From the vantage point of England, the short period since 2015 has seemed to contain decades’ worth of political upheaval. Scotland’s equivalent political time-crunch occurred in the preceding five years. The SNP leveraged its surprise 2011 majority in the Scottish Parliament (it had been in minority government since 2007) into an independence referendum in 2014 that cannibalised Labour’s old electoral base and provoked a revival, by the time of the 2016 Holyrood elections, of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Independence is not inevitable, but it is now the engine of Scottish electoral politics, giving shape to its party system, providing motivation for its activists and guaranteeing a constant flow of controversy for its journalists. Every democratic polity needs an existential MacGuffin to imbue the banal questions of governance with something far richer in narrative potential. ‘When will my bins be collected?’ is no match for ‘When will my people be free?’
‘For Scots with mixed [English and Scottish] parentage,’ John Lloyd wrote in the Financial Times in 2012, ‘a forced choice is uncomfortable. Should we, on the model of American blacks, claim “blackness” – or in this case Scottishness – as our dominant identity?’ Lloyd was not alone in feeling that his Scottishness, newly politicised, was no longer complementary to his Britishness (or Englishness) but suddenly, jarringly competitive with it. He had always had, he wrote, ‘a sense that an exclusive Scottishness would threaten my buried but mongrel identity’. In Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot, he attempts to restate the case for Scotland’s ‘mongrel’ union with England, blending pragmatism with a fellow-feeling that he worries has been diminished. He yearns for ‘the almost incredible lightness of being able to be Scots while also being British’, something that is now threatened by Scotland’s ‘separatist’ ascendancy. He sees in the ‘tested solidarity’ of the UK a model of multinational governance far more stable than anything offered by the EU, which the Scots – who voted overwhelmingly to Remain in 2016 – are now being taken out of against their expressed will. Much of Lloyd’s argument is designed to address fears that a more assertive Englishness is a threat to Scottishness. He believes that ‘both nations can learn from each other: and have, through centuries.’
One of the first things the English learned from the Scots was central banking. William Paterson, a farmer’s son from Dumfriesshire, was instrumental in the establishment of the Bank of England in the 1690s, embodying the same ‘practical genius’ with which another Scot, John Law, established what would become the Bank of France in 1716.Having taught their neighbours how to make money, however, Scotland also showed them how to lose it. The famed prudence of Scottish bankers did not survive deregulation in the 1980s, and in 2008 it became clear that the freshly globalised but historically Scottish banks – RBS and HBOS – had tested their new liberties to destruction. The resulting bailout is now offered as proof of the Union’s benefit to Scotland – its chief architects, Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown, both of them Scottish, were also the most prominent leaders of the campaign against independence six years later. The role of Paterson’s Bank of England – and the currency it controls – is today the greatest single weakness in the case for independence. Few Scots want to swap the pound for the euro or a new Scottish currency, but leaving the UK without abandoning the pound would place Scotland’s economy at the mercy of what would then be a foreign bank.
One of the first things the Scots learned from the English was how to do imperialism properly. Paterson and Law may have been clever bankers, but they were terrible imperialists. Law’s calamitous attempt to exploit a monopoly on French colonial trade – the ‘Mississippi bubble’ – forced him to flee France in 1720. Paterson’s proposal to establish a trading outpost in the Isthmus of Panama – the Darien Scheme – was dismissed by several European governments (including England’s) before being taken up enthusiastically by his compatriots. Thirteen ships departed in 1698 and only three returned, ‘laden not with gold, but sick men and women’, undermining Scotland’s already weak economy to the point where union with England was a matter of desperate financial need. Clamour for union had grown throughout the 17th century, with Scotland and England’s shared Protestant interests a guiding concern, but Scotland’s ruling class were major investors in the Darien Company and signed away their independence in 1707 with financial as well as spiritual salvation in mind.
As partners rather than competitors in the empire market, Scots proved fast learners. It was two enterprising Scots, William Jardine and James Matheson, who forced opium on China in the 1820s. Their work was continued by Scottish bureaucrats like James Bruce, the 8th earl of Elgin, whose father stole the Parthenon Marbles from Greece. ‘I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life,’ Bruce wrote of his time as high commissioner in China, during which he waged the Second Opium War, ordered the destruction of the Summer Palace in Beijing as retaliation for the execution of a handful of British prisoners, and forced the handover of Hong Kong.
Even unionist Scots have often liked to see themselves as morally, if not economically, superior to the English. But, offered a choice between native moral virtue and foreign wealth and opportunity, conscience has tended to needle only after wealth and opportunity have run out. When, in 1960, Hamish Henderson sang that ‘broken families in lands we’ve herriet/Will curse Scotland the brave nae mair, nae mair’ he was expressing a hope that Scots would become better global citizens, even as America’s Polaris missiles arrived at their new home on Scotland’s west coast. But he was also stating a more practical problem facing the globetrotting Scots bourgeoisie. With few lands left to plunder, what did Britain have left to offer its junior partners? Without the surplus wealth and privileges of empire to dole out, how could domestic subalterns be kept in line?
Until the 1970s at least, the Union continued to provide an economic safety net for Scotland. Lloyd’s book is strongest on the ‘cash nexus’ – the long-term political economy of union. At the beginning of the 20th century, he argues, Scotland was possibly ‘the most globalised nation in the world’, occupying the prime position in the global supply of textiles, coal and shipbuilding. The fast-track to imperial privilege created by the Union had been the basis of its immense industrial power, but as the century wore on, the growing competitiveness of global markets turned this headstart into a handicap as Scotland’s dependence on heavy industry became its downfall. It also weakened a Scottish-and-British industrial identity. ‘Scotland has remained distinctively Scottish,’ Lloyd insists, ‘even where it was most, and most uncontroversially, unionist.’ This is not quite true when it comes to economic control, where Scotland became less distinctively Scottish during the 20th century. In its early part, much of Scottish industry was still in the hands of its native capitalist dynasties. By the 1970s, however, control was moving overseas, or into the hands of Whitehall planners. Initially, this reflected a degree of benevolence on the part of the British state, as interventionist governments subsidised new jobs with American multinationals to replace those in heavy industries. This was one aspect of the moral economy that characterised British industrial politics in the postwar era: a set of formal and informal agreements ensured that the interests of both capital and labour were taken into account in economic decision-making.
This was, however, ‘highly contingent on a favourable economic environment, as well as governments, companies and managements which valued good relations with workforces which were often highly unionised’. With the downturn of the 1970s, ‘the moral economy was tested, and cracked.’ Here, Lloyd usefully chips away at the notion of Margaret Thatcher as a supervillain of Scottish history. As he writes, the rot started before she took office, but where Wilson, Callaghan and even Heath sought to manage the decline of Britain’s traditional industries, Thatcher removed the state from the equation, except when deploying its enforcers to put down ‘the last great action of the mineworkers’. Lloyd offers a tragic, vaguely nationalist reading of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, in which the dignified militance of the Scottish labour movement was fatally undermined by the hubris of the NUM leader, Arthur Scargill, forcing the Scottish left ‘to look to the nationalists as a bulwark against “English” politics’.
At its root, Lloyd argues, the case for independence relies ‘on seeing England, or Englishness, or the English, as malign influences on the Scots’. He finds this particularly upsetting, partly because he appears to find England preferable to Scotland. In 1971, having fled Fife for London’s alternative media scene, Lloyd wrote in the countercultural Ink magazine that ‘the Scot, to be free, has to know himself as a man. Knowing himself only as a Scot enslaves him.’ It was ‘tempting’, he added, to view ‘Scots abroad as ambitious and successful and the Scots at home as self paralysed’. No such paralysis for Lloyd, who did well down south and further afield, editing Time Out and the New Statesman and working for the Financial Times as Labour editor, Eastern Europe editor and Moscow bureau chief. With the EU – ‘the other union’ – faltering, he believes that Britain provides the closest thing to a nation-melding cosmopolitan consciousness we can hope for.
This consciousness is endangered not only by Scottish nationalists, but by a resurgent English nationalism. Lloyd believes that while Scottish nationalists claim to be trying to escape this new Anglocentrism, they should in fact accept some of the blame for it. Much of his chapter ‘The English Speak’ is dedicated to discussing the minuscule Campaign for an English Parliament, whose open resentment of Scotland’s national self-confidence and political representation he works hard to justify. He suggests Scotland should be grateful that England subsidises its centre-left policies – such as free prescriptions and university tuition – through the Barnett formula, an anachronistic bit of multinational accountancy designed to fund a proposed Scottish Assembly in the 1970s (essentially, if spending rises in England, the formula dictates an equivalent rise, calculated on the basis of population, for the three other nations of the UK). But nobody in Scotland is stopping England from having free social care or university tuition. If only Scottish votes were counted there would not have been a Conservative government since 1955. Lloyd skirts carefully around the persistent tendency of the English electorate to vote for right-wing political parties, though he does attempt to deflect accusations of English racism by pointing to the ethnic diversity of the Tory front bench.
Lloyd believes that English identity is characterised not by imperial nostalgia, as such commentators as Fintan O’Toole and Anthony Barnett have suggested, but by a more inchoate sense of communal ‘loss’. Loss of what? ‘One part of the Englishman’s burden of the three Celtic statelets was to eschew a patriotism that was other than British, or a flag that was other than the Union Jack,’ he writes. He does not discuss the more obvious and recent loss: the experience of sudden, precipitous state withdrawal that England’s industrialised regions shared with equivalent parts of Scotland. The different electoral responses of England and Scotland to these losses can be largely explained by two things. First, until well into the 1980s England had a significantly larger private sector and homeowning middle class, concentrated in the south of the country away from its former industrial centres; second, and not unrelatedly, the grip of the upper classes on the English public sphere, which has given them almost complete control over a composite Anglo-British political culture shaped in their image.
In Scotland, deindustrialisation was seen in terms far less favourable to the right, and the terms were set by a different section of society. Thatcher was elected shortly after the 1979 referendum on a Scottish Assembly, which was held by a reluctant and divided Labour government keen to fend off the rising threat of the SNP in working-class constituencies. When the narrow majority for ‘Yes’ failed to exceed the threshold of 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate (a requirement inserted into the legislation by a disgruntled Labour backbencher, George Cunningham, a Scot sitting for an English seat), the SNP’s appeal fizzled for the best part of a decade. What happened next, at least according to many of those who were involved, is that Scotland’s artists and writers stepped into the breach as the vanguard of a new, progressive Scottish nationalism that eventually produced the Scottish Parliament, and has now been successfully appropriated by the SNP. ‘If Scotland voted for political devolution in 1997,’ the literary critic Cairns Craig wrote in 2003, ‘it had much earlier declared cultural devolution,’ with everyone from Alasdair Gray to the Proclaimers providing Scotland with representation in lieu of the Assembly that failed to appear in 1979. ‘If politics and votes were the means of bringing the parliament into existence, they were not its direct cause,’ according to Craig; it was instead ‘built on the foundations of a revolution in the nation’s culture’.
Scott Hames, who is also a literary critic, calls this the ‘Dream’ narrative of Scotland’s devolutionary history, whose pretty weave of culture and politics he unpicks in The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution. This narrative has an uneasy relationship with another way of telling the same story, the ‘Grind’, which holds that ‘Scottish devolution can be explained quite adequately without reference to artistic or intellectual developments, by attending to the (far from simple) governing interests and parliamentary pressures of the period.’ It was, Hames argues, in the service of this ‘grubbier’ machine politics that cultural ‘claims to Scottish difference’ from England ‘accrued a particular symbolic and strategic value’.
Throughout the 1980s, the Labour Party was eager to suppress the SNP, to ostracise the Scottish Tories and to manage its own internal divisions, and the pliable, non-sovereign nationalism associated with the campaign for devolution ticked all three boxes. As a result, Scotland’s progressive literati were drawn into a mutually agreeable relationship with Scotland’s distinctive establishment. The Scottish Constitutional Convention formed in 1989 to establish a framework for devolution included not just Labour, Liberal Democrat, Communist and Green politicians, but also representatives from churches, local authorities, trade unions, businesses and voluntary groups that maintained an autonomous Scottish administrative system within the Union. A Scottish parliament offered this establishment a means of binding up its fraying legitimacy without leaving the British state.
Pro-devolution writers and politicians emphasised the importance of a representative national ‘voice’, rather than state or class power. Deindustrialisation could not be stopped, but it could be complained about, for both electoral and cultural profit. Who better to do that than a new generation of writers, writing about and in the voices of (often working-class) Scots? The climax of the ‘Dream’ narrative is not the successful referendum on a parliament in 1997 or its official opening in 1999, but the novelist William McIlvanney’s speech at a demonstration in December 1992. Seizing the opportunity presented by a European heads of government summit in Edinburgh, supporters of devolution thronged the Meadows to demand ‘Scottish democracy’ in the face of a Conservative government that had ‘no mandate’ from Scottish voters (there were still 11 Tory seats in Scotland at the time). ‘We gather here like refugees in the capital of our own country,’ McIlvanney declared. This wasn’t an exclusionary demand for ethnic liberation: ‘Scottishness is not some pedigree lineage. This is a mongrel tradition!’ These words – according to Neal Ascherson, who described the event in Stone Voices (2002) – ignited the crowd, and are now held up as evidence of a proudly ‘civic’ nationalism that thrives on inclusion.
Yet as Lloyd’s own case shows, there is nothing particularly Scottish about this idea; Britishness, too, is a ‘mongrel tradition’, thanks in part to its imperial past. Hames’s sharpest critique of Scotland’s new nationalism focuses on its elevation of form over content: the point is not that Scotland is a blend of identities, but that the blend of identities is Scottish. He shows how the discursive production of empty, endlessly flexible ‘difference’ became increasingly essential to the devolution project during the 1980s and 1990s. This open-ended rhetoric of nationality was used to claim a popular legitimacy counter to ‘English’ rule while sidestepping the allegations of insularity and parochialism that many of them still liked to level at the SNP. Scottishness, they could claim, was nothing in particular – it just wasn’t that. One legacy of this today is that real refugees in ‘our own country’ are embraced by the Scottish government as ‘new Scots’. But they still have to be ‘Scots’, reinforcing a quiet hierarchy of national over not-national.
Lloyd and Hames are on different sides of the constitutional debate – Hames is broadly supportive of independence – and their critical appraisals of modern Scottish nationalism reflect this. Lloyd’s unionism is in the old, cosmopolitan Scots-bourgeois mode, despairing from afar of his atavistic countrymen. Hames, by contrast, is what Stuart Hall might have called a ‘familiar stranger’: he comes from Canada, lectures at Stirling, and exists on the critical periphery of Scotland’s generally self-congratulatory public sphere (a position he and I share, and which has given us occasional cause to work together). If there is a fear for his own identity palpable in Hames’s book, it is that he will be ejected from the Scottish literary community for heresy. His book begins by quoting a letter the poet Tom Leonard wrote to an ‘inquiring editor’: ‘The one area I couldn’t touch would be contemporary Scottish writers, or the recent past. The place is too small, and I like to relax when I go for a walk.’
Hames is challenging the belief that the affirmation of Scotland’s cultural selfhood precedes not just politics, but criticism. For decades Scottish literature has had to struggle for autonomy and status in university English departments: conflating this struggle with that of the Scottish people has been a central strategy in this disciplinary fight. The growing confidence of Scots in their own language has been emphasised. ‘My culture and my language have a right to exist, and no one has the authority to dismiss that,’ James Kelman said when he won the Booker Prize for How Late It Was, How Late in 1994. By effectively nationalising the vocal signature of the dispossessed, Scottish fiction produced what Hames calls a ‘spectacle of voice’, promoting Scottishness as intrinsically demotic without worrying about what was actually being said. The appropriation of Kelman into the ‘Dream’ narrative of Scottish literature is, Hames notes, hard to square with his actual work. Apart from its use of language, How Late It Was, How Late is largely ‘divorced from recognisable Scottish society’, expressing instead ‘the freedom and resilience of the individual subject’. Kelman is also fiercely critical of the paternalistic logic implicit in the ‘Dream’: the novel’s protagonist, Sammy, blinded after a fight with a (Scottish) plainclothes policeman, decides that he has ‘nay intention of using a rep [lawyer] … Nay cunt was gony get him out of trouble; nay cunt except himself.’
This process of incorporation is not specific to Scotland: countless nationalisms have appropriated folk-speech to confer authenticity on their middle-class leaders. But the trick of Scots is to offer a linguistic register of difference that never actually breaks with English. Hames provides a brief and amusing account of some activists on the more extreme fringes of 1970s linguistic nationalism blanching at their own vision of compulsory Gaelic in schools. But Scots can be an add-on to the Anglosphere, replicating the constitutional logic of devolution. In Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), Mark Renton’s ability to flit from the scalding, street-smart Scots of his peers to a careful English eloquence in front of a judge hints less at Scotland’s old tortured dualism than a new, self-emancipating flexibility. As part of a transnational cultural turn towards performed authenticity and outsider chic, Trainspotting benefited from post-proletarian Scotland’s marketability as an exotic variant of Britishness. The civic nationalism so many young Scots have embraced since 2014 is sustained not by a deep and mobilising hatred of the English, but by global capital’s fetish for ‘roots’ and ‘place’, to which the romantic marginality of Scottishness is perfectly suited.
Lloyd shouldn’t be so worried: far from breaking with unionism, this is a pretty effective way of adapting its spirit to a world in which the British state is diminished. The greatest unionist of all, Walter Scott, reconciled Scotland to the Union by placing its political identity as a separate state safely in the past, as it exchanged war, peril and romance for power and prosperity in the present. For most nationalists today, Scottishness is still something to be packaged – in a party, in a parliament, in a voice – and instrumentalised. Hames at times comes close to backing a much harder form of nationalism, which sees Scotland’s treacherous liberal elites as having taken the Volksgeist for a joyride and then overturned it, wheels spinning in the air. This should be read as an argument against the ‘identitarian’ thinking that has supplanted more radical visions of identity on the left, and which settles for representation within existing, oppressive institutions and class structures. Lloyd’s (no doubt deliberately) awkward comparison of Scottishness with ‘blackness’ hints at the limits of the Scottish claim to liberation from Britishness. Yet the same analogy was made by Cairns Craig in 1996: ‘It is not by our colour, of course, that we have stood to be recognised as incomplete within the British context, it is by the colour of our vowels.’
But ‘our vowels’ aren’t always problematic. Britain has been perfectly happy with the Jean Brodie burr of the Edinburgh bourgeois, or Kirsty Wark’s West Coast equivalent. It is the expropriated identity of the Scottish working class, mined by Scottish intellectuals and acquired by Scottish politicians, which allows the SNP to make such claims and to speak ‘for’ the people rather than to them. As Hames notes, there is remarkably little real connection between the everyday life of most Scots over the past five decades and the prevailing narratives of devolution, which invest the Scottish Parliament with a symbolic authority that far outstrips its constitutional status. Many of the writers and politicians that he discusses were, however, products of the radical social mobility enabled by the British welfare state after the Second World War. Many of the intellectuals who set the ‘Dream’ in motion and mythologised it afterwards came from working-class backgrounds and were helped along by free education at an expanding number of universities, by Scottish Arts Council grants and the benefits system. The same goes for Scotland’s politicians and journalists, many of whom are at most a generation removed from the working class.
Yet this was also a British experience, even a European one. Perhaps the best way of understanding Scotland’s enduring political divergence from England is by seeing the two countries as representing different ways of settling the unsettled identities which were one consequence of the upward mobility of the postwar era. England’s expanding homeowning class found in Thatcherism and Brexit a narrative which allowed them to justify openly abandoning the politics of social solidarity, while their equivalents in Scotland found in devolution a means of pretending they hadn’t done the same, benevolently granting the class they’d left behind a voice instead of a future. The self-image of Scotland’s centre-left is, in this sense, impeccably Blairite.
As a reward for its support in this endeavour, the Scottish working class has had its culture boiled down and commodified as dispossession kitsch, a vocal pose of cheeky defiance. It’s not only their voice that has been given away. Scotland’s offshored economy is more removed than ever from democratic control. Its public services have been cut to shreds as the SNP shunts the responsibility for executing Westminster’s austerity policies onto local authorities. Even the country’s once renowned educational standards are now, as Lloyd shows, falling behind England’s, something he blames on a cross-party overhaul of the Scottish curriculum in the mid-2000s. In all these cases, real nationhood has been replaced by the fiction of ‘choice’: the market decrees where production is based, the voluntary sector is forced to step in to feed the poor, and the new Curriculum for Excellence swaps out centrally mandated canonical knowledge for flexible ‘processes’ of learning (though the SNP has struggled to reduce the significance of exams, creating further confusion). The SNP’s programme for independence relies on a similar evacuation of defined content from its project, proposing a fluid, adaptive state that can be whatever the world economy needs it to be, helped by deficit reduction and the retention of the pound sterling until foreign investors can tolerate an alternative currency. Even Lloyd, who once yearned to escape his status as a Scot, admits he would be tempted by an independence that ‘grapples with reality’, demanding ‘decades of hard work and belt-tightening’ to discover what we’re really made of.
Maybe we are discovering that already. The shocks of Brexit and Covid-19 have exposed some of the faultlines in the SNP’s civic, gradualist approach. With England opting for a hard Brexit, the old goal of ‘independence in Europe’ would now bring with it a hard border in the south – precisely the kind of concrete differentiation that has been anathema to mainstream Scottishness for decades. The economic fallout from Covid-19, meanwhile, has illustrated the immense importance of powerful central banks, exposing the dangers faced by countries like Italy that find themselves marginalised within a currency union. The UK government’s Covid-19 slogan, ‘Protect the NHS,’ suggests that British elites can still call on an institutionalised form of social solidarity when necessary; the Scottish government opted for ‘Protect Scotland’. The word ‘Scotland’ is only there to provide local legitimacy: the Scottish government has largely followed the ‘four nations’ co-ordination of the crisis response. The recent divergence in lockdown exit strategies has been driven from the centre rather than the devolved peripheries, but new political opportunities may emerge in the gaps. The SNP are expert at presenting themselves as the protectors of an older, common-good version of Britishness, unlike the excitable vandals in the south.
In the aftermath of Covid-19 and Brexit, an exhausted and cash-strapped British state may no longer be able to provide the ‘tested solidarity’ Lloyd ascribes to it; it’s also worth wondering whether there will be any challenge to Scottish nationalism’s vapidities. A firmer, less flattering sense of ourselves will be needed if the country is to break out of what Tom Nairn called its ‘display-identity’. Self-interrogation of the kind found in Hames’s book is a necessary starting point. But it’s hard to see how any advance can be made without a change in the political situation. Currently, the affected leftism of mainstream Scottish nationalism is lent credence by the rabid opposition of the Scottish Tories. The truly sad case, however, is Scottish Labour. It shares with Lloyd a sense that London and its politics are not so much a burden on Scotland as a potential escape from its miseries, a means of bypassing SNP hegemony and proving that it doesn’t matter where politics is done if it’s done by the right people, for the right reasons. It’s a cosy, entitled worldview many Scots have grown to resent. The SNP are unambiguous about where power should lie, which is a more comfortable place to be. ‘When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns,’ Mrs Howden says in Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, ‘but naebody’s nails can reach the length o’Lunnon.’ If there’s a void at the heart of Scottish political identity, it is because the halfway house of devolution keeps our real obsession elsewhere, in the imperial capital that still determines – by attraction and repulsion – our political, economic and cultural horizons. Overcoming that, within or outwith the Union, will require a different kind of Scottishness.
Additions have been made to this piece since the print edition went to press on 8 May 2020.