Not so many years ago opponents used to laugh at Scottish Nationalism as an echo of the past, reviving ancient battles and recalling Wallace and Bruce. There was some justification for this when party delegates turned up in kilts carrying Lion Rampants – in an age before tartan became mainstream.
Asserting an historic or traditional Scottishness provoked the Cringe from those whose worldview accepted that Scots had been beaten by history and that modernism dictated Britishness was dominant. The clammy touch of embarrassment still hung to the Labour benches at the opening of parliament on the Mound in 1999 when the singing of A Man’s a Man produced only sour faces and mumbled sounds. What was OK to say at a Burns Supper didn’t translate into modern Blairite politics, even among those whose street upbringings included varieties of the Scots tongue.
An aversion to history has adjusted the language of nationalism. We rarely talk of national freedom for example. It sounds dramatic –Wallace-esque even – when our debate is more about process and procedure. People bear arms for freedom.
Even national sovereignty, which I would say was technically correct, is only sporadically given an airing, imbued as it is with the air of centuries past. (It is also word of choice for Quebeckers whose movement is a more theatrical business altogether. I can’t find my original text but this phrase is from Wikipedia and sums up the whole 1500 section of the independence preamble: We know the winter in our souls. We know its blustery days, its solitude, its false eternity and its apparent deaths).
So is the Past another country? Does history matter in a modern context? Or do we still dismiss it as an out-of-date irrelevance?
I think it plays a key but understated role and shapes our attitudes to political questions. I don’t believe Bannockburn is directly relevant to policy questions or that we should remember Flodden when we vote. But I do think not enough attention is paid to the story we tell ourselves about our history. It is that which informs our sentiments – our feelings – about our country and how it should be governed and by whom. Further, I think the distortion of Scotland’s story (by Scots) and the vast panoply of omission our education tolerates, corrupts our judgment and diminishes us as people.
Now there is no great conspiracy at work here. Sorry. Rather it is an inch-by-inch retreat from one view in favour of another. It is a wrinkle of the old adage of history being written by the winners…of a slow surrender to the prevailing attitude. It is a why-bother shrug over generations when other questions seemed more important and aspects of Scottishness seemed less so – around the time of a world war for example. It is one result of the ambitious assimilating their thoughts with the views of the powerful, a general intellectual bending of the knee to authority.
We were taught the kings and queens of the United Kingdom but not the Scottish ones. I was brought up five miles from Abbotsford but was never taken there to learn about Scott while at school. I didn’t know the importance of Ettrick (Royal) Forest until years after I’d left school even though I played in it as a boy. No one told me in History class that Wallace was made Guardian of Scotland in the local kirkyard in the Wynd. (Years later Winnie Ewing would sing the Border Maiden for me at a party in Strasbourg in honour of the anniversary.)
We did know all about Flodden though – a crushing defeat when the Scots were, by some accounts, betrayed by the Homes. It wasn’t until the 1960s when the Earl of Home (former Prime Minister) was forgiven for this treachery by being made a burgess of the town by being obliged to ‘lick the birse’ – to pass through his lips shoemakers’ bristles which have first been through the lips of the entire town council…I think we made him pay. I particularly like that it took Selkirk – my town – 450 years to get over it. (If ever you want the definition of the word thrawn…)
We have allowed distortions of the national story to take hold and become standard thinking. This week on one of those nippy threads on Twitter someone – quite gratuitously – mocked Scotland with the words: You were bankrupt and England saved you with the Union.
Now I know many Scots tacitly believe this was the root cause of 1707 and it is now used even by otherwise ignorant ranters to demean Scotland. But it isn’t true. Scottish maritime trade was restricted by English embargo, it’s true, which was one reason Darien gained traction so quickly. But every penny subscribed to Darien was private money. Nothing came from Scotland the nation, which had no debt – although England did. When it was in the interests of the English Crown to assimilate Scotland, the money paid out – the Equivalent – went to the investors who had lost their cash.
It was in reality a bribe to sell out the country. The wider population protested at the deal as many still do today. Darien was partly created by English embargo on Scottish trade. Its investment was partly blocked by England at the request of Spain. Even the desperate stragglers were denied refuge on the king’s order.
But Darien has become shorthand, even among intellectually-challenged English nationalists, as a sign of today’s inability of Scots to run our own affairs.
Is this just post-event grievance? I hope not because to me Darien represented the very best of Scotland’s entrepreneurial spirit. It was ambitious and daring. It was international and prescient – why is the Panama Canal there today? Failure is the risk of enterprise and in almost every other sphere Britain has revered or glossed over its role as losers.
When the British were massacred in Afghanistan in 1842 it was the story of William Brydon, the sole mounted survivor, which was remembered. His tragic hero return – Where’s the Army? I am the Army – turned defeat into noble heroism. It was followed by brutal British repression.
When the British were crushed by rudimentary-armed Zulus at Isandlwana in 1879, it wasn’t the deaths of 1300 of Chelmsford’s troops or his disastrous leadership that came to mark the event but the following day’s last stand at nearby Rorke’s Drift. The humiliation of a heavily-armed, professional and British army by bare-chested natives is barely mentioned today. But the genuine heroics of Chard and Bromhead’s subsequent siege are known to every schoolboy.
Darien should be remembered for its failure but also for its place as a unique national experiment in which ordinary citizens with £5 to spare backed a great collective venture. It was bold in ambition and magnificent in scope. Collecting roughly half the estimated private capital of the country, it is possibly the greatest national investment scheme in human history. The people weren’t leaving it to the brave either. Thousands of them volunteered to make the trip themselves.
But that’s not how it’s remembered. The story has been edited to fit the prevailing narrative of incapable Scots.
I mention all this not because I enjoy a good moan – although it does you good from time to time. No, it’s because I read an *insightful piece by Nicholas Boyle, Emeritus Schröder Professor of German, University of Cambridge, on the anguished soul of England and thought it got to the heart of so much of the complex responses we get from our neighbours who pretend one moment to love us and the next to detest; one moment they subsidise us, the next they need us to stay. Essentially the argument is that England cannot find its own identity and won’t accept that it isn’t exceptional any more. The bullying of others is displacement activity for finding a role and being content with it. (Scots are one of the few remaining dogs they can safely kick). England doesn’t need to disport itself like other countries. It is unique and finds the expressions of nationhood of others to be trivial. It is driven mad when others fail to recognise this special status and pay respect.
The signs of this are all around us. Listen to the impudence of Theresa May lecturing 27 other countries on what Britain will put up with, having messed them around for 40 years…wonder at her blatant threats of retaliation if she is thwarted…just like the indyref when warm words turned to sinister threats if we dared defy them.
Out of my personal grievance box pops David Starkey, the open-minded English nationalist historian (quote: Scotland only has a history in so far as it relates to England). He scoffed at the idea of others having national emblems and jingoistic expressions. These were merely the outward signs of self-justification. England, he said, has no need of such trifles, so strong is its intrinsic worth.
Another personal favourite is the airy contempt that leads institutions to call themselves, for example, the Football Association (no need to mention the word English…goes without saying).
As Boyle writes: While Ireland, Wales, and Scotland became, for the English, slightly comic regions of ‘Britain’, ‘England’ became for them the sentimental ideal of ‘home’, the image of the green and pleasant mother-country that concealed the brutal realities of empire from its agents and possessed nothing so sordid as distinct political or economic interests of its own.
And, he goes on: …because England has been unable to acknowledge that loss,(of empire) it has also been unable to acknowledge the end of English exceptionalism, the end of the characterlessness the English had enjoyed as rulers of the world – with no need of distinct features to mark them off from their equals since they had no equals, embodying, as they did, the decency, reasonableness and good sense by which they assumed the rest of the world privately measured its lesser achievements and to which they assumed it aspired.
This default contempt for others came home to me when I interviewed our former ambassador in Washington, Christopher Meyer. We were skirmishing about Britain always sending troops abroad, always interfering, dragging ourselves into insoluble conflicts. I said other countries didn’t make that mistake and as a Scot I looked for example to Denmark which didn’t rush to back the USA and took pragmatic decisions in keeping with popular support at home. He spluttered. ‘Denmark! You can’t really compare Britain to Denmark. They’re poles apart in terms of importance…etc’ was the gist of it. In his words you heard the echoes of Palmerston or Chamberlain, brimming with conceit.
If we have been the beneficiaries of English charity, we are the victims too of their hubris. The stultifying hangover of empire and its loss still dictates so much of that country’s behaviour, buried as it is deep in the national psyche.
To end, one of my favourite pieces of historical propaganda contains an uplifting message for independence-minded Scots 700 years on. On the plain marble tomb of Edward the First in Westminster Abbey is inscribed Edwardus Primus Scottorum Malleus hic est 1308 Pactum Serva or Here is Edward I, Hammer of the Scots, 1308. Keep the Vow.
This is commonly regarded as the declaration of Edward’s triumph over Scotland, the epitaph of a wielder of the crushing hammer that destroyed a nation. Indeed that is the interpretation widely in use in Scotland. It is also poppycock.
Edward did have his triumphs in Scotland and he was brutal but he, like every monarch before and since, signally failed to crush the Scots or beat the nation. The opposite is true. His treatment of the people, including savagery against prisoners, male and female, so enraged the Scots that more flooded to support the fight against English domination. Edward’s real ambition had all along been victory over the Muslims in the Crusades. He saw it as his kingly destiny to recapture the Holy Land for Christianity. But the constant trouble caused by the Scots (and by Philip in France) robbed him of that destiny. The conflict with the Scots devoured him and after every setback they came back to haunt him.
The epitaph he bears is in reality a reminder of how his obsession with defeating Scotland derailed his reign and left the name of Scotland marked on his chest for eternity. Keep the Vow is the command to resist the Bruce for his treachery.
In other words, the reference to Hammer of the Scots is no boast. Instead it is post mortem admission of his failure to defeat them. He went to his grave in that knowledge.
If you accept that reading – and you can find a version of it detailed in The Hammer of the Scots by David Santiuste – it changes your impression of history. It demonstrates how, far from being crushed by Longshanks, men like Bruce, Wallace, Comyn and Murray led a resistance that refused to yield despite terrible cost and ultimately left their own mark on Edward’s grave.
In this version of history Scots more than survived and today continue, albeit in more delicate and democratic terms, a centuries-old cause linked to the concept of self-government, national freedom if you like but, in modern parlance most certainly, independence.
History is always with us. What matters is how you read it and what you think it means today.