National Conversation: Scotland

Posted on 10 January 2012

When the history of twentieth century North Britain is written, it seems quite possible that the revival of Scottishness will be seen as the overarching theme beneath which all else will be discussed.

In 1974, 31% of Scots answered “British” to the question: “What nationality best describes you?” By 2001 that figure was just 16%.  A more nuanced consideration reveals that while one in three Scots felt “equally Scottish and British” in 1992,  fewer than one in four did so in 2001.

Asked in that year to select “something that is very important to you when you think of yourself”, “being Scottish” was mentioned almost as often as “being a mother/father). 45% of respondents referenced their Scottishness, just 11% their Britishness.

All this, mark you, before Alex Salmond usurped Labour and established the SNP as, for the time being, the pre-eminent political force in the land. Devolution was a response to this trend; not a cause of it.

The SNP’s ascendancy is not, however, simply a matter of politics. On the contrary, it is a cultural phenomenon and cannot sensibly be understood without conceding this. That’s one reason why support for the SNP at Holyrood elections outstrips support for Scottish independence. Voting SNP is, for many Scots, a matter of cultural declaration more than it is an endorsement of the promises published in the SNP’s manifesto.

In part this phenomenon can be explained by the fact that Scotland is more like England now than it has been at any point since, perhaps, the Reformation. For centuries, the Church of Scotland was the dominant force in Scottish life, giving Scotland a distinctive stamp and ethos very different and, in many ways, very foreign to England. That no longer applies. Homogenised Britain increases the value of perceived or marginal difference. This too must have an impact on national identity and sentiment. There was no need to express difference when that difference was obvious, unquestioned and unquestionable. A re-emphasised Scottishness is a response to the modern world, not a retreat from it.

To give a personal example: my grandfather, an Aberdeenshire boy turned rubber planter in Malaya, considered himself British “except on St Andrews night” and scorned the kilt as dress fit only for Highlanders; his grandsons are happy to be married in tartan and likely to consider themselves Scots first, Britons second.

The Empire and the shared sacrifices of the Second World War retreat into history. With them, inevitably, march some of the shared institutions and culture that made Britain attractive and, more importantly, meaningful. Which institutions are left? The monarchy, the armed forces and, to lesser degrees, parliament and the BBC. There are precious few other pan-British institutions.

Pre-devolution, the Secretary of State for Scotland was often Scotland’s man in the government but he was always the government’s man in Scotland. As First Minister Alex Salmond has few powers that were not available to the Secretaries of State but he has, unquestionably, a greater mandate and legitimacy. Scottish politics, even in the pre-Home Rule era, was always separate; it’s just that few London-based commentators bothered to notice this.

Of the other British institutions? The armed forces, respected though they be, are not enough to build a nation. The BBC faces an uncertain future, increasingly unsure as to what its role should be. Which leaves the monarchy: an institution that Alex Salmond has no desire to dismantle.

And why should he? The “best” parts of Britishness can survive a putative (if still distant) independent Scotland. Scots will still watch the BBC, still share a head of state with England and much else besides.

Looking across the Irish Sea shows us how it can be done. Unlike most Scots I attended an Irish university; unlike many Scots I have no Irish connections in my immediate family. But for thousands of us east-west cultural ties are as important as north-south relationships. The Irish are not “foreigners” in the sense Germans or Spaniards are foreigners. They are family: distinct but related. (Of course, many English people have ties that stretch across the Irish Sea too. But this is a much smaller part of the modern English experience than it is of Scotland’s.)

Similarly, it is hard to imagine a future in which the relationships between the people’s of these islands are anything other than extremely close. Formally or not this is some kind of English-speaking Commonwealth and will, because of history and culture and marriage and much else besides, remain so.

Britishness will exist even if the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland does not. It might not always be acknowledged but it will be there nonetheless, just as Ireland remains, in many ways, a very “British” kind of country. So will Scotland, whatever happens in the political arena.

This has been a stateless nation for three hundred years. During that time Scottishness has risen and fallen time and time again (the present revival is not the first: the Victorian era recanonised Bruce and Wallace too). At present Scottishness is strengthening and Britishness weakening but just as Britishness could never extinguish Scottishness so the reverse is true. There will always be a Britain, albeit one that is based on history and culture, not necessarily politics and institutions.

Alex Massie is a journalist based in Scotland.

Posted in Scotland