How Scottish independence stopped being scary

This version of unionism has dissolved over the past decade, as Scottish distinctiveness has become more than a tradable commodity and started to represent a serious threat to…

This version of unionism has dissolved over the past decade, as Scottish distinctiveness has become more than a tradable commodity and started to represent a serious threat to the British state. Scotland’s Tories have fallen back on an Anglo-British Conservatism, distinguished by flying the Union Flag, uncontrollable rage at bilingual Gaelic/English road signs and red-faced, spit-loaded fury at any notion of Scottishness.

Conservatism has retreated from an expansive notion of unionism to the core of Toryism: a belief in the mythology of the British state and its monarchy. It’s the power of this story for the English that is, essentially, why England consistently votes Tory despite its people generally being almost as social democratic and socially liberal as their neighbours in Scotland. And its weakness in Scotland explains why we don’t.

Capitalists and Jacobites

How far back should we follow the threads of Scottish political culture? At least as far as 1767, when Adam Ferguson, born in the village of Logierate in Perthshire – just near the Highland boundary – published ‘An Essay on the History of Civil Society’, which coined the term ‘civil society’, influenced Karl Marx and made him a grandfather of sociology.

In the book, Ferguson documented the arrival of ‘commercial society’ – what Marx later christened ‘capitalism’ – in the Highlands of his youth, contrasting it with the ‘civil society’ which had existed before.

While the expansion of capitalism was consistently met with resistance across early-modern Europe, when this conflict reached the Highlands, it fused with anger that the Scottish Stuart family had been replaced by the Dutch King William on the by now joint throne of Scotland and England, and combusted into the Jacobite rebellion, a civil war which ended with the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the last battle fought on mainland Britain.

That’s not dead history in Scotland. This weekend, I found myself absent-mindedly singing old Jacobite songs to my baby daughter. Half-memories of the uprising pervade Scottish culture, and dampen the support for the House of Windsor that is so crucial to Anglo-British Toryism.

Being less royalist than any other part of Great Britain, attempts since the financial crash of 2008 to replace the feel-good drug of cheap credit with kitsch imperial nostalgia haven’t resonated in Scotland as they have in much of England.

The jubilee street parties and royal weddings, the gaudy poppy-fests, the cultural tropes in which Brexit came wrapped: none of these raises as many goosebumps in Scotland as in England.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their audiences. Between a quarter and a third of people in Scotland identify as either British before Scottish, or equally British and Scottish. The cultural institutions of this group include posh schools and the networks bound together by their ‘old boy’ ties, Orange Lodges and the armed forces.

Traditionally scattered between Labour, Lib Dems and Tories, this section of the Scottish electorate rallied around the Union Flag in the 2016 Scottish parliamentary election – which took place just 20 months after the independence referendum – and voted for Ruth Davidson’s Tories, taking them from 14% to 23% of the vote: enough for a friendly media to celebrate.

But Davidson wasn’t cheerful for long. The next month saw what one man in Northern Ireland would later describe to me in a Freudian slip as ‘England’s referendum’.

The break-up of Britain

The familiar idea of Britain emerged at some point in the late 1940s as Clement Attlee’s government downsized from governing India to dabbling in nuclear weapons, founded the NHS and built ‘homes for heroes’.

The British Empire – whose conquest had been the purpose of the union between Scotland and England’s governing classes – was breaking up. A new, archipelagic nation staggered out of the wreckage and, slowly, into the rehab unit for former colonists, the European Union.

But by the time England chose to check out of the programme in the hope of reliving its glory days, it was already pretty clear that that version of Britain had gone. The welfare state had been slashed and sold off. The banking system that North Sea oil had powered had followed the fate of its fuel, and gone up in smoke.

If the 45% ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 independence referendum was a coalition of, on the one hand, those who most strongly identify as Scottish rather than British and, on the other, the radicals I started this essay with, who have concluded that the British state provides an unlikely path to a fairer world, then Brexit seems to have added another group to that mix: ardent pro-Europeans, and everyone horrified by the lurch to the right that Brexit seemed to represent.


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