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Union in a State: a Scots eye

Christopher Harvie
16 January 2007

"Now, since St Mungo catched herrings in the Clyde, what was ever like to gar us flourish like the sugar and tobacco trade? Will ony body tell me that and grumble at the treaty that opened us a road west-awa yonder?" Bailie Nicol Jarvie, in Walter Scott, Rob Roy

I

Tuesday 16 January 2007 should have been a moment of at least qualified triumph: commemorating the tercentenary of the Scots parliament's vote for the union which made the United Kingdom for a century and a half (1756-1918) the global superpower, seeing off Napoleonic France and Hohenzollern Germany. Instead, in a more-or-less velvet divorce, a middle-ranking European power might go the way of the Czechs and the Slovaks.

True, it would be accompanied by many more of the kind of operatics on display at the Fabian Society's day-long event in London on 13 January- when the United Kingdom chancellor Gordon Brown once more flamboyantly wrapped himself in the Union Jack, to mixed notices, north and south of the Tweed.

In this, the actual circumstances of 1707 tend to get drowned out. The union wasn't the foundation of a world power, but a prudent compact between two worried élites: the only arrangement at a time of European state-consolidation which would protect England and allow the Scottish community of the realm to survive.

It lessened the fear of French intrigue, gave Scots merchants - like Walter Scott's character quoted above - English naval protection in the aftermath of the disastrous Darien episode (the attempt to establish a New Edinburgh in the Panama isthmus) which had bankrupted many of them.

But most prudently, it guaranteed the autonomy of the institutions of Scots social distinctiveness - kirk (church), faculty of advocates (law), convention of royal burghs (local government), the five universities (education). This was what Adam Smith commended as "provincial government", distant from the luxury and corruption of London.

Christopher Harvie is a historian who was professor of British and Irish studies at Tübingen University, Germany. Among his many books are A Short History of Scotland (OUP, 2002), Deep Fried Hillman Imp (Argyll, 2004) and Mending Scotland (Argyll, 2005). His homepage is here

Christopher Harvie is the Scottish National Party candidate for Kirkaldy in the elections to the Scottish parliament on 3 May 2007

Also by Christopher Harvie in openDemocracy:

"Journeys to the Rhine" (January 2002)

"Looking into Wales: a nation displayed"
(March 2002)

"Remembering Robin Cook" (August 2005)

"The German solution? " (September 2005)

"A Scottish-Chinese dream: Maglev made easy" (January 2006)

"Gordon Brown's Britain" (January 2006)

"A German dream: some day my prince will come" (June 2006)

"Red Clyde and Yellow press" (August 2006)

"Britain's tax nexus: able fraudsters, useful idiots" (25 September 2006)

"Scottish independence? No fear!" (30 November 2006) – with Alasdair Gray and Jimmy Reid

II

The union had precedents. English attempts at invasion from Edward I to Oliver Cromwell, like the Romans before them, had always foundered on the cost of keeping an army in Scotland. The Scots (a unique medieval combination of five ethnic groups: Scots, Picts, Britons, Angles, Norse) had been more bruised than benefited by the "auld alliance" with France (1295-1560), and were adept at doing deals which let both sides off the hook. The 1707 union fitted into this pattern.

From the Foederati of the Antonine (Roman) wall to the "federal Calvinists" (aka the Covenanters), this tradition and its diplomatic skills were hymned, as much in James Thomson's Rule Britannia as in his compatriot Robert Burns's Scots Wha Hae!: both essentially celebrations of law over force.

Whig patronage consolidated the deal, and then the impetus of industrialisation, empire and the Scots' exploitation of the English language (while young English gents were taught pointless Latin at the public schools). A succession of inventors, proconsuls and culture-statesmen - from James Watt to Alexander Fleming, Henry Dundas to William Gladstone, Thomas Carlyle to John Reith - manoeuvred cleverly in this milieu.

Yet the union per se wasn't any more popular, north or south, than the earlier efforts. It only really took off when the Scots supported the United Kingdom government against the American colonists in 1776-83 (the protestant Scotch-Irish, at one remove, were irreconcilable secessionists); and, after an edgy, deeply inegalitarian but world-changing career, it had the stuffing knocked out of it in 1914-18.

III

Whether the union can take the strain of a United Kingdom in the current economic and identity crisis is another matter. The joker in this particular situation is that this time the English, instead of wanting to take Scotland over, want rid of it.

This disaffection has been bred of small though mounting grievances, but its momentum is real enough. The 2006 world cup- part of the wider post-industrial delirium of football-mania- fomented ill-will and trapped Brown in the wrong bit of the terracing, making embarrassing pro-English noises.

The old unionist argument that Scotland did well out of the deal was suddenly turned against the Scots, making them out as pensioners who tried to be imperialists - Jeremy Paxman's "Scottish Raj" gibe. A middle England, screwed by New Labour, alienated from Europe, incapable of devolution, dominated by the United Kingdom of London, was out for scapegoats.

True, the Scots did relatively well at subsidies, but they would argue that the "Barnett formula"- a mechanism established in the 1970s (during the first modern wave of nationalist reassertion) to calculate publio-spending changes in Scotland - was a quid pro quo for "their" North Sea oil which was to bankroll Britain from 1980 on. Behind this was the Scots' own, peculiarly traumatic, post-imperial career.

The real triumph of the union had been Britain winning the "great war" of 1914-18. The Clyde munitions district (never a major armaments centre) forged ploughshares into swords, churning out aircraft, tanks, aircraft carriers to escort vessels, and above all millions of high-explosive shells, which ground down Germany's "warfare state". Subtract it, and the Kaiser would have ruled from Windsor.

(During the same conflict, the Scots - after the Serbs and the Turks - experienced proportionately greater losses on the battlefield, and among their total population, than any of the combatant countries).

But no one wanted tanks, shells and the rest after the war. In 1921 unemployment hit 20%; nearly 400,000 emigrated by 1931. The trauma was stunning. Scots - elite and populace - sought security in the fur of the collective great beasts, private and public, from ICI to (after 1945) the National Health Service.

Nationalist politics (the Scottish National Party dates from 1928) was a counter-response, hoping to kick-start local and cooperative enterprise while retaining the federal drive - but this time towards Europe and a role as another Norway or Switzerland.

Cultural nationalism comforted "that distressed area": Conservatives like John Buchan or Walter Elliot alternately patronising and arguing with Irish-influenced radicals like Hugh MacDiarmid. The powers of the Scottish secretary, restored in 1885, steadily increased.

IV

A darker story of Scotland would see the union liberating the country's "back-self" (in Buchan's term): the lords of misrule who exploited Indians and blacks, flogged firewater to the Inuit and opium to the Chinese. The successor to this is New Labour's prince of darkness, Rupert Murdoch, whose forebears took the free kirk to Australia, and who has flattered and marketed Blair and Brown. Though the old devil may not be 100% on message, and has backed the SNP before.

Hence the wobblies the "iron chancellor" has been throwing. Devolution has caused the Scots ethos radically to diverge from the south. Its six-party politics are European; 40% of MSPs are women, its intelligentsia looks past London and towards Europe. The nationalist leader Alex Salmond- "too clever by half" in the old English dismissal of Scots politicians - rides this situation better than Labour's first minister Jack McConnell, a couthy fixer who could have come out of The Simpsons ("Doing less, better", his one memorable phrase, sounds rather too close to Bart's "Underachiever, and proud of it!").

The fact that Brown and McConnell exchanged not a single word for eighteen months after 2001 doesn't suggest constitutional stability. And McConnell's Holyrood has risen through sensitive reform, not least of electoral law, while Westminster Labour's standing has crumbled.

Far from creating a "cooperative federal" system as in Germany, the "Granita" division of government between Brown and Blair has wrecked the dynamism of the UK cabinet. Blair's wars and Brown's economics have produced a spiral of public and private debt, foreign takeovers, inflation, rampant inequality and regulatory breakdown. A prospect which makes many Scots want to use what's left of the oil to re-technologise their society before it's too late.

"Better a good neighbour than a surly tenant" is Salmond's formula; and it may be more winning than fifty-nine mainly obscure MPs, an empty mansion in Whitehall, Trident, Iraq and nuclear power.

The old contractual facility of the Scots hasn't deserted them, nor the desire for union. But both have moved on. "I have more to do these days with Brussels than with London". The speaker (on a discussion with your man and Sheena MacDonald in 2004) wasn't Alex Salmond but Jack McConnell.

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