Missing Elements

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Strategic Women: How do they manage in Scotland? by Elizabeth Gerver and Lesley Hart
    Aberdeen University Press, 216 pp, £9.95, June 1991, ISBN 0 08 037741 6
  • A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland by Leah Leneman
    Aberdeen University Press, 304 pp, £11.95, June 1991, ISBN 0 08 041201 7
  • Marriage and Property: Women and Marital Customs in History edited by Elizabeth Craik
    Aberdeen University Press, 192 pp, £6.95, June 1991, ISBN 0 08 041205 X
  • A Woman’s Claim of Right in Scotland
    Polygon, 142 pp, £7.95, August 1991, ISBN 0 7486 6103 4
  • Nationalism in the Nineties edited by Tom Gallagher
    Polygon, 192 pp, £7.95, August 1991, ISBN 0 7486 6098 4
  • Cultural Weapons: Scotland and Survival in a New Europe by Christopher Harvie
    Polygon, 119 pp, £7.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 7486 6122 0
  • Literature and Nationalism edited by Vincent Newey and Ann Thompson
    Liverpool, 286 pp, £27.50, June 1991, ISBN 0 85323 057 9
  • The Invention of Scotland: The Stuart Myth of the Scottish Identity, 1638 to the present by Murray Pittock
    Routledge, 198 pp, £30.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 415 05586 5
  • Scotland: A New History by Michael Lynch
    Century, 499 pp, £18.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 7126 3413 4

In all our sets of mental pigeonholes there is one labelled ‘don’t bother’. It contains groups of people and of ideas to which we have decided not to pay attention. These books, in one way or another, relate to such groups.

Women are an obvious case. Yet, except in societies which kill off female babies or starve small girls, they cannot be dismissed as a minority. In all sorts of issues there is now official equality in rights between the sexes. Women really have the vote, nominally equal employment rights, and are recipients of health care, social security and advertisements for financial services. Even building societies have had to accept that they may hold mortgages. But there is still some exclusion of women’s activities from public acknowledgment. A woman who cares for other people’s children contributes to ‘national income’; one who cares for her own does not. When a man marries his housekeeper ‘national income’ is reduced. Till a few years ago the annual volume of statistics for Scotland classified the work-force in various industries under two heads, ‘total’ and ‘male’: was this an example of an extreme prudery which could not bring itself to use the word ‘female’? Most women who have jobs are not aware that their job will not be that recorded under ‘occupation’ at the registration of their death.

Aberdeen University Press has, with a flourish, produced a group of books on women’s affairs in Scotland. Strategic Women gives the views and experiences of a selection of women well placed in various careers. They have made it. Presumably at some point they came for a while up against the promotional block set by men convinced that it is in the interests of their particular organisation to recruit its higher ranks from only half of the available talent, yet their responses are surprisingly cheerful. There is an important qualification to their success story, however: less than half of them have children. It seems unlikely that a similar survey of successful men would reveal such a level of participation in family life.

A Guid Cause covers two sections of the pigeonhole: for the past, women, and for the present, Scotland. British historians of the struggle for the vote have concentrated on the English story. After all, political life culminates in London, so what is seen from London can be taken as the true picture. This view forgets the number of leading politicians who then sat for Scottish seats and had to keep up with Scottish events.

In the 19th century, Scottish political life concentrated on issues completely different from those paraded in England, so the view from London was then particularly distorting. On the issue of votes for women, the two countries drew together, but there were still differences. The power of the Church was much greater in Scotland, and at various levels the Scottish Church gave support to the movement. The most unexpected feature of the Scottish story was the organisation of male support. This came relatively late, when party views had become rigid, so it had little direct effect: but it meant that some of the delegations to London could not be totally ignored since they were of voters and in important seats. The violence of the women’s movement then, mild and ladylike as it was compared to more recent expressions of discontent, marks the important fact, now recognised, that those systematically excluded from political life have no obligation to respect political decisions.

Marriage and Property is a collection of papers given at a conference in St Andrews University. It is a lively work, ranging from Greek antiquity to 19th-century Britain and the United States. In most centuries and for most people marriage has been the means of transferring property from one kindred to another – an aspect far more important than the experience of the vehicle of the transfer, the wife. It is sharply brought out how, when political radicals talked about the ‘rights of man’, they did not mean the ‘rights of mankind’. This was conspicuous in the French Revolution, when a fervent revolutionary could write: ‘Ignorance in women is infinitely useful: it keeps them subordinate; it makes them concentrate on the necessary tasks of the household. If you make women more educated, men will be less so.’

An interesting theme of several papers is the impact of Christianity on societies in which marriage law had successfully held women down. In Rome the right of the father of a family over his descendants and their spouses, a theme very valuable to dramatists, meant that in law a young husband and his wife were equal in subordination. The monastic urge to poverty and asceticism, conspicuous in some senatorial families in the fourth century, toned reconsideration of the senatorial concentration on the accumulation of wealth. Norse society, taking to Christianity as a business deal, was not a good place for the extremes of the ascetic ideal. Women retained some independence there, even after marriage, a share in family property, and the right to engage in business deals, less through Christian principle than from the fact that their menfolk were often away. Perhaps, also, the existence of the body of Saga literature, in which there are some very outspoken women, influenced views of what was acceptable behaviour.

A Woman’s Claim of Right in Scotland is a mixed bag. It contains a view sharply in contrast to that of Strategic Woman. The United Kingdom is shown as a state where women are relatively heavily involved in paid work and at the same time under-represented in politics. The under-representation is more marked for Scotland than for England, and also extends to the arts, the media and the Churches. There is an informative essay by Jacqueline Roddick showing for Scandinavia how the choice of a particular form of proportional representation has greatly increased the number of women in parliament. There are less unexpected points in the other essays and it is a pity that one of them claims John Knox as the father of Scottish Presbyterianism, and another contrasts ‘history’ with ‘herstory’. Points can be made without insulting the English language. From Glasgow Presbytery in 1960 comes a remark on women’s ordination: ‘every religion which has instituted priestesses or otherwise afforded office to women has become degenerate and corrupt.’ Yet the Vestal Virgins kept going for quite some time.

Scottish nationalism is becoming more conspicuous but 1 doubt that it justifies the title of Gallagher’s book, which is a collection of essays about the Scottish National Party, mostly set in the last two decades. This is an ‘in’ book for ‘in’ people Events abroad have brought home the good fortune of Scotland and England in having their mutual frontier established several centuries ago, and so being spared brutality, bombs and international hoodwinking. Some sociologists hold that the Scottish economy is so closely blended into that of the United Kingdom that there are no grounds for any feeling of nationalism in Scotland. So much for sociology. Even though Scottish schools give little opportunity for their children to meet Scottish culture and history, there can be no doubt about the strength of the feeling of national identity. If it has not yet produced much in voting power for the SNP, that is at least partly attributable to mistakes made by that party, the most conspicuous being its support of the attack on the labour Government in 1979, which Callaghan called ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’.

Christopher Harvie’s book, a miscellaneous collection of essays and journalism, pursues an interesting theme in the comparison of British government with the much more dispersed structure of West Germany. Its value is the recognition of how 13 years of the combination of a disastrous economic policy with forceful over-centralisation have acted as a blood transfusion to nationalism, so that now in Scotland the issue is not between left and right but over the degree of separate government to be demanded. The creators of Union in 1707 put forward an untried formula which worked well for over two centuries because Westminster let sleeping dogs lie. Now there are many models of diffused government which might be found of service.

Literature and Nationalism, essays dedicated to Philip Edwards, comes from the university world of literary studies. Though the book spends some time on Shakespeare’s view of the Welsh and Scots, the main emphasis is on Ireland – understandably, given the literary achievement of Irish writers in the early 20th century. But the success of the Irish in linking nationalism to specific aspects within the rich terrain of Irish culture, Catholicism, Gaelic, and even a rival game to soccer, may partly be responsible for the readiness of many Irish commentators to exclude some cultural elements from national identity. There are too many voices ready to draw down lines of demarcation, to question whether Swift, Yeats or MacNeice should be considered truly Irish. This resembles a disreputable recent claim for cricket as the test of British identity.

Pittock’s book, The Invention of Scotland, is also the product of academic study in literature. It suffers from concentration on a particular theme as the key to Scottish identity. Jacobitism, it is claimed, provided the myth by which national identity was preserved after Union. The story moves from Jacobite song to the Gaelic image of Ossian, and from there to Burns in his Jacobite moments, Hogg, Scott, the Clearances and 19th-century sentiment. These are all part of the outsider’s view of Scottish identity, and the holding of this view inevitably affected the picture held by Scots of themselves. But to what degree?

Pittock sustains his view with a wealth of quotation, mostly songs, often from little-known sources. The reader has to remember that there is also a vast literature not concerned with the myth, indeed taking a very different line. There are the writings of the Enlightenment, there are mountains of unreadable 18th-century sermons promoting Calvinism and political quietism, there are pamphlets on internal issues which show another world of interest. True, there is not much song promoting the Whig and Presbyterian establishment, but song in the singing gets taken up by people who in no way share the basic premises. The problem here is evaluating underground or repressed sentiments. There is a new school of history in England, linked to right-wing politics, which aims at doing down the Whig ascendancy and Whig history. Should the strength of Jacobitism be assessed by the numbers prepared to fight for it, in which case even in Scotland there were few behind it by the 1740s, by the undiscoverable number of those passively sympathetic, or by the apparent readiness of many to use its symbols as a way of annoying the Government? Before the idea of a legal opposition was accepted, groups against the existing political system did not choose to stand up and be counted.

Nationalism presumes nation-states, but the nation state has not existed for more than a few centuries, and is unlikely to go on much longer, if only because in many parts of the world the boundaries of the sense of ethnic identity and of political units differ seriously. There is bound to be heated debate about which ethnic groups are stateworthy, as there was in the 19th century: eventually the idea will have to be modified. But historians, especially historians of politics, where decision making is the main topic of study, continue to think in state units, Michael Lynch’s big single-volume history of Scotland must take the foreground for anyone who wishes to know about the country and its past. It is a distinguished achievement, covering from the earliest records to the present day the story of a country still possessed of marked regional diversity. Its 36 pages of notes form a comprehensive bibliography of everything of importance written on Scotland’s past in the last twenty years. Lynch copes coolly and effectively with the main problem of Scottish historiography – not the Jacobite myth but the image of the past produced by over-enthusiastic acceptance of Covenanting myth. This has to be done discreetly: for both myths are part of the support structure of Scottish identity.

Of no use to nationalist politics but of value to those who want to understand the country is Lynch’s generosity in space to the early bonding together which made the kingdom. We are reminded that, well after the Canmore line of monarchs had established itself, there were still powerful principal rulers who should be seen not as over-mighty nobles but as sub-kings: ‘a kingdom which so divided into three different parts ... was held together more securely by treating its distinctive parts separately.’ There is a message there for Britain today, perhaps also for Ireland and certainly for other countries now experiencing strong central rule: France is an obvious example.

International relations in the past were not simply a matter of official diplomacy, for the great families spanned frontiers in their links and interests. The financial problems of the early Stewart kings, as shown by Lynch, have much in common with those of modern governments. Lynch also points out an unexpected contrast between the earlier and the later Middle Ages: in the early period, the economy of Scotland was prosperous but the political structure insecure; later, the country shows a relatively mature political class, for all that her political institutions were fairly primitive, based on a stumbling and hesitant economy.

The limitation of this book is that it cannot avoid expecting readers already to have some idea, however misguided, of Scottish history. Important themes are taken for granted. We are conducted through the Reformation with no explanation of dogma. There are only a handful of references to women in the book, and the extremely male-oriented approach of the Protestant reformers is taken for granted. At times the dispersal of aspects of development into separate chapters confuses the sequence of events.

In contrast, the chapter handling the mid 17th-century war period is a brilliant instance of the difficult art of clear yet complex narrative. It might provide a useful short cut for historians of England desirous of getting a grasp of Scotland. Lynch is conscious, as were leading political figures of the 17th century, that that period cannot be understood except as the interaction of events in three different nations. English and Scottish historians will have to learn to keep an eye on what was happening in parts of these islands oilier than their own.

History writing is going to have to change in other ways which some of its practitioners will find distasteful. Working-class history needs to cease being the story of the organisations devised by male workers. Ecclesiastical history has to be seen as more than following the concerns of clerics. The split allegiance of some people is going to become more general with the new need for allegiance to Europe. And there should be feedback from history to current politics. We have recently seen a sub king oust his overlord: he has taken power for such an immense area that he needs sub-sub-kings under him, to express the full range of the cultural and economic diversity of his principality. In many parts of the world as well as at home, we need to modify the over-simple concept of sovereignty: sub-kings make for a better world than civil wars.