Searching for Scottishness: Why Unionists are True Scots too

March 18, 2016


Polls about national identity have become commonplace in neverendum Scotland, usually concerned with determining how Scottish and/or British we are. Often, the depth of these identities is reduced to percentage figures, as we are forced to choose whether we are 75% Scottish and 25% British, or 50% Scottish and 50% British, and so on. Most common is to be asked whether we are more Scottish than British, vice-versa, exclusively one or the other, or split half-in-half between the two. In doing so, Scottishness and Britishness are pitted against each other as though they were somehow incompatible. It would be ludicrous to ask somebody if they felt 40% Glaswegian and 60% Scottish, yet for some reason this is a common approach when it comes to our national identity. All the emotion, depth, history, struggle and experience that inspires our identity is reduced to cold and arbitrary percentage points that say nothing about the nature of these identities themselves.


Such a study can never give a very meaningful reflection of what people really feel, and shows an inherent bias against British-minded Scots who recognise that Britishness has always served as an umbrella under which Scottish, English, Welsh and other identities have co-existed in their fullness. Many unionists regard themselves as fully Scottish and fully British; this is the most natural position to assume and has been by far the dominant position of Scots for most of our time in Union; to an extent even before it. The presumption that Scottishness and Britishness are competing identities excludes this opinion from political discourse through the inherent bias seen in these studies, and is based on nationalist assumptions about the incompatibility of the two identities. The part is pitted against the whole, a fact that allows nationalist opinion to be accurately represented, while forcing a decision on British-minded Scots that seems unnatural within their framework of thought.


The question then is if the two really are competing identities that can only ever co-exist in part in any one person, or whether somebody really can comfortably embrace Scottish and British identities in their entirety. That existing studies do not do this shows their inadequacy, as they fail to account for what exactly Scottishness means to those who identify with it. And yet it is in different concepts of Scottishness, rather than a supposed conflict between Scottishness and Britishness, that the real faultline lies. There are those who subscribe to a form of Scottishness that seeks to differentiate itself from the UK in terms of its culture, politics and history. And there are those who subscribe to a form of Scottishness that seeks to place itself firmly within the British sphere in all those respects. It is in this divide that the nationalist and unionist faultline largely lies.


In what is undoubtedly something of an over-simplification, it could be said that there are two Scotlands and two accompanying forms of Scottishness. There is the Scotland of Gaeldom, of Jacobite rebellions and of Red Clydeside; the Scotland of the Celtic fringe and political radicalism that seeks to differentiate itself from Britain. But there is also the Scotland of Empire, of the Anglosphere, staunchly unionist for centuries and that shared a language, religion, political traditions and even kings with England long before Union; this Scotland is firmly part of the British order. Both these concepts of Scottishness have their precedents in history, and it is the tension between them that fuels today’s identity politics of unionism and nationalism.


This dualism can be traced back until at least the Reformation. Under the leadership of John Knox, his Presbyterian rebels rose up against the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, and quickly turned to their fellow Protestants in England for support. Union was brought to the agenda by Protestant Scots, most systematically perhaps in James Henrysoun’s ‘Godly and Golden Book’, published in 1548. In the work, he uses the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘Britons’ ninety-nine times, and argued that the Scots and English, so similar in manner, customs and religion, came from a common British stock. Knox himself lamented that union had never occurred when royal marriage provided the opportunity. The Scots of the Reformation represent an authentic Scottishness that placed Scottish identity and its political future firmly within the world of the Protestant, British Anglosphere.


But not all of their compatriots shared this view. Those who clung to the old faith and the old order had their own vision of Scotland, one which maintained a defence of Scottish independence within a distinctly European framework. Under the headship of Mary Queen of Scots, they resisted the Presbyterian rebels and English attempts to force union during the Rough Wooing of the mid-Sixteenth Century. Instead, they held to the Auld Alliance with Catholic France as the means of protecting Scotland from English influence. The parallels with the modern SNP notion of ‘independence in Europe’ are striking. Then, as now, the conflict was over whether Scotland’s future lay as an independent nation within a distinctly European framework, or as a partner in union with England as an integrated part of the Anglosphere.


This dualism ties into the tension between Scotland as part of the Celtic fringe, and Scotland as a core part of the Anglosphere. Gaelic was the original language of the Scots court, but it was the Davidian Revolution under David I in the 12th Century, rather than English interference, that caused the English language to spread as far north as Elgin through the creation of royal burgh towns and a new Scoto-Norman aristocracy. These two worlds had little in common, and often came into conflict. The Statutes of Iona, passed in 1609 by a Scots king, showed a repression of Highland life unmatched by anything after Culloden. Under these statutes there were strict limitations on the bearing of arms in the Highlands, clan chiefs were mandated to educate their sons in Lowland schools where they would learn the English language, while bards, strong drink, traditional hospitality and other hallmarks of Gaelic culture were prohibited. In those days, Lowlanders referred to Gaelic-speakers as “Irish”, while they were in turn called “Sassenachs” or “Saxons” by the Highlanders. It is ironic that some English-speaking Scots, the original “Sassenachs”, now use this as a term of derision for Englishmen.


This absence of a common language or culture perhaps explains why a common enemy has always been so central in uniting the Scottish people. As in the days of Wallace and Bruce, it is our nearest neighbour England that for modern nationalists provides such a figure. This figure is necessary because the tension between the two Scotlands is present not just between unionism and nationalism, but even within nationalism. The SNP emerged in the 1930s in part from an offshoot of the original Unionist Party. Their initial platform was one of home rule, fuelled by a desire for Scotland to play a more active role in the Empire: Westminster was to be transformed into an Imperial Parliament with representation for the UK and all its dominions.


There remains a core of old-school nationalists who are comfortable, even proud of Scotland’s role in Britain’s imperial past. These are what have been termed the “tartan tories”: strong supporters of the monarchy, typically Protestant and often right of centre on the political spectrum. Once the dominant face of nationalism in Scotland, this ageing and increasingly marginalised element of the SNP has been eclipsed by a new radical element which is thoroughly republican, left-wing, anti-British and married to a vision of Scotland as part of the Celtic fringe. It was inevitable that this latter brand of nationalism should triumph over its rival, a necessary consequence of a movement which by nature must seek to differentiate Scotland as much as possible from the UK whole. Without a common sense of Scottish marginalisation within the British political system these two strands of nationalism would never have enough in common to remain united.


The old tartan tories gave a voice within nationalism to what might be very generally termed Protestant-imperial-royal Scotland. They were proud of Britain, proud of Empire, and proud of the fact that Presbyterian Scotland was that bit more Protestant than their relatively wishy-washy Anglican brethren. If these seem to be unlikely nationalists, their corollary was the equally unlikely unionists of the Labour party. Labour’s socialist commitment to republicanism, abolishment of colonialism and even a united Ireland would seem to make it an unlikely friend of the Union or indeed anything remotely British. It did however at least resist what was then the bourgeois nationalism of the SNP. Its unionism was pragmatic rather than principled, and they were content to maintain it in the centralising years of the post-war era, when Britain pioneered social programmes such as the NHS, the welfare state and large-scale national employment.


In our current time of highly ideological identity politics, the more innocent era when diversity and pragmatism could exist within both nationalism and unionism seems to be coming to an end. Years of intense identity politics and a relentless referendum campaign have caused an almost Darwinian refinement of these respective beliefs, an ideological purge or casting off of things that are tangential or inconsistent with the two increasingly polarised camps. A tartan tory nationalism which is comfortable with all things British has lost out to a more aggressively anti-British and radical counterpart. A Labour Party whose unionism is at best ambivalent towards Britain has collapsed, although a more robust and coherently pro-British brand of unionism has yet to clearly replace it. When all parties are effectively part of the same Blairite centre-ground, they can offer nothing more than these narratives and identity politics. To be a nationalist is now to be anti-British; if unionism to survive, it too must adapt by adopting a more positive and coherent vision of Britain than it has done in the past, rather than buying into the language and truisms of nationalism.


Now that diversity within nationalism and unionism has been greatly reduced, the only real divide in Scottish politics is that which exists between them. We have a nationalism that is radically anti-British, republican, fascinated with Gaeldom and the Celtic fringe and which will attempt to realise this vision of nationhood through its plans for an independent ‘Scotland in Europe’. And we have a unionism that is starting to realise that it must be pro-British and celebrate all things British, and emphasise a brand of Scottishness that acknowledges our role in Britain, whether in Empire, or in celebrating the monarchy, or building the post-war British state.


The precedents that both these visions have in Scottish history have been discussed. It would be revisionist to deny that they both represent authentic narratives of the Scottish nation that have some sort of legitimate basis in history. At this stage, we could say we are at an impasse, or quibble over which of the two Scotlands was dominant and can claim to be the true representation of the Scottish nation. But there is no need to do this, because we as unionists have one great trump card up our sleeve: it is the fact that both forms of Scottishness, even that which seeks to differentiate Scotland from the UK whole, have in over three-hundred years of Union taken on something of a British character. In other words, Scottishness in all its forms has itself been shaped by Britain. If we leave Britain and reject that past, then in doing so we lose a part of what it is that makes us Scottish.


The symbiotic relationship in the ways in which Scottishness and Britishness have developed together since Union can be clearly seen. What better captures the martial traditions of the Highlands than the kilt-clad soldiers of the Black Watch, combining the warrior spirit of Gaeldom with the discipline of the British Army; themselves icons of British military character?  Who better captures the culture of tartanry than Bonnie Prince Charlie, who led his Jacobite army to Derby to seize the London throne and rule as a British king? What better conjures up images of Scotland’s great industrial past than the ports and shipyards of Glasgow, the second city of the Empire that gave Britain its naval fleets and grew rich through its goods? Who better encapsulated the ideals of Red Clydeside than Manny Shinwell, himself a leader of the movement who became Lord Shinwell as a life peer, and pioneered the British welfare state in Atlee’s post-war government? Even those aspects of Scottish culture that are so distinct have taken on an indelibly British character.


Scotland has never been a monocultural nation. Nowadays, nationalists and unionists will look to different aspects of Scotland’s past to justify their sense of identity, whether that means emphasising what makes us unique as Scots, or what we share in common with our fellow Britons. Where unionists gain the upper hand is in recognising that we can’t be fully Scottish without appreciating that we are also British, and that only Union, rather than separation, can allow us to realise both those identities in their fullness.

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