Britain and the Scots

Mary Ward critically examines some of the myths and dangers of Scottish nationalism

Many on the left in Scotland deny that Britain exists as any sort of nation. I believe that these comrades are profoundly mis­taken. In any discussion around whether or not there is a British na­tion it is essential to look at the unique way in which Britain was formed and the result of that formation for the people of Scotland.

After Blair’s rigged referendum and before the Scottish parliament meets, one can feel in a kind of limbo in Scot­land. Anyone, however, who believes that this means that the national ques­tion has been solved knows little about the nature of the current Scot­tish cultural and political climate.

Sure, the promise of a parliament, along with the election of a Labour government, has put the question temporarily on the back burner, but there it smoulders, ready to ignite. To extend this metaphor a little further, this conflagration will have the power to produce some light, but potentially too it can cause horrific damage. I ab­hor nationalism and I do believe that those on the left, like SML’s Alan McCombes, who seek to court it are indeed playing with fire. The notion that you can adopt a nationalist ide­ology and somewhere along the road everyone will wake up and support socialism is nonsense. But so too is the idea that if we ignore it, it will go away and the working class will then deal with ‘real class issues’.

The nature and allure of national­ism is much more complex than that. Movements for self-determination have a clear, positive, democratic content. We must take on board the demo­cratic elements within any nationalist movement and as communists become the people’s champions, thereby lead­ing the working class away from na­tionalism towards socialism. Some in SML would argue that this is exactly what they are doing with their current nationalist turn. Theirs is however, to use that controversial term, a road of national socialism.

Even to look at the question of the British nation at this time is a com­plete anathema to some on the left. We will be castigated in terms such as ‘Brit left’. There are those like Tommy Sheridan who writes of Scotland hav­ing been under “800 years of colonial oppression”. They seem eager to deny that British nationalism has ever been a factor amongst the population in Scotland. For these myth-builders, I think we need to reassert the truth of Scotland’s union with England and look at the growth of Scottish nation­alism - a relatively modern phenom­enon.

There was no forced union between Scotland and England. Yes, there were some bribes and dirty deals, but cru­cially the union was to the mutual ben­efit of those above in both countries. What Scotland’s ruling class gained from the union was an abundant share of the spoils of empire. In return, we Scots acted as good subjects and Scottish regiments had an unenviable reputation for brutality in carrying out the work of their paymasters. The role of the Scottish regiments in Northern Ireland too is a legacy some would prefer to forget. But the reality was - so imbued were the Scots with a sense of Britishness - that they were pre­pared to fight for it, to defend it, and if necessary to die for it.

The new British state, as Tom Nairn points out, had no semblance of fed­eralism. Sovereignty was, as it is now and will be under the Scottish parlia­ment, firmly with the crown in and through the Westminster parliament. Primary allegiance was to the imperial state. This was not forced upon the Scots. Nor was their ethnicity denied them. Rather there was a slow proc­ess of Britishisation, leaving intact pride in local traditions.

Of course the particular character of the Scottish institutions of the kirk, the education system and the legal system were left in place, although any legislation amending these had to go via Westminster. Leaving in place these institutions offered no threat to the new state as there was no real pressure for home rule right up to the 1960s.

The much glorified Jacobite rebel­lion was not a war between Scotland and England - far from it. It was an attempt to restore absolutism in Britain and was resisted vehemently by the lowland ‘progressive’ Scots who viewed the Gaeltacht as backward and primitive. There was an accentuated north-south divide in Scotland which the 1745 revolt encapsulated - town versus country; industrialisation ver­sus peasantry; progress versus ab­solutism and feudalism. All of these factors solidified the union and fos­tered further a sense of Britishness.

This Britishness did not completely subsume the distinctive Scottish iden­tity, but there was trend amongst Scot­tish intellectuals of the time to discard all things Scottish in favour of the ‘progressive whole’ that was Britain and its empire. There was no national liberation struggle, even in embryonic form, because there was no economic imperative to drive it. On the contrary, the imperative for economic expan­sion was stability at home. This of course can be sharply contrasted with Ireland.

No one would deny the brutality with which the remnants of highland culture were destroyed after Culloden, nor the horrendous acts of violence which accompanied the high­land clearances. But this was funda­mentally different to the systematic rape of Ireland, where inequality characterised the Anglo-Irish relationship from its beginning to the present day. The 1801 Act of Union brought Ire­land into the United Kingdom by force in response to the United Irish­men’s rebellion in which 50,000 Irish people were slaughtered. All Irish in­digenous industry was destroyed and Ireland was used to provide food for Britain while its own people starved. How ironic therefore that SML sees no contradiction between its call for an independent Scotland and its abysmal failure to support self-deter­mination for Ireland. That, they say, would confer support for one side as opposed to the other. One would have thought it was easy for socialists - you support the side fighting British imperialism, not the side that is prop­ping it up.

So confident was the ruling class in the permanence of British culture that we even went through the process of reinventing Scottishness. Today, there is much commercial mileage to be gained from placing a Scottish la­bel, a tartan ribbon or a reference to Bravehearts on any commodity one wants to sell. Not to a tourist market, I may add, but to an indigenous mar­ket.

Cultural differences there are and long may they be celebrated as far as I am concerned. Many of our tradi­tions are harmless and romantic. Others, however, do foster anglophobia. For example, the Scottish Separatist Group has demanded an armed strug­gle to end all English immigration. Recently an English family was driven out of a small Angus town. They were systematically abused in a pseudo­-racial way for being English.

This is why I believe that the truth about our Scottishness and where it comes from is very important. It was a marriage of capitalist convenience: a voluntary coming together of capital­ist elites for the mutual benefit of their developing market economies. We saw the trading in of a Scottish parliament for a share of world domination. Not a bad deal.

The Industrial Revolution brought great gains for Scotland as heavy in­dustry became our trade mark. A sharp contrast to the poverty and starvation which ensued in Ireland. No won­der so many Irish sought to emigrate to Scotland as a land of opportunity just across the water. Yet nationalists and popular Hollywood culture would have us believe it was all so different.

One of the underlying features of the Jacobite rebellion was the division between protestant and catholic. Prot­estantism replaced catholicism as the official religion of Scotland in 1693 and the reformation itself played a funda­mental role in attacking the remnants of feudalism. The protestant ethic was of course an important mover and shaper in the rise of capitalism. Self-­reliance and hard work opened the way to god and heaven - not via the priest but through endeavour, to be measured in terms of the wealth an individual could accumulate.

After the bloody defeat of the high­land clans at Culloden, there was a concerted effort to wipe out all barri­ers to capitalist expansion and that included the paraphernalia of Gaeldom.

The institutions of Scottish church, judiciary and education were left in­tact as part of the deal of the union. This maintained Scottish distinctiveness while posing no threat to the rise of capitalism nor to the union itself. I can think of no occasion where the institutions of Scotland acted out of kilter with their English counterparts. They bolstered imperialism and taught working class people about submis­sion in exactly the same way as was done south of the border. The enthu­siasm with which leading figures in these institutions now welcome the Scottish parliament must surely make any socialist question the role it will have. I suggest that in itself it will not be a liberator but in fact another re­pressive structure of the state.

The invented Scottish culture of tartanry, Sir Walter Scott and the kailyard tradition of Scottish literature is evidence of the impotence of Scot­tish cultural influence up to and throughout Victorian times. This was not as a result of systematic persecu­tion of traditional Scottish ways, but as a result of the Scottish intelligent­sia of the time not valuing them.

We may scorn the use of the kilt and tartan because we know of its in­vention, its lack of roots in Scottish history. Its past is indeed question­able, but what is not in question is the mass way this paraphernalia has ap­peal today. Go to any Scottish wed­ding or graduation ceremony or ball. Watch any international football or rugby match and see the extent to which the myth-makers have been successful. The working class Scot does not give a damn whether the past has been recreated in the Mel Gibson image. He accepts it, perpetuates it and uses it as a feature of distinctiveness or as an act of rebellion.

Why is this Modern Janus, as Nairn calls it, this desire to create the future in the image of the past, the most viru­lent of ideologies at this time? When we look at the rise of nationalism in Scotland we can see that it is not until the late 1960s that it begins to take off. It demanded a number of ingredi­ents to develop an appeal beyond the small band of romantics who kept it alive in previous decades. A new ro­manticism was needed for the Scots to reconstruct their past. The impetus was undoubtedly the decline of the British empire and the end of the post­-war social democratic consensus.

The domination of heavy industry in Scotland meant that the recession hit early and hard. Then came the dis­covery of North Sea oil. Scotland had a sense of being special, of being able to go it alone, free from a sinking Brit­ain that was to use ‘our’ oil revenues to keep its people on the dole.

To this must be added the powerful cultural renaissance. The kailyard confined to the dustbin, intellectuals celebrated not the quaintness, but the uniqueness of Scottish life. Hugh MacDiarmid, Grassic Gibbon and oth­ers not only wrote in a version of Scots English, but suggested that English English was inferior in its abil­ity to capture the nuances of expres­sion. Ironically however, through MacDiarmid and Gibbon we saw a cel­ebration of the universality of Scot­tish life - the internationalism of the struggle to live, as opposed to just survive.

The Scots, pragmatic to the end, having milked the empire for all they can get, are now looking to opt out. The all-Britain institutions that were once compelling arguments for work­ing class people remaining part of the union have themselves been seen to fail - the national health service, the Trades Union Congress, along with the weakening economic base.

So where does all this leave us? Given the cultural diversity between Scotland and England, can we still talk about British nation?

Human beings can of course take on a number of identities at any one time. To be a Scottish British woman is no contradiction in terms. The Scots, Welsh and the English are dis­tinct peoples in cultural terms, even though they are within each country further regionally sub-divided.

In short there is a British nation, but it is waning. This does not negate the imagined community of the Scottish or Welsh. The vast majority of young Scots define themselves as Scottish rather than British, and defining them­selves thus is seen by many as in it­self an act of rebellion.

Communists and socialists share the frustration that the ideology which is growing as we approach the millen­nium is nationalism. Nairn may wel­come this as the “rebirth of Scotland”. SML may welcome it as a vehicle for change. But I fear that many simply refuse to understand what a power­ful, potent and potentially destructive force it is.

We live in a time of massive consti­tutional change, albeit from above - to placate, to prevent change - but, given this constitutional upheaval, one must ask exactly how stable is the British state. What role should com­munists take in the fight to use the Scottish parliament as a way of fur­ther destabilising the state, even if the focus for destabilisation is along na­tional, not class lines? Can demands for nationhood act progressively not negatively in serving to destabilise the state? Can they further the interests of the working class and bring us nearer to revolution?

We in the CPGB have today a proud record in fighting for the democratic rights for the people of Scotland. We stood squarely against Blair’s refer­endum sop, demanding genuine self­-determination for Scotland up to and including the right to secede.

The British nation exists, but its po­sition is precarious. We defend the unity of the working class against the British state, but we will never defend British nationalism. Nor will we aban­don the working class in Scotland to Scottish nationalism. Our task is to defeat all nationalisms and assign the whole concept of nationhood to the dustbin of history.

Mary Ward is a member of the CPGB and the Scottish Socialist Alliance National Council