In his incisive introduction to The Road to Independence? Scotland Since the Sixties, Murray Pittock defines an ongoing problem: “Separate histories of Scotland are fine for Scots. That is the general consensus… But across the UK in general, Scottish history occupies a rather strange no-man’s land between the local and national.”
Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. As if to prove his point, he hardly mentioned the Scots in four volumes of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which covers 55 BC to 1914. Scotland had long struggled for independence from England, but it was economic rather than military defeat that led to the Union of the Parliaments three hundred years ago.
By the outbreak of the First World War, when Churchill’s history ends, Scotland had apparently been wholly assimilated by the United Kingdom. But by the time the last part of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples was published in 1958, Churchill’s Conservative Party was on the verge of winning its last-ever majority in Scotland. New battles were about to be fought, different forces would triumph and the history books would have to be revised.
I met Murray Pittock at a Edinburgh Book Fringe event in August. He is the A. C. Bradley Professor of Literature at the University of Glasgow, and has written many books on Scottish, Irish and British history, including Inventing and Resisting Britain, Scottish Nationality and A New History of Scotland. Pittock is also the co-editor of The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature.
The Road to Independence? is his latest trenchant analysis of Scottish history and the question mark in the title is worth noting. Pittock says that he intends “to give a flavour of Scottish culture, politics and society since 1960”. Numerous reviews have shown that he caters to many people’s tastes — The Scotsman said that this book “could hardly be improved on” — but some other commentators have found what he’s served up hard to swallow.
“The 1960s was the decade that finally broke the Union compact, whereby Scotland kept local autonomy in its own culture, institutions and society, but also gained access to imperial opportunities,” he tells me when I ask why he chose to focus on the past half century. “The Empire finally disappeared; the homogenization of British public and regional policy, together with the first stage of post-war globalization, was completing the regionalization of Scotland, almost never described in such terms before 1945. In order to restore national autonomy and recognition, political change was needed.”
Significantly, Winnie Ewing’s famous SNP victory in the 1967 Hamilton by-election signalled the beginning of the changes in the Scottish political map that continue to this day. The appalled reaction when she took the seat from the ruling party led to her acid comment that, “A chill went along the Labour back benches looking for a spine to run up.” And the recent victory of the SNP in Glasgow East suggests that Mark Twain was right: although history doesn’t repeat itself, sometimes it rhymes.
Pittock has an interesting take on the latest by-election when I beg the question of whether the result was a reaction to an exhausted Scottish Labour Party — or indeed, to the demise of the New Labour project as a whole — or a proactive endorsement of the SNP by a constituency previously seen to be antagonistic to the politics of independence.
“There were some interesting features in Glasgow East,” he says, citing out the lack of previous SNP organization and the migration of Catholic vote, “but it was also not unlike other West of Scotland by-election victories. I am inclined to be cautious and attribute it primarily to mid-term disenchantment; but there was also some hearsay evidence of lack of concern about independence among the electorate when it was raised as a scare tactic by Labour.” In short, he’d put it down to thirty percent endorsement of the SNP and seventy percent mid-term disaffection.
As Pittock shows in his analysis of recent times, much of the ongoing Scottish reaction to the idea of being part of the United Kingdom stems from the end of British imperialism. Many Scots were important players in the Empire and Scotland gained greatly from its involvement, but at the same time, I wonder if they could be seen — along with the other nations of the UK — as its first victims.
“Basically Scots were participants rather than victims, but militarily often had to prove themselves by high casualty rates,” Pittock points out, citing the fatalities in the Seven Years War of 1756–1763, right through to 1914–1918. “Many Scottish imperial servants evinced a double-mindedness, carrying out their duties while sympathizing with the colonized. Some even became Native American chieftains. I deal with this as the concept ‘fratriotism’, the identification of self in the other, in Scottish and Irish Romanticism and in some other essays.” Thomas Cochrane (1775–1860), James Boswell (1740–1795) and William Lyon Mackenzie (1795–1861), who led the 1837 Upper Canada rebellion, were prominent figures in this tradition.
With the end of the Empire, Scotland lost many of the economic advantages it had gained by participating in the imperial adventure, and even as Britain was reduced from an empire to a kingdom, Scotland found its nationhood threatened with demotion to the status of a region. Could it be that Scotland is simply too big to be treated as a province, but too small to be properly defined as a country? “No,” Pittock argues, “it is after all bigger than many European states, and in the nineteenth century was widely seen as a nation within the British Empire.”
So where does this leave Scotland now? Are cultural independence and political autonomy fundamentally linked? I ask him if we can remain a distinct culture in an era of globalization, whether or not we gain independence: “Yes, and the commercial packaging of culture is the way small nations project themselves — if they can and the brand is strong enough — in a global age.” Pittock cites Ireland and Irish culture, right down to its pubs, to prove his case.
The critical responses to The Road to Independence? have been overwhelmingly positive, but the kind of double-vision about Scottish history that Pittock discusses in his introduction is still evident north and south of the border. “I do think the English debate is miles behind where we are because we ignore each other,” he tells me.
Pittock concludes The Road to Independence? with the following suggestion: “A loosely federated UK with clearly distinct locales for control of politics, culture and society and their representation through the media could be the most stable solution the Union can now enjoy: indeed, Ireland would probably still be in the UK had this begun to happen a century earlier.”
Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there is serious doubt that Westminster will realize this in time to save the Union. “[The] British government continues to act as if devolution had never happened. Critical change is necessary.”
There will be another Scottish by-election in Glenrothes before the end of this year, and once again, Labour will be fighting the SNP for a formerly safe seat. If Labour loses, the shockwaves will affect not just Scottish politics, but the whole of the U. K. With the likelihood of a landslide Conservative victory in England at the next general election, but a Nationalist victory in Scottish constituencies, this may well be — for better or worse — yet another signpost on the road to independence. —AJW