Upper and Lower Cases
- 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.
The 1707 deal was an ‘Incorporating Union’, but the main agency of incorporation, all-powerful monarchy, had been destroyed by the mid-century revolutions in both England and Scotland. A landowners’ Parliament had risen to dominate one country and a militant Protestant church had become crucial in the other. Patriotic lairds like Andrew Fletcher opposed incorporation not with independence in today’s meaning but with a version of equal-state confederation. Yet that position, too, was fatally weakened by memories of the revolutionary era. Everyone knew about, and a few individuals could actually recall, the dire events of the 1650s when, in Robertson’s words: ‘The armies of the Commonwealth succeeded where so many kings had failed, and summarily conquered both Ireland and Scotland. The experience of defeat, followed by enforced union, changed for ever the relationship of each country to England – never again could the Scots deceive themselves that the English lacked the will or the means to conquer them.’ No really equal confederation of states was possible. Recent subjection had only emphasised a fundamental and inescapable imbalance. Today England represents about 85 per cent of the United Kingdom’s population, Scotland about 9 per cent. Scotland’s population was relatively bigger before the great emigrations of the 19th century but its resources were relatively fewer. There never was a time when Scotland, or even when all the fringe nationalities combined, amounted to anything like the position of Hungary inside the Habsburg Empire, or even Slovakia within pre-1992 Czechoslovakia. Like German dominance in Central Europe, English domination of the British Isles came about because of a mixture of commanding geography, overwhelming demography and economic power. This did not mean that political mastery was equally preordained or natural; but English leaders could easily pretend or assume that it was.
The pretence was important above all for the English self-image. Most of the time, for most social purposes, nine-tenths of any group can ignore the remainder. They will do so all the more easily when their statistical superiority is amplified by advantage in other domains, such as ownership, social class, cultural or military achievement. The resultant hegemony appears more natural to those exerting it than to whoever is in its train, or under its wheels. ‘Use o’ England where the UK’s meent’ has always been an irritant to the fringe but inevitable for the majority. The latter rarely mean to rub in their authority. They just don’t think about it nor, in most times and places, is there really much reason why they should. What is natural is that when they should be conscious of it, they usually have to be reminded.
This English absence of self-definition (or glib over-identification with Britain) flows from an ethnic dominance established well before ethnic traits assumed the central historical and political significance they came later to possess. The abolition of the Irish Parliament in 1801 was the final episode in England’s ascendancy, but the 1707 Treaty of Union was arguably its most important moment. Through it the biggest rival ethnos of the archipelago was subordinated well before nationalism turned into a general motor of political discontent and mobilisation in Europe. The beginning of the 19th century – after the American Revolution, 1789 and the Irish risings of the 1790s – proved too late for another lasting incorporating union’. Instead, what became a quite standard form of European ethno-religious nationalism was pioneered there. Looked at in terms of the later mainstream of nationalist development, Ireland turned into a typical part of Eastern Europe, disconcertingly located on the Western seaboard.
At the beginning of the 18th century, however, neither democracy, nor Enlightenment, nor Romanticism had accomplished enough of their fertilising work. Since confederation was impracticable the Scottish governing classes fell for incorporation. Because absolute monarchy had been defeated, however, they were able to qualify and limit their subordination in remarkable ways, through what they (but not the English Government) regarded as in effect a written constitution: the Treaty of Union. Popular wishes had nothing to do with the 1707 deal. But that, too, was only part of the 17th-century or Early Modern package. Scott, firm Tory Unionist though he was, encouraged no illusions among his readers on this score. In Tales of a Grandfather he admitted that
the Union was regarded with an almost universal feeling of discontent and dishonour ... The Scots felt generally the degradation, as they conceived it, of their country being rendered the subservient ally of the state, of which, though infinitely more powerful, they had resisted the efforts for the space of two thousand years. There was, therefore, nothing save discontent and lamentation to be heard throughout Scotland, and men of every class vented their complaints against the Union the more loudly, because their sense of personal grievance might be concealed and yet indulged under popular declamations concerning the dishonour done to the country.
He exaggerates the point revealingly. The two thousand years were fantasy, and it was not even true that the Scots and English had been mostly in conflict between the Wars of Independence of the 13th and 14th centuries and the time he was writing. Psychologically, however, he was right: that seems to have been the way most people felt. Dishonour was taken in a recklessly personal way which, under any form of democracy, would certainly have doomed the Treaty. He points out perceptively that the poor reacted more strongly than the wealthy, ‘because they had no dignity or consideration due to them personally or individually, beyond that which belonged to them as natives of Scotland’.
A Union for Empire does not waste time going over the old story of sleaze. Scott’s Tales covered that angle as well as anyone has ever done. Cash was sent up from London in waggons for the upper-class begging-bowl. When he has finished stressing how providential this whole event was, Scott concedes that ‘the distribution of the money constituted the charm by which refractory Scottish members were reconciled to the Union’ and ‘it may be doubted whether the descendants of the noble lords and honourable gentlemen who accepted this gratification, would be more shocked at the general fact of their ancestors being corrupted, or scandalised at the paltry amount of the bribe.’
But still, these were the people who counted, not the mere dishonoured mob in the Edinburgh streets. What anyone today would recognise as a proto-nationalist fury might have inflamed the latter, but in Early Modern terms the former were the effective ‘citizens’. The contemporary Scottish jurist Gersholm Carmichael pointed out how ‘the composition of the citizens, properly so called, is to be gathered from the laws and customs of each state ... When I use the word people I mean the citizens who are so called in a more eminent sense, ’those who by direct consent and agreement entered into with the sovereign himself originally instituted the state’ and ‘not all heads of households qualify.’ That was the real point, of course, not the bribery. The eminent people had been rendered structurally corrupt already by the previous century, during which royal authority had moved south to London and taken the great machinery of patronage with it. They had got used to dependence, then had it confirmed by defeat – defeat from below by religious enthusiasm, and afterwards from outside, by Cromwell’s army. As for the less than eminent, those who failed to qualify, their secular national passion was as yet ineffectual. It still took the form of riot, not a national movement.
John Robertson’s collection contains essays devoted to Scotland’s independent attempt at colonial empire, the Darien Scheme, and to religion, law and theology. Two separate chapters are concerned with the operations of that wily English rogue Daniel Defoe, and John Pocock delivers a thoughtful contribution on the relationship of the Union to the American Revolution. But the book’s two key items are Robertson’s own articles, particularly the second, ‘An Elusive Sovereignty’, in which he traces the course of the arguments about Union from 1698 until 1707. In spite of the history of the two countries and the disaster of the Darien Scheme, there were still many who sought to avoid incorporation. Andrew Fletcher was not alone in his patriotic and idealist opposition. But such opponents faced a fundamental intellectual problem. ‘Radical and imaginative as their thinking was,’ observes Robertson, ‘those who would uphold Scotland’s sovereignty, and preserve the kingdom from incorporating union, were faced with the frustration of their efforts to identify an institutional framework equal to the challenge.’ The debate was in any case rigged by Queen Anne’s ministers and agents, determined to get their way this time. That they did so quite easily merely underlined another weakness: the Scottish Parliament lacked the prestige and wider popularity of its English counterpart. Hence there was no indisputable focus of political mobilisation and resistance against London’s manoeuvrings. No single redoubt commanded either the traditional or the popular forms of national feeling. Allegiances were profoundly fractured. The Glorious Revolution of twenty years before had united England, but divided Scotland and Ireland.
The exiled Stuart monarchy was still influential, and its supporters knew very well that one essential purpose of Union was to keep it in exile. Anon-state institution, the Presbyterian Kirk, enjoyed something of the prestige normally given to parliaments. But, although self-consciously national and hostile to incorporation, it did not really think statehood was essential to its other-worldly goals. The mental world of Scottish theocracy stopped well short of political nationalism, and as later times would show, tended to be rather opposed to it. The most democratic Scottish institution was therefore persuaded that, given enough guarantees, it could cut its own deal with a unified British realm. The Church of Scotland is unmentioned in the Treaty of Union itself, but this is only because it was shrewdly promised its own separate legislation – a second treaty, in effect, establishing its autonomous rights for ‘all time coming’.
Nationalists have always denounced the Treaty as a sell-out for a mess of pottage. What Robertson’s book shows is the strength of the structural constraints which forced decisions into this mould. The absence of a valid ‘institutional framework’ inevitably made short-term considerations predominate. Scotland’s old institutions had partially collapsed, and yet it was too early historically for others to be improvised by nationalism. Thus an elusive sovereignty came fatally to be weighed against ‘the prospect of material improvement ... and the apparent benefits of participation in a British Empire’, as well as against fears of Catholic re-expansion in Europe and the French ‘universal monarchy’. The individuals who counted could all too easily perceive their own advantage as identified with the national interest. Saving one’s estate from creditors coincided happily with the good of Scotland.
In Parliamentary circles, though not in the streets, this blessed coincidence had by 1707 already made the alternative – continuing the old unequal struggle for national honour – appear a dream. In the 1706 Parliament Lord Belhaven made his famous over-the-top lament for ‘Mother Caledonia’, piling one bit of myth-history upon another in a surfeit of sentimental metaphors. Englishmen present failed to understand what he was going on about, but he was trying to express a sense of incalculable loss, of a fate implicit in the Parliament’s proceedings which lay far beyond short-range profit and party tactics. There was nothing absurd about that. It echoed the fury in the High Street and has been transmitted in one form or another, dimly yet hurtfully, as nostalgia or its opposite – hard-nosed realism – to each successive generation in Scotland. On the day, however, it provoked hilarity, and Patrick Hume of Marchmont’s equally famous one-line put-down: ‘Behold he dreamed, but lo! when he awoke, he found it was a dream.’
In truth the short-range advantages turned out to be themselves disconcertingly far off. As Scott put it sourly, after Union was obtained one delay and obstacle after another then ‘interposed a longer interval of years betwixt the date of the Treaty and the national advantages arising out of it, than the term spent by the Jews in the wilderness ere they attained the Promised Land’. Nearly forty years later anti-Union resentment was strong enough to carry Charles Edward Stuart close to an overthrow not just of the Treaty but of the Hanoverian state. Only after the 1745 rebellion did conditions improve enough to resemble the changes promised an earlier generation.
This time-lapse is another feature which places the British Union in the Early Modern period. At no later era in history could any government have hoped to postpone benefits for so long and get away with it. With the revolutions of the later 18th century, in technology and agriculture as well as in America and France, time itself came to assume a different and more urgent meaning. The notion of measurable change entered more decidedly into mass awareness; expectations intensified and focused more clearly on futures realisable if and when social conditions were altered to allow them. The psychic world of nascent nationalism is one where all lands become promised, and not by divine intervention alone. An accelerated sense of the transitory and the possible makes any wilderness that much less tolerable; and hence mobilisation for exit that much more appealing and necessary. Such a consciousness would become general in the 19th century, then universal in the 20th. But in the 1707-45 era it remained embryonic, at least in Scotland. This is why the mechanics and arguments surrounding the Union Treaty appear so archaic. They did indeed occur ‘in another time’, or more precisely within another temporality where vital things were missing which we take for granted today.
A Union for Empire helps us understand more clearly what these things are, as does Paterson’s Autonomy of Modern Scotland, from a strikingly different and contemporary viewpoint. His book follows two other recent general reassessments of Scottish post-Union society, Jacques Leruez’s L’ Ecosse: une nation sans état (1983) and David McCrone’s Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Stateless Nation (1992). He gives a more political twist to these important analyses, attempting what amounts to a general ideological reassessment of post-1707 history: ‘In effect, if not in constitutional theory or political rhetoric, Scotland had been autonomous for most of the three centuries since the Union – not a fully independent state, of course, but far more than a mere province. It has been at least as autonomous as other small European nations ... closer to the partial independence of Norway, Finland or Hungary than to the dependent condition of the Czech lands or Poland.’
Most of the time, over most areas of social existence, a kind of self-management has prevailed. Until the 20th century London intervened very little. Rule was so indirect that the state seemed a remote entity impinging hardly at all on the native institutions left in place by the Treaty – the kirk, the law, the educational system and, later on a distinctive apparatus of local government. Scots liked to think of these bodies as ‘civil society’: it is no accident that this deeply mysterious term originated in Edinburgh. Originated, that is, in a lean-to social formation which, very unusually, had a powerful Treaty-guaranteed interest in the illusion of being self-supporting. Idealist philosophers like Hegel would later develop the idea further. It evolved into the general concept of a stateless or market-governed society, magically shorn of abstract or merely political authority.
Paterson reminds us that such generalisation had a concrete source, in the Scottish managerial belief that ‘the whole point of the Union was to remove the oppressions of politics on the Scottish character. Government, it was felt, should have nothing to do with moulding the character of a people; on the contrary ... the nature of a government should be derived from the pre-existing culture that it was supposed to serve.’ Much of the author’s effort goes into defending the resultant managerialism. He insists repeatedly that Adam Ferguson’s conception of an oppression-free civil society was justified, and proven by the Scottish example. Caledonia’s institutional bourgeoisie has often been scathingly denounced as servile, cringing, routine-minded and unadventurous. In Paterson’s reverse image it shows up as rational, sensible, shrewd, ‘showing a wise appreciation that there are multiple sources of social authority’ and knowing where its true interests lay within the old British imperium. Thus ‘canny’ is transformed from accusation into general plaudit. Keeping one’s head down was an inevitable part of the silent way; and rightly so, argues this book, since it preserved autonomy and the integrity of a system where ‘the daily lives of people in Scotland remained thoroughly Scottish because emphatically local ... By European standards Scottish autonomy was at worst normal, at best actually quite privileged.’
There is an interesting mechanism of psychic reversal at work in The Autonomy of Modern Scotland. In the course of only a few pages Paterson tells the reader that Scotland’s élite is ‘not abject’, does not consist of ‘dupes’, does not deserve its ‘reputation for cravenness’, and is by no means always ‘timid’ and ‘dependent’. He significantly labours the point. And the obverse of this is an over-emphasis on its supposed contrary, a near-infallible rationality. Our ancestors weren’t just not abject, they were positively brilliant: they astutely converted weakness into strength and displayed ‘sensible Realpolitik’, a people that ‘chose quietness, because it genuinely believed in the common destinies of all the British peoples’, preserving the moderate demeanour of a ‘dual identity’ – ‘British for formal and public matters, Scottish for the family and home and community’. Essentially, what today’s all-or-nothing Nationalism denies is this complex if unromantic inheritance. It has ‘forgotten about the partial, negotiated, but nevertheless real autonomy of domestic sovereignty’.
A series of comparisons with other 19th-century European countries is then used to underline the non-romantic virtues. Judged by progress towards independent statehood Scotland may have been backward: but in terms of broad liberal criteria it did rather well. Liberty, economic development and middle-class culture all flourished within the Union, encouraging Scottish intellectuals to go on cultivating their backyard autonomy rather than attempt organised political dissent. In Scotland civil society was after all a virtual chasse gardée of the intellectual trades: there were almost no English kirk ministers, lawyers or teachers in this job reservation, and hence no threat to Scotland’s national integrity. Those who felt stifled by the backyard could emigrate. They did so in great numbers, bearing to London, Canada or Australasia what Paterson identifies as the virtues of apolitical Scotland – more or less the opposite of the Irish emigrant culture, with its inclination towards machine politics, conspiracy and grand rhetoric.
One result was the absence of a key social factor connected in most other countries with nationalism. A famously educated culture produced no intelligentsia. The circumstances of ‘autonomy’ bred intellectuals who were either over-employed managing ‘domestic sovereignty’ or in a curious sense lost to normal nationhood through outward osmosis. Paterson would probably not admit the dilemma implicit in his own analysis, but I think it can be seen in the social history of many Scots intellectuals. The choice inherent in the structure he describes can be expressed in the difference between John Buchan’s father and Buchan himself: smalltown stuffed-shirt or high-administrative panjandrum. Both very successful, of course, one cannily beneath nationality in the troublesome sense, and the other philosophically far above it, in the Tory clubland pantheon of those who have risen. The same point can be made in other terms, which the author also avoids. ‘Nationality’ in this sense came to mean politics. But politics is the one thing that modern Scots have been conspicuously bad at. Their best-known gift to 20th-century United Kingdom politics, Ramsay Macdonald, was also its worst calamity. Scotland had opted out of the ‘oppressions of politics’; but out of its opportunities and collective rewards as well.
Now it is trying to opt back in. Autonomy has at last begun to yield to democracy, even in Scotland. Paterson describes how in the first half of this century ‘the UK welfare state took a distinctive form in Scotland, to such an extent that Scotland can be described as having had a welfare state of its own.’ Autonomy begat the Scottish Office – ‘a uniquely bureaucratic form of national government’ deploying vast powers of co-option and patronage, supervised only in dim and sporadic fashion by Westminster committees and late-night sittings. Though rooted in the older, simpler entities protected by the 1707 Treaty, such as Kirk Presbyteries, the Court of Session or the 18th-century sheriffdom, Scottish institutional identity attained its fullest flowering only in quite recent times.
What is institutional identity? What kind of National Character does it represent? Paterson wishes above all to dispel the familiar notion that Scotland is deformed or deeply defective in some way – a cripple or half-wit among nations, demeaningly glad to be allowed to run its own backyard without the usual accompaniment of a parliament, an army and so on. Speaking as one guilty of disseminating this libel in times past, I feel obliged to utter a few words in its defence. Institutional identity seems to me broadly the same as managerial identity or (less flatteringly but more familiar to theorists) ‘bureaucratic identity’. The self-management of civil society historically found in Scotland implied a corresponding managerial or bureaucratic ethos, the customs of a stratum or class which administers and regulates rather than ‘rules’ in the more ordinary sense of political government or direction. Max Weber described its origins and character as one of the pivotal features of modernity. In Economy and Society he showed how superior such management is to all its predecessors, and how ‘experience tends universally to show that this bureaucratic type of organisation ... is from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings.’ No one would in this sense deny the rationality so strongly endorsed in The Autonomy of Modern Scotland. However, Weber also pointed out the drawbacks of instrumental or short-range reason. The very strength of such bodies and the kind of self-sustaining momentum they acquire poses a threat, the danger ‘that the world might be filled with nothing but these little cogs, with nothing but men clinging to a little job and striving after a slightly bigger one ... men who need “order” and nothing but order, who become nervous and cowardly if this order wavers for a moment.’
Bureaucracy had an egalitarian side to it and within limits was a social leveller, especially in contrast to aristocracy or older, class-bound societies. But that should not be confused with democracy. It also lends itself rather to petty or low-level authoritarianism – sticking to the rules or, in the Scottish phrase I always thought of as timeless until I read Paterson’s book, ‘doing as one’s telt’. Weber also remarked on how this sort of thing tended to ‘parcel out the soul’, before concluding that an over-dominance of the ‘bureaucratic ideal of life’ was something to be fought and averted at all costs. Simplifying for the sake of polemic, I would suggest that this dominance is indeed a fundamental trait of post-1707 Scotland. The Autonomy of Modern Scotland puts a spotlight on it much more effectively and passionately than any previous analysis, seeking to redeem and justify institutional identity as the bedrock of Scottishness – the explanation of Scotland’s place within the British Union and of the relative satisfaction and quiescence which attended that position until quite recently.
But for many observers the spotlight will only deepen the surrounding darkness. After all, the most common identity stereotypes of Scottishness vary wildly. Nervousness and cowardliness are not ideas which suggest themselves to anyone who has witnessed the crowd at a Scotland-England international, nor do they feature in the Scottish Tourist Board’s promotion of a castellated and kindly-peasant wilderness. Eagles, lairds, bagpipes and scones are the grist of Scotland’s Heritage mills – not little cogs, canny cooncil-men or the quangocracy manipulated from St Andrew’s House in such prodigious and democratically unaccountable numbers. At the literary level a similar puzzlement seems in order. What about the weird country depicted in James Kelman’s stories, for example, where demotic-proletarian saints find themselves forever knackered by sadist-authoritarian bullies or preached at in Malcolm Rifkind English by bien pensant hypocrites and child molesters?
One easy answer now itself a form of cant might be the Post-Modern alibi: there are multiple or equivalently-valid identities co-existing in no special order of significance. Another, I believe more convincing, reply, is one from which Paterson also firmly averts his gaze. Since Walter Scott’s time the Scots have indulged in chest-beating display-identities because the one Paterson singles out as ‘real’ has been in certain important respects both deeply unpalatable and functionally useless. In some ways institutional identity may indeed have been the blessing depicted in The Autonomy of Modern Scotland. In others it has been more like an unavowable curse.
In a large and growing number of characteristically modern situations, ‘Who are you?’ is inevitably a collective rather than an individual query. Its real sense is ‘What do you represent?’ as a sample of some broader entity. While one may of course be a Catholic, a stamp-collector or a Friend of the Earth, the most useful, all-purpose handle here remains one’s nation. There is (literally) no getting away from it. Nationality is not in the genes, but it is in the structure of the modern world, much more prominently and inescapably than it was in ancient times, or than in the Early Modern world to which the Treaty of Union has for so long pinned down the Scots.
No one has ever responded to this interpellation with a short lecture on the beauties of the Sheriff system, the merits of Scottish generalist education or the advantages of not having one’s own politics. Or if anybody ever did, it would only have been to see the interlocutor’s eyes glaze over in bored disbelief. As Robert Louis Stevenson remarked in one of his letters home from Germany, in that situation you just find yourself gabbling on about clanship, tartans, Jacobites and whatever else will make the necessary effect.
Silence would imply oblivion – dismissal as an ignoble province, a mere part of England. Yet the long story is incomprehensible in normal conversation. It takes articulate theoretical animals like McCrone and Paterson around two hundred and fifty pages to account for their oddity in the zoo. Shorthand is as inescapable as nationalism: the culture requires it. It must therefore be made up, with whatever materials come to hand. It is in this sense that the fakelore of Gaelicism and assumed Highland identity is by no means accidental, or simply the consequence of bad faith and culpable romantic escapism. Phoniness is the unavoidable accompaniment of this shorthand Highland identity, of course, as is the kind of uneasy half-belief which most Scottish Lowlanders have half-indulged in about it since Victorian times. However, all that really means is that since Paterson’s ‘real’ identity cannot be deployed for certain important purposes, a display-identity is needed to fill the gap. Intellectuals are often terribly sanctimonious about the results, but should waste less breath on it. I speak as one who has in the past expended all too much of the precious stuff on the follies of tartanry. A cure will be found in politics, not in aesthetic disdain or standoffish intellectualism.
Paterson’s analysis consistently counterposes these real interests and motives of domestic sovereignty to the external realm of Britishness. He argues that backyard autonomy is the main need of most people, most of the time, and so the Scots should congratulate themselves on preserving so much sage, short-range control over ‘their own affairs’. Carried away by a commendable and intensely Scottish argumentative passion he ends by over-endorsing institutional identity and ignoring its awful shortcomings. It is quite possible – and in fact the common Scottish plight – to be attached to domestic sovereignty and yet unwilling to be bored to death by it. He fails to perceive how ‘autonomy’ itself has generated the more celebrated kitschland which now stands in for Scotland in the world’s consciousness. Rob Roy is not all down to Hollywood, Michael Caton-Jones or Alan Sharp, nor even to Walter Scott’s original tale of honour misplaced and traduced. Its nerve lies in a sense of intolerable loss which has always been as real as the short-term gains linked to silent-way managerialism. The same feeling animates Kelman’s violent repudiation of a fallen middle-class universe whose increasingly nervous and cowardly cogs revenge themselves on underlings: the hell of a dead-end autonomy, as it were, from which an unseen God will permit neither advance nor exit.
A few years ago there was a Court of Session meeting concerned with the poll tax. The Edinburgh lawyer Randolph Murray had complained that it was illegal in Scotland since it contravened the Treaty of Union. As part of the proceedings photocopies of the original Treaty document were ordered up, and I recall vividly the eerie sensation of seeing the ushers solemnly bear in the large sheets and place them before Lord President Hope and his two colleagues. The judges then studied the relevant clauses for some minutes, only a few yards from the Parliament Hall where Belhaven and Patrick Hume had argued over them 284 years before. Unrequited ghosts hovered over the proceedings, their dispute still unresolved. Afterwards Lord Hope observed that this was a matter of such fundamental importance that the High Court would need a little time to reach its decision.
A fortnight later he published a verdict of exquisite moderation denying that the Treaty had been betrayed. Hume was still in charge (though other recent decisions suggest Fletcher and Belhaven may at last be staging a comeback). I think that few of those involved in the poll tax action ever payed the damned thing, but that was not because autonomy shielded us. We simply joined the mutiny against it, along with millions of others in both Scotland and England. Everyone there – small-p and large-P patriots alike – knew perfectly well that no Scottish legislature would ever conceivably have imposed such a tax to begin with, and that any Scottish representative body, were it no more than the equivalent of an old French conseil régional, would have denounced it. The only reason for our futile day in court was the complete absence of a political alternative.
One of Paterson’s shrewdest points is his depiction of how often the Scots themselves have been responsible for Anglicisation. In true colonial situations the metropolis imposes its equalising will. But under self-colonisation it may very well be those indirectly ruled who seek assimilation as the way to equal treatment. Where the dependent or autonomous structure offers no alternative formula, then – paradoxically – a kind of self-preserving nationalism can move them towards integration. Nationalism’s aim is equality with one’s own first-class compartment. When the latter is ruled out, however, it may seem better to move into the majority’s indisputably first-class accommodation than to lapse visibly into the second-rate. This is most likely to be true where assimilation in one particular sphere is not apprehended as too threatening. What does it matter being ‘just like them’ here or there, while, as Paterson shows, the main bulwarks of civil identity remain unassailable?
Recognition of this reveals another uncomfortable aspect of his position. If nationalism accounts even for assimilation, then it must really be endemic at some deeper level. The Autonomy of Modern Scotland counterposes a sage domestic-sovereignty outlook to romantic nationalism. But this is also a contrast between two sorts of nationalism: the canny calculations of self-colonisation versus the heedless and emotive assertion of equal status. Furthermore, the second must underlie the first. A sense of loss, limitation and separateness can help to explain the deviousness and main-chance opportunism of the Scots, but not vice versa. In any case, romantic is only a dismissive label in this context. The Patrick Humes have always employed it to keep politics out of court, as if it were an ailment or weakness to which the post-Enlightenment world had unfortunately succumbed. This is historical nonsense. Like nationalism, romanticism is more an integral element of modernity than a reaction against it.
Thus the road not taken haunts the one actually followed by a self-managing and self-limiting civil society. Nationalism is like a deus ex machina to Paterson’s argument. It motivates the whole complex machinery he describes: institutional identity, self-preservation and (where needed) self-suppression. In that sense the Treaty of Union came just in time to bury a nascent Scottish nationalism, but could only put it into a shallow grave. Consent was the key to its remaining there. Yet to give such continuing consent it could never be really buried and forgotten. Robertson and Paterson show how the deal was meant to work out among the living, but neither accounts sufficiently for the illustrious cadaver of the seven-century-old Kingdom. In 1707 it was decreed undead, not dispatched to genuine oblivion. Embalmed by Union, it has not ceased to exert the most profound influence on each new generation. Has autonomy conserved it, as Paterson maintains? Or is it more accurate to say that that profound influence has kept autonomy working and in effective adaptation for so long? All recent experience suggests how persistent and apparently indelible nationhood can be. Once nationality reaches or crosses the threshold of modern development it is rare indeed for it not to attain political realisation, or at least go on struggling towards it. The autonomy of modern Scotland was intended to be a stable, self-reproducing system of dependency. But however artfully designed and maintained, dependency depends: it assumes the permanence of a wider system. If the latter collapses or shrinks, then it may only have been an odd way of cold-storing nationhood. The corpse may simply step out from temporary interment to resume his rights. He was never really sleeping anyway.