Recently, there seems to have been an increase in the number of calls for Scots to remember their shared history with the rest of the UK. We’ve had Alan Cochrane doing some metaphorical flag waving in his book, the First Sea Lord reminding us of the Scots who fought at Trafalgar, Prof. Tomkins of University of Glasgow citing several episodes of shared successes and, most recently, historian Simon Schama providing us with a list of Scots who have contributed in some way to the success of the Union.
I confess that I am struggling to see the relevance of these appeals to our collective patriotism. Are they being made because the Unionists know that their economic and political arguments have all been countered? No, I don’t think that is what lies behind these emotional appeals. Sadly, I think the real reason is that these people genuinely believe what they are saying. They live in a world where Britannia still rules the waves, where the Empire still exerts its influence on the world and where there is incomprehension at the very notion of anyone not wanting to be British.
The arguments they put forward are, of course, illogical. When Simon Schama points out the English positions of authority held by Robert the Bruce’s grandfather, what relevance does that have to the current state of the UK? When the first Sea Lord reminds us of the glories of Trafalgar, why should that influence our decision on how to vote?
Don’t get me wrong. For military minds, it is important that service personnel have examples of courage and fortitude to look up to and to emulate. That is entirely understandable. But most of those who will be voting in the referendum have never served in the armed forces and don’t have the same need to bask in the reflected pride in military achievements, even though many of the older generation were brought up and educated to believe that Britain’s military power was something to be admired. The relic of this can be seen in the continual references to the UK being a global power and having a seat at the top table. This is a much-repeated mantra but I confess that I do not feel the need to live in a country which sees itself as being in a position to order other countries around, which is what these claims boil down to. Prof. Tomkins, in his article which Better Together reproduced on their website, insisted that Britain has been a force for good in the world. He cites several examples, most of which, to be fair, are fairly recent but one of which was the abolition of slavery. Now, there is no doubt that this is something Britain can be proud of but I would argue that there are far more things Britain should be ashamed of in its past. The British Empire was not a benevolent institution which spread around the world with a view to sharing democracy and helping other people to improve their lives. It was a fairly cynical trading empire, backed up by military force and while we can admire many of the acts of bravery shown by British soldiers and seamen in individual actions that took place around the world, we must nevertheless ask ourselves what they were doing there in the first place.
Many years ago, as a teenager, I first read the irreverent history book, “1066 And All That”. It was witty and entertaining and the more I have learned about History in the intervening years, the funnier I find it. There is, though, one section that reveals, more than anything, the imperialist view of the Empire. It is a list of colonial wars, giving details of who the war was fought against, the causes of the war, the events that took place and the ultimate conclusion, always a British triumph. The humour was introduced by each item on the list being shorter than the one before until the last entry which simply reads, “War with the Zulus. Cause, the Zulus. Zulus exterminated. Peace with the Zulus.” Like most good satire, this is both funny and tragic at the same time and neatly encapsulates the British method of dealing with anyone who dared to oppose the expansion of Britain’s interests. It is a view that lingers in the minds of many as revealed in Prof. Tomkins’ article when he is waxing lyrical about the democracy shown by the UK in permitting a peaceful referendum on Scottish independence. Such a thing simply would not happen in other parts of the world, he tells us. This is no doubt true but he then reveals his imperialist worldview by giving examples of other separatist movements in Spain and Canada, nations he refers to as “lesser states”. Well, of course they are. They are not British, are they?
As for Prof. Tomkins’ reference to the abolition of slavery as an example of the good that Britain has done, it really shouldn’t be necessary to point out that Britain was one of the countries that was heavily involved in the slave trade for many years, yet Prof. Tomkins omitted to mention that.
But references to events in the distant past are not all that the Unionists refer to when they quote the argument from history. “What about the world wars?” they ask. “How would an independent Scotland have coped? Aren’t you dishonouring the those who fought and died in those wars?
Ok, there are two main points to be answered there. First, the “What if” aspect of how an independent Scotland would have coped. This is a silly argument because Scotland wasn’t independent at the time. “What if” questions are a favourite intellectual game of History students but they are not relevant to the modern world. “What if King Harold had won the Battle of Hastings?” Well, he didn’t, so while you can enjoy arguing about it, it makes no difference. The same goes for the World War aspect. Scotland was part of the UK so the question of an independent Scotland facing Nazi Germany is a purely hypothetical one and has no bearing on the current referendum.
But what about respecting the memory of those who fought and died in the wars? Well, the truth is that this is another argument that misses the point. My father served in World War Two and was badly wounded for his troubles. He often used to tell me accounts of his experiences and I look back on those tales with fondness because of the humour he used. Yet I know he never told me about any of the truly horrific and gruesome sights he must have witnessed, even though I know they never left him. My main emotion when thinking about his war service is one of immense sadness that the world had fallen to such a state that, like so many of his generation, an inherently peaceable and gentle man should need to put his life in danger to oppose the spread of Nazism. His personal sacrifice is something that I am proud of but I do not believe that this is in itself a reason to vote to maintain the Union.
I think that if I were able to see my father again and say to him, “You fought in the war. You were fighting for Britain. Therefore Britain is worth fighting for, therefore I will vote No.” I think he would have told me not to be so stupid and to use my brain a bit more rather than fall back on simple patriotism. Indeed, although he was thoroughly English, I do believe he would have voted Yes in the referendum because, above all, he believed in fairness, not in flag waving.
But flag waving is what most of these appeals to shared history come down to. The Unionists fervently believe in their imperialist-influenced patriotism and so are incapable of understanding that anyone else can think differently. Theirs is an ethnic nationalism, as evidenced by the growing influence of UKIP. They therefore believe that the calls for Scottish independence must be driven by the same kind of xenophobic nationalism which, for some reason, they insist must be bad even though it mirrors their own view of British nationalism. They cling to their outmoded patriotic values, always looking to the past and never looking forward, wanting the world to remain a place where Britain is a major global power. They cite examples from the past of Scots who have contributed to the UK as if these historical figures had any real option. The Union was a fact of life and, like it or not, there was no prospect of altering it. This does not mean, of course, that many of those Scots did not feel British but I would argue that, being men and women of the times in which they lived, it might have been difficult for them to think of themselves in any other way. However, the world moves on and we must move with it. I am often reminded of the words of Dr. Johnson who said that, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, a comment that always springs to mind whenever I visit the Better Together website to see what they are up to and see them claiming to be a patriotic organisation.
I must say that I don’t think Simon Schama et al are scoundrels. I just think they are misguided and completely out of touch with what is really happening in Scotland due to their rigid way of thinking. One of Schama’s more ludicrous comments was to state that five of the post-war Prime Ministers have been Scottish or from Scottish ancestry, including David Cameron.
Wow! Cameron is Scottish, therefore I must vote for him if I am Scottish? I’m sorry, but I don’t see the connection there.
Unfortunately, Schama did not confine himself to making fatuous arguments in his recent article. He also made one of the most appalling comments I have ever read, which was that we should not throw away three hundred years of shared history for the sake of disposing of such things as Trident and the Bedroom tax.
What? Can he really have meant that? Does he not realise that several people have committed suicide because of the Bedroom Tax and other Welfare cuts? For a historian, perhaps those people were merely statistics but for me they are tragic examples of what is wrong in Britain today and are far more important than even a minute’s worth of shared history. Anyone with a smattering of humanity must surely see that a system where a rich elite victimise the poor and vulnerable in society is seriously flawed and, if other examples from history are any guide, doomed to ultimate collapse.
If we are to look to History for inspiration as to how to vote, perhaps we should look at the aftermath of the First World war when soldiers, sailors and airmen returned to what was supposed to be a “Land fit for heroes”, only to discover that, for many of them, the country they had fought for simply threw them onto the scrapheap of unemployment. Is that the sort of thing we are supposed to be proud of?
My final word on this flawed argument from History is another thing that those brought up in the Rule Britannia school of thought rarely consider. When you listen to their view of history, particularly the view put forward by Simon Schama, it is a “Big Man” view. We are told about famous politicians, about Kings and Queens, but we are rarely told about ordinary people. For me, history is not only about what famous people did, it is much more about how ordinary people lived their lives. History does not shape people nearly as much as people shape History and it is the ordinary people who ultimately do that shaping. Leaders may point the way but it is the people who make things happen. This is particularly true in Scotland where our Kings and Queens were referred to as rulers of “The Scots”, not “Of Scotland”. Mary, Queen of Scots is probably the best known example of this but it stretches a long way back in time to when rulers were referred to as “King of the Scots and Picts”. Yes, we had rulers but the people could overthrow the King or Queen if they were dissatisfied with his or her rule, as effectively happened with John Baliol. This basic right of the people to be ruled by consent has been largely forgotten. It is the one aspect of history that I think is relevant to the forthcoming referendum. In September, we have a once in a lifetime chance to resurrect that ancient right. Let’s make sure that we turn this into one episode in History that future generations will actually be able to look back on with pride.