Upper and Lower Cases

Tom Nairn

  • A Union for Empire: Political Thought and the Union of 1707 edited by John Robertson
    Cambridge, 368 pp, £40.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 521 43113 1
  • The Autonomy of Modern Scotland by Lindsay Paterson
    Edinburgh, 218 pp, £30.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 7486 0525 8

Next time it will be different. Or so almost everyone in Scotland now believes, as they look forward to another election and back over the long trail of wreckage from 1979 to the present. The Conservative regime began by aborting Constitutional change and is ending in a state of Constitutional rigor mortis. John Major’s Government contemplates no political evolution whatever on the mainland, as distinct from in Ireland, and advertises this rigidity as ‘defence of the Union’. When it founders, however, such intransigence will be overtaken by long overdue movement, which can hardly fail to bring about parliaments in Wales and Scotland, as well as more European integration.

Just what is it that the Tories are defending? In Scotland they can be seen as trying to preserve what that sound Tory Sir Walter Scott called ‘the silent way’. After the Union Scott thought that ‘under the guardianship of her own institutions, Scotland was left to win her silent way to national wealth and consequence.’ This is from his Thoughts on the Proposed Change of Currency, written in 1826 to defend the right of the Scottish banks to continue issuing their own banknotes and coins. But the context of the remark is more specific than is usually recognised. The Treaty of Union by itself had not brought wealth and consequence, Scott believed: it was only from ‘the year 1750’ that these changes had at last begun to emerge – that is, when Scotland was ‘no longer the object of terror, or at least great uneasiness’. When, indeed, she had more or less sunk out of London’s view altogether. Contempt had replaced fear, and Scott thought this was just as well. It was, he reckoned, ‘because she was neglected ... that her prosperity has increased in a ratio more than five times greater than that of her more fortunate and richer sister’.

Lack of a separate political voice was not necessarily an impediment to such distinctive prosperity. Certainly, the state is generally considered to be the key modern institution, but only under extreme totalitarianism is it all-important. Other, less important national institutions can, as in the Scottish case, furnish a separate national configuration of society and culture – an ‘identity’ in the contemporary jargon – quite capable of sustaining nationality, a degree of patriotism and even varieties of chauvinism.

So the way is ‘silent’ only in its wider international resonance. On the native terrain it has been associated with an uninterrupted cacophony of complaints, grudges and chip-on-the-shoulder moaning over non-recognition. In his Thoughts on the Proposed Change of Currency Sir Walter himself contributed powerfully to the latter: ‘whingeing’ would be the contemporary description. Alas, dignified mutism as a nation is compatible with and may even cause constant pandemonium at home. On that sounding-board of the national soul, the Edinburgh Scotsman’s letters page, I doubt if a week has passed since Scott’s time without its quota of resentful jibes about non-equality and Southern arrogance. Back in 1925 we find MacDiarmid scorning them for it in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle:

And O! to think that there are members o’
St Andrew’s Societies sleepin’ soon,
Wha tae the papers wrote afore they bedded
On regimental buttons or buckled shoon,
Or use o’ England where the UK’s meent.

The Conservatives want to go on believing that political union is essential at once to the economy of the archipelago, to Britain’s influence in Europe, and – in more mystical vein – to maintaining the civilised norms of British administration and culture. But what is the real historical nature of the Union thus defended? These two books represent very different new approaches to the question. They assume, surely correctly, that it is a genuine puzzle. There is nothing either self-explanatory or standard about the survival of a united kingdom based on England, from Early Modern times until practically the end of the second millennium.

John Robertson’s collection of academic studies examines the origins of the Union’s most important axis, the Parliamentary unification of Scotland and England in 1707. Lindsay Paterson’s long polemical essay looks at the consequences of that for the Scots: a near unique form of ‘autonomy’ as unusual as the state of which it is a part. Scotland’s silent way, he contends, allowed far more effective self-rule than most commentators have recognised. Nationalists have treated institutional autonomy as second-rate or instrumental. With their emphasis on all-British virtues, Unionists have also until very recently regarded it as relatively unimportant, or even as a mere relic. Paterson’s view is that, though unusual, it was and remains a more respectable form of evolution than general theories of progress have allowed for. These have been based on the nation-state, and hence have overlooked the case of a stateless yet quite successful nation.

Both books bear on the current debates about devolution, Constitutional reform and Europe. Robertson’s academic volume naturally disclaims partisanship, yet he cannot help hoping that better historical understanding may ‘help to clear the way for the formation of a viable modern alternative to the Union’. For his part, Lindsay Paterson argues that a better grasp of the real story of autonomy may sanction moves to recover political authority in Edinburgh. But paradoxically, it may also render independence itself less significant. A new Scottish democracy demands more distinct political representation; but according to Paterson this need not lead to the restoration of statehood or a literal dissolution of the Union. Rather than being simply a forlorn pre-modern accident, the silent way may presage the post-modern development of other countries inside a European Union.

This places Paterson firmly among the nationalists rather than among the Nationalists. Politics in Scotland has turned into an orthographic battle between the upper and the lower cases. Almost everyone is some sort of nationalist, including even Michael Forsyth, the new Tory Secretary of State for Scotland. In retreat, the Conservatives have discovered that true Unionism awarded Scotland just as much nationalism as was good for it, via Scots Law, institutional autonomy and new devices like the National Health Trusts. Many of their speeches these days are devoted to extolling the modest merits of enough-as-is-good-for-you national self-reliance. One might almost think that the aim of Union and Empire had all along been to foster this better class of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. Some in their audience are of course bound to think, if it has been so marvellous then might not more be better still? Ah, it would bring disaster! is the official reply – the agonising abyss of separatism etc. But just why would healthy self-management lapse so swiftly into chaos?

Because the serpent will have bitten the apple, say Forsyth and his Scottish Office servants. They mean the serpent of politics. This is also the problem for a growing number of people occupying the intermediate stance in Scotland – those who find themselves somewhere in between the upper and lower cases (a position corresponding perhaps to ‘small caps’ in font design). These are people who, while not exactly yearning for a return to nationhood, perceive no likely stopping-place on the nationalist track short of whatever the European Union currently recognises as statehood or independence, and who have become increasingly matter of fact about the prospect. This is not surprising. It doesn’t seem a great disaster in today’s Europe to be a country similar to Denmark, or the Netherlands or Finland. Scots of this persuasion tend to be more definitely pro-European than similar strata in England, and for that reason also inclined to scepticism about the dread abyss of separate statehood.

And then there is full upper-case Nationalism, which does indeed yearn for the 1707 Parliament to be recalled, for the Scots to abandon their silent way and recover voice and presence as a nation-state. Many but not all Nationalists are in the Scottish National Party, or sometimes vote for it. However, there seem to be plenty of both upper-case and small-cap Nationalists in the Scottish Labour Party, and also among the Liberal Democrats, while an unknown number of small or tiny-n nationalists support the SNP less for its ideology than because it registers the most effective protest against Them. In existing circumstances They are of course bound to be mainly English, or at least perceived as held in Southern thrall.

Already confusing, the scene has become more so since the recent by-election at which Roseanna Cunningham won the rural and small-town constituency of Perth and Kinross for the SNP. Ethnicity-gaugers found the whole thing disorienting. Ms Cunningham is a vociferous Republican, Socialist and Feminist who refused to scale down any of her capital letters for electoral motives. This made no difference to the result. She thus succeeded one of Europe’s outstanding politiclowns, the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. Normally garbed in tartanic garments designed by his own hand and inhabiting a nearby castle, Sir Nicholas had been famously critical of the SNP’s open-door citizenship policy which would, for example, allow the illegitimate offspring of black American GIs stationed in Scotland to be as Scottish as ... well, Sir Nicholas himself. Vote Tory to preserve the Scot-Brit race. This eccentric addendum to the Unionist creed was not openly endorsed by Fairbairn’s successor as Tory candidate, a generally pitied young lad called John Godfrey. However, he did open up by routinely denouncing the Nationalists as Nazis, and the Tory campaign as a whole did little to redeem government fortunes. In fact all it did was mimic them, staggering from one gaffe to another like a Perthshire heifer struck down by mad cow disease.

The road from 1707 to this plight has been a long one. Neither union nor empire then meant what they came to signify for the 19th and 20th centuries. Robertson argues that the terms figured in a long and complex European debate within which the Edinburgh-London negotiations were only a minor episode. ‘Empire’ meant at that time not colonies and subject populations but something closer to today’s notion of ‘sovereignty’. ‘Union’ enjoyed a double-barrelled usage, as incorporation or confederation. The mounting absolutism of European monarchies encouraged the former, but at the same time ‘there had also emerged a second, rival concept of union understood as a confederation of more or less equal states,’ like the Dutch United Provinces. The rival sides in the 1706-7 argument looked back over these 17th-century disputes and struggled to adapt them to the new situation.

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