F Rosa Rubicondior: Scotland And The United Kingdom

Sunday 14 September 2014

Scotland And The United Kingdom

This Thursday's Scottish referendum on independence from the rest of the United Kingdom is a pivotal moment, not only in the history of Scotland but in the history of the United Kingdom. It's worth passing briefly over the history of Scotland and its considerable part in the history of the British Isles.

A great deal is made by the pro-independence movement of Scotland's 'distinct identity' with very little analysis of the truth of the claim. For example, industrial Glasgow, Aberdeen or Dundee probably have far more in common culturally with Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham or Southampton than they do with Wester Ross, Inverness or Portree. And the former coal-mining towns of Fife have more in common with the former colliery towns of Lancashire, South Wales, Kent and Durham than they have with Kinross, Campbeltown or Kyle of Lochalsh.

Extent of the Kingdom of Dál Riata (in green), c. CE 590. Yellow areas show occupation by the Picts
One of the more remarkable features of Scottish national identity is the way at least four and possible five quite distinct and disparate peoples have come to collectively identify themselves as Scottish.
  • In the North West and the Hebrides we have the former distinct maritime Gaelic culture coming originally from Ireland and yet being distinct from Irish Gaelic as it developed around the remote archipelago of the Inner and Outer Hebrides and the northern coast of Ulster as the primarily maritime culture of Dalriada. This was the culture that eventually came to predominate apart from in the Orkney and Shetland, the far North East and south of the Central Valley. It was the culture through which early Columban Christianity entered the north of the British Islands.
  • Gaelic replaced and merged with, at least at the dynastic level, the people known to the Romans as the Picti (painted ones) who remain something of an enigma. We do not know for sure what language they spoke nor how they relate if at all to the Welsh and the Gaels (known as Goidelic and Brythonic Celts respectively). We don't even know if they were a single people or a battle confederation formed to oppose the Romans. We suspect, based on a few place names such as Aberdeen and Dundee, that they spoke a Brythonic language close to, if not the same as, Welsh. Their history was one of retreat in the face of Gaelic advance, being eventually absorbed.
  • In the Southern Uplands and into the South West, including the Galloway area, Welsh was almost certainly the spoken language, forming a continuous linguistic group through Cumbria (Welsh: cwm = valleys), Northumbria and down into Wales proper, along originally with probably the whole of England in Roman times. There is no evidence of Gaelic ever having been spoken south of the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde with it's capital at Dumbarton, which is itself a Welsh word.
  • The Ruthwell Crosss, Ruthwell, Dunfrieshire
  • Into these three distinct original groups we then have to add the Anglo-Saxon (Sassenachs) who moved up into Northumbria, Cumbrian, the Southern Uplands and into the Clyde Valley, replacing the Welsh who had been cut off from the rest of Wales when the Anglo-Saxons reached the Mersey and the Fylde Coast. It often comes as a surprise to many people that the language of Scotland's national poet, Robbie Burns, owes almost nothing to either Welsh or Gaelic but is almost entirely an Anglo-Saxon dialect, still being easily understandable to an educated English-speaker but incomprehensible to a Gaelic speaker with no English. It is also interesting to note that the earliest example of written English is an inscription on the Ruthwell Cross in a church in Ruthwell, Dunfrieshire, Scotland. Another interesting thing to note here is the name of the Scots national hero, William the Wallace ('Braveheart'). 'Wallace' is the Scots English form of 'Welsh' and means 'foreigner'. To the Anglo-Saxon Scots, the Wallace and his forebears was a foreigner and probably Welsh.
  • Lastly we need to add the late-arriving but not insignificant Scandinavian Vikings, speaking dialects of Norwegian and Danish. These people occupied the Orkneys and Shetlands, the north Coast of Scotland and the Hebrides forming their own distinct Gaelo-Viking culture in the Western Isles and a Feudal monarchy under the Danish Crown in Orkney and Shetland which was never part of Scotland until given in a princess's dowry to the Scottish Crown. The reason Sutherland is on the north coast of Scotland is because it was so named by a people centred further north. It was the southern lands of the Kingdom of Orkney.
Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation

Fareweel to a' our Scottish fame,
Fareweel our ancient glory;
Fareweel ev'n to the Scottish name,
Sae fam'd in martial story.
Now Sark rins over Solway sands,
An' Tweed rins to the ocean,
To mark where England's province stands-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

What force or guile could not subdue,
Thro' many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few,
For hireling traitor's wages.
The English stell we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station;
But English gold has been our bane-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

O would, or I had seen the day
That Treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey head had lien in clay,
Wi' Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I'll mak this declaration;
We're bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Robert Burns
The reason these linguistically distinct and culturally disparate people were able to be forged into a single people appears to be the simple fact that they were not politically English, or at least never formed a distinct Anglo-Saxon Kingdom north of Northumbria. Although present in substantial numbers south of the Central Valley, Anglo-Saxons were never able to outnumber the Gaels and Picts but neither did they have any allegiance to the English further south.

For those familiar with Scottish history, skip the next ten paragraphs unless you want to read my brief summary of it.

Partly through it's inability to produce male heirs of sufficient maturity to succeed their father on his death, and partly because of the propensity of usurpers to kill the natural heir before he could succeed, Scotland's monarchy remained largely weak and ineffectual, frequently insecure and disputed and unable to control the remote parts of the kingdom, including, crucially, the southern borders with Northumbria and later the later unified Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. A fundamentally Anglo-Saxon notion of a single national king with succession by primogeniture had never sat comfortably on a culture derived from the Gaelic system of warring petty kings loosely holding allegiance to the High King whose power was more symbolic than real.

Border raids were common and a way of life for the 'Reivers', as were the punitive raids by the English. Under the influence of Margaret of Wessex (Saint Margaret of Scotland), a sister of Edgar Ætheling, the strongest claimant to the crown of Edward the Confessor but only 6 years old, who fled to Scotland to escape the Norman invasion, married Maol Chaluim mac Dhonnchaidh (Malcolm III), son of Donnchad mac Crínáin (Duncan I), and gave birth to three future kings of the MacDuncan dynasty. Her influence was largely responsible for giving an Anglo-Saxon character to the Scottish crown rather than a Gaelic one and bringing Scots Christians into the Anglo-Saxon Augustinian family, based on York and, primarily, Canterbury. Her sons were the first not to be buried on the sacred (Columban) island of Iona. Because the English were frequently in a position to be power-brokers between rival Scottish factions, the Scottish crown drifted into a subordinate feudal relationship with the English crown, albeit a frequently disputed one.

A Man's A Man For A' That

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Robert Burns
Partly because of the scandalous behaviour of the Catholic Mary I of Scotland and partly because she was at first exiled to England to escape from her scandalized Presbyterian barons, and then imprisoned there before being executed for treason by Elizabeth I of England, leaving Scotland with no effective monarch for very many years, the local barons got used to being lords in their own estates and generally came to regard a weak or absentee king as rather a good thing. When the English Tudor dynasty finally fizzled out with none of Henry VIII's children able to produce an heir, the English crown came to Mary's son, James Stuart, James VI of Scotland who thus became James I of England, despite being a Catholic and thus welcomed by the Protestant English establishment about as much as he was by the increasingly Calvinist Scots. Never-the-less, James never went back to Scotland once installed in London. This brought about the Union of the Crowns but the two kingdoms continued as distinct political entities.

Meanwhile, England, which had not had a native-born monarch since Harold Godwinson who was killed at Hastings in 1066, found itself with not only another foreign royal house but a Catholic one to boot, and in an England which was moving towards a radical, fundamentalist form of Protestantism known as Puritanism. This resulted in the English civil war, the execution of James I's son Charles I and the tyranny known as the Commonwealth under the puritanical Presbyterian convert from Lincolnshire, Oliver Cromwell.

Scotland promptly degenerated into its own civil war with supporters of the Stuarts vying for power with the 'Covenanters' (puritan Presbyterians) who won despite the intervention of Irish Catholic troops but then fell out with Cromwell over the issue of the succession of Charles II. Cromwell, as he did with Ireland, would have none of this disobedience, invaded with his 'New Model Army' and imposed his Commonwealth on the disunited and factious Scots unsure now whether they hated the Catholic Jacobites more or less than the English Protestant puritans.

Having briefly flirted with a restored Stuart monarchy under Charles II in England (and so de jure in Scotland) soon after the death of Cromwell, the English elite decided they had had enough of it and in a breathtaking act of treason, declared the 'Glorious Revolution', invited William, Duke of Orange over from Holland to take up the English crown and deposed James II. James fled to Ireland where he put up a spirited fight but was badly beaten at the Boyne and then, finally at Aughrim. The Scots had not been consulted in this change of their head of state but by then most of the vested interests (the big landowners, dukes and erstwhile petty kings) in Scotland has decided their best interests lay with the English where the money and influence was.

In 1707 the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh voted to abolish itself and merge their country with England. There is considerable evidence of bribery and coercion by the English leading up to this vote. Under the Act of Union, Scotland would retain it's own distinct legal system, adopt the English currency but with Scottish banks able to issue their own bank notes, be forever subject to the same taxation as the English and Welsh and would elect members to the Westminster Parliament. The purely Scottish interests would be represented by a Scottish Office with the Secretary of State for Scotland being a senior Cabinet post (and traditionally though not obligatorily held by a member for a Scottish constituency)

However, the successor to James II, Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), languishing in exile in France, allowed himself to be persuaded that he only needed to raise his standard in the Highlands of Scotland for the still predominantly Catholic clans to rise up, overthrow the English usurper and claim the crown which was rightfully his.

Initially, Charles had some success, routing the English at Preston Pans near Edinburgh and, before the English could reorganise, had made it as far south as Derby before inexplicably turning back as a panicking English army was preparing to defend London. This bought the English time to organise a largely Scots army to take on Charles at Culloden in the last full battle to be fought on British soil. Charles, having not the slightest idea how to fight a set battle, spent his time riding back and forth shouting hysterically at his generals who had no more idea than he did, before fleeing the field to leave the flower of Highland manhood dead or dying on the battlefield. Survivors who ran away were hunted down and summarily executed. Charles was rescued from the Isle of Skye by a French ship, having been rowed there 'like a bird on the wing' disguised as a 'washerwoman' by Flora MacDonald, and spent the rest of his days as a depressed, penniless and dissolute alcoholic in France, an embarrassing guest of the French king.

The English decided that was enough. Never again were the Catholic Highlanders to be in a position to challenge the government in London. Gaelic became a forbidden language as did the wearing of plaid and playing the bagpipes. Field Marshal Wade was sent to Scotland to build a system of military roads and forts the better to garrison the highlands and control the clans. English, and anglicised Scots landowners such as the Marchioness of Sutherland cleared their land of crofters to turn it into deer and grouse moors and the ancient Caledonian forest was felled to create grazing for sheep. Unwanted peasants were literally herded on to ships and sent off to the Americas (today, Gaelic is spoken by more Canadians than by Scots) and the Highland Clearances entered the folk memory of Scots as an example of English colonialism. Just as with Ireland, who had also been told they were joining a united kingdom as full and equal partners, the Gaels, especially the Catholic ones, were regarded as little more than vermin to be persecuted, dispossessed and oppressed, in a concerted attempt to forcibly anglicise or exterminate them.

So there then lay the roots of Scots historic antipathy to the English, although, as a descendant of English peasantry, my ancestors too were subject to the same or similar abuses by the English ruling class, so it rankles more than a little to be cast in the same mould as those who treated the Scots as their peasantry just as they treated my people. These people were not my people. We too were repressed and persecuted when we asked for something better than a life of drudgery and starvation with nothing to look forward to but a short and grueling life in a workhouse at the end of our useful life - if we made it to an age where we could physically work no more through infirmity or decrepitude. My English forebears suffered almost as much under the brutality of the English upper classes as did the Scots, Welsh and Irish.

And that brings me to a time when we the English and Welsh and we the Scots collectively did something together to improve our common lot and founded the British Labour movement. My feeling is that we English owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Scots and Welsh who were instrumental in building working class institutions such as the trades unions, the Labour Party and the National Health Service. It was the threat of revolution from the 'Red Clyde' in the 1920s which concentrated the minds of the more enlightened members of the ruling class, so bringing about the postwar consensus throughout the 1950 and into the 1970s that the role of government was to improve the lot of all our people, not just to preserve the power and privilege of the rich and to keep the lower orders in their place.

We owe our current standard of living to the people of Glasgow, not least of which were the women who organised the rent strikes and so forced the establishment to take seriously the demands for decent housing, to the people of Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil as much as to the people of Manchester, Newcastle, London's East End, and, in their small way, to the brave women of Ascot Under Wychwood in rural Oxfordshire, most of whom were relatives on mine, who stood up for their menfolk's right to join a trades union.

That post-war consencus changed of course with the advent of a meaner, nastier Tory Party led by Margaret Thatcher who regarded compassion as a weakness and despised ideas of collective responsibility. Motivated by greed, class hatred and a deep-seated need to pay back the hoi polloi for the way they had treated 'Snobby' Roberts in her Grantham childhood and despising anything that wasn't middle-class and English, she made the Tory Party a toxic brand in a 'Disneyland' Scotland - it disnae vote Tory; it disnae matter - even using it as a test bed for her viciously regressive poll tax despite the Act of Union forbidding different taxation.

So despised did the 'Nasty Party' - the Party of Greed and Selfishness - become under Thatcher that Scotland became a Tory-free zone in 1992 and the Secretary of State for Scotland had to be an English MP for the first time since the Act of Union. Scotland saw itself vote overwhelmingly anything but Tory and yet found itself governed by Tories. Quite understandably it concluded that something was wrong with democracy as it is organised for them. It still has only one Tory MP when once an electoral map of Scotland was predominantly blue with a 'Celtic Fringe' of Liberals and Labour confined to the major industrial centres.

But this clinging on to power in England by the Tories is transient. In 1997 it looked like we too could eventually have a Tory-free zone in England. In the long term the Tory Party is in decline in England. At the last general election, despite the worst economic crisis since the 1920s, despite Labour having been in power for an unprecedented-in-modern-times period of time, despite an ongoing and unpopular war, and despite the Prime Minister of the day being one of the least popular in recent history, a Tory Party which once regarded itself as the natural party of government, could not even win an overall majority and had to cobble together a shoddy deal with the self-interested and untrustworthy Liberal Democrats and vote itself guaranteed power for five years just to form an administration which wouldn't immediately be thrown out. Senior Tories are now openly maneuvering for position in an inevitable leadership battle confident that they will lose the next election to Labour. As a consequence of their cosying up to a clique of Old Etonian and Bullingdon Boy trustafarian sons of multimillionaire spivs, the Liberal Democrats have now made themselves virtually unelectable as they prop up the most right-wing, illiberal, regressive government in the post-war era in return for ineffectual seats at the top table and fancy job titles.

Together the people of these islands built a better society based on the social consciences and sense of international egalitarianism and working class solidarity so eloquently expressed by the likes of Willie Gallagher, Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardy, Manny Shinwell, Nye Bevan and latterly Jimmy Reid and a host of socialist politicians from Scotland, England and Wales who forced the English gentry to take note and who together forged a post-war 'land fit for heroes'. Together the people of this island had stood alone against Fascism and finally consigned it to the midden-tip of history where it belongs. Together we created a better Britain and together we can do the same with Toryism as we did with Fascism.

From a working class point of view, whereas in England egalitarian pressure expressed as anti ruling class, in Scotland and Wales especially, the ruling class had become closely associated with the English, so anti ruling class sentiment tended to be conflated with anti English. It would seem this conflation of the ruling elite with the English is one of the things driving nationalism. For this reason, the tendency of the political left in Scotland and Wales is to be more likely to support the nationalists and so for the nationalists (nationalism is normally associated with the political right) to be be more left-inclined than the British political left as represented by the Labour Party. But the Scots should remember that we English are NOT all Tories.

From an English working class nobody with no power and no voice on my own, I say, we need you Scotland. We need you to give volume and conscience to our collective voice and to save us from an unrestrained, unreconstructed Tory Party, motivated by class hatred and who regard greed and selfishness as admirable qualities; people who go into politics to show the lower orders who's boss around here and to represent the haves against the have nots whilst feathering their own nests. We did great things together and we can do it again.

In some ways, Alex Salmond reminds me of a man urging his supporters to jump from the cliff in the hope that the landing will be a soft one whilst ignoring the obvious sharp rocks below, because the ride down will be liberating. Waving aside the reality of those rocks as 'scare-mongering' is denialism of the worst kind. Salmond is prepared to take you over the cliff with him to serve his ambitions for power. Both his alternatives for currency - a currency union and/or use the English pound anyway - will take your economy out of your control and give it to a government in which you no longer have a voice.

Your independence will be a sham if you don't have economic independence too. You will have responsibility without power and it will matter not a jot what you want to do because other people, unaccountable to you, will determine what you can afford to do. This is the stark reality which faces Scotland at the moment and all the jingoism, flag-waving and romantic yearnings for freedom will not change that reality one iota.

Whatever form your economy takes it will still be dominated by England and will serve primarily English interests as determined by a government in which you no longer have a voice. Is independence without any control over your own economy independence at all or is it the independence of the dependent economic colony? We need you with us to ensure that government is not a Tory one. The Tories are not the English and many of us despise them with the same passion that you do. Our dearest wish is to do what you did and create a Tory-free zone in England too.

Stay with us Scotland. You have never been a people of narrow, jingoistic self-interest or the plaything of puffed up egotists seeking to be King of the Castle. You are far better than that.

[Update] On a massive turnout for a UK election of 84.6%, Scotland voted 55.3% No: 44.7% Yes on the question, "Should Scotland be an independent country?". The main support for independence came from the urban industrial centres, especially Glasgow/Dumbarton, Dundee and North Lanarkshire - the traditional Labour-voting areas, lending support to the idea that the move for independence was driven in large part by anti-Tory sentiment and was more a move against the current government than against England.

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  1. An excellent summary even if not totally unbiased. Thanks. Now what about the promised EU referendum ? In the highly improbable event that there ever is one.

    1. What relevance does an EU referendum have to the point of the blog, please?

    2. I thought that, having given a useful summary of the background to one referendum, you might possibly do the same for another which would be equally or more important, if it happened.

    3. Come the time, I'll certainly have something to say about the EU and Britain's role inside a united Europe. :-)

  2. A useful summary, if a bit biased. Thanks


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