Scottish Nationhood Without Nationalism?

Historically Scotland has had a very different relationship with England compared to Ireland and Wales, far from equal, but one which was able to withstand English dominance and claim its own independent kingdom. Scotland was never colonised or fully conquered by the English. But according to Kumar (2003), it was certainly anglicised to a considerable degree: ‘Scottish Kings were Norman ones.. .Scottish laws and institutions were largely modelled on English ones’ (2003 : 79). So decisive was Scotland’s anglicisation that its elites ‘did not create a strong counteridentity’, as developed by the Welsh and the Irish in reaction to English rule (2003: 80; see also Bryant 2006: 70). In 1707 the union between England and Scotland was established and the Scottish Parliament dissolved, but with little protestation from local elites. Built into the Union was the acknowledgement of Scotland’s existence as a separate nation whose legitimacy rested on the continuation of distinct Scottish civic institutions—the so-called ‘holy trinity’ of education, law and church (Kirk). Prior to the Union, the influence of England on Scottish society was significant, particularly in the more populated and prosperous lowland areas. But Scottish institutions were not wholly identical to English ones. The Scottish church was Calvinist and Presbyterian rather than Anglican. By the time of the union, Scotland could already lay claim to five universities (Edinburgh, Glasgow, two colleges in Aberdeen, and St Andrews) compared to England’s two (Oxford and Cambridge). In addition, Scottish law and courts had different names, competencies and enacted different laws (see Bryant 2006: 80-88).

So from the outset of its union with England, Scotland had a considerable degree of institutional autonomy and distinctiveness, albeit one confined to governing elites and middle classes (Harvie 1994; Paterson 1994). The very nature of the union precipitated the development of an autonomous political space in Scotland, but one represented by institutions of Scottish civil society rather than the state. As Keating (2010) has commented, up until the late nineteenth century, Britain was a highly decentralised state, quite unlike the French state in which local identities were supressed, which meant that there was little need for Scots to think about separation. The union represented an institutional compromise premised on informal administrative devolution, allowing the expression of Scottish sentiment, while linking it to a British project (Keating 2010: 105). The autonomy of Scottish civil society—church, education, law and, in due course, media—became significant in sustaining the sense of Scotland as a civic, albeit stateless, nation within an evolving British state (McCrone 1992; Paterson 1994). These institutions also laid the foundations for the rise of Scottish professional classes—teachers, clergy and local government officials—who would retain interests in Scottish national consciousness and in the question of whether Scotland would fare better if it were self-governing. Paterson (1994) describes these elites as ‘territorial brokers’ concerned with achieving the right balance for Scotland within the union, trading Scotland’s autonomy for access to the centre and wider opportunities for Scottish economic and political elites.

The link between Protestantism and Britishness was certainly significant for lowland Presbyterians who associated resistance to the Union with Catholicism and suppression of the Kirk. Britishness, as Colley (1992) argues, was an ‘overarching’ identity, engaging across classes and regions on the basis of Protestantism and imperialism. The orientation of lowland and Protestant Scots to the Union was, however, in stark contrast to the Highlands, where integration with England was resisted, partly on religious grounds, in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. In its aftermath the British government introduced legislation in the form of the 1746 Act of Proscription, which sought not only to end the military threat but also to ban many aspects of Highland culture, including the kilt. By the time the Act was repealed in 1782 the wearing of the kilt had been revived and in a more elaborate form, but precisely at a time when the kilt had ceased to be the widespread form of dress for Highlanders (Trevor-Roper 1983 : 23-31). Ironically, lowlanders increasingly adopted a version of Highland culture as their own. By the late eighteenth century a consensus emerged that the Union was in Scotland’s economic interests, a view that persisted well into the twentieth century (Keating 2010: 112). Scotland’s future lay with its participation in English economic and entrepreneurial success, and this could be achieved by playing a role within the British state and Empire. This consensus went beyond recognition of the material benefits of union and included intellectual beliefs that the Union was essential to civilisation and progress, liberating Scotland from backwardness (Devine 2008: 8). Well before industrialisation, Gaelic speaking was already being viewed, even ‘othered’, by lowland Scots themselves as its own sort of ‘Celtic’ exoticism (Chapman 1978).

Scotland’s elites and emerging middle class benefited enormously from participation in the British Empire and Union, representing as they did expanded opportunities for trade and careers. Young members of Scottish aristocratic and landed classes took up employment in London and across the Empire (Devine 2008: 3). Already anglicised in orientation, these elites ‘amalgamated with their English counterparts.. .forging a unified and genuinely British ruling class that endured until the twentieth century’ (Colley 1992: 156). Emerging Scottish middle classes also prospered from the Empire, including highly paid lawyers, solicitors and accountants through to small-business men and senior clerks (Devine 2008: 117). As Devine puts it, ‘trading with the Empire made the Scots very rich indeed’ (2008: 117). So disproportionate was Scottish participation in the British state and Empire that there was no sense of frustrated upward mobility such as is often credited with founding nationalism in other cases. Of course, the Union did generate some anxiety that Scotland would become a mere ‘regional appendage’ of the British state. Even though the Union promoted economic progress, the position of England as the dominant nation still posed a threat to a distinctive Scottish identity. There were also contradictory impulses that industrialisation and urbanisation were severing the social and cultural links with an older Scotland. Industrialisation, more than anything else, brought about an integrative sense of Britishness, incorporating classes and regions into a British social and economic system (Williams 1985). As a result, ‘the people who made and experienced the Industrial Revolution were, whether they were fully aware of it or not, becoming Britons’ (Kumar 2003: 169). If the Industrial Revolution was British, rather than English, then so was the working class and the labour movement.

The threat posed by industrialisation to Scotland’s historical identity did trigger a reaction in the form of a recreation of Highland culture. The emergence of romantic Highland symbols and a cult of national heroes, widely disseminated in the popular press, became one of the most popular ways of linking urban Scotland with its history. Stories of the struggles of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, for example, had broad appeal to a Scottish people who were profoundly divided along class lines during the nineteenth century, and they had particular resonance with working-class sentiments of the common man fighting oppression (Devine 2008: 11—12). Even at the high point of imperial success, Scotland was a highly unequal society—a reality which jars somewhat with the view of Scotland as prospering in the Union. Mass poverty was a marked feature of Scotland during the Age of Empire, and the majority of Scots endured a daily struggle to make ends meet. At a time of unprecedented social change and inequality, these national symbols satisfied powerful emotional needs (Devine 2008: 13-14).

But if there was a movement for the reassertion of cultural traditions, it was not matched by any equivalent political expression of support for an independent Scotland. One of the first organised political movements for Scottish nationalism was the short-lived National Association for the Vindication for Scottish Rights (NAVSR) founded in 1853 only to be disbanded three years later. Morton (1999: 133-154) describes the NAVSR as a form of ‘Unionist-nationalism’: the movement had no intention of threatening the Union but rather expressed concern that Scotland was not getting recognition as an equal partner with England as set in the original terms of the treaty. The movement began to raise concerns over the tendency to equate Britain with England as well as over some anti-Scottish sentiment on the part of the English. Although the organisation itself was short-lived, it was followed by growing concern amongst individuals within Scottish civil society and local government who saw that the British state was becoming much more interventionist on matters of social and economic welfare, which up to this point had been the responsibility of local civil society. This led to a rather modest home rule movement campaigning for greater administrative devolution on economic and social issues to Edinburgh. Underlying arguments in favour of home rule was the need to better enhance governance within the Union, and it was the Conservative Party which delivered the most significant degree of administrative devolution by establishing the Scottish Office in 1884 (Morton 1999: 188).

Interest in constitutional reform amongst Scottish elites was also triggered by the question of Irish home rule and resentment that the Irish were receiving a better deal than the Scots. For most of the nineteenth century Scottish politics had been dominated by the Liberal Party. But the Gladstone administration’s support for Irish home rule split the Liberal Party and moved liberal Unionists into the Conservative and Unionist Party. During the latter part of the century, the Conservative Party obtained considerable power in Scotland amongst landed classes, providing the party with a strong presence in rural areas. But it was the connection between Unionism and Protestantism that enabled the party to gain significant electoral support amongst Scottish people and a position of dominance amongst the middle classes in the industrial West. The increase in Irish Catholic immigration during and after the Great Famine (1845-1852) sharpened the link between Protestant identity and Britishness in Scotland, and the second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of a number of anti-Catholic groups. This was a significant turning point for the Conservatives. By the end of the nineteenth century the Orange Order lent strength to Scottish conservative politics, particularly in the West of Scotland (Kaufmann 2008; McFarland 1990).

After the First World War the Labour Party superseded the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservative Party in Britain, winning the most seats in an election for the first time in 1929. By this point Labour had already gained a position of dominance in industrialised parts of Scotland. But religious differences did not coincide completely with class interests. Irish home rule was granted by the Labour Party government in 1922, and this, along with the extension of the franchise, precipitated a mass of Scottish Catholic working-class voters to support Labour. Following the formation of the Irish Free State, the attention of Irish immigrants and descendants shifted from membership of Irish parties in Scotland towards Scottish economic concerns and involvement in trade unions and the Labour Party (Bruce et al. 2004: 100). The result was that politically Catholics were pro-Labour and anti-Conservative, and in response Protestants increasingly consolidated behind the Conservatives. The connection between religious and political identity is an important part of the reason why in Scotland, unlike in Wales, the Conservative (and Unionist) Party would continue to receive significant support: many working-class Protestants voted Conservative, whereas many middleclass Catholics voted Labour (Bruce et al. 2004: 100; Hassan and Shaw 2012: 210).

The interwar period between 1921 and 1939 saw a dramatic decline in the importance of heavy industry within the larger British economy. It is this period which signals the loss of Britain’s ‘economic pre-eminence’ (Eichengreen 2004). As the United States, France and Germany sought to protect domestic markets after the 1929 Wall Street crash, coupled with the emergence of the United States as the dominant trade exporter, global demand for British coal and steel exports diminished. In addition, advances in chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering led to the development of new products and to emerging forms of manufacturing employment. This included new consumer-oriented industrial sectors like vehicle manufacturing, electrical goods, utilities and pharmaceuticals. This shift to new industries diminished the place of Scotland, Wales and the North of England, whose heavy industries were highly dependent on imperial markets, within the British industrial economy. In contrast, new manufacturing industries in the Midlands and South East of England grew in importance. This had a deleterious impact on unemployment, poverty and living conditions in those areas sharing a dependence on traditional industry and a lack of manufacturing activity, including Glasgow and the North East of England (shipbuilding); Central Scotland, South Wales and parts of Northern England (mining); London, Liverpool and Belfast (docks) and Sheffield and South Wales (steel). In the absence of state policies to redress growing levels of poverty, many workers and their families responded by leaving for more prosperous areas in the South of England, whilst others stayed and fought for their communities through the labour movement, prompting high levels of industrial conflict and major strikes. It is this disjuncture between declining peripheral parts of the UK and a prospering Central and South East of England which would provide the context for regional economic state intervention by the postSecond World War Labour government. The decline of Empire also had an effect on the Scottish middle class who had prospered enormously from their participation in imperial markets and state administration, but the effect was never as damaging as it was for working classes. In fact, some Scottish businesses and employers were able to sustain their prosperity by becoming global rather than imperial in scope, which also enabled other middle-class Scots to continue to pursue careers in the London financial and business world (Davidson 2013; Tomlinson 2013).

The 1930s is often seen as the time of the birth of the first real Scottish nationalism. This was indeed the era in which many substate nationalist parties were established, including Plaid Cymru in 1927 and the SNP in 1934. But neither was formed on the back of any significant populist nationalist movement at this time. As a political party the SNP remained outside mainstream politics and won just 1.1 % of the Scottish vote in the 1935 general election (Keating 2010 : 116). Nor could Scottish nationalism in this period be viewed as particularly progressive (Devine 2008: 127). The SNP itself was formed from the merger between the radical liberal National Party of Scotland and the right-wing and imperialist Scottish Party, and it was the latter version which dominated initially (Devine 2008: 127). The Scottish Party itself had been created in 1932 by a group of former Conservative and Unionist politicians who supported a particular brand of home rule for Scotland but as a dominion within the British Empire, not dissimilar to the model adopted in Canada. But as a decade of severe economic depression and social dislocation the 1930s provided little room for debate on constitutional issues. More importantly, there remained a consensus amongst Scottish elites that Scotland could ill afford to go its own way and that it continued to need the Union to stave off economic collapse (Keating 2010: 112). The fortunes of the party did not change much in the immediate post-war period, never winning more than 1 % of the vote between 1945 and 1959. But as we describe next, it is in the 1960s when the SNP begins to add an economic argument to its long-standing national political aims that the party began to gain traction amongst Scottish working- and middle-class people.

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