Scottish nationalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Mar 27 12:34:46 MST 2001

In These Times, April 16, 2001

The History of Beginnings

By Paul Haacke

The Book of Prefaces
Edited by Alasdair Gray
Bloomsbury  640 pages, $49.95

After Britain: New Labour  and the Return of Scotland
By Tom Nairn
Granta  324 pages, $24.95

Alasdair Gray's motto--"Work as if you are living in the early days of a
better nation"--is addressed to people of all nations, but it may be the
best expression of the current cultural and political renaissance in
Scotland. First taken from a Canadian poet for the front-page of Gray's
1983 collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly, and now appearing again on the
cover of his long-awaited literary anthology The Book of Prefaces, this
romantic call-to-arms epitomizes Scotland's bittersweet hopes and
self-deprecating promises for the future.

While most of the news media covering Britain today have been busy with the
Royals and the Blairs in London and the troubles in Northern Ireland,
Scotland has been working to build a new, resolutely left-wing parliament,
a fresh and edgy art, music and literary culture, and a more international
country out of one that has always been far warmer to Ireland, Wales and
the Continent than its more powerful southern neighbor. According to Tom
Nairn's incisive and provocative book After Britain: New Labour and the
Return of Scotland, this national re-emergence is in fact helping to bring
about the peaceful and democratic "break-up of Britain," as he predicted in
his 1972 book of that name, and the end of the entire United Kingdom as we
know it.

For as devolution progresses, Nairn argues, it will eventually pave the way
to a post- nationalist United Kingdom that will no longer be an imperial
state centered on London, but an outdated misnomer representing an
"archipelago-system" of interrelated yet distinct cultures within a greater
European Union. Scotland, in turn, will remain to the left of the
increasingly conciliatory and traditionalist third way, and, unfettered by
Toryism and Royalism, which are virtually nonexistent there, will
ultimately rise above it.

Turning Francis Fukuyama on his head, Nairn explains with cutting irony
that "the end of history lay for Scots in 1707," when the country was
joined with England through a shotgun wedding of the latter's design. (In a
review of Nairn's book, the End of History theorist shot back in Prospect
Magazine under the banner "Don't Do It Britannia," arguing that devolution
will spell trouble for both British and American imperialism--as if that
were a bad thing.) Because Scotland was not powerful enough to refuse its
longtime oppressor's offers, and because both nations benefited from each
other as British industry, capitalism and colonialism exploded over the
next few centuries, the marriage managed to last throughout the rise and
fall of the British Empire, two world wars and the triumph of America as
the world's English-speaking superpower.

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Louis Proyect
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