Not oppressed but a joint oppressor
Was Scotland subject to a takeover by England in 1707? Does Scotland suffer from English cultural imperialism? Jack Conrad questions some more left nationalist myths and assumptions
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."1
Yet, as we have shown, 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. 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 repackaged as moments in the national narrative. 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 philosophers, 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".2 Nations are, according to this version of events, the prime agent of history and each nation has its own unique memory, customs, character and destiny.
Victorian Britain introduced a modified version of this model. Royal history has been 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', 'Wales' and 'Ireland' are purely accidental results 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 shall for the moment leave aside the thorny issue of Ireland and the relative downplaying of Englishness). Religion and religious history, pre-capitalist relations of exploitation and reproduction, ethnic, clan and family lineage have correspondingly 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 prime subject matter of history and history is viewed as teleological. Past events are interpreted as inevitable, almost predetermined, steps towards the not so glorious second Elizabethan age.
There have been, of course, radical elements militantly opposed to the establishment. In the 17th and 18th centuries English republicans took over the folk myth of a golden age of Anglo-Saxon liberty before William the Bastard's 1066 invasion and the imposition of the Norman yoke. The governing aristocratic class were portrayed as non-English and essentially foreign. There was 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 symbolically make the break from cosmopolitanism till World War I, when the Saxe Cobergs metamorphosed into the House of Windsor). However, 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 thereby helped forge a counterrevolutionary Hanoverian-Tory 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. As we have seen, in their jointly authored book Imagine Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan claim that "Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe", going back to the 13th century.3
The mental cage sponsored by the UK state in the 19th century is never seriously analysed or questioned. Thanks to state generosity, official history was drilled into skulls at school as a matter of routine. Countless popular volumes and hefty tomes fill the shelves of bookshops and libraries and the minds of readers. Understandably, they too take for granted the national frame and reinforce what is now accepted as common sense. But one might just as well talk of the Charlemagne nation, the Roman empire nation or the papal nation.
Scotland's almost predestined journey is imagined from the arrival of the aboriginal 'Cruithni', through Wallace's and Bruce's wars of independence against 'England', all the way to unity of the crowns in 1603 and the promises held out by devolution, thanks to the election of Tony Blair's New Labour government on May 1 1997 and the successful devolution referendum on September 11 of the same year. Scotland is and has been throughout historic time and will be from here to eternity. Eg, 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.
Ideas of Scotland as an ancient or medieval nation are completely ahistorical. There was from the 9th century a common monarch over most of what is now the kingdom of Scotland. But when James VI of Scotland also became James I, that was true for all people in Great Britain and Ireland.
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 colonialism, English imperialism or English cultural imperialism. Put another way, Scotland is nowadays ruled by foreigners. Eg, Bob Goupillot, of the SSP's Republican Communist Network, 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".4
Yes, in 1707 there was bribery. There was no democratic agreement. Of course, neither Scotland nor England were democracies. The aristocracy and the high bourgeoisie voted in both the Westminster and Edinburgh parliaments for what was perceived to be in their narrow interests. That, at least in part, is why there was such widespread popular opposition. Besides that minor difficulty there were the full-scale Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745. And yet, after 1746 and Culloden, there was a rapid development of British national consciousness, not least in the highlands. Jacobitism was effortlessly swapped for a cult of the insipid Hanoverian monarchy by aristocratic landowners and the traditional elite. Highland Scots became the warrior caste of British imperialism and ultra-loyal to the empire project.
Protestantism, inter-continental wars with France, a staggering growth of capital accumulation, the joint colonisation of Ulster, North America and Australasia, and mutual success in building, administering and exploiting what was to become a vast British - not English - empire made and remade what was the world's first nation. This Britishness was an integral part of and proceeded in parallel with the making and remaking of a common Scottish consciousness.
Naturally for left nationalists Britain is an entirely artificial or royal construct. Within the state prison house of Ukiana the nations of Scotland and Wales suffocate but await their moment of freedom when Britain inevitably breaks apart. 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. A few years ago I was even told that the very notion of Britain is "counterrevolutionary" and that my theory of a multilayered British nation is "racist".5
So for Scottish left nationalists the nation (country) is Scottish; the state and the ruling institutions British or English. According to this two-dimensional viewpoint, Scotland today must therefore be assigned to the heroic category of oppressed nations: ie, it must aspire to join those countries which fought for freedom from one or another of the great European colonial empires. Algeria, Vietnam, Kenya, Yemen, Angola, etc. Amongst them, amongst the angels, is where Scotland's future lies. Very convenient. Britain established a worldwide empire, traded in black slaves and raped India. Not Scotland. Whether it be under the leadership of Charles James Stewart or John Maclean, it gallantly resisted imperial Britain. Both Alec Salmond and Alan McCombes can through such a cynical and completely erroneous device equate the demand for a separate class state in Scotland with the 20th century's national liberation movements. The Scottish National Party thereby melds into something akin to the Algerian FLN; the SSP into the Vietnamese NLF.
Cutting through this nonsense is hardly difficult. By definition national oppression involves all classes. There are upper and lower classes internal to every colonial country, of course. But the upper classes not only lose out economically to the imperial power; they cannot rule. They have no state. National oppression therefore involves divide and rule, backed by the state. It is also subjection by the state, as was typically the case with those countries ruled by the British, French, Spanish, Belgian and other European empires in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Undoubtedly, while the majority of Scottish people in 1707 did not think of themselves as British, the same can surely 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 serve plans for feudal overlordship to be extend across the whole of the archipelago hatched by what I have called 'revolutionary centralisers', such as Edward I.
Nevertheless leading elements amongst the intelligentsia started to look towards an end to endemic border warfare and some sort of equal union. John Mair (c1470-1550) wrote A history of Greater Britain both England and Scotland (1526), when he was principal of the University of Glasgow. Here he wove the story of England and Scotland together and argued for an eventual political union between the two kingdoms. Mair also wanted to curb the destructive conflicts between the feudal magnets. An idea enthusiastically taken up by the well-read Scottish king, James VI, who was painfully aware of the instability of his realm - his mother, Mary, had been forced to abdicate from the throne and his father, Lord Darnley, was killed by high-class 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 too, he explained that god had not only united two great feudal lineages, but before that "these two kingdoms, both in language, religion and similitude of manners" There was one island "separated neither by sea, nor great river, mountain, nor other strength of nature".6 He took to presenting himself as James I of Great Britain.
Attempts to bring together the two kingdoms in a political union floundered due to a refusal by English interests to treat the Scots as equals. However, with the new agenda brought about by the continued rise of capitalism in England, things began to change on a broader front. Especially within the Scottish polity the most astute and forward-thinking layers of the bourgeoisie came to consider themselves British. Unsurprisingly those in the forefront of the Scottish enlightenment were to be found amongst the keenest advocates of a union. England was no longer perceived as a threat: rather an attractive partner.
Compared with other European powers at the time, England stood out as a beacon of law and ordered prosperity. While tyrants feared the English example, radicals sought to emulate it. Indeed for aristocratic, bourgeois and educated middle class Scots, the union, especially after the final defeat of the Jacobite rising in 1746, brought peace, civic virtue, inward investment, access to a vast new market and undreamt opportunities for commercial profit or advancement to high office in the military, political and bureaucratic apparatus of Great Britain. Left to itself, Scotland would in all probability have stagnated, decayed and fragmented under feudal interests - the fate suffered by Poland provides a living example.
Unity with an England that had finally turned its back on 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 economic dynamism, ongoing consent amongst the elite and mutual advantage, it lasted and brought about a nation-state and an attendant national consciousness.
In short, Scotland does not correspond to anything even remotely resembling the standard colonial experience. Fully aware of this awkward fact, the more intelligent - or rather the more crafty - advocates of Scottish nationalism, turn to softer, more pliable, categories such as internal colonialism or cultural imperialism.
James D Young - a left nationalist ideologue - wrote of Scotland being a victim nation, "the colonial dimension being real and tangible", and the English ruling class displaying "colonial attitudes"7. McCombes and Sheridan too complain of Scotland suffering from a "warped and distorted" national identity.8 In a similar vein comrade Goupillot of the RCN self-servingly reports of a "section of the population, including a large portion of the working class", feeling "forcibly subsumed under English/Britishness" .9
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 (see M Hechter Internal colonialism London 1978). As one critic, Krishan Kumar, bitingly comments, he seems to have written his book "without ever having set foot in the British Isles".10 His ignorance of British realities are, though, fundamentally historical.
In my opinion Neil Davidson comprehensively disproves the Hechter thesis of internal colonialism. 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 after 1746 - Scotland experienced a sudden industrial revolution and a spectacular economic boom. Similar 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, far from being a 'peripheral' economic region in Britain, Scotland, or more precisely the lowlands, lay at the "core".11
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 (bourgeois) society and the state. Edinburgh-trained doctors, soldiers of fortune, men of letters, politicians on the make headed south and prospered. Scots came to disproportionally occupy a whole variety of top posts. Eg, during the first half of the 18th century 25% of all regimental officers were Scottish.
Moreover, there is the widespread and persistent phenomenon of Scots being elected in 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. After his 1997 general election victory Tony Blair (Edinburgh-born) appointed a whole pack of Scottish ministers, including foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer and lord chancellor - in terms of population a massive imbalance against the English. Andrew Neil - the millionaire Scottish broadcaster - waspishly refers to a "Scottish Raj".12 Such a situation, where the 'colonised nation' provides the leading personnel for the 'colonising nation' in such numbers, is uncharacteristic, to say the least.
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 realm of consciousness. Scottish culture was deemed second-rate, compared with the 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 - being particular butts of criticism.
Not that the Scottish reformation and the associated system of parish schools escape unscathed. According to the self-confessed "ultra-nationalist" Siol nan Gaidheal - Seed of the Gaels - well before the 1707 political union, it was apparently 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".13 So the reason why god appeared as an Englishman before Scottish children, and not as a trueborn Scot, is blamed on the unpatriotic, treacherous and self-hating educated classes of Scotland. The very subtlety of this cultural imperialism means that the mass of the population are 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 - typically 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 groundbreaking 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. James Mill argued in defence of the East India Company, championed public education and popularised Ricardoism. Walter Scott took the radical English myth of Saxon liberty and the Norman iron heel and gave it a conservative twist, in what was also a parable for post-1746 Great Britain, by resolving the contradiction into a reconciliation between the two 'races'. Thomas Carlyle opposed democracy but expressed a sincere, if romantic sympathy for the lot of the poor, and put forward an influential critique of capitalist industrialisation.
None of these men regarded themselves as English quislings or agents of English cultural imperialism. Far from viewing themselves as 'inferiors', they believed themselves to be of the best sort, homo superior, leading lights, and, as we have shown, they actively and sometimes decisively 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.
The highlands are a region where there was a process that might legitimately be called internal colonisation. 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 a formulation obscures the national, social and class content. The battle of Culloden in 1746 saw the professional Hanoverian army utterly rout the highlanders fighting on behalf of Charles Edward Stewart and his father. The technology and disciplined military techniques of the new 18th century cut through the bravery of clan society. However, this defeat was inflicted not by England: rather by a combination of lowland Scots, and 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 decimated clan society militarily and then proceeded to take apart 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 travel in the highlands was for them to enter bandit territory and to 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 the Gaelic language 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 that for the highland clan chiefs and the associated elite, Brutishness presented a golden opportunity for betterment. Once defeated, they eagerly turned away from scratching a living from feudal tithes and instead chased 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 army regiments to crush resistance. All for the sake of turning the "whole country" into a giant "sheep-walk" and "primitive capital accumulation".14
The native Gaels were uprooted by their own lairds and forced onto ships bound for the USA or Canada. That or, hungry, bedraggled, footsore, they made their way into the dark, blood-sucking giant factories and mills of Glasgow.
While the whole process was time-concentrated, 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. 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 any of the other European colonists they came into contact with.
Equally significant, highland Scots in America often became fiercely pro-British. Former Jacobites were some of George III's most loyal subjects. Even the celebrated Flora Macdonald, saviour of Bonnie Prince Charlie, turned Hanoverian after she migrated to North Carolina. Her husband, Allan, mobilised highland settlers in support of the king against the 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 and socialist future.