The strange death of Britishness in Scotland

Photograph: 'Westminster Palace' / Pexels
Photograph: 'Westminster Palace' / Pexels

“Hath not God first united these two kingdoms both in language, religion and similitude of manners? Yea, hath he not made us all in one island, compassed with one sea, and of itself by nature so indivisible as almost those that were borderers themselves on the late borders cannot distinguish nor know or discern their own limits?”

King James VI of Scotland & I of England – The House of Commons (March 1604)

High upon Abbey Craig looms the Wallace Monument, Scotland’s most potent symbol of nationhood. With the most recent UK census (2011) having confirmed that sixty-two percent of Scots identify as ‘Scottish only’ compared with only eighteen percent who continue to identify as ‘Scottish and British’, one could be forgiven for thinking that a monument so explicitly Scottish must surely be a recent creation born of this new surge in Scottish identity; perhaps even a contemporary of the infamous Mel Gibson effigy, Freedom, which once sat at the foot of Abbey Craig. In fact, the Victorian monument was erected in 1869, when British identity was at its high watermark in Scotland.

Britishness versus Scottishness was not a zero-sum fixture, one did not inevitably diminish as the other strengthened. In fact, it is perhaps the arch-Unionist Sir Walter Scott who can most surely be credited as being the genesis of the resurgence in romantic Scottish identity enjoyed in the nineteenth century, and which is still felt to this day. Although it is true to say that some Scots in the late seventeen-hundreds would readily have referred to themselves as ‘North British’, this was a short-lived phenomenon.

Few make better sense of the historic duality of Scottish-British identity than historian Sir Tom Devine. Devine explains that given the laissez-faire nature of the British state during the earlier centuries of Union, Scots lived in what was a de facto semi-autonomous state governed largely at the level of the burgh council: “the Scots actually continued to run Scotland.” The eighteenth and nineteenth century Scot gained their value system and their understanding of the world around them from the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, they receive their schooling from the Church of Scotland, they received their Poor Relief and their Medical Relief from the Church of Scotland, they settled legal matters through Scots Law, they fought for King and Empire in distinctly Scottish regiments – their Scottish identity was enshrined in them from cradle to grave.

At the same time, the Scots were perhaps the most enthusiastic Britons of all, having grasped the opportunities born of the Union with both hands, acting as the military spearhead and pioneering merchants at the cutting edge of the imperial venture, consequently enjoying a quite extraordinary share of the economic and political spoils of empire. As Sir Tom Devine puts it:

“By any criterion, with a Scottish population broadly of one in ten Britons, Scotland was massively overrepresented in most of the key administrative, professional, governmental, merchanting aspects of the imperial project.”

So, given that the Scot of yesteryear so embraced their dual identity, why is it that the modern Scot is so reticent? To be clear, I do not ask this question so as to make a political point, certainly not one regarding the constitution; in fact, I believe that British identity and British political union can be viewed as two quite separate matters. Nor do I ask it out of a sense of this change being a force for good or ill. I ask it because there has been a very definite shift in the way in which the post-War Scot views their identity and surprisingly little has been done to investigate the origins of this phenomenon.

In her recent work, Acts of Union and Disunion: What has held the UK together and what is dividing it? English historian Linda Colley cites the three most central pillars of Britishness, once responsible for binding the peoples of Britain together as one, as being ‘Protestantism’, ‘Warfare’ and ‘Empire’, before asserting her view that such pillars have now all but crumbled into dust. The importance of Protestantism to Scots reduced tremendously over the course of the last century, and moreover, the existential threat posed to Protestant Britain by aggressive European Catholic powers had evaporated earlier still. Furthermore, the shared experience of total warfare against a common enemy, be it Napoleonic France, the Kaiser’s Germany or the Third Reich, ended after the establishment of post-War Continental peace and cooperation. And of course, for better or worse, the end of empire stripped the Scot of their prominent role in that common British endeavour.

Sir Tom Devine adds one final thought to the Colley theory, which is to highlight that the Scots, unlike the English who identify closely with their imperial past, seem to have suffered ‘a very serious case of amnesia’ regarding theirs (for reasons not immediately clear to him), and therefore feel little sense of shared imperial history with their neighbours to the south. Scots tend to remember that they gave the world the lyrics to A Man’s a Man for a’ That and Freedom Come all Ye; few recall that they also gave the world the lyrics to Rule Britannia.

The stitching may have come loose in the mid-twentieth century, but the first signs of the division did not appear until 1979. It is a great irony that the woman Holyrood’s former Presiding Officer, David Steel, once described as ‘Boudicca and Britannia rolled into one’ should be so singularly responsible for the decay of Britishness in Scotland. I speak of course of Margaret Thatcher.

To reiterate, this is not a politically motivated article, I will leave it to others to debate the merits of the Thatcher premiership in Scotland, but it is simply a matter of fact that Thatcherism, despite its wild popularity in England, was rejected time after time in the ballot boxes of Scotland. As Mrs Thatcher wrote in her autobiography, The Downing Street Years:

“There was no tartan Thatcherite revolution. That might buying accutane seem strange. For Scotland in the eighteenth century was the home of the very same Scottish Enlightenment which produced Adam Smith, the greatest exponent of free enterprise economics till Hayek and Freidman.”

Smith may well be the greatest Scot who ever lived; indeed, his bust can be found in the Wallace Monument’s Hall of Heroes, but Smith meant very little emotionally to the everyday life of the late-twentieth century Scot, not least in comparison to the industrial community to which they belonged; a community which the deindustrialisation of the 1980s would soon strip them of.

As Sir Tom Devine puts it, by the very nature of a partnership of unequal nations, Scotland was in bed with an elephant, though this had been of no consequence up until 1979 when the elephant had been confined to its side of the bed. In the 1987 General Election, with the promise of a Poll Tax in the Conservative manifesto, Thatcher received a dismal twenty-four percent share of the Scottish popular vote, yet Scotland was to be the first area of the UK saddled with the hated Poll Tax, all the same; albeit, ironically, at the behest of Thatcher’s naïvely well-meaning Scottish lieutenants. As commentator Dr Gerry Hassan explains in Iain Macwhirter’s sensational four-part documentary, Road to Referendum:

“In the eighties, initially, I’m a believer in British Labour and I don’t really see myself as politically ‘Scottish’. I think, for myself and a whole host of people, eighty-seven brought us into a political awareness about being Scottish.”

In his fantastic BBC documentary, Thatcher & the Scots, Allan Little describes how the advent of Thatcherism crystallised the divisions in Anglo-Scottish politics:

“The old British politics of Left versus Right, Labour versus Tory, the state versus the market, were giving way to something new: England versus Scotland, with the Conservative Party being seen more and more as the ‘English’ party, with a set of values that weren’t just alien, but actively hostile to what Scotland wanted.”

Thatcherism also brought about a decline in Britishness via much less conspicuous means. Mid-to-late twentieth century Britons had a shared experience of everyday life: they travelled on the nationalised trains of British Rail together, they worked for nationalised industries such as British Coal and British Steel together, and together, they received their utilities from nationalised bodies such as British Telecom and British Gas. The mass privatisation which occurred during the Thatcher years brought all this to an abrupt close, opening the floodgates to globalisation and an end to the shared British experience.

The same principle can be applied to the curtailing of the trade unions post-Miners’ Strike (1984-1985). For decades upon decades, class-conscious British workers were united in the common cause of advancing the conditions of the collective British proletariat. As Allan Little puts so eloquently in his documentary:

“The British labour movement, with its pantheon of working-class heroes and its proud tradition of organised struggle, was one of the pillars of Britishness. If you were a Scottish miner, being part of all this connected you very powerfully to Derbyshire and Yorkshire and south Wales. It pulled you in and made you identify very strongly with the community of interest that was absolutely British. When Mrs Thatcher defeated the miners, all that was swept away. Part of what bound us all together as fellow Britons, with shared traditions and causes in common, slipped into history.”

Echoing the views of Donald Dewar himself, Conservative MP Michael Gove argues in Thatcher & the Scots that it was the Scottish rejection of Thatcherism and clear desire to move the nation in a different political direction to that of the rest of the United Kingdom which ultimately gave rise to the need for a Scottish Parliament: “Margaret Thatcher and Donald Dewar were, together, the godparents of the Scottish Parliament.”

In this globalised world, I struggle to believe that the everyday lives of those who live within these islands differ greatly in terms of a north-south divide; personal identity must surely be shaped more by Western popular culture, whether a person is young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural, than anything else. However, Dr Gerry Hassan perhaps picks up on what is the real point of division, which is that there has unquestionably been a development of ‘a political awareness about being Scottish’, and indeed, a distinct blossoming in recent times of an English political awareness, stemming from that same loss in the common endeavours of Britishness.

Such divisions were made strikingly apparent in the 2016 EU Referendum, with every single one of Scotland’s thirty-two local authority areas voting to stay within the union, and eight out of England’s nine regions voting to leave. The previous year, Scotland elected just one Conservative MP in the 2015 General Election, whereas England elected three hundred and nineteen. In 2014, forty-five percent of Scots used the Independence Referendum to vote to end political union with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The difference in political identity between Scotland and the rest of the UK has had, and will no doubt continue to have profound effects. This is precisely the reason why it is so important we understand the causes behind the decline in the dual Scottish-British identity. The extent to which the Scot has regarded themselves as chiefly Scottish or chiefly British, or explicitly one or the other, is something which has waxed and waned throughout the three centuries of Union, but it has never ceased to be relevant: not when Scots waved Union Flags on the Royal Mile to celebrate VE Day in 1945, not when Scots waved Saltires on the Royal Mile to celebrate the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. Indeed, King James VI’s pioneering sense of Britishness in 1604 would be the first step towards the establishment of the British state itself in 1707; such is the power of identity. To fail to understand it and its direction of flow is to fail to understand the very political landscape of Scotland.


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Rodaidh McLaughlin 6 Articles
Rodaidh is a Politics & History graduate who takes a particular interest in political philosophy and European history.

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