It’s time to bring history into the referendum debate

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'History is all around us' / CC
Photograph: 'History is all around us' / CC

Whatever the outcome of September’s referendum, it’s a cause for regret that the debate has failed to ignite a popular interest in Scotland’s Union history.  For most of last 307 years, Scotland was an equal partner in an empire that, at its zenith in 1922, spanned nearly a quarter of the world and held sway over half a billion people. 100 years later the referendum may be about competing visions for Scotland’s future, but as Edward Gibbon said, there is “no way of judging of the future but by the past.”

So when considering the case for independence “can we seriously pretend”, as Jeremy Paxman asks in his book Empire, “that a project which dominated the way that Britain regarded the world for so many hundreds of years had no lasting influence on the colonizers, too?”

The past is not irrelevant to the future of Scotland. The Scottish potential cited by Yes Scotland – trade, energy, human resources, banking, medical and technical excellence – are all hallmarks that distinguished Scots throughout the British Empire.

The Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century advanced every field from philosophy to economics to medicine. The names of David Hume, Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Adam Smith are synonymous with ingenuity and originality. Their achievements gave Scotland the global reputation she has today.

It is surely then a fallacy to decontextualize these triumphs from the imperial circumstances in which they flourished.

Celebrity opinion is a case and point. Two years ago Yes Scotland formally launched and was heavily criticised for showcasing famous supporters, including actors Brian Cox, Alan Cumming and Sir Sean Connery, who didn’t actually live in Scotland. The criticism still stands against a campaign which prides itself on a vote for independence offering full powers to those “of us who live and work here.”

The irony is however that by the twenty-first century, there are about as many people of Scottish descent in both Canada and the United States as the population of Scotland. These celebrity expats are but some of the colossal number who left Scotland to make a home in another land. 2.3 million Scots left Scotland between 1825 and 1938 to make lasting cultural and economic contributions in British territories like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and North America. In 1701 Scotland had a population of around only 1.1m that reached 5m by 1939. The diaspora represented a huge population shift.

So as much as the Yes campaign advocates independence as the means to give Scotland the opportunity of taking up a role in the world, it might be better to call it a proposed return. Writing in 1888, the Liberal MP Sir Charles Dilke remarked that:

“In British settlements, from Canada to Ceylon, from Dunedin to Bombay, for every Englishman that you meet who has worked himself up to wealth from small beginnings without external aid, you find ten Scotchmen.”

The British Empire had a disproportionate representation of Scots at every level of its administration. One-third of colonial governors between 1850 and 1939 are said to have been Scots. By the early nineteenth century, both Ireland and Scotland were sending disproportionately large numbers of soldiers to fight Britain’s colonial wars in North America, Egypt, South Africa, China.

The problem with the referendum debate today stems from what Professor Devine called an “acute case of imperial amnesia” that gripped Scotland after the decline of the empire in the 1950s.

Instead of a boom in literature and analysis of Scottish participation in the recently departed imperial project, ‘victim history’ took hold at the popular level in the 1960s. Huge sales of books such as those by the Canadian writer, John Prebble, on the Highland Clearances, the Massacre of Glencoe, Culloden and other Scottish tragedies began to take centre stage. These were published at a time when, as Devine notes, “politics of grievance within the Union, associated with the rise of the SNP, became a popular factor in Scotland.”

The problem works both ways. Popularising our past beyond its medieval episodes means taking responsibility for its more unsavoury aspects. The Yes campaign portrays Scotland as exceptional in regard to morality and the spirit of bonhomie it exhibits toward the world, but Scotland is not without its blemishes.

When watching the film Amazing Grace the other night, I was struck that it was the prominent Scottish MP Henry Dundas who was instrumental in efforts to blockade the abolition of slavery. The original Scottish Secretary post was abolished in 1746 after the Jacobite rising of 1745 and the administration of Scotland was conducted as a ‘night-watchman’ state. Scotland’s MP’s and their votes were ‘managed’ by Dundas as the most senior Scottish official.

On 2 April 1792, Dundas made himself the champion of ‘gradual’ abolition of the slave trade and carried his case. He advocated that gradual abolition or delayed abolition was preferable, and stipulated that the slave trade only be targeted to protect the interest of Scottish merchants’ and British merchants’ business in the Caribbean.

For many, it remains, as Devine says, an unfathomable “notion that Scots could have been eager and exploitative collaborators with England in the global project of Empire.” Perhaps it is seen as an irrelevancy.

But when we have a debate that has descended into such bile it would be refreshing to see a change from the over-reliance on the opinions of well-known celebrities. A plethora of excellent books and academic studies continue to be produced on the subject of empire, but still, the cause for independence is predicated on the perceived post-war failure of the Union.

Indeed, when analysing the economic impact of removing Scotland from the UK, it is informative to consider the effects associated with the end of the imperial markets and the decline of empire on Scotland. The Union gave Scotland unparalleled mercantile and manufacturing opportunities, most notably in shipbuilding and the jute industry, yet it ended. History can afford some answers when weighing the impact of an end to market access.

For all the chagrin between the SNP and Scottish Labour, the approach of the Yes campaign is strikingly analogous to the New Labour election strategy of the 1990’s. Then as now famous acolytes were a significant help in recasting the image of the campaign as modern and ‘cool’.

The entire first chapter of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s autobiography, A Journey, is dedicated to the onerous responsibility of reconciling stratospheric expectations generated by presentation and buzz with the realities of government:

“To this day, I’m never sure of the effect the celebrity thing has. I don’t dismiss it, as some do. When you are trying to capture the mood – and this is more often so for a progressive party – celebs can reinforce, even boost the message.

“They clearly don’t determine the outcome, but properly used, they help. And frankly, given the difficulty in rousing the damn thing, we needed the help. They add some glamour and excitement to what can often be a dreary business.”

We need to bring a little bit more of a sotto voce voice to bear on the debate and explore the many facets of our history. The last 50 years is too parochial a time frame to make a complete judgement on the successes and failures of the Union. The referendum is a rare opportunity to make history as relevant to as many people as possible. It might not be a panacea for all the social media vitriol that exists, but it’s an area that should and must be discussed to give voters the full story.

History, after all, is why we’re having a referendum in the first place, and why we’re taking a decision on our future.

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About Alastair Stewart 256 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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