Debunking the myth - part three

Neil Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood Pluto Press, London 2000, pp264, pbk, £14.99

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 willingly sacrifice their lives for the motherland, fatherland, homeland (ie, what is imagined as the common national interest).

In his influential book Benedict Anderson evocatively testifies to this extraordinary power of the modern 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" (B Anderson Imagined communities London 1991, p132).

The nation has not been lodged in the mind since the dawn of the human condition. It is the product of history and the product of deliberately remaking history in the national image. Every country nowadays has its academies, paid persuaders and learned literature devoted to manufacturing and maintaining 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 national history.

Real events, conflicts and developments in the distant, or not so distant, past are uprooted from their actual contexts and are repackaged as moments in national history. Deracinated warrior chiefs, dynastic kings and cosmopolitan, Latin-speaking monks all find themselves incorporated into the mythology. Through these modern intellectual labours national consciousness is created and elaborated.

In many respects 19th century Germany led the way. Lagging behind in terms of the actual material reality of the nation-state, mystical philosophy, romantic composers and idealist poets paved the way in the mind. Well before Germany was united into a single nation-state there was the story of Germany: "Every nation," Hegel claimed in an early 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" (quoted in S Avineri Hegel's theory of the modern state Cambridge 1974, p21). Nations are, according to this account, the prime agent and subject of history and each nation has its own unique memory, customs, character and destiny.

Victorian Britain introduced a modified version of this idealist model. Royal history was fused with the history of Britain as an imperial state and projected backwards onto the distant past - of course, our current arrangement of 'England', 'Scotland' and 'Wales' is purely an accidental result of feudal marriage-bed deals, the fortunes of war and the continuation of the monarchical system. So the survival of the constitutional monarchy system dictated our present-day triality (for the sake of simplicity we leave aside the thorny issue of Ireland). Religion and religious history, pre-capitalist relations of exploitation and reproduction, ethnic, clan and family lineage have to all intents and purposes been subsumed or totally marginalised.

The destruction of traditional bonds, the subordination of the state to capital, the needs of imperialism and the widening franchise in good part explain this phenomenon. Certainly the nation as the universal frame of all history has been particularly pronounced since the advent of mass literacy, mass conscript armies and mass parliamentary democracy. Those above have sought to educate their 'masters' and inculcate a sense of patriotism and the community of all classes. Junior and secondary schools duly teach history along strict national lines: England, Scotland and Wales. These 'nations' are the subject matter of history and history is viewed as teleological. Every past event is interpreted as an inevitable step towards the not so glorious second Elizabethan age.

There are, of course, left nationalist elements militantly opposed to the establishment. In the 17th and 18th centuries English radicals took over the folk myth of a golden age of Anglo-Saxon liberty before William the Bastard's 1066 invasion and the Norman yoke. The governing aristocratic class were portrayed as essentially foreign and non-English. There was more than a grain of truth here. The Hanoverian royal family was unmistakably German. The British aristocracy thought in English, but separated themselves off from the lower orders by peppering their speech with French and parading their high European manners and culture.

Only under the impact of the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 did the aristocracy fully nationalise itself (royalty did not finally make the break from cosmopolitanism till World War I when the Saxe Cobergs metamorphosed into the House of Windsor). Moreover the American and Napoleonic wars turned the tables on the radicals who initially supported their American and French fellow-thinkers. They were branded non-national. Counterrevolutionary wars abroad helped to forge a counterrevolutionary regime at home.

It is hardly surprising then that all varieties or hues of Scottish nationalism assume that the kingdom of Scotland was a nation prior to the 1707 Act of Union. The mental cage sponsored by the UK state in the 19th century is never analysed or questioned by them. Thanks to state generosity official Scottish history was drilled into their skulls at school as a matter of routine. Countless popular volumes and hefty tomes fill the shelves of bookshops and libraries. They too take for granted exactly the same national frame and reinforce what is now accepted as common sense.

There are few challenges to the national paradigm. Scotland's almost predestined journey is thereby imagined by most people in Scotland from the arrival of the aboriginal 'Cruithni', through Wallace's and Bruce's wars of independence against 'England' and the unity of the crowns in 1603, all the way to the promises held out by devolution thanks to the election of a Blair government and the successful referendum on September 11 1997. Scotland is and has been throughout historic time and will be from here to eternity. For example, if Robert de Bruce was king over a territory called Scotland then there necessarily must have existed a nation of Scotland. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing more wrong.

Whatever his shortcomings in terms of defining a nation, as we have seen in parts one and two of this review article, Neil Davidson cuts through all such narratives. Ideas of Scotland as an ancient or medieval nation are non-Marxist and completely ahistorical. There was a common monarch over the whole of Scotland. But when in 1603 James VI also became James I that was true for all people in Great Britain and Ireland. Yet even after the union of the crowns lowland and highland Scotland remained linguistically divided, psychologically and culturally alien to each other and so economically backward that for the most part people characteristically had a completely parochial consciousness. One might just as well posit a nation of Charlemagne, the Roman empire or the papacy.

3.1. Scotland as a victim of England

There are other strings to the nationalist bow. As with the English radicals of the 17th and 18th century Scotland post-1707 is painted by contemporary Scottish nationalists as a hapless victim. In this case the perpetrator is English expansionism, English internal colonialism, English imperialism or English cultural imperialism. Put another way, Scotland is nowadays ruled by foreigners.

Naturally in these accounts Britain is an entirely artificial or royal construct. Within the prison house of Ukiana the nations of Scotland and Wales suffocate but await their moment of freedom when Britain inevitably breaks up. Almost by definition to be a Scottish nationalist requires an insistence on Scotland as an oppressed nation and a flat denial of the existence of a British nation. I have even been told by one particularly bizarre Scottish left nationalist that the very notion of Britain is "counterrevolutionary" and that my theory of a British nation is "racist" (see Weekly Worker November 5 1998).

So for Scottish nationalists the nation is Scottish, the state and the ruling institutions British or English. Scotland today is therefore assigned to the heroic category of nations: ie, those countries which fought for freedom from one or another of the great European colonial empires: Algeria, Vietnam, Kenya, Yemen, Congo, etc. Very convenient. Britain established a worldwide empire, traded in black slaves and raped India. Not Scotland. Whether it be under the leadership of Charles Stewart or John Maclean it gallantly resisted imperial Britain. Both Alec Salmond and Tommy Sheridan can through such a cynical device equate the demand for a separate class state in Scotland with the colonial national liberation movements. The SNP is thereby akin to the FLN; the SSP to the NLF.

Davidson systematically exposes the fallacies underpinning this nationalist nonsense. He begins by effortlessly brushing aside the notion that Scotland has been subject to national oppression. The experience of oppression, he insists, "cuts across class lines" (p90). Presumably he distinguishes exploitation from oppression. Women's oppression has persisted throughout the existence of class society, while other forms of oppression - eg, racism based on the grounds of "acquired" characteristics such as "skin colour" - are "specific to capitalism alone" (p91). National oppression, however, does not only involve divide and rule backed by the state: it is subjection by the state, as was typically the case with those countries ruled by the British, French, Spanish, Belgians and other European empires in the 19th and 20th centuries.

While undoubtedly the majority of Scottish people in 1707 did not think of themselves as British, the same can be 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 equated with plans for feudal overlordship to be extend across the whole of the island archipelago by 'revolutionary centralisers' such as Edward I. Nevertheless various leading elements started to look towards the end of endemic border conflict and some sort of equal union. Davidson quotes John Mair and his "carefully titled" A history of Greater Britain as well England as Scotland (p79). Mair wanted to curb the destructive warfare between the feudal magnets, but from a "position of equality between the two kingdoms" (p79). There was an influential minority in Scotland too which echoed these sentiments. James VI and I took to presenting himself as king of Great Britain after his coronation in 1603.

Attempts to bring together the two kingdoms foundered due to a refusal by English interests to treat the Scots as equals. With the rise to dominance of agrarian capitalism in England things began to change however. That had an important side effect in Scotland. There the most advanced layers of the bourgeoisie came to consider "themselves to be Britons" (p79). Indeed, as Davidson observes, it was those in the forefront of the intellectual enlightenment who were the most enthusiastic advocates of the union. England was no longer a threat, but rather perceived as an altogether attractive prospect.

Compared with other European powers, England stood out as a beacon of liberty and prosperity. Tyrants feared the English example, radicals sought to emulate it. Indeed for aristocratic, bourgeois and educated middle class Scots the union, especially after the defeat of the 1745 Jacobite rising, brought peace, civic virtue, inward investment, access to a vast new market and undreamed opportunities for commercial profit or advancement to high office in the military, political and bureaucratic apparatus of Great Britain. By itself Scotland would in all probability have stagnated under feudal interests - the paralysis suffered by Poland provides a living example.

Unity with an England that had finally overthrown absolutism in 1688, established bourgeois liberty and embarked on a precocious capitalist development proved a boon for bourgeois Scotland. The union started off uneasily. But due to ongoing consent and mutual advantage it lasted and brought about "an entirely new formation, a new nation-state with its own attendant national consciousness" (p80).

In short Scotland does not correspond to anything even remotely resembling the colonial experience. Hence, as Davidson notes, the more intelligent, and crafty, advocates of Scottish nationalism invoke the softer, more pliable, categories of 'internal colonialism' or 'cultural imperialism'.

The "concept of internal colonialism" was introduced into the debate around Scotland by the US sociologist, Michael Hechter, says Davidson. Basically Hechter 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 began with the union of the crowns in 1603 and continued 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 (see M Hechter Internal colonialism London 1978). Davidson points out that Hechter later retreated from the more extreme conclusions presented in this book.

Unfortunately that has not stopped writers such as James Young - an ideologue of left Scottish nationalism - adopting it in order to justify the separatist project. Young is quoted making the following absurd claim: "Scottish society [was] pushed into a subordinate role [as] a victim of 'internal colonialism' with an economy peripheral to the core of British capitalism, and with institutions dominated by the 'conquering metropolitan elite'" (p92).

Davidson has little trouble in empirically disproving the Hechter thesis of internal colonialism. He shows that in the case of the three leading non-agricultural industries of the 18th century - coal, linen and tobacco - far from Scotland exhibiting backward and peripheral features, it took precedence in terms of technique, per capita production and capital accumulation. After the 1707 act of union, in particular following the final defeat of the Stewart dynasts and the highland threat after 1745, Scotland experienced a ground-breaking industrial revolution and a spectacular economic boom. Similar interrupted leaps forward were repeated in the 19th century. Engineering and shipbuilding in Scotland accounted for a huge tranche of the world market into the 20th century and was found on the cutting edge of technological change and innovation. As a consequence Davidson argues that, far from being a 'peripheral' economic region in Britain, Scotland - or more precisely the lowlands - lay at the "core" (p94). Glasgow was on a par with Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Belfast, Cardiff and London.

What goes for the economy can also be seen in terms of the cadre who staffed civil (bourgeois) society and the state. There was no national oppression. On the contrary there was substantial benefit. Davidson uses the example of medicine. Qualified Scottish physicians moved south in large numbers and occupied top positions - without becoming Anglicans, as was obligatory for English physicians.

"A similar pattern" can be observed among politicians. Between 1747 and 1753 only eight of the 45 Scottish MPs "held paid office" (p95). By 1780 the number had risen to 23 "or over half". Moreover there is the widespread and persistent phenomenon of Scottish politicians being elected from English constituencies. Campbell Bannerman, Asquith and Bonnar Law stood at the apex of British politics in the first quarter of the 20th century. Each of them held the highest office of prime minister. And, as Davidson notes, of the 23 cabinet posts announced after the general election of May 1 1997 six were held by Scots, including foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer and lord chancellor - in terms of population a massive imbalance against the English. Such a situation - where the 'colonised nation' provides the leading personnel for the 'colonising nation' in such numbers - is unusual, to say the least.

What of cultural imperialism? Again the left nationalist James Young is set up for polemical purposes. According to Young, the subjugation suffered by Scotland "was not of the crude type of colonial relationship that English capitalism was imposing on large parts of Africa and Asia". Cleverly the assimilation of Scotland by England was carried out by, or through, the Scottish elite, in particular during the enlightenment. Young writes that "the very subtlety of the mediating role of the indigenous elite of agrarian capitalists, merchants and intellectuals in assisting the English to impose cultural imperialism on the Scottish populace has obscured its importance in dictating cultural, political and economic developments" (p95).

A whole raft of Scottish nationalists are quoted backing such claims. Parallels are drawn between the cultural "inferiority" suffered by Scotland and the colonised 'third world'. Those who deny the "cultural imperialism" of England-Britain are said by these nationalists to have become assimilated and apparently hold native Scots culture in contempt. Most ridiculously Pat Kane has tried to take inspiration from the black struggle in the US against centuries of racism for Scottish nationalism. Both projects supposedly broaden the "meaning of one's national community into its true complex history out of the hands of the wilful mystifiers" (p97).

Yet, as Davidson shows, it was Scottish intellectuals who played an outstanding role in the construction of Britishness. Adam Smith furnished the economic theory which mapped out Britain's future as a capitalist nation. David Hume and Sir James Mackintosh laid the foundations for the modern version of English history. James Mill argued that Britain must become an imperial power which could legislate for the whole of humanity. Sir Walter Scott provided the English with the highest artistic expression of their national myth: that of the Saxons under the Norman yoke and the reconciliation between the two 'races'. Thomas Carlyle developed this notion into a philosophy of the English character and a critique of industrialisation. These Scots did not regard themselves as English quislings or agents of its cultural imperialism. Far from feeling 'inferior', they actively shaped the new sense of Britishness. Hence if England influenced and inspired Scottishness, as it undoubtedly did, so Scotland transformed England through remaking it as part of the British national formation.

The one place where Davidson might seem to concede that internal colonisation took place is the highlands. But, he asks perceptively, "Who were the colonists?" (p102). Culloden was not the defeat of the Scots by the English, as nationalist mythology has it. Nor was the persecution which followed carried out by England. That formulation deliberately obscures the national, social and class content of the conflict. The battle of Culloden in 1746 saw the defeat of the Stewart dynasts and highland clan society 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 glens which followed, the British state first scored a victory over 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 could argue that these men had absorbed hostile English attitudes towards their fellow countrymen. But tellingly Davidson reminds us that the antagonism between the lowlands and the highlands "stretched back centuries before the union of the crowns" (p104).

Crucially the highlands were not incorporated into English culture, but rather into the British ascendancy. Clan society was not Scottish society, nor was the Gaelic language the language of Scotland. To conflate the two is to make an elementary mistake. The fate of the highlands was not the fate of Scotland.

Moreover it needs to be stressed that for the highland gentry and elite Britishness presented opportunities for betterment. In the main they turned away from highland tradition and culture voluntarily. Those responsible for the highland clearances were almost without exception not only Scottish, but highland aristocrats who used Scottish agents to carry out their 'modernisation' and Scottish police or army regiments to subdue resistance. The highland peasantry was forcibly removed from the land by their own lairds and packed off to the Americas for the sake of "indigenous" capitalist accumulation (p106).

While the process was concertinaed, it was in essence no different from the dispossession of the English peasants through the enclosures carried out 400 years previously or the suffering that the peasantry in Europe endured during the transition to capitalism. Davidson also pointedly remarks that, having been deported, the highlanders played a genuinely "colonial role in their new homelands" (p105). Native Americans were for their part unable to distinguish between the treatment meted out to them by highland Scots and any of the other European colonists they came into contact with.

On the basis of all this Davidson confidently rejects the thesis of internal colonisation. The highlands were an integral part of the kingdom of Scotland, and Scotland was an integral part of Britain.

3.2. From an island to a protestant nation

What of Britain as a nation? Great Britain is obviously a common island territory for the people who live on it. There is also a common - though not necessarily uniform - historical experience. Before the Romans the tribal communities spoke a variety of Celtic languages and dialects. They were called Britons by their conquerors. The Roman empire might not have reached the highlands of Scotland. Despite that, its influence was felt even beyond the legionary forts of Inchtuthil and Ardoch. The Caledonian tribes were border peoples and traded, fought and negotiated with the Romans.

Equally the armed Saxon migrations of the 5th century flung not only Romano-British society, but the whole of Britain, into a dark age (Ireland was a relative haven of civilisation). The same can be said of the Scandinavian invasions and settlements. They were neither an English, Scottish, Welsh nor Irish experience. They founded kingdoms and settlements throughout the British Isles. Dublin, York, Waterford, etc. The same applies to the Normans. True, in the fringes they were absorbed into the Gaelic-speaking clan society. Yet in conquering England and then slowly expanding their feudal domains they coloured the culture of every part of the British Isles.

Evidently in terms of actual history the English people were not the aggressors over those in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. This model is entirely modern and entirely false. As a nationality the English were created negatively as a result of Norman conquest of the Saxon and Scandinavian peoples and the decapitation of the old ruling classes. It was not the English who conquered Wales, nor did the English invade Scotland and Ireland. These wars were feudal and dynastic, not national.

Linda Colley argues that the peoples of Britain were only united into a common Britishness in terms of identity, not simply experience, between the years 1707 and 1837 (see L Colley Britons: forging the nation 1707-1837 London 1994). The vital glue that allowed the union of 1707 to stick was, she argues, the consciousness brought about by reformation and counterreformation and the eventual triumph of protestantism throughout Britain. Here we begin to see the emergence of a common culture. People no longer relied on the priest, but studied the bible themselves in English - their common language.

However, what solidified feelings of internal commonality was the external enemy of France, which at least in the 17th and 18th centuries represented the catholic other. Colley does not suggest for one moment that the Napoleonic wars were fought for reasons of religion. But religion coloured the prior competition between the rival powers. This and the popular mobilisation against France and the institution of a common monarchical cult bonded the main constituent peoples of Britain into a conservative nation - as we shall see in part four, Davidson redresses the balance here by exploring and bringing to the fore the revolutionary and working class side of British national consciousness.

Davidson considers the Colley thesis "convincing" as an "explanation for the construction of Britishness across the archipelago" (p85). For him there is a major fault however. It does not adequately account for how the Scots came to be seen as Britons by the English. War, he reasons, was a constant factor in terms of relations between Britain and France since 1688. Despite the protestant commonality between England and Scotland "a significant section of the Scottish ruling class had looked to France as an ally in maintaining their position" (p85). War did not forge their sense of Britishness - this is ironic, since he does admit that "Empire" - a consequence of success in war - provided the dominant factor which cemented British nationalism (p89).

Davidson further discusses the fact that after 1789 France ceased to represent catholic reaction. Instead it leapt to the front line of political progress and freedom. Revolutionary France replaced England as the hope of enlightened humanity. The imperial turn under Bonaparte dimmed the glow somewhat, but did not fundamentally alter the standing of France as a revolutionary pole of attraction. Radicals in both England and Scotland aped French phrases and sought to repeat its example.

For Davidson this calls into question the Colley thesis that protestantism lies at the core of British national identity. He also suggests that the different protestantisms in Scotland and England were actually a source of continued tension and non-identity. Presbyterianism "acted as a divisive factor in Anglo-Scottish relations, particularly in the colonies" (p87). Presbyterianism was Scottish and middle class; Anglicanism represented Englishness, the establishment and the higher classes.

Amongst Scots themselves, Davidson reckons, anti-catholicism "was a source of division, rather than unity" (p88). In 1778 upper class Scotland wanted to implement measures which relieved anti-catholic oppression. Such legislation had been passed for England and Ireland by the Westminster parliament. Catholics were given access to land and were permitted to teach provided they took an oath of allegiance to the monarch and denied the temporal powers of the pope. Popular protest forced the abandonment of these modest measures in Scotland.

Davidson thinks he has clinched the argument. Those above - those most interested in the union and the success of British identity - were the least anti-catholic. Those below, not least those under the influence of the Church of Scotland, were mobilised against the catholic demon.

Surely these criticisms are overstated. He more or less discounts the anti-catholic Gordon riots in London over the 1778 legislation - the largest, most sustained and violent riots in British history. Not surprisingly they were lower class in composition and targeted the rich and powerful besides poor catholics. Downgrading anti-catholic discrimination is anyway only a detail of an ongoing and constantly changing history. Colley does not ignore, but tries to account for the stresses over catholic emancipation - the need to integrate the Irish-Irish, the survivals of crude anti-catholic bigotry and the influx of lowest paid Irish labour into the big cities of Britain, including Glasgow, Paisley and Dundee. Unskilled, illiterate and young, they undercut British manual workers on the labour market. Anyway, in Colley's account anti-catholicism was not a permanent feature. It was markedly "shrinking" by the early 19th century (L Colley Britons: forging the nation 1707-1837 London 1994, p329).

That aside, the union of the crowns would have been impossible without mutual protestantisms. Both countries went on to share the King James version of the bible, for example. In an age of religious wars in Europe a vital commonality. Protestantism became a requirement for the monarch and their spouse after 1688 (and still is). The same sort of strategic anti-catholicism can be seen behind the 1707 union. Without full unity the English establishment feared that Scotland would opt for the exiled James Edward Stewart - a catholic - on the death of the childless and ailing Queen Anne. The parliament of England and Wales had already agreed to import a Hanoverian protestant aristocrat and to form a new dynasty.

Identity is moreover always complex, invariably multiple and often conflictive. We have no need to deny the particular protestantism in Scotland when asserting the economic, territorial, linguistic and cultural fact of the British nation. Within Britain there are many identities. So there are in Scotland. Leave aside gender, age, colour and class. There still remains religion. A latent division continues to fester between protestant and catholic workers (manifested in football, but also Orange Order lodges). There are still Gaelic-speakers in the highlands, albeit no longer mono-lingual.

In other words Scottishness is not simple. Nor is Britishness.

Jack Conrad