Liberty’s Exiles: Unionists in an independent Scotland

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Surrender of Lord Cornwallis / CC
This painting depicts the forces of British Major General Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (1738-1805) (who was not himself present at the surrender), surrendering to French and American forces after the Siege of Yorktown (September 28 – October 19, 1781) during the American Revolutionary War. The United States government commissioned Trumbull to paint patriotic paintings, including this piece, for them in 1817, paying for the piece in 1820.

Maya Jasanoff has written a wonderful book called Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. It recounts the story of what happened to those Americans loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolutionary War. The book paints a poignant picture of their cause, their doomed defence of Britain and their ultimate exodus from the fledgeling United States in a quest for a new home.

The Loyalists fell on the wrong side of history. They were neither abhorrent reprobates but do present an inconvenient history to the flurry of liberty that the United States was born in. Americans fighting tooth and nail for Britain seems like an oxymoron, but as Jasanoff estimates, between a fifth and a third of the population did.

Their story is neglected, subsumed in a blur of American mythologizing about the American Revolution that continues to this day. Of some sixty thousand who fled their homes to become refugees and settlers anew in the rest of the Empire, their story is a very human, very sad story of defeat.

What is clear throughout the book is that there was no trajectory of righteousness for either side. History was up in the air, both believed they were correct and both claimed to be fighting for freedom and liberty. We know the outcome, but what has never really been counteracted is the reductive belief that the British were proto-Nazis, crusading and brutalising as the film The Patriot would have us believe. The Empire was not without blemish, but those fighting for it should not be written off as diametrically opposed to some Whig view of history.

The parallels are not a thousand miles removed from the Scottish Referendum. Liberty and self-determination are the language of the Nationalists and appeals to loyalty, language and history the cries of Unionists. There can only be one outcome.

The question is whether the Unionist contingent will suffer the same fate if Scotland votes ‘yes’ in the referendum. Will their argument, their passion and their conviction be cast as false aspersions and anti-nationalism; unpatriotic and to forgotten?

There are two possibilities. Firstly, Scotland has a long history of absconding from the memory of its Unionist affiliations. To paraphrase a few historians on the subject, including Jeremy Paxman, Tom Devine and Niall Fergusson, ‘collective amnesia’ engulfed Scotland after the last shade of red fell off the map in the 1960s. It persists to this day.

Scotland had a disproportionate representation at every level of administration across the Empire, from soldiering to the civil service to governors all coupled with a mercantile fervour that made Glasgow the ‘second city of the Empire’. The Scottish diaspora saw millions settle across the world whose descents proudly claim Scottish ties and Edinburgh is a byword for the birth of the Enlightenment. All forgotten, with no sentiment and no pride and no culpability for the Empire’s worst actions.

Former SNP MP and Yes Scotland board member, Jim Sillars – whose In Place of Fear II is by far the most visionary book of the referendum – considers the Union to be the final chapter of the British Empire. Given the last fifty years of Scottish forgetfulness, it is highly likely that the memory of Westminster, England and the Union flag would fade into history textbooks to be beguiling and dated as those men wore funny wigs 300 years ago.

The alternative, and in keeping with that other strain of the Scottish character that began long before 1707, is to romantically martyr the heroics of those who fought for a lost cause. History also has never forgotten the losing efforts of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Scottish Jacobites of 1745 to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. As sure as most people overlook that the Jacobites favoured Catholic absolutism, so too could it be the case that we remember those who fought the sun setting on the Union with pride; honourable, famous figures who went down to the last to become a noble component of Scottish history.

In the interregnum of expectation and excitement resultant from a ‘yes’ vote, the likely situation is a cross between scenario one and scenario two before morphing into a permanent state of the former.

A fledging independent Scotland could not ignore the ‘big beasts’ that represented and served Scotland in Westminster, particularly those who held high office. The SNP Government, when negotiating post-yes vote with Westminster would be mad not to consult them, and they, in turn, would be seen as bad losers if they didn’t rise a new call to serve.

In the end, unless the referendum result was mired in controversy or was won by only a handful of votes, the Union would most likely pass into that good night, and with it Better Together and those loyalists who made their case.

What no Scot should allow is for the narrative of the debate to be turned into ‘patriots versus quislings’; a tragedy and a farcical lie against the manner in which the debate has been conducted. As Alex Salmond said, no blood has been spilt, there’s been riots and no deaths – that is a precious thing in a democracy.

The referendum is an important part of Scotland’s story and not one that should be engulfed and forgotten like those Loyalist Americans whose only crime was to follow their convictions.

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About Alastair Stewart 226 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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