Myth and Memory in the Pursuit of Scottish Independence

DEMOCRACY: The idea of ‘Scotland’ as nation is not a concept which resides within an independent external reality.  It is one which encompasses certain enduring elements, but is also one that is subject to change.  With the ultimate aim of political independence in mind, the Scottish National Party must project their vision of Scotland, differentiating it from England and the rest of the UK, whilst attempting to reconcile these efforts with the specific political context in which it finds itself.  One tactic which can be used to achieve this is to plunder and emphasize certain historical themes and myths which have shaped the Scottish nation and its national identity.  This way, the project will resonate with the Scottish people, igniting emotions, and at times, helping to deflect questions surrounding the validity and coherence of the arguments being made.

Matthew Robson

Yes Scotland

Nations remain rooted in the landscape of modernity, feeding and being fed by, a powerful sense of the distinctive collective past (Smith, 2004, Foreword of ‘Scottish Nationalism and the Idea of Europe’).

Perhaps the most significant, audacious strategy of the debate on Scottish independence has been the attempts made by the Scottish National Party to disassociate itself from the referendum itself.  The implication is that this is not about Scottish nationalism, of which the SNP is the principal exponent; it is about the Scottish people themselves.  The problem with this argument, however, is that once the idea of a ‘Scottish’ people or nation is evoked, we are already into the realm of Scottish nationalism.  Convincing people of this has thus been quite a remarkable feat.  The fact remains  that the objective of political independence has been the raison d’etre of the SNP since its foundation; the Party has been the architect of the referendum itself and the only mainstream political party to support the secession of Scotland; and  furthermore, crucially, it is the SNP who are controlling the nationalist discourse advocating a ‘yes’ vote.

This sleight of hand is reminiscent of previous claims that there´s was a ‘civic’ nationalism; that is, a more palatable variant which has shared rights and responsibilities as the cornerstone of the nation.  Prominent scholar of nationalism Anthony D. Smith has argued, however, that the dichotomy of ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ nationalism is effectively a mirage (Smith, 1987).  You cannot have the one without the other since a ‘civic’ nationalism would not be possible without an ‘ethnic’ base.  It is not shared civic values which galvanize and homogenize the idea of a shared community, although this may well play a role.  It is a range of other things which can be related to a shared ethnic past.  It is much more a sense of shared territory; national symbols; past heroes; shared memories, invented or not; and national myths.  One way or another, the SNP must appeal to at least some of these elements if it is to capture the imagination of the masses.

The inference that can be made, therefore, is that it should be possible to detect strands within current nationalist discourse that can be linked to shared ideas of an ethnic past.  In fact, the very idea of a distinctive Scottish nation, indicated by references to a ‘people’, ‘us’ and ‘our’, is built on a series of myths.  One of the most important is the myth of ‘shared descent’.  Shared origins, especially if they are traced back to the distant past, attribute a longevity and thus, credibility to the nation.  It explains why a group of people constitute a particular collective and no other, irrespective of all other differences, and why the members share a culture and traditions.  It offers a degree of coherence as to why a working class individual in Edinburgh and a millionaire landowner in Aberdeen could possess the same political objectives, whilst two workers from Edinburgh and Liverpool would find themselves in mutually exclusive camps.

                            One of the most important myths of a distinct Scottish nation is that of ‘shared descent’

It is interesting to note that an emphasis put on the longevity of the Scottish nation, as subscribed to by the SNP, throws up problems for a purportedly ‘civic’ nationalism in as far as it would appear to exclude people coming from other countries.  This contradiction is resolved, apparently, by way of another foray into the past, which allows them to highlight ahistorically the roots of a ‘mongrel’ nation (Atsuko, 2004).  Incidentally, the same point of reference can be used to construct the image of an inherently ‘open’ and ‘tolerant’ nation.  In any case, what is important here is how history and myth are used as precedents for perceived characteristics of the Scottish nation.  It demonstrates how the past can be used in a selective way to justify policies pursued by the SNP in the present.  Recognizing that the independence of the nation is the most important objective of the SNP, this means that the construction of the relationship between Scotland and England, or the rest of the United Kingdom, takes on particular importance.

It is simply not possible to understand current Scottish nationalism and the will to secede from the UK without reference to popular understandings of the history between Scotland and England.  The predominant branch of this is essentially the narrative of an intrinsically antagonistic relationship in which a small but proud nation is pitted against a far greater power, both in terms of population and resources.  It tells of how England has posed a persistent threat to the survival and success of the Scottish nation through constant meddling and attempts to impose its will on the people of Scotland.  It is also a question of bullying and of treachery, whereby a range of events can be highlighted as evidence that the English cannot be trusted.  It is a version of history taken from a specific period and therefore a selective one, but one that has endured.

The modern day variant of these historical themes has undergone a transformation, yet it is still possible to detect their threads in current nationalist discourse.  It is no longer palatable or compatible with claims of ‘civic’ nationalism to speak of a dominated nation (Scotland) and a dominating power (England).  In recent times, the references to England have been replaced by other indicators; ‘the London Parties’; the ‘Westminster Parties’; or even the ‘UK Parties’.  The function is the same, however, in that power concentrated in London is used to stifle, coerce and subjugate the Scottish nation.  During the debate on Scottish independence, this opposition has been demarcated clearly by the SNP, constructing with regular occurrence the perceived damaging and asymmetric nature of the power relationship between Scotland and the centre of power in London.

One of the ways in which this has been articulated has been through direct warnings of a ‘threat’.  This tactic was used, for instance, in relation to the proposed UK referendum on the EU, which could result in the exit of the country.  Highlighted in particular is the ‘threat’ directed at Scottish businesses as a possible outcome of the consultation.  All of this, in spite of the fact that an independent Scotland would have to reapply to join the E.U, a process that would have to face up to the very real possibility of encountering a veto from another member state, such as for example Spain.  But more significant still, has been the claim that London or Westminster constitutes a threat to the National Health Service due to the privatization measures being carried out in England.  The reality is, however, that matters related to the health care system have been devolved to the Scottish parliament and that spending per capita is actually higher in Scotland than in England.

If the construction of an external ‘threat’ has the function of rallying the Scots in defense of the nation, there has been a range of other tactics used to undermine the campaign in favour of a ‘no’ vote.  For example, in 2012 the vice First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused ‘Westminster’ of ‘dictating’ the terms of the referendum and ‘trying to interfere in Scottish democracy’.  On receiving the news that the United Kingdom Government would reject the possibility of a currency union with Scotland, Sturgeon also denounced that ‘the establishment was ganging up on Scotland’The arguments articulated by politicians against independence are labeled as mere ‘scaremongering’ and ‘intimidation.’  Added to this, moreover, are the insinuations that the United Kingdom parties can´t be trusted.  Regarding the skepticism about the quantities of oil remaining in Scottish waters, it was said that ‘Westminster is up to its old tricks again’ and that they were trying to ‘hoodwink the people of Scotland.’  While recently, plans to devolve more powers to the Scottish Parliament have been passed off as a mere ‘bribe’.  

Scotland, on the other hand, is portrayed as a nation full of talent, but one which can only reach its true potential through independence.  An important part of this is the promise of a ‘fairer’ and ‘more just’ society.  The current political context is particularly favorable for the cultivation of hopes of this kind; a persisting economic crisis; the bite of austerity measures being overseen by a Conservative Government; the unpopularity of the Labour Party; all of which allows the SNP to project itself as the defender of social-democratic values.  Closer inspection reveals, however, that this is quite wide of the mark; in fact, the intention to reduce corporation tax by 3% indicates that actually the opposite would occur.

All the same, this particular strand of nationalist discourse is particularly effective, not only due to the present context.  In addition it appeals to another myth prevalent in Scottish society; namely, that it boasts an inherently ‘compassionate’ nature.  The historical precursors which are said to support this idea highlight the impact of the Scottish Presbyterian Church and its horizontal structure, which would distinguish Scotland form other hierarchical models of religious denominations in other countries such as England (Atsuko, 2004).  Whatever the retrospective premise is, studies carried out seem to show that there is very little difference between Scotland and England in terms of social attitudes (Hassan, 2012).  Nevertheless, the attribution of identity markers such as ‘compassionate’ fulfills the role of demonstrating the singularity of the Scottish nation.  A Derridean perspective would inform us that this process is almost always about the ‘Other’; in this case, England, which by inference would be designated the characteristics; insensitive, individualistic and intolerant.  The deduction that we are invited to make is that for these reasons, the independence of Scotland would be essential.

The point here is not to suggest that the enactment of national myths and the selection of historical narratives are inherently wrong.  To a greater or lesser extent all nations are shaped by them and in their absence, there would be nothing to explain where a nation had come from, or what path it would chart in the future.  Nor is it to suggest that there is just one side of this debate involved in the obfuscation of crucial issues.  The debate on Scottish independence is a political battle, a struggle whereby Unionist political discourse will even attempt to gain control over these discursive tactics and turn them against the SNP.  It is argued here, nevertheless, that they possess a distinctive resonance when used by the SNP because they correspond with popular beliefs about the history and nature of the Scottish nation.  This, in turn, arouses emotion, strengthening a sense of collective consciousness, which can then be cultivated to override the weaknesses of any political/economic arguments that are being made.


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