestingly Alex Salmond does not consider Scotland to be an oppressed nation. “Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated. Independence matters because we do not have the powers to reach our potential. We are limited in what we can do to create jobs, grow the economy and help the vulnerable. We shouldn’t have a constitution which constrains us, but one which frees us to build a better society. Our politics should be judged on the health of our people, the welfare of young and old and the strength of our economy” (www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2012/01/1006/1).
13. B Goupillot Weekly Worker July 20 2006.
16. Both James VII, the Old Pretender, and his young, pretending son, repealed the 1707 Act of Union in their manifestoes.
17. N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, p115.
18. T Nairn The break-up of Britain London 1977, p167.
19. A McCombes Two worlds collide Glasgow nd, p49.
20. JR Tanner Constitutional documents of the reign of James I Cambridge 1960, p26.
21. JD Young The very bastards of creation Glasgow 1996, p23.
22. T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p184.
23. B Goupillot Weekly Worker July 20 2006.
24. See M Hechter Internalcolonialism London 1978.
26. N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, p94.
30. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p729.