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Unsettled Will : Cultural Engagement and Scottish Independence

Cairns Craig
p. 15-36

Abstract

The phrase ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’ was originally invoked by John Smith, leader of the Labour party from 1992 till his death in 1994, but it was used to counterbalance the ‘settled will’ of many Labour politicians in Scotland that devolution was a distraction from the main business of British politics, and likely to encourage rather than to nullify the appeal of the Scottish National Party. But what Cameron saw as a ‘settled will’ in Scotland in 2014 was to be radically challenged in the general election of May 2015, when the SNP won all but three seats in Scotland and Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats. Had the electorate decided to punish Labour for working with the Tories in the ‘Better Together’ campaign ? Or was an overwhelming majority for the SNP a signal that Scots had changed their minds, and now did want independence ? Or was it the psephological consequence of the 45 % who had voted ‘Yes’ committing to the SNP, while the 55 % who had voted ‘No’ were split across a variety of parties ? Was the overwhelming SNP majority a call for a second referendum, or was the ‘settled will’ of the majority still for the Union ?

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The Mystery

1When David Cameron responded to the outcome of the Referendum on Scottish Independence on the morning of 19 September 2014, he declared that remaining in the Union was the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people : ‘there can be no disputes, no re-runs – we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people’.1 The almost unequalled turnout – 84.59 % of the electorate voted – showed the extent of the commitment on both sides of the argument and reflected the intensity with which the debate had been conducted in the previous two years. Though the ‘Yes’ side lost 55 :45, the surge in support for independence took it well beyond the 30 % that had been the settled view in the polls since the 1990s, and in the week before the Referendum the will of the Scottish people had looked far from ‘settled’ when, after a poll showed the ‘Yes’ campaign edging slightly ahead, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party all abandoned Westminster and rushed north to make a joint ‘vow’ about increased powers for the Scottish Parliament if the Scottish people would only vote to stay in the Union.

2The phrase ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’ was originally invoked by John Smith, leader of the Labour party from 1992 till his death in 1994, but it was used to counterbalance the ‘settled will’ of many Labour politicians in Scotland that devolution was a distraction from the main business of British politics, and likely to encourage rather than to nullify the appeal of the Scottish National Party. After all, when Scotland’s commitment to devolution had last been tested in the Referendum of 1979, it had proved far from conclusive, with those in favour only marginally outnumbering those against and with almost the same percentage failing to register a vote.. But what Cameron saw as a ‘settled will’ in Scotland in 2014 was to be radically challenged in the general election of May 2015, when the SNP won all but three seats in Scotland and Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats. Had the electorate decided to punish Labour for working with the Tories in the ‘Better Together’ campaign ? Or was an overwhelming majority for the SNP a signal that Scots had changed their minds, and now did want independence ? Or was it the psephological consequence of the 45 % who had voted ‘Yes’ committing to the SNP, while the 55 % who had voted ‘No’ were split across a variety of parties ? Was the overwhelming SNP majority a call for a second referendum, or was the ‘settled will’ of the majority still for the Union ?

3In truth, the years between the first referendum in 1979, the second after the Labour Party’s victory in 1997 and the third in 2014 have been years in which there has been no ‘settled will’ in Scotland : the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was supposed to close the issue of Scotland’s relationship with the Union but hardly was the new parliament building open than the Calman Commission was considering whether it ought to have broader powers, and before those recommendations could be enacted the ‘vow’ of greater powers offered by the three ‘Better Together’ party leaders produced the Smith commission, and another set of proposals for increased powers.

  • 2 At the time of writing it is 114,000, more than four times what its was at the beginning of the Ref (...)
  • 3 Iain MacWhirter, Road to Referendum (Glasgow, 2014), 13.

4The constitutional settlement represented by the Scottish Parliament has been constantly unsettled by peoples’ increasing willingness to commit their votes to the Scottish National Party – first in the Scottish parliament elections of 2007, when the SNP became a minority government, and then in 2011, when it won the outright majority that the proportional representation voting system in Scotland had been designed to prevent. The rise of the SNP from a fringe movement in the 1960s, to a small player in Scottish politics in the 1990s, to the dominant political force of the 2010s – it is now, in terms of membership, the third largest party in the UK2 – has not only been remarkable but also remarkably mysterious : the Herald’s eminent political journalist, Iain MacWhirter begins his book Road to Referendum with a declaration and a question : ‘Here’s the mystery. How did Scotland go from being a willing and enthusiastic partner in the Union with England to the referendum on independence within the space of little more than a generation ?’3

  • 4 MacWhirter, Road to Referendum, 375.
  • 5 In their analysis of The Scottish Electorate of 1997, Brown, McCrone, Paterson and Surridge found f (...)
  • 6 Gordon Brown, My Scotland, Our Britain (London, 2014), 15.
  • 7 Brown, My Scotland, Our Britain, 19.

5That ‘mystery’, however, has not been answered at the end of MacWhirter’s narrative : ‘The theme of this book has been the rise, as if from nowhere, of Scottish Nationalism’.4 Scottish nationalism arises from nowhere, propelled by a dynamic which seems to defy the logic of modern politics – many sociological studies claim to find that there is very little difference between social attitudes in Scotland and in England5 – and also to defy the logic of Scotland’s own history, in which it was a committed participant in the British Empire and a dynamic creator and defender of British institutions such as the British Broadcasting Corporation and the National Health Service. It is this that shocks opponents of the SNP such as former Prime Minster Gordon Brown who, in My Scotland, Our Britain, expresses dismay at ‘the speed with which Scottish political nationalism has moved from the fringes to the mainstream, then to an electoral majority in the Scottish Parliament and now to threaten the very existence of Britain is extraordinary’.6 Indeed, according to Brown, it is mystery even to those most acutely involved because neither the ‘political nationalists who have driven the change, nor the Unionists who have resisted it, offer a clear sense of what really lies behind the rise of a hitherto unsuccessful party’.7

  • 8 Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism (second edn., London, 1981; 1977), 1 (...)

6Behind the mystery of the rise of nationalism in modern Scotland is the deeper mystery of why Scotland – the country which provided so much of the stimulus to nineteenth-century European nationalisms, from the poetry of ‘Ossian’ to the folksongs of Burns and the novels of Walter Scott – had no nationalist movement of its own in the nineteenth century. As Tom Nairn pointed out in The Break-up of Britain in 1977, Scotland was a conundrum because, ‘for virtually the whole century of nationalism’s classical development there is no object of comparison at all. Between 1800 and 1870 for example, . . . there simply was no Scottish nationalist movement’.8 Scotland’s missing nationalism in the nineteenth century is the mirror image of its strange arrival at a nationalist politics in the twenty-first. For Nairn, as for many subsequent commentators, the answer lies in the Union of 1707, which allowed Scotland access to the first British Empire, with all its new resources in sugar, tobacco, cotton and, of course, slaves, and which allowed Scotland to follow England through the path of ‘modernisation’ without having to confront the problems faced by every other country trying to catch up with England’s early industrialisation. Scotland was unique in having crossed the Rubicon of modernisation before the emergence of the ideology of nationalism :

  • 9 Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain, 108.

There was to be only one example of a land which – so to speak – ‘made it’ before the onset of the new age of nationalism. The European Enlightenment had an immense general effect upon culture and society ; but it had only one particular success-story, outside the great revolutionary centres.
Only one society was in fact able to advance, more or less according to its precepts, from feudal and theological squalor to the state of bourgeois civil society, polite culture, and so on. Only one land crossed the great divide before the whole condition of European politics and culture was decisively and permanently altered by the great awakening of nationalist consciousness . . . It was Scotland which enjoyed (or suffered) this solitary fate.
9

7Scotland’s uniqueness defined both its ‘absent’ nationalism – it had no need of what became the ideology of modernisation – but also defined its subsequent cultural lack of development, its decline into a sub-nationalism which produced a culture both retarded and deformed in terms of European norms:

  • 10 Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain, 131.

Cramped, stagnant, backward-looking, parochial – all these and others are the epithets traditionally and rightly ascribed to modern Scottishness. But deformed as they are, these constitute none the less a strong institutionally, guaranteed identity. It is true that political castration was the main ingredient in this rather pathological complex (such was the point of the Union), and that intellectuals have been unable to contemplate it for a long time without inexpressible pain. Still, there it was : the one thing which the Scots can never be said to have lacked is identity.10

  • 11 Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain, 173.

8For left-wing commentators such as Nairn, nationalism-in-general might be a political evil but not having had a nationalist phase in its historical development was deeply disabling – Scotland might have an identity but only, Nairn suggests, because it is impossible to ‘refuse “identity” to a hopeless neurotic, because he is different from others, and unhappy about the fact?’11

9This version of Scotland’s national history and cultural development became deeply inscribed in the historiography of the latter part of the twentieth century – in part because of the rise to prominence of what we now describe as the Scottish Enlightenment. Scotland’s eighteenth-century ‘enlightenment’ is such a focus of modern historical research that it is hard to credit that no one before the 1960s had ever identified such a historical phase – no history of Scottish philosophy down to George Davie’s The Democratic Intellect describes the Scotland of Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and David Hume as an ‘enlightenment’.

  • 12 W.C. Lehmann, Adam Ferguson and the Beginnings of Modern Sociology (New York, 1930), Gladys Bryson, (...)
  • 13 Arthur Herman, The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World (London, 2002), (...)

10It is true that W.R. Scott in his Francis Hutcheson : his life, teaching and position in the history of philosophy (1900) identified Hutcheson with ‘enlightenment’, but he regarded Hume as having brought that enlightenment to an end, so that his study hardly constitutes a beginning for the modern notion of a Scottish Enlightenment, which develops first among American scholars in search of the anglophone origins of their own social sciences12 and develops into a broader assumption that modern American values are founded on the works of eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers. This was given historical justification in Garry Wills’s Inventing America : Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1978), which traced the American constitution to the Common Sense philosophy of Thomas Reid, and was most ambitiously asserted by Arthur Herman in The Scottish Enlightenment : the Scots’ Invention of the Modern World (2002) : ‘it is the Scots more than anyone else who have created the lens through which we now see the final product. When we gaze out on a contemporary world shaped by technology, capitalism and modern democracy, and struggle to find our place as individuals in it, we are in effect viewing the world as the Scots did.’13 The more important eighteenth-century Scotland became to the history of modernity, however, the more Scotland’s subsequent history was seen as a calamitous collapse into historical insignificance. This was the burden of T.C.Smout’s History of the Scottish People, 1560–1830 which, in 1969, first established social and economic history as the appropriate medium for narrating the history of a country without its own political institutions. For Smout, Scottish culture was a deliberate evasion of its modern reality :

  • 14 T.C. Smout, History of the Scottish People, 1560–1830 (London, 1973; 1969), 469

Scott deliberately, and Burns unwittingly, thus provided the public with the nostalgic stability and sense of nationhood in the past that it sensed it was losing in the present. The result, however, was catastrophic to literature, as it twisted it head back to front – its poetry looking always to Burns and a dead language, in prose to Scott and past society. In this frozen posture it was obliged to walk on into the nineteenth century seeing nothing of the real world about it.14

11In the rest of Europe, romanticism and nationalism were transforming peoples’ histories: in Scotland, the argument goes, romanticism allowed Scots to ignore the history of urbanisation, industrialisation and social degradation they were actually living through.

12Thus Smout can begin his subsequent book, A Century of the Scottish People 1830–1950 with the declaration that

  • 15 T.C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People (London, 1987; 1986), 2.

The age of great industrial triumphs was an age of appalling social deprivation, not, certainly without amelioration, but with no solutions for its terrible problems. I am astounded by the tolerance, in a country boasting of its high moral standards and basking in the spiritual leadership of a Thomas Chalmers, of unspeakable urban squalor, compounded of drink abuse, bad housing, low wages, long hours and sham education. I find it unexpected that there should be only such limited improvements in social welfare as late as 1918. What was the point of all those triumphs of the great Victorian age of industry if so many people were so unspeakably oppressed by its operations.15

13The brighter the ‘enlightenment’, the greater the darkness that follows it: the more Scottish history that is written – and there has been a great deal of it since the 1960s, mostly inspired one way or another by the modern rise of nationalism – the more the mystery deepens. Thus T.M.Devine’s The Scottish Nation 1700–2000 is fundamentally based around a ‘paradox’ which was to drive his subsequent books on Scotland’s Empire 1600–1815 (2003) and To the Ends of the Earth : Scotland’s Global Diaspora 1750–2010 :

  • 16 T.M. Devine, The Scottish Nation 1700–2000 (London, 1999), 469.

The historic connection between the western Highlands and emigration is a familiar one and the crofting region did dominate in the aftermath of the subsistence crises in the 1830s and 1840s . . . But during the rest of the nineteenth century, though emigration from the north-west continued, the overwhelming majority of those who left Scotland now came from the towns and cities and the rural Lowlands. Therein lies the essential paradox of Scottish emigration : it was one of the world’s most highly successful industrial and agricultural economies after c. 1860 but was losing people in very large numbers rather than those countries traditionally associated with poverty, clearance, hunger and destitution.16

14Uniquely placed to develop a modern industrial economy, Scotland nonetheless managed to fail, both in keeping its people and in maintaining its industrial progress:

At the bottom of the slump in 1931–3 more than a quarter of the Scottish labour force was out of work, compared to a little over a fifth in the UK as a whole. The Scots suffered more and, not surprisingly, tended to emigrate in greater numbers. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

15Devine’s French quotation might apply to much Scottish historiography in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Xeniteans and Nostophobes

  • 17 For more on these movements, see my ‘Empire of Intellect: The Scottish Enlightenment and Scotland’s (...)

16The problem with these versions of Scottish history is that they treat Scotland as a bounded geographical location whose loss of people, whether it be intellectuals (Nairn) or its working people (Smout, Devine), is treated both as a narrative finality and an ultimate loss to the nation. This, however, was not how migration from Scotland worked : from the Orkney fishermen who signed up with Hudson’s Bay Company and travelled back and forth every six months to North America, to the ministers in Scottish churches in Canada who left their flocks to take up posts left vacant in Scotland after the Disruption in 1843, to the botanists like William Roxburgh, superintendent of the Calcutta botanic garden from 1793–1813, who returned to Edinburgh to prepare the publication of his Flora Indica (1820), to the philosophers A.A.Bowman and Norman Kemp Smith who both returned to chairs in Scottish universities from posts in Princeton after the First World War, Scottish ‘migrants’ were highly mobile, often regularly ‘commuting’ between North America and Scotland and equally often returning to Scotland after long periods spent in their ‘hostlands’.17

17One of the reasons they could do so was because they had established in those places of migration institutions which allowed them to follow careers parallel to those they would have followed had they remained in Scotland : the Hudson’s Bay employees had native wives in Canada and gave to the local people their children and their Orcadian fiddle music ; Roxburgh’s botanic garden in Calcutta was one of many across the British Empire established on the model of Edinburgh’s botanic garden and provided Dundee with the jute around which it built its industrial success ; Scottish churchmen could deliver their sermons in churches denominated as ‘Church of Scotland’ from Pictou to Otago, and Scottish philosophers could teach Scottish philosophy – initially the Common Sense of Reid, later the Idealism of Edward Caird – in universities modelled, like Princeton, on the traditions of the Scottish university system. These Scottish migrants were not the dispossessed fleeing their homeland because of poverty or tyranny : they were not, in the traditional meaning of the word, a ‘diaspora’, forced violently from their homeland and nostalgic of a return to it ; rather, they were what was denominated in ancient Greek by the term ‘xenitea’ – those who left their homeland to establish a new version of that homeland in another place. They did not go to be outcasts in another’s community : they went to build a community to mirror the world they had left and to which their Scottish values would be central.

18Scotland in the nineteenth century was a xenitean nation, seeding versions of itself across the globe, with the result that ‘Scotland’ was far more extensive than its geographical boundaries. Far from being the ‘parochial’ and ‘backward-looking’ country of twentieth-century historiography, Scotland was at the centre of an extended and profoundly influential cultural empire – the Scottish Church Collegiate School is still a prominent institution in Kolkata. Scotland had no need of ‘nationalism’ not simply because it was enjoying the benefits of its share in the British Empire, but because it was itself an imperial power, planting a distinctive Scottish culture across the globe in what we might denominate an ‘active’ or ‘expansionist’ nationalism, as opposed to the ‘resistant nationalisms’ of nineteenth-century Europe. Burns and Scott were not the symptoms of a refusal to engage with the modern world : they were the symbols of Scotland’s ability to impose itself on the world and to engineer changes to bring that world into line with Scottish values.

  • 18 They were also the publisher of Masson’s Recent British Philosophy in 1865 and then, in the 1870s, (...)

19The backbone of this Scottish cultural empire was its publishing and printing industries, in which Walter Scott so heavily invested in order to control the dissemination of his own (unacknowledged) novels. Thus the most influential magazines of the nineteenth century were the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and the most important synthesis of modern knowledge was The Encyclopaedia Britannica, still published from Edinburgh until the late nineteenth century. Instead of being emptied of its intellectuals as they were drawn to the larger scope of cultural life in London, as Nairn argues, Scottish intellectuals in the nineteenth century used London as the means of disseminating Scottish ideas to the world, continuing to use Scottish-based publishers – as Thomas Carlyle did when he published Sartor Resartus in Fraser’s Magazine in 1833, despite having left for London in 1831 – or using London-based Scottish publishers such as John Murray – Byron’s publisher – or Macmillan, founded by two brothers from Arran who engaged fellow-Scot David Masson as editor when they launched Macmillan’s Magazine in 1858.18

  • 19 David Masson, Carlyle: The Address Delivered by David Masson LL.D. on Unveiling a Bust of Thomas Ca (...)
  • 20 Masson, Carlyle, 27.

20Carlyle’s departure to London is often invoked as the end of Scotland’s independent cultural existence, but Carlyle developed a literary style, based on German models, which could never be mistaken for ‘English’, and ten years after his death a sculpture of him was placed in the room in the Wallace Monument at Stirling which was designed to celebrate the heroes of Scottish history since Wallace’s resistance to English incorporation. At the unveiling of the bust, David Masson, who had made his career in London as a literary journalist and then as Professor of English Literature at University College, London, before returning to take up the Chair of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh in 1865, declared Carlyle to be the continuation of the great achievements of Burns and Scott, and a writer who remained deeply Scottish, despite his long years in London. Carlyle, according to Masson, deserves his place with the ‘heroes’ of Scottish culture because ‘this man, of such extraordinary mark and proportions in the recent literary and intellectual history of the British Islands, and so widely famous now on that account over the rest of the earth, was of Scottish birth and origin’ ;19 and because, like Wallace, he defends ‘the spirit and traditions’ of ‘independent Scottish history’ which ‘are at work still in the changed conditions of our later time, nerving Scottish energy for adequate, and perhaps still peculiarly characteristic, co-operation with England and Ireland in the affairs of the united British body-politic and of the British Empire’.20

21Carlyle’s influence was confirmation that although,

  • 21 Masson, Carlyle, 26.

Scotland territorially is but a small country, . . . it has had a history as heroic, as picturesque, as interesting, as heart-stirring and imagination-stirring, as any national history on the face of the earth ; and, with all the changed conditions of that new partnership with England which has now continued for nearly two centuries, Scotland still stands where it did, immemorially Scotland, indestructibly Scotland.21

  • 22 Masson, Carlyle, 16.

22The ‘intensity of the moral force’ in Carlyle’s writings, ‘their blazing moral fervour’, ‘the ardour with which they inculcate a new ethical creed, almost a new religion’22 might have seemed the ultimate fulfilment of what, in 1819, Blackwood’s Magazine had envisaged as Scotland’s role as junior partner in the empire which had just established a world-wide superiority :

..while London must always eclipse [Edinburgh] in all that depends on wealth, power, or fashionable elegance, nature has given to it the means of establishing a superiority of a higher and more permanent kind. The matchless beauty of its situation, the superb cliffs by which it is surrounded, the magnificent prospects of the bay, which it commands, have given to Edinburgh the means of becoming the most beautiful town that exists in the world . . . And thus while London is the Rome of the empire, to which the young, and the ambitious, and the gay, resort for the pursuit of pleasure, of fortune, or of ambition, Edinburgh might become another Athens, in which the arts and the sciences flourished, under the shade of her ancient flame, and established a dominion over the minds of men more permanent even that that which the Roman arms were able to effect.8

  • 23 John Clark Murray’s ‘Hamilton’s Philosophy: Exposition and Criticism’, published in The Canadian Jo (...)

23Scotland could provide the spiritual value that would be the real and lasting legacy of the British Empire. By the late nineteenth century, the success of the Scottish imperial enterprise in the impact of writers like Carlyle, Stevenson and Barrie, in the widespread international acceptance of the Idealist philosophy of Edward Caird, as well as in the missionary activities of the Scottish churches and the impact of Scottish medicine through discoveries such as Patrick Manson and Ronald Ross’s identification of the cause of malaria, might seem to have fulfilled Blackwood’s prophecy. Vast swathes of the British Empire were not only Scottish in culture and tradition but were engaged in helping define what was unique to that culture – by, for instance, writing the first histories of Scottish philosophy.23 This was a Scotland whose networks spanned the globe : the names that it imposed on alien places – from Ivanhoe in what is now Los Angeles to Ivanhoe Station in Western Australia – revealed them as extensions of an identity turned outwards upon the world it intended to change rather than backwards on its past.

24It was an identity, however, that was not to survive the slaughter of the First World War and the economic collapse in its aftermath, when industries focused on supplying the materials of war were incapable of reorienting themselves to the consumer markets of the 1920s and 30s. Scotland’s imperial power contracted much more rapidly than the British Empire itself, not only because of its disproportionate losses in the War itself,24 but because of the emergence of the independent cultural identities that the War helped shape in places of Scottish influence such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Just as important, however, was the rise of a new British ‘national’ culture shaped by the cinema and by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which used its monopoly of radio broadcasting to project a uniform identity across the territory of the United Kingdom.

25These British institutions, however, proved no barrier to the rise of American popular culture, especially in music and film, which rapidly thrust Scotland’s popular culture to the margins of its social life. Those great innovations of Scottish publishing, the review and the encyclopaedia, ceased to hold their grip on an international audience – Edinburgh Review published its last issue in 1929 and by the 1920s the Encyclopaedia Britannica had re-established itself in Chicago. If, by the 1930s, some of the larger Scottish publishers such as Collins and Nelson still had print factories in Glasgow or Edinburgh, the centre of their publishing activity was in London, a London too busy trying itself to become the Athens to America’s new Rome to note anything of value in Scotland. The national self-confidence that had underpinned the work of intellectuals like David Masson turned, instead, into a national self-loathing.

26Although the inter-war years are the period of the so-called ‘Scottish Renaissance’ movement led by ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’ (nom de plume of Christopher Murray Grieve), and the period of the founding of the Scottish National Party in 1934, the feebleness of nationalism’s political impact is matched by the pessimism of its analysis of Scotland’s cultural past. For MacDiarmid’s Renaissance movement, the only way forward for modern Scotland was a return to the language of Scotland before it was spiritually corrupted by a repressive Protestantism and psychologically damaged by Anglicisation : ‘Back to Dunbar’ – the Scottish medieval poet – was the starting point of the modernist movement in Scotland, and though the energy of MacDiarmid’s poetry might at first have seemed to justify that strategy, it was accompanied by a profoundly negative analysis of Scotland’s cultural past and an equally negative expectation of its cultural future. Indeed, C. M. Grieve’s need to reinvent himself as Hugh MacDiarmid was itself symptomatic of his rejection of the culture he had inherited from nineteenth-century Scotland : in Who’s Who he famously listed among his hobbies, ‘anglophobia’ – a hostility to things English – but in reality that was matched by a profound ‘nostophobia’ – hatred of one’s homeland – that helped shape the perception of Scottish culture from the 1920s to the 1970s. MacDiamird’s repudiation of the legacy of Burns in his epic poem of 1926, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, was to be followed by Edwin Muir’s John Knox (1929), which sets out to show how hypocritical were the foundations of Scotland’s national religion, and Scott and Scotland (1936), in which Muir reveals how vacuous are the works of Scott – a vacuity that reflects the nature of the culture in which he lived. The novelist Neil Gunn, soon to be a leading light of the Scottish National Party, declared in 1928 that,

  • 25 Neil Gunn, ‘Defensio Scotorum’ (1928), in Alistair McCleery (ed.), Landscape and Light: Essays by N (...)

Artistically in the modern world Scotland doesn’t exist. No music, no drama, no letters, of any international significance. Why is this all round sterility so complete, so without parallel in the life of any modern nation ?25

  • 26 See Hugh Trevor Roper, The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History (New Haven, 2008): ‘In a mythopo (...)

27From the 1920s to the 1970s, Scotland was, to its cultural analysts, a failed nation, betrayed by a repressive religion, by the anglicising tendencies of its eighteenth century savants and then by the romantic fraudulence of Macpherson’s Ossianic poems, a fraudulence continued in the novels of Walter Scott.26 In his journal Voice of Scotland, Hugh MacDiarmid published an essay by Cambridge-based critic David Craig on ‘Burns and Scottish Culture’, which argued that,

  • 27 David Craig, ‘Burns and Scottish Culture’, The Voice of Scotland, Vol. 7:1 (Apr. 1956), 3-4, 28.

In a culture so thin and so badly placed as the Scottish there were few conflicts in society that did not lead to waste and confusion. Much of the national spirit, often in rabid form, went into the Low Kirk religion, but its spirit . . . was irreconcilable with the cultivated ethos. . . it led directly to the Disruption of 1843. This is another of the deep dis-unities which ran off the energies of the 18th century Scotland into dispute and partisan bitterness, anyway characteristic of the race, which made a stultifying monotony of idiom, religious, political, poetic – an inhumane extreme of partiality, in which positions defined themselves more by violence of opposition than by their positive natures.27

  • 28 Ibid., Vol.7:1 (Apr. 1956), 11.

28In this cultural environment, ‘Burns and Fergusson represent, in their fragmentary way, a line of native creativity untouched by alien influences, but one which was doomed, in essential strength and in the absence of fostering conditions, to dwindle even as it reached its peak’.28 Generations of Scots were taught that their culture, when not simply spurious, was, even in its highest achievements, merely pointing forward to its necessary and inevitable extinction.

  • 29 Scottish International, Vol 6, No. 4 (April, 1973), 7.

29Nairn’s analysis of Scotland’s cultural deformation in The Break-Up of Britain was not new in 1977, however fashionable its New Left underpinnings – it was the summation of sixty years of nostophobia on the part of Scotland’s intellectuals. In an ‘Open Letter’ to the recently established cultural magazine Scottish International, Nairn challenged ‘the romantic-nationalist’ conception of the nation and noted ‘How unpropitious the terrain has always been in Scotland for such imagined “nationalist phases”, whether in music or anything else ! And hence the true nationalist’s irrepressible gloom in our land . . .’29 – a gloom that is evidenced by a quote from Edwin Morgan’s ‘The Flowers of Scotland’, which in its second issue Scottish International had adopted as a statement of its agenda :

  • 30 Edwin Morgan, Collected Poems 1949–1987 (Manchester, 1990), 203.

Yes, it is too cold in Scotland for flower people ; in any case who would be handed a thistle ? What are our flowers ? Locked swings and private rivers –and the island of Staffa for sale in the open market, which no one questions or thinks strange – and lads o’ pairts that run to London and Buffalo without a backward look while their elders say.
Who’d blame them –and bonny fechters kneedeep in dead ducks with all the thrawn intentness of the incorrigible professional Scot – and a Kirk Assembly that excels itself in the bad old rhetoric and tries to stamp out every glow of charity and change, most wrong when it thinks most loudly it is most right –
30

30This is the Scotland in which the first referendum took place in 1979: a culture to which few were committed and by which even fewer were inspired.

The Accidental Parliament

31It is easy to forget how unlikely a Scottish Parliament seemed in the early 1990s, but one only has to look into Andrew Marr’s account of the debate in his The Battle for Scotland, first published in 1993, or his contribution on Scottish politics to Paul Scott’s Scotland : A Concise Cultural History, to see how far the possibility of a Scottish parliament had been detached from any political reality. In the aftermath of the victory of Margaret Thatcher’s successor, John Major, over Labour’s Neil Kinnock in 1992, it looked to many commentators as though the Conservatives had established a permanent hold on power at Westminster and therefore erected an immoveable barrier to any form of devolution in Scotland. As Marr put it in what was then the final chapter of his book,

  • 31 23 Andrew Marr, The Battle for Scotland (Harmondsworth, 1993), 210.

Everything was changed, changed utterly. After the 1992 election Scottish politics, like British politics generally, functioned in a new world where assumptions about ‘our turn’ and ‘it’s only a question of time’ had been rudely upended. Plausible new assumptions were that single-party rule at Westminster had become the rule and that the rule book of Britain was in the hands of an organization totally opposed to constitutional change for Britain.31

32Major’s victory was subsequently compounded by the death of the then Labour leader, John Smith, in 1994, which took from the party its most influential supporter of devolution, and though Labour had committed itself in its manifesto of 1992 to a Scottish parliament, many in the party remained uncertain whether such a parliament would protect Scotland from ever again having to suffer the consequences of Westminster policies for which Scots had not voted, or whether it would become a ‘beacon for nationalism’, as Scottish Labour leader Donald Dewar later described proposals to build the new parliament overlooking Edinburgh on the top of Calton Hill.

  • 32 Paul Scott, Scotland: A Concise Cultural History (Edinburgh, 1993), 384.

33The cause that had been known as ‘home rule’ and that had been the declared aim of the Liberal Party since the nineteenth century, and the policy of the Labour Party till the 1950s, and even, briefly, the policy of the Conservatives after Ted Heath’s ‘Declaration of Perth’ in 1968 had, apparently, run into the sand: as Marr notes melancholically, ‘the country that might have ruled itself but didn’t, must remain a matter for conjecture’.32

34Despite the general support for some form of Home Rule, no political party in Scotland was in favour of the Parliament that actually came into existence in 1999 : Labour were resistant to proportional representation, which would constrain the power it had exercised in major areas of Scotland since the 1960s ; the Liberal-Democrats favoured some form of federalism throughout the UK, not a devolution of power that left Westminster intact as the UK’s centre of political authority ; while the Conservatives, of course, were against all forms of devolution. The SNP were as split as Labour, split between the ‘gradualists’ who saw devolution as a step to their ultimate aim and the ‘separatists’ who believed that they should campaign for nothing but complete independence. In 1992 the political parties in Scotland were no more capable of bringing about constitutional reform than they had been in 1979. Despite that oft-quoted appeal to the ‘settled will of the Scottish people’, there had been, in fact, no Scottish political consensus on the form that devolution should take. The Parliament happened, if not quite by chance, then through a series of apparently accidental and certainly unpredictable intersections of trains of events running in often contradictory directions.

  • 33 Iain MacWhirter, Road to Referendum, 234–5.

35In the first place, Tony Blair was not committed to devolution in the way that John Smith had been, and instead of devolution being a direct outcome of the Labour victory in 1997, a pre-legislative referendum was inserted into the process at a late stage in order to discover whether devolution was, indeed, the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people. It was argued that this was necessary to prevent a devolution bill being subject to endless amendment and delay in Westminster, but many saw it as equivalent to the 40 % rule that had scuppered devolution in 1979.33 Secondly, there was the entirely unpredicted size of Tony Blair’s majority in the 1997 election : Labour’s commitment to devolution was based largely on the judgment that only by maintaining the number of its Scottish seats could it ever again take power at Westminster. The promise of devolution was, ironically, made unnecessary by the scale of Blair’s majority : Labour’s Scottish seats had not been necessary to winning power, and the poor showing of the SNP in 1997 – as in 1992 – suggested that the offer of a separate Parliament to stop the progress of nationalism had been premature. Despite the existence of a manifesto promise, Blair might simply have set aside the issue of Scottish ‘Home Rule’ as insignificant in relation to other pressing issues he had to deal with, if not at odds with the ‘Cool Britannia’ revolution over which he hoped to preside.

  • 34 Paul Scott, Scotland: A Concise Cultural History, 384.

36What, however, made the referendum of 1997 so different from that of 1979 was an organisation that Andrew Marr had pronounced already ‘virtually dead’ in 199334 – the Scottish Constitutional Convention. It was the work of the Convention, in producing a blueprint for the parliament that had turned the figments of political imaginings into a practical – and believable – proposal. And yet, in its origins, there could be no more haphazard organisation than the Constitutional Convention, which was conjureded up by two long-term campaigners for a Scottish Assembly, Alan Lawson, editor of the magazine Radical Scotland, and Jim Ross, a sometime contributor to that journal who had formerly been a civil servant at the Scottish Office. Through the later years of the 1980s, Radical Scotland had warned – sometimes apocalyptically – of a ‘doomsday scenario’ in which Scotland voted persistently for left-wing parties but was ruled by right-wing governments in London : this ‘democratic deficit’ made Scotland powerless to defend itself against what were seen as ‘alien’ policies, threatening the extinction of Scotland as a distinct cultural and political entity.

37Meeting for a coffee in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in 1987, Lawson and Ross decided that the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly was never going to attract the support of the mainstream political parties, and that there needed to be a body which could represent the broad desire for a Scottish Parliament beyond mainstream politics. What they dreamed up they named the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and managed to get those committed to Scotland’s cause among church leaders, trade unionists, festival organisers, together with a cross-section of disaffected politicians, to come together to sign a Claim of Right that made a Scottish parliament an issue not for the Westminster parties but for the Scottish people themselves :

  • 35 Marr, Battle for Britain, 205.

We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.35

  • 36 Marr, Battle for Scotland, 96.
  • 37 Marr, Battle for Scotland, 206.

38Of course, the declaration had no legal status, but by its title it claimed the authority of generations of Scots from the original Claim of Right, issued by a Convention of the Scottish Estates in 1689 to depose James VII from the throne of Scotland in favour of William of Orange, through the Claim of Right of 1842, in which the Church of Scotland sought to assert its independence from the British state, to the Covenant movement of 1949, organised by former SNP leader John MacCormick, which had tried to influence Westminster by gathering two million signatories to the declaration that, ‘We, the people of Scotland who subscribe to this Engagement, declare our belief that reform in the constitution of our country is necessary to secure good government in accordance with our Scottish traditions and to promote the spiritual and economic welfare of our nation.’36 Given how easily MacCormick’s Covenant had been brushed aside, Lawson and Ross decided on an indirect appeal to the people through the leaders of ‘civic Scotland’. At the Convention’s opening meeting, Canon Kenyon Wright had dramatised the competing forces involved in its deliberations : ‘What if that other single voice we all know so well responds by saying, “We say no, and we are the state” ? Well, we say yes – and we are the people’.37

39To claim to represent the people was a rhetorical flourish belied not only by the absence of both the Conservatives and the SNP, but by the absence of all those other parts of ‘civic Scotland’ which opposed devolution. Nonetheless, the Convention allowed the proposals put to the Scottish people in the 1997 referendum to be seen not simply as the proposals of the Labour government at Westminster but as already stamped with a ‘national’ authority, producing an overwhelming vote for ‘yes’, with 1,775,045 in favour and only 614,400 against. That a Parliament should come into existence in 1999 might have been the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people, but that it was this particular parliament, from its non-confrontational horseshoe debating chamber to its mode of proportional representation, was the outcome of a series of accidental circumstances which would leave it a very unsettled institution.

Cultural Revolution

40If politics and votes were the means of bringing the parliament into existence, they were not its direct cause : something more profound had brought about the enormous shift in Scottish sentiment in the period between 1979 and 1997, a change that was little less than a cultural revolution transforming Scots’ perception of themselves and their history. Apparently insignificant in itself, the Scottish Poetry Library, which is now sited in a building close to the Parliament, might be taken as emblematic of this transformation. A library devoted to the nation’s poetry was an eccentric proposition in the aftermath of the 1979 referendum – wasn’t there already poetry enough in the Edinburgh Public Libraries, in local and university libraries all over Scotland – and who read poetry now anyway ? A group of activists led by the poet Tessa Ransford took the alternative view that a poetry library could act both as a spiritual focus for the nation, and as a means of asserting its particular value to the world. If a culture is defined by its languages, and if poetry is the highest expression of those languages, then an institution devoted to the nation’s poetry is at the very core of a nation’s conception of its identity. A plan was drawn up for a national institution devoted to the collection and dissemination of the nation’s poetry, a plan which succeeded in attracting support from the Scottish Arts Council and in 1984 turned into a material reality when it opened to the public just off Edinburgh’s High Street. Like many other cultural organisations in the period, the Scottish Poetry Library was a deliberate gesture of defiance in the face of the refusal of the Westminster political parties to deliver devolution, and a deliberate attempt to inspire the Scottish people with a sense of the traditions, achievements and the values of their own culture.

  • 38 Edwin Morgan, ‘Post Referendum’ Collected Poems 1949–1987 (Manchester, 1990), 448–9.

41Cultural engagement, in effect, took the place of political engagement in the long hiatus between 1979 and 1997. Thus the 1980s commenced with major works by some of Scotland’s older artists, as though provoked by the political situation into a radical change of direction or scale of ambition : Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Nature Again After Poussin : Some Discovered Landscapes (1980), with its challenging conception of the relationship of art to nature and of the artist to tradition, was followed by the even more provoking The Third Reich Revisited of 1982 ; Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981) created an epic of Scotland’s nostophobia in the double life of failing artist Duncan Thaw and his otherworld double, the eponymous Lanark ; Liz Lochhead’s Dreaming Frankenstein (1985), dramatizing the intersections of myth would be used to more specifically Scottish purpose in Mary Queen of Scots Got her Head Chopped Off (1987) ; Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland (1984), with its visions of Scotland from its geological origins to some far sci-fi future, is nonetheless poised ‘Post-Referendum’, when ‘A coin clattered at the end of its spin’.38

42These works were charged with the energy of a resistance to, and defiance of, Scotland’s political and cultural situation under the Thatcher government and they opened the way to an experimentalism in Scottish art that challenged all notions of a ‘doomsday’ in which Scotland as a country would be erased from memory : the innovations of James Kelman’s novels, with their radical use of Glasgow vernacular to convey the inner consciousness of his characters’ lives were taken up by a host of younger writers, such as Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Jackie Kay, inspired by the representation of Scotlands which had never been allowed to appear in literature, or inspired into imagining alternative Scotlands, as in the works of Iain Banks, Frank Kuppner or A.L.Kennedy. A self-conscious recovery of a working-class political history was the impetus behind the work of artists such as Ken Currie, while play with Scottish ‘kitsch’ and with the Scottish traditions which had been declared bankrupt by the nostophobic construction of the nation’s past inspired the work of visual innovators such as Calum Colvin. The upsurge in this defiant creativity was matched by an equally determined reconstruction of the Scottish past : the four-volume History of Scottish Literature, published by Aberdeen University Press in 1987–8, had emerged out of the magazine Cencrastus, founded in 1980 explicitly to resist the apparent irrelevance of Scottish culture to its political future, and it was in the same magazine that that the essays which turned into Duncan MacMillan’s Scottish Art 1460–1990 (1990) first appeared. These efforts at reconstituting Scotland’s past were followed by Alexander Broadie’s The Tradition of Scottish Philosophy (1990), John Purser’s Scotlands music : a history of the traditional and classical music of Scotland from earliest times to the present day (1992), Charles Jones’s Edinburgh History of the Scots Language (1997), Douglas Gifford’s and Dorothy McMillan’s History of Scottish Women’s Writing (1997), and Bill Findlay’s A History of Scottish Theatre (1998). A culture which had been presented to the world as threadbare and insignificant was discovered to be overflowing with riches, a revelation matched in Scotland’s popular culture by the success of its rock bands and its pop singers, from Runrig and the Proclaimers to Annie Lennox and Sharleen Spiteri.

  • 39 It had 35 seats to Labour’s 56.

43In the 1990s, when the SNP had managed at best only 6 seats in the House of Commons, the surge of cultural nationalism in Scotland was laying the ground for the SNP to capture 28% of the vote in the first Scottish parliamentary election, becoming the second largest party in the parliament.39 The subsequent rise of the SNP has been shaped not just by resistance to the failings of Westminster governments but by a cultural revitalisation that means Scotland can no longer be presented as a country doomed to failure and extinction. The irony of this situation, however, lies in the fact that the SNP has been, since the 1960s, a resolutely non-cultural nationalist party – its agenda is economic control and economic change.

44While it has increasingly become the voice of those opposed to a world dominated by the International Monetary Fund and by the agenda of ‘austerity’, it has avoided conceding that in a world of globalised capital the room for economic resistance is – as its opponents never tire of pointing out – limited : indeed, the failure to convince the Scottish electorate to vote for independence turned on the economic issues pressed home by ‘Better Together’ as part of their ‘project fear’ – fear for the future of British pensions, fear of the Westminster government’s refusal to allow Scotland use of the pound sterling, fear of possible exclusion from the European Union. Support for independence, however, is far broader than support for the SNP’s economic agenda, which is why the polls continue to record increasing support for independence even as the SNP government comes under attack for its policy failings.40

45While globalised finance capital may narrow economic options, the media of modernity, from local radio to internet blogging, from digital publishing to social networking, not only broaden people’s means of self-expression but, because they are dispersed, distributed, and decentralised, make cultural resistance and local cultural assertion both easier and more effective than they were when press, radio and television were compressed into a metropolitan bandwidth. The explosion of commitment and enthusiasm that was the ‘Yes’ movement in 2014 was fuelled by the new media and was as dispersed and decentralised as they are.

  • 41 We ‘should think freedom more to prize/Than all the gold in world that is’; John Barbour, The Brus, (...)

46The barque of the SNP’s economic nationalism, which eschews culture as either a foundation or an aim of its political purpose, has risen on a tide of cultural engagement by which a large proportion of the Scottish people have taken back ownership of their cultural past as the ground on which they can build their creative future – and on the basis of which they can declare, with their medieval predecessors, that ‘Fredome is a noble thing’, and that we ‘suld think fredome mar to prys/Than all the gold in warld that is’.41

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Notes

1 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scottish-independence/11108256/Scottish-independence-David-Camerons-speech-in-full.html, accessed 23/09/2015)

2 At the time of writing it is 114,000, more than four times what its was at the beginning of the Referendum campaign.

3 Iain MacWhirter, Road to Referendum (Glasgow, 2014), 13.

4 MacWhirter, Road to Referendum, 375.

5 In their analysis of The Scottish Electorate of 1997, Brown, McCrone, Paterson and Surridge found few indicators of significant sociological difference between Scotland and England: ‘in considering the influences on voting behaviour, we found relatively weak influences of social structure, and few differences in this respect between Scotland and the rest of Britain’, Alice Brown, David McCrone, Lindsay Paterson and Paula Surridge (eds), The Scottish Electorate: the 1997 General Election and Beyond (Basingstoke, 1999), 70.

6 Gordon Brown, My Scotland, Our Britain (London, 2014), 15.

7 Brown, My Scotland, Our Britain, 19.

8 Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism (second edn., London, 1981; 1977), 104.

9 Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain, 108.

10 Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain, 131.

11 Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain, 173.

12 W.C. Lehmann, Adam Ferguson and the Beginnings of Modern Sociology (New York, 1930), Gladys Bryson, Man and Society: the Scottish Inquiry of the Eighteenth Century (Princeton N.J., 1945).

13 Arthur Herman, The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World (London, 2002), vii.

14 T.C. Smout, History of the Scottish People, 1560–1830 (London, 1973; 1969), 469

15 T.C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People (London, 1987; 1986), 2.

16 T.M. Devine, The Scottish Nation 1700–2000 (London, 1999), 469.

17 For more on these movements, see my ‘Empire of Intellect: The Scottish Enlightenment and Scotland’s Intellectual Migrants’ in John M. MacKenzie and T.M.Devine (eds), Scotland and the British Empire (Oxford, 2011), 84–118, and my chapter on ‘Spiritual Returns:: Scottish Ministers, Theologians and Philosophers’, in Mario Varricchio (ed.), Back to Caledonia (Edinburgh, 2012), 128–50.

18 They were also the publisher of Masson’s Recent British Philosophy in 1865 and then, in the 1870s, his four volume The Life of John Milton.

19 David Masson, Carlyle: The Address Delivered by David Masson LL.D. on Unveiling a Bust of Thomas Carlyle in the Wallace Monument (Glasgow, 1891), 25

20 Masson, Carlyle, 27.

21 Masson, Carlyle, 26.

22 Masson, Carlyle, 16.

23 John Clark Murray’s ‘Hamilton’s Philosophy: Exposition and Criticism’, published in The Canadian Journal in 1868, provided one of the earliest accounts of the development of philosophy in Scotland; James M’Cosh, President of Princeton, produced a more comprehensive account in his Scottish Philosophy of 1875, while Henry Laurie produced his Scottish Philosophy in its National Development (1902) from Melbourne. See my ‘Scotland’s Migrant Philosophers and the History of Scottish Philosophy’, History of European Ideas 39 (2013), 670–92.

24 See T.M. Devine, The Scottish Nation, 309, but see also http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/heritage/great-war-worst-for-scots-troops-a-myth-1-3504582#axzz3ouYhMdfd (accessed 16 Oct. 2015).

25 Neil Gunn, ‘Defensio Scotorum’ (1928), in Alistair McCleery (ed.), Landscape and Light: Essays by Neil Gunn (Aberdeen, 1987), 150.

26 See Hugh Trevor Roper, The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History (New Haven, 2008): ‘In a mythopoeic society [like Scotland], one myth surrenders only to another’ (72).

27 David Craig, ‘Burns and Scottish Culture’, The Voice of Scotland, Vol. 7:1 (Apr. 1956), 3-4, 28.

28 Ibid., Vol.7:1 (Apr. 1956), 11.

29 Scottish International, Vol 6, No. 4 (April, 1973), 7.

30 Edwin Morgan, Collected Poems 1949–1987 (Manchester, 1990), 203.

31 23 Andrew Marr, The Battle for Scotland (Harmondsworth, 1993), 210.

32 Paul Scott, Scotland: A Concise Cultural History (Edinburgh, 1993), 384.

33 Iain MacWhirter, Road to Referendum, 234–5.

34 Paul Scott, Scotland: A Concise Cultural History, 384.

35 Marr, Battle for Britain, 205.

36 Marr, Battle for Scotland, 96.

37 Marr, Battle for Scotland, 206.

38 Edwin Morgan, ‘Post Referendum’ Collected Poems 1949–1987 (Manchester, 1990), 448–9.

39 It had 35 seats to Labour’s 56.

40 See http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/top-stories/scottish-independence-support-grows-for-yes-1-3781883#axzz3ouYhMdfd (accessed 19 October 2015).

41 We ‘should think freedom more to prize/Than all the gold in world that is’; John Barbour, The Brus, Bk 1, l. 225, 239–40, ed. A.A.M.Duncan, http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/STELLA/STARN/poetry/BRUS/text01.htm, accessed 16/9/2015.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Cairns Craig, « Unsettled Will : Cultural Engagement and Scottish Independence  », Observatoire de la société britannique, 18 | 2016, 15-36.

Electronic reference

Cairns Craig, « Unsettled Will : Cultural Engagement and Scottish Independence  », Observatoire de la société britannique [Online], 18 | 2016, Online since 01 October 2016, connection on 24 July 2017. URL : http://osb.revues.org/1800 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1800

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About the author

Cairns Craig

Professor of Scottish and Irish Studies à l’Université d’Aberdeen

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Copyright

Observatoire de la société britannique

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