The Scottish Independence Referendum: Some Historical Perspectives

The closer we get to the date of the Scottish independence referendum, the more bizarre and ludicrous the Unionists’ arguments (well, narratives actually) become. One such argument concerns an independent Scotland’s continued use of the pound sterling. “No, you can’t use it” screams George Osborne but hang on, don’t the Isle of Man, Gibraltar and the Channel Islands, all of which are independent, use the pound? Yes, they do. Then there’s the question of national borders. Last week, The Mail on Sunday interviewed Ed Miliband, who apparently claimed if Labour win next year’s General Election, his government would consider putting guards on the border between Scotland and England. But I wonder if Mr Ed, in his moment of petulance, realised that the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland is effectively open and this has officially been the case since 1993? Even when the Irish Republic was declared, the border was lightly patrolled, if at all. Consequently, Labour members have been quick to claim that Miliband’s views had been “misrepresented”, but I suspect that they’re being dishonest.

I have seen some Labourites and self-described socialists complain that a vote for independence is a vote for the Scottish National Party. It isn’t. In case they weren’t paying attention, this is about independence and nothing else. Others make even wilder assertions, claiming that Scottish independence will lead to fascism north of the border because the SNP is really like the British National Party (sic). Really? This is a country where the far-right have fared worse than their cousins south of the border. Fascism has no traction in Scotland. Many Unionists on the political Right, like historical revisionist, Niall Ferguson, try to channel the Darien Scheme and summon up the ghosts of Scotland’s single failed colonial episode to deal a hammer blow to the idea of independence. This is an event that happened over 300 years ago. Isn’t it time to move on? Apparently not. A peevish and newly-bearded Ferguson, appearing on Newsnight on Monday, went from comparing a potentially independent Scotland to the US state of Colorado (presumably because it legalized the sale and consumption of cannabis earlier this year) to making specious connections with Belarus and Moldova. The desperation! Iain Martin of the Telegraph moaned that Newsnight had “finally found a historian other than Tom Devine”. He, of course, meant Ferguson, who’s defended neoliberalism by rewriting the history of capitalism from the perspective of the powerful, and writing out those on whose backs great fortunes were made. Devine, on the other hand, was a Unionist but defected to the Yes camp a few months ago. Given his slippery grasp of history, Ferguson is not a man I’d trust to make a logical and reasoned case for the continuation of the Union. But this really is the best the Unionists can offer. Have you seen who else they’ve got onboard? Uh huh, look away now.

Since the beginning, the ‘No’ campaign has used hectoring, threats, petulance, outright bullying and yes, lies to try and convince the Scottish people to side en masse with their dismal campaign. Indeed their behaviour is reminiscent of English Unionists in the months before the passage of the Act of Union in 1707.  The idea of union was so unpopular with the common people that when the draft of the Act was made public, riots ensued. Aware of the Act’s unpopularity, the English bribed and cajoled the Scottish nobles into accepting it. The poet, Robert Burns, observed:

We’re bought and sold for English Gold,

Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.

The gold was distributed to aristocrats and some of the money was used to hire spies like Daniel Defoe, who reported “A Scots rabble is the worst of its kind, for every Scot in favour there is 99 against”. Today, the Unionists offer more devolution, which is no doubt backed with more gold for wealthy landowners and businessmen. As for spies, they may well be operating on the ground. Plus ça change.

The 1707 Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament by 106 to 69 votes. By doing so, Parliament had ignored the wishes of the people and effectively voted for its own extinction. The Treaty of Union contained 25 articles, most of these were economic, while the other articles dealt with symbols. Many Scottish nobles, like the Campbells of Argyll (Archibald Campbell, the 3rd Duke of Argyll was even educated at Eton), were absentees and had taken up residence in London and the South-East, but still ruled over their clan from afar.

The Act of Union was so poisonous that it invited insurrection in the form of the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745. This reveals something else about English motives behind the Act: it was designed to prevent Scots from choosing their own monarch – even if the monarch was Protestant. In the aftermath of the rebellions, the Highland Clearances forced communities from the land . The wearing of tartan, the playing of bagpipes and the speaking of Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) were proscribed by law. Thus, the Union was enforced culturally as well as economically. There were similar clearances in the Scottish Lowlands.

Yes, Scotland was poorer than England, which had overseas possessions and material wealth (partly through legitimizing piracy with its privateers armed with guns and letters of marque). It is true that the Darien Scheme bankrupted Scotland, but the idea that the Act of Union was promulgated on the basis of English altruism is patently absurd. This lie has been magically transformed into a handy myth to be invoked in response to the case for independence and I’ve seen it used many times. England had always wanted to dominate Scotland and, indeed, it continues to do so, economically, to this day. North Sea oil, which was discovered off the Scottish coast in the 1960s was later used to finance tax cuts for wealthy, mainly English, capitalists. A sovereign fund could have been established with the royalties (Tony Benn had proposed this when he created the British National Oil Company in the late 70s), as Norway had done, but Thatcher and her Tory ministers regarded it as an opportunity to have a piss up at the expense of ordinary people. In other words, the money made from this Scottish asset was used to shore up the same kind of people who supported the Act of Union in the first place. Ordinary Scots, aside from those working in the oil and gas industry, haven’t fared so well. The heavy industries like shipbuilding that had so dominated cities like Glasgow are but a memory.

The Poll Tax was first introduced in Scotland, apparently because, according to Ian Lang, the Rugby School-educated Tory Secretary of State for Scotland, it would appeal to the Scottish ‘sense of fairness’. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Poll Tax ensured that Scottish Tory MPs became less common as the 1990s wore on. Only one Tory was returned to Westminster in 2010. The Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament are also in decline. Most Tory MSPs sit in the chamber thanks to the regional lists.

One thing that I have always found amusing when travelling across the English-Scottish border is the difference between the national signs. If you’re travelling from south to north you will be greeted by signs that read “Welcome to Scotland” but if you travel in the opposite direction, the sign simply says “England”. What? No welcome? In some small way, this sums up the difference between the two countries. One sign is friendly and welcoming, while the other may as well say “You’re in England now. What more did you expect? A hug”?

There’s talk that the Scottish independence referendum will finally prompt long overdue debates on the way politics is done in the rest of Britain. It is clear that the current Westminster arrangement is damaging the country. Westminster politics, for the most part, are corrupt; rotten to its core and is in desperate need of a good kicking. The Union is stale and backward-looking, and draws on an imagined past that is replete with the redundant symbols of prestige (think of the honours system and the House of Lords). Scottish independence could change all that.

Vive l’Ecosse! Saor Alba!

 

 

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3 Comments

Filed under Government & politics, Scotland, Scottish Independence Referendum

3 responses to “The Scottish Independence Referendum: Some Historical Perspectives

  1. greggwh

    Excellent brief historical survey. I’m about to watch Newsnight so I’m looking forward to hear what that neocon Prof. Ferguson (to my mind he’s too pro-imperialist and Anglospherish to be a neolib) has to say. A reporter on the BBC visiting Quebec was commenting that one big difference between the English love-bombing campaign re. Scotland and the English Canadian love bomb campaign re. Quebec (in 1995) was that in the latter ordinary citizens were behind it whereas in the former politicians and celebrities are behind it. Perhaps I’m missing something but are large numbers (in Canada it was tens of thousands, possibly as many as a 100,000 but this has been disputed) of ordinary English citizens going to Scotland to add their voice to the No campaign? In any case if the Yes side loses they should move to a massive push for so-called devo-max which the No side is now dangling. As has been said, if that had been included as a third option the polls would likely look different now. With devo-max perhaps then Salmond would follow the example of his great Quebec counterpart Rene Levesque and concentrate on building and improving social democracy and leave independence for an indefinite future.

  2. Hi Gregg, thanks for your comment. I take your point that Ferguson is an imperialist but then neoliberalism is a different kind of imperialism that is, essentially, based on the classical liberalism of Locke, Hume et al. The idea of liberal economics has little to do with the freedom of the masses and is more in tune with the freedom of the rich and powerful to exploit others for a profit. The British Empire was predicated on this philosophy.

    Even if Scots vote ‘No’, the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. It’s a win-win for Scotland but it also means that Westminster politics, if it survives, will have to be done differently. There needs to be a new political settlement in Britain that breaks with the semi-feudalism that’s governed this country for the last 200+ years.

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