Scottish Nationalism

Les Schaffer schaffer at SPAMoptonline.net
Sat Jan 27 07:38:16 MST 2001


[ bounced > 30 kB from "Paul Flewers" <hatchet.job at virgin.net> ]

Further to the discussion, list members may be interested in these
reviews of Neil Davidson, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood, Pluto,
London, 2000.

ALL nationalism is based on mythical history, and the Scots version is
no exception. For example, the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath is
presented as proof that Scotland is the oldest nation in Europe. The
Act of Union with England in 1707 is presented as a catastrophic
defeat, while the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 demonstrate that
the Scots can still hope to be, 'a nation once again', as the song has
it. Most of the time, admittedly, the struggle took less dramatic
forms. The nation survived, thanks to the Gaelic language, the rich
folk memory of a pre-capitalist culture, and the music and traditional
dress, which lift Scots' hearts whenever we see our Highland regiments
march past. While union with England was a disaster, fragments were
saved from the wreckage. Scotland retained its established church,
Scots law, and its educational system, all significantly different
from the English versions. So, while Scotland is still subject to the
English yoke, the nation is not dead, but sleeping. Why did the sleep
last so long, and what made the nation awake when it did?

Davidson's important study provides a very different version of Scots
history, showing that the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath
were asserting their claim to rule over their own tenants and serfs,
not leading the liberation struggle depicted in Mel Gibson's
Braveheart. The claims made for the Declaration are as spurious as
those made for the Magna Carta. Davidson's demolition of nationalist
myths is very convincing. He argues that the Act of Union, usually
presented as the defeat of the nation, was one of the preconditions
for the emergence of national feeling. The 1707 settlement ensured
that the Scots E9lites retained their traditional privileges. Davidson
refutes the standard claim that Scots national identity was secured by
the trinity of Kirk, Law and Education. Education is not mentioned in
the Act of Settlement, not surprisingly as most of the population had
little contact with it.  The Church of Scotland failed to establish a
religious monopoly, while most of the population dreaded contact with
the legal system.  Incorporation into the developing Empire was much
more important than any of those for developing a Scots identity.

National consciousness, as distinct from nationalism, had begun to
develop in the Lowlands in the period before the union with
England. The social system of the Highlands, feudalism with large
pre-feudal elements, was a huge obstacle to the development of Scots
capitalism. To the Lowland farmer, the Highlander was a cattle-thief,
not a fellow countryman. A bourgeois society was created by brutally
smashing the pre-capitalist Highland social system, which was good
practice for future repression further afield. When the threat from
perceived Highland barbarians receded, Scottish E9lites invented a
national identity from the romantic idealisation of the society which
they had so recently helped to destroy. Davidson is very informative
on Scots economic and political participation in the British
Empire. Far from being junior partners, as is so often claimed, Scots
capitalists were disproportionately important. Scots also played a key
rF4le in the Empire's military, police and administration. The
stereotype of the stiff-upper-lipped colonial official could hardly
have been modelled on the relaxed and garrulous English.

Nationalist movements have to create their ideologies from such scraps
as come to hand, but Scots nationalists are luckier than most. The
British state promoted a picturesque Scots identity within and beyond
Scotland's boundaries. Monarchs from Victoria onwards have encouraged
grotesque Highland ceremony, and no imperial occasion was complete
without Scots regiments with their tartan and pipe bands. Scots
national identity, a subdivision of British imperial identity, was
available when needed. Radical nationalists now insist that the Scots
were among the first to be colonised, and like to quote Fanon's
Wretched of the Earth to demonstrate that they were and remain
oppressed, just like Africans and Asians. Does anyone in the Third
World believe that story? Davidson refutes the loopy radical
nationalist historians in the Scottish Socialist Party, who see early
nineteenth century workers' struggles as rebellions against English
rule, although the workers made no such claims, and the employers were
also Scots.

Scots nationalism is a modern phenomenon. The Scottish Nationalist
Party was established only in the 1920s, and had little electoral
success until the 1960s. Stories from the fourteenth or eighteenth
century are used to stitch together an essentially new
garment. Nationalism remains essentially limited, posing few problems
for the British state or, so far, for the Scots labour movement. The
SNP, which wants the British Army to retain its Scots regiments, and
presses the merits of Scots airfields as bases to bomb the Serbs, is
hardly a subversive force.

John Sullivan

'What ish my nation?' - Macmorris in Shakespeare's Henry V, Act III,
Scene 2, line 118

NEIL Davidson is to be congratulated on producing a stimulating piece
of work on this subject in a way which opens the possibility of
situating it within a wider context, as befits a Marxist. The
potential for this appears already in the book's preface, where it is
asserted:

In the United Netherlands, England and France the transition to a
capitalist economy and the formation of national consciousness were
preconditions for their respective revolutions taking place. In
Scotland they were the outcomes of the revolution. (p vi)

It is reinforced by the opening chapters, in which Davidson sets out
the theoretical framework he proposes to make use of, analysing
national consciousness and the formation of 'nation states' arising
from it.  These two initial chapters are worth reading on their own
account.  Particularly useful is Davidson's insistence on a
distinction between national consciousness - a sense of a particular
group identity - and nationalism - a form of politics designed to
advance the supposed common interests of this or that national group
(see page 14). Davidson suggests that nationalism inevitably involves
a demand 'for the construction or defence of a state' (p15). His
discussion of Wales at this point suggests that this state must be an
independent one, predominantly representative of the nationality in
question, but my own feeling is that the matter is not quite as simple
as that: any state will do, provided it advances the supposed common
interests of the relevant nationality - for examples, see Belgium and
Yugoslavia, and also the UK as regards the Scots and Welsh up until
the twentieth century.

Possibly even more useful is Davidson's outline of stages in the
growth of national consciousness in general. He writes:

In fact, national consciousness took as many centuries to become the
dominant form of consciousness as the capitalist mode of production,
and it did so as a consequence of the latter. National consciousness
developed in three stages. In the first, which I call that of
psychological formation (c1450-1688), it emerged unevenly across
Europe (and its colonial extensions) among the most advanced economic
groups as a response to socio-economic changes set in train by the
transition to capitalism. In the second, which I call that of
geographical extension (1688-1789), the success of groups with an
emergent national consciousness in the Netherlands and England in
elevating this new psychological state into political movements led
others (first in North America, Ireland and France, then generally) to
aspire to national status, even if their level of social development
had not previously allowed national consciousness to arise. In the
third, which I call that of social diffusion (1789-1848), national
consciousness begins to emerge in the social classes below the rulers
of the new nation states, partly as a result of deliberate
indoctrination, but far more so as the by now inevitable pattern of
life experience within societies shaped by the nation state
form. (p28)

This three-stage scheme looks highly plausible - for example, it looks
as if, on the face of things, two of the stages can be traced in
Ireland in the period of 1688-1848, the second running from such
figures as Swift and Molyneux up to the classic formulations of Wolfe
Tone, while in the subsequent phase O'Connell's political activities
combined with economic developments to produce the state of affairs
now confronting us.

It might be objected that Irish national consciousness actually
predates the Williamite period by a long way - for example, one might
be tempted to argue that it dates at least from the reign of Henry
VIII and his policy of 'surrender and regrant', whereby Irish chiefs
were persuaded to yield up the titles of their lands to the King in
return for their elevation as (English) feudal nobles, a development
which called forth one of the most devastating pieces of political
poetry ever written, a poem beginning 'Fubun fuibh, a shluagh
Ghaoidheal' ('Shame on ye, o race of the Gael'). The writer of this
poem was a supporter of the old order, and describes one of the Irish
rulers who accepted this new arrangement as having 'failed us' - in
which case 'us' might be understood as 'all those of Irish descent',
that is, the Irish nation. Against this, Davidson would be able to
deploy his analysis of terms such as ethnos, nation, gens and populus,
which are clues to attitudes regarding nationality in precapitalist
Europe (see the opening pages of Chapter 2). Here, he argues, we have
a simple conception of nationality in terms of language and areas of
origin which in fact masks the degree of local particularism existing
in the minds of the various peoples. The mediaeval peasants' world
centred on their own village; likewise, it could be argued that the
focus for Irish clan members was the local tuath, or petty kingdom.

>From this suggestive theoretical schema as set out and discussed in
the book's first two chapters, the rest of Neil Davidson's argument as
applied to Scotland follows naturally and smoothly, which in itself is
a tribute to the thoroughness and insightfulness of his groundwork. I
do not propose to summarise his case from this point on, because I
think readers of this journal ought to be persuaded to buy the book
and read it for themselves. Suffice it merely to say that Davidson
attacks the notion of the existence of any form of national
consciousness in the modern sense among the Scots prior to 1707, and
in fact locates its origins in the period of 1746-1820 (p78). In the
process, he has some interesting observations on the parallel
emergence of British national consciousness which ought to appeal even
to the most Anglo-centric among us.

This book is full of good things. Particularly impressive is the
chapter outlining the politics of two great Scots literary figures,
viz Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Davidson makes it clear that
Burns was a supporter of the ideals of the French Revolution -
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - but veered away from it when he saw
the French revolutionary government's failure to conduct a foreign
policy consonant with a respect for the rights of other states, such
as the Netherlands and Savoy (see page 157). And his comment on
Burns's supposed socialism is most perceptive:

If the sentiments Burns expresses in 'A Man's a Man' still resonate
for socialists today, it is because the democratic and egalitarian
vision will only be accomplished in a socialist future, not because
Burns envisaged or could have envisaged that future.' (pp162-3)

There is only one detail here which I find puzzling. Davidson regards
Burns as the author of the song 'Ye Jacobites by Name' (see page
156). I am prepared to believe this attribution, if evidence is
presented, but somehow I doubt it. Burns was not only a songwriter of
genius, but a collector of folk songs. Also the song itself is
something of an enigma - is it pro- or anti-Jacobite? Both readings
are possible, it would seem - a circumstance which lends credibility
to the view that it is pro-Jacobite Aesopian language. And this was a
song composed by Robert Burns? I strongly doubt it if the pro-Jacobite
reading is the correct one. Even if not, was Burns ever enigmatic in
the rest of his work? I think not, so why should he be so here?

By comparison with the book's overall achievement, however, any
deficiencies of literary analysis are of minor importance. Neil
Davidson's treatment of his theme is balanced and considered, and I
suspect that this stems in no small measure from his general attitude
to the national question. As he says: 'Whether or not one supports a
national group surely depends on an assessment of the role it plays in
world politics.' (p10) In other words, if the workers gain from a
particular national struggle they should support it, but not
otherwise.

Chris Gray





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