History Lessons

union_mainLessons from history don’t hold up the case for the Union, argues Gordon Anthony

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.



Categories: History

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19 replies

  1. Speaking from Canada, where I have been domiciled for the last eon or so, I can say with confidence that pretty much the only place where the idea that Great Britain, and by that we really mean anywhere within 100 miles of the dreaming spires, is of any consequence is between the ears of Schama and co. Over here everyone, including the sizeable population of Scots descendants who were disinvited from their homeland either through economic leverage or their houses being set on fire, really couldn’t give a crap beyond ensuring small crowds assemble when the Royals occasionally appear so as we don’t appear rude.

    The subtextual argument here from the great brittania-ists is, that should we select to be in charge of ourselves, we could never even dream of the greatness we were allowed to contribute to.

    Wow. Even their attempts to try to complement the Scottish contribution is patronizing.

    Just Say Yes.

  2. I see that when they invoke past memories and let’s concentrate on more recent events starting with WW1 they all conveniently forget the part played by family greed and jealousy of our royals and their European cousins who by their collective interference in democratic governments largely brought about WW1. Then due to the horrific reparations demanded of Germany by the ‘Allies’ led to the rise of Hitler and Nazism. We could also mention the incompetent public school educated nincompoops and their gung-ho attitudes to king and empire and all the rest of the crap caused the unnecessary slaughter of millions of very brave ordinary men and a few women on both sides.

    I am more inclined to look back and remember the way Scots, Irish, Welsh and yes even the ordinary Englishman/women as well, were treated on their return from Flanders, no jobs, no houses sky high prices for even the basics etc. I’m sorry our shared heritage means zilch, absolutely nothing to me. I’m more interested in carving out a new more prosperous and fair society for my children and grand children to grow up in.

    Auls Rock

  3. Ah, the glorious history of, striding the world, invading other peoples countries and cultures, stripping their natural and societal wealth, generally being absolute dicks. No thanks, I’ll look to the future, in the belief we can do better.

  4. As much as I respect Simon Schama, having read and enjoyed several of his books, I am in complete agreement with your assessment of the FT article. There was no empathy shown towards ordinary Scots and their aspirations for the future. Dwelling on bricks and mortar more than flesh and blood. His comments regarding the bedroom tax and Trident were utterly shocking. I hope this shows his, as you say, lack of awareness of Scottish political discourse over the last 30 years. If not they reveal a disdainful and haughty tone I had hitherto been unaware of in his writings.

  5. In the end when it comes to defending the union, its always with an eye to the past. The past is all they have as the present union…well lets be honest here, if we were to have had an honest debate about the state of the union now – then frankly the no camp would have been on the back foot from day one.

    So any positive appeals are appeals to history. The current day union is defended by the odd tactic of separating Scotland from the UK, and then try to sell it as a form of giro cheque that we grateful Scots have been cashing in for 300 years. When that doesn’t work, fire off one brainfart after another about Europe, currency, banking, sport, culture, education and affirm that it is only “Britain” that spares Scotland from total calamity. Here again we see them detach Scotland from the UK. Once we have been reduced to a nation living on charity, its easier to attack the idea of Independence as childish folly. When that doesn’t work piss in the well of debate and ensure nothing comes back to them.

    If they are challenged from their own camp, then roll out the love bombs. When that doesn’t work revert to history and ensure that there is nothing in there that can embarrass the union.

    Colin Kidd wrote in “Union and Unionisms” that the success of the union in the last 40 or so years was that it became so banal, no one noticed it anymore. Ian Lang in a documentary about Thatcher and the Scots, said the success of the union, was that it was built on 300 years of compromises and fudges. I think that both were more or less on the right track. I would add that its success was down to it ensuring no more English interference in Scottish trade, religious beliefs and removed the constant threat of war with England. Many nationalists were Unionists. They felt that the union then was the right thing to do. Many disagreed that’s why home rule never left the table.

    This debate should have been about if the Union was still a good deal for Scotland. It was up to the unionists to sell its suitability, not relying on hoary old Thatcherite bromides about Subsidy Junkie Scotland.

    Remember that something changed in Scotland from 1951 to the present day. It was so fundamental that it would see a devolved parliament come into being. Scots voted for this because they did not trust the status quo of that time. Which was Westminster governing Scotland through the Scottish Office. They wanted something to protect them from a Westminster Government, when the English voted in something that was hostile to Scotland. The conservative party of Thatcher and major, were the architects of their own misfortunes here. They utterly failed to understand Scotland and for that matter appreciate what the devo result in the 70’s actually meant. It led to them betraying Scotland in such a manner, that they are to this day, utterly toxic. So toxic that the current prime minister of the UK, dare not show his face in a debate on the matter. The significance of is utterly lost on unionists. It so significant that I will say it again: The prime minister of the UK, dare not defend that union in Scotland.

    The union of 1707 is not the union of 2014. Things have changed and it is clear that Scots place little faith in Westminster. Nothing is ever going to be the same again. Because in truth there is no “status quo”. Its about what Scots believe as acceptable and what they are prepared to tolerate. The parties that thrive in Scotland are the ones who promote Scotland within the Union. Not “North Britain” and certainly not the “Union in Scotland”. If there is a no vote – it is up to the unionists to make and win the peace. They will be facing a large proportion of fellow Scots, who wanted the Union ended and don’t accept “British” identity. They have done so much damage to the edifice of the Union and Scotland’s reputation within the union, that is very likely that they will not enjoy their moment of triumph for long. They have needlessly attacked people they will need to be on their side. Its not something they will be able to dismiss as “banter”. This is a bell they cannot unring. They will have to live with the consequences of what they did. Its no surprise that Douglas Alexander called on the SNP to do the heavy lifting post no. Quite extraordinary to see a political party try to their opposing side to “own” another parties victory. This is clearly a party that does not expect to win in 2015 and indeed, clearly expects to lose in 2016. It could be argued that labour desperately want the SNP to be held responsible for the consequences of a NO vote. Its also clear to me that the party with the most to lose in a no vote, is actually Labour. The Tories are dying out, the lib-dems are going to know what it was like to be a Tory in 1997. No – Its labour that’s going to find itself facing a lot of awkward questions post No. It clearly doesn’t have a clue, its not thinking ahead. Its eyes are fixed on the past, when things were easier for them. Your supposed to learn from History – not repeat its mistakes or live there.

    Poor old labour – poor old union

    • David, if Scotland votes yes how will you respond to the substantial numbers of Scots who voted no ? Continue to abuse them as traitors, fearties or bigots or accept that many people will vote on the basis of what they genuinely believe to be in the best economic, social and political interests of Scotland and that their opinions and judgements may differ from yours ?

      • I have never abused any no voter. I will challenge the no campaigns version of Scotland, as I simply don’t recognise the place they are talking about. But to answer your question. If there is a yes vote then it is whoever forms the Scottish Government to win the peace. Since the yes campaign has been hopeful not fearful, has been positive about Scotland being a success and has not traduced Scots to the extent that Bettertogether has, then they will be able to build and mend those bridges. The danger for the no campaign, is that playing on peoples fears, projecting Scotland as a failure and indeed labelling yes voters in the most negative light possible, is that they will be unable to accept Scots who voted yes, and subsequently be unable to reconcile these people into being British.

        Thatcher made the critical error of thinking she had put devolution to bed in the 70’s. She proceeded to implement the very things she claimed a yes vote would usher in. She “forgot” her promise of a better devolution deal and proceeded to marginalise then ignore Scotland. In the end that no vote she counted on was largely comprised of people who had believed in the fears about jobs and also believed the promise of “jam tomorrow”. By 1997 the Tories could not turn this around and the rest is as they say, History. They owned this calamity so completely that it was only the conservatives that suffered from the fallout. From that day to this, they are still utterly toxic and Labour has dined heartily on a diet of Anti-tory sentiment ever since.

        The no camp will be in a similar situation if there is a narrow “NO” win. In many ways its actually worse. They have done more damage to Scotland’s reputation within the union, that many people in the rUK think they really do pay for everything here. Like I said in my earlier post, its a bell you can’t unring. Subsequently if they do make the same error of judgement as Thatcher, it won’t be a single party that suffers. It will be all the mainstream Westminster parties.

        i have no faith whatsoever in the Westminster system to deal with this responsibly or with the degree of nuance that it requires. I do absolutely expect them to do their absolute worst. You only have to look at how they have allowed UKIP to set the tone of debate in the UK, to know nothing good can come out of a no vote.

  6. The main reason the union has lasted so long has been the “success” of the British empire. Crudely put: all energy was concentrated on the subjugation and exploitation of innocent people around the world.
    Sadly many Scots played an important role in that exploitation.
    Thankfully the empire is gone; there is no excuse now for not concentrating our energy on Scotland’s independence.

    • Sadly many Scots played an important role in that exploitation.

      Having recently read “How the Scots invented the modern world” and “How the Scots invented Canada”, it becomes very obvious. It makes me wonder just how proud should we be?

  7. North Britons Dan! That’s how I distinguish them from Scots.The ones that were part of the empire were the sold out North Brits.The real Scots wanted nothing to do with Mother England.Same today better together are just north Brits.They don’t waive the flag of Scotland,they pretend the saltire doesn’t exist.

  8. Oh I remember our shared history alright, or at least the one that they wanted us to remember at school. I had the audacity to argue with my history teacher, when I was aged 12. Asked why we should be proud of our past Empire, I told him I wasn’t proud but rather ashamed that my ancestors and kinsman played any part in its formation. He wanted to know why I was ashamed of it, probably thinking he could argue against my points. I told him that Empires are built on others suffering and often to the detriment of the natives of conquered lands. We enslaved people, forced them to join our armies and stole their natural resources to name but a few. Yes, something to be proud of. I got six of the best for my troubles. Nothing like being honest eh?.

  9. As a Scot living in Australia for the last fifty years I have never described myself as British. In fact in my childish ignorance thanks to a subservient education system in Glasgow in the fifties I cringed when I heard the term. Nothing has changed and the more I’ve learned thanks to this site and others I am in a constant simmering rage at the lies and deceits that have been told to me and my forebears who barely had the time to think thanks to the exploitation of their labour. Loss of life and health is my inheritance so when I hear that kind of imperial nonsense I am once again reminded that although I have been isolated at times to the point of complete despair I always knew in my heart that there was another story and I am learning about it every day. When I hear Scots in this part of the world say the referendum has nothing to do with me as well as the few in Scotland that I keep in touch with it only makes me more determined to keep learning and speaking about something which has given me hope that there is a place where there is a groundswell of resistance to the cruelty and abuses of the old imperialism that has caused such misery in every corner it colonised. So thank you all of you at Bella and those who respond with generosity and intelligence to this most important historical event that we are living through. No matter the outcome in September and I will be there it will be a positive for those who have supported their country both near and far. Of course it won’t be a stroll in the park but maybe some honesty will at last rise to the surface and the number will be relegated to the bottom of the pit and the word will take its rightful place again in the midst of decent communities.

  10. Excellent piece, Anthony……….my newsagent kept the Weekend FT for me for 6 years………but cancelled it after reading Schama’s piece.
    I do think you were too generous to him……….the waffle about the glorious achievements of the Union was a prelude to the cheap shot near the end comparing Salmond with Putin and Farage

  11. Strange. I’ve had two visits so far from the Yes campaigners but no sign of the No campaigners, not even on the big, blue, red and white beyond, or soon to be. Makes you wonder if they are serious about Scotland staying in the Union, or are they giving up the ghost already?. Maybe my vote isn’t worth fighting for. It isn’t now anyway as the Yes have won me over for sure.

  12. Liked the article, Gordon. A neat summation of the backward-looking history of the Union. They just don’t get it; that we want to look forward now and the world has moved on.

    Incidentally, did you know Alan Cochrane is also a Grove FP? He was is 6th year in 1967/68, so your paths didn’t cross.

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