Scots Nationalism

The First of Two Articles

Nationalists believe that all classes in society should hold allegiance to “The Nation”. Socialists do not and point out how nations have always been the creation of a ruling group having nothing to do with working-class interests.

What is a nation? It is simply the people and the territory which have been appropriated by a class of robbers at some point in history. It has less to do with a common language, religion, race, culture, and all the other things which nationalists imagine or pretend are essential ingredients in the making of nations.

This is certainly true of Scotland and far from having a common history or anything else the population there are mainly the descendants of native Picts, invaders from Ireland (the original Scots), Western Europe and Scandinavia. After centuries of what were really tribal wars the whole land came under one king by the middle of the ninth century and the nation was born –by the coercion of the people and in the interests of a class of bandit chieftains.

Right up until the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1707 there were really two distinct nations in Scotland. The Highlanders  spoke Gaelic and had a culture (way of life) very different from that of the dialect-English speaking Lowlanders. Indeed

“In rural districts, the Scottish dialect or dialects was barely intelligible even to a Scot of another district” (James G. Kellas. Modern Scotland the Nation Since1870. p. 7)

So the nationalist idea of a once united Scotland is just a myth. Yet no one can deny that despite over two hundred years of Scotland’s incorporation within the United Kingdom most Scots feel themselves to be part of a separate nation. This can be explained by the fact that the Act of Union allowed Scotland to retain its own law, religion, and education system thus ensuring the continuation of national identity.

Why, then, has nationalism never been a strong political force until recently? The answer is that after 1707 the Scottish bourgeoisie, the only ones who could have provided a nationalist impetus, were far too busy building their fortunes through the Empire trade which had hitherto been denied them by the English Navigation Acts. Later on there was the industrial revolution and even greater opportunity to find wealth and contentment within the Union.

Even so, there were some malcontents and by the middle of the nineteenth century we find some bourgeois complaining

“that England was getting very much more out of the Union than was Scotland . . . that during the last few years public expenditure had been largely for the benefit of England . . . Naval expenditure was almost exclusively allocated to English dockyards, shipyards and arsenals. (H. J. Hanham. Scottish Nationalism, p. 76).

This discontent resulted in the founding of the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights in 1853 and it was composed of Tory and Liberal notables plus some aristocrats. Although the Crimean war soon killed off the Association this didn’t prevent some Scottish propertied interests (the Tory Marquess of Bute among them) returning again and again to the theme that not enough time was devoted to Scottish business in the House of Commons, that public money (their taxes) was being spent unfairly, etc.

And as if to emphasize the propertied interests represented by nationalist ideas the Scottish Home Rule Association was formed in 1886, again comprising Tory and Liberal bigwigs but this time with a sprinkling of Labourites. Basically the SHRA represented those sections of the Scottish owning class who wanted more time spent on and more control over their affairs in a separate parliament in Scotland but still within the United Kingdom. The movement took its inspiration from the Irish bourgeoisie who were struggling to obtain Home Rule for themselves, and Gladstone’s support for this fanned the flames in Scotland.

Of course Home Rule met with opposition from other sections of the owning class who had different interests. Liberal business men who had trade links with Ireland feared any kind of Home Rule, Scottish or Irish, while Liberal MPs representing seats in west and central Scotland had to make sure they didn’t antagonize the Orange vote. The result was a split in the Liberal Party and the emergence of a group of Liberal-Unionists who allied themselves with the Tories against Home Rule.

Tories generally opposed Home Rule for the same reasons as did Liberals. Also the landowning section opposed it because they were outraged at Liberal plans for land reform, while the ambitious politicians were worried about how their career prospects would be affected since there wouldn’t be the same opportunity of landing plum jobs in “the government of Empire” if Scotland were to have its own parliament.

So although support for and opposition to Home Rule cut across party lines the growing band of nationalists usually supported the Liberals who had created the post of Secretary for Scotland and because the party in Scotland was committed to Home Rule. Various Bills for a Scottish parliament were submitted to Westminster until in 1913 one actually looked like succeeding but was cynically dropped by the Liberal government because of political complications over Ulster.

The emergence of independent Labour politics at the turn of the century meant that much working class support was drained from the Home Rule party, the Liberals. By the end of world war one the Liberals were completely shattered so Home Rule looked a lost cause to any Scottish capitalists who had been interested. In any case, as the division between the Liberals and Tories became more and more blurred the owning class had gradually been turning to the Tory Party, which had strong working class support, as the guardian of their class interests.

Nationalist now had to look elsewhere for support and they found it in the growing Labour Party and Trade Union movement in Scotland. John McLean, plus James Maxton, Tom Johnston, and other prominent Labourites were ardent Home Rulers and they followed in Keir Hardie’s footsteps by pandering to nationalist sentiment in their writings and speeches. Indeed Scotland is currently plastered with a Scottish National Party poster which quotes one of Maxton’s contributions:

“I am convinced we can do more in five years in a self-governing Scotland than could have been done with 25 or 30 years of heart-breaking struggle in the British House of Commons.”

Today the Labour and Communist Parties, along with various “revolutionary” groups continue the reactionary work of spreading nationalist ideas among the working class.

However, the honeymoon with Labour was soon over and eventually it dawned on the nationalists that they could hope for nothing from the three major parties, none of which had even included Home Rule in their 1924 general election manifestos, so the warring groups swept their differences under the carpet and merged in 1928 to become the National Party of Scotland.

The presence of political nationalist ideas is an indication that some groups in society feel its real material interests are being frustrated by forces outside or even inside the nation. Of course the desire to achieve their aims is never expressed in terms of their own needs only. In order to enlist the necessary working class support such arguments as “justice”, “freedom”, and “the nation” are used to justify the real bone of contention and to give it an aura of sanctity. Next month we will continue to show why the workers in Scotland should oppose nationalism.

(concluded next month)

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