Making sense of the SNP
Anglo-Scottish relations from a historical perspective
To look at the future of the British Isles is to understand the legacy of the past, although different scales of time are at stake. Thus, alongside longstanding tensions in Anglo-Irish relations, came the particular crises arising from World War One, notably the Easter Rising of 1916 and the dissension over conscription. Similarly, for Anglo-Scottish relations, there are arguments about the crucial importance of recent trends.
For a while, the focus was on the decline from the late 1950s of a Greater Britain, that of the Empire, in which Scotland had played a major role. That came to be linked to Scottish antipathy to what was unfairly stigmatised as a Little Englander Britishness under Margaret Thatcher (r. 1979-90), and then to the unanticipated consequences of the Scottish referendum of 1997 under which a separate government and Parliament were established, and subsequently to the consequences of the Brexit referendum of 2016. There is a degree of weight for each interpretation but they can suffer from being seen in isolation from a relationship that had both strength and tensions.
The Union led to an under-representation of Scotland’s population but an over-representation of its economic strength
This is unsurprisingly so because England and Scotland developed as different political units with significant tensions both from control over extensive border areas and as a result of English attempts at overlordship, control or, at least, intervention. As a consequence, there was significant conflict from the eleventh to sixteenth centuries. The Scottish wars of independence, which were at a highpoint from the 1290s to the 1330s, led to a growing sense of nationhood in Scotland, not least with the assertion of independence by means of the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320.
Common processes, such as the Roman attack in the first century, the “Barbarian” invasions of the fifth to eleventh centuries, feudalism in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the civil wars between 1639 and 1746 played out differently in England and Scotland. Despite retrospective and sometimes successful attempts to create a common memory, there was none, even if there was a powerful need to respond to similar circumstances, events and, from 1603, rulers.
The end of the Tudor line with the death of the childless Elizabeth I in 1603 created a union of the Crowns when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England. However, despite contemporary interest in the example of the recently-devised union of Poland and Lithuania, and James’s hopes for a “union of love,” or, at least, a measure of administrative and economic union, between England and Scotland, the union, in law and fact, remained essentially that of the monarch. There was fear in England about the legal and constitutional implications, and the Westminster Parliament rejected a parliamentary or legal bond.
Britain in the event was a parliamentary creation, the unitary state of Great Britain being established on 12 May 1707 as a result of the union of England and Scotland. This was seen as a more permanent union than that of 1603 as it was believed that the latter could dissolve if the crowns of England and Scotland went different ways after the death of the childless Queen Anne (1702-14). There was English concern about the possible hazards posed by an autonomous or independent Scotland. The Scots in turn did not wish to be shut out from the English and colonial market. The Union led to an under-representation of Scotland’s population in the Westminster Parliament but an over-representation of its economic strength.
It was not until the 1990s that Scottish nationalism helped to undermine notions of Britishness in Scotland
In turn, the total defeat of the Jacobite/Stuart/Catholic claim to Britain, with the decisive verdict at the battle of Culloden in 1746, and the subsequent remodelling of the governance of the Scottish Highlands, with the abolition of hereditable jurisdictions, drove forward this process. The British state was one whose political tone and agenda were set in London and southern England. This was the basis of British consciousness, a development that did not so much alter the views of the English political élite, for whom Britain was essentially an extension of England, but rather reflected the determination of the Scottish Protestant élite to link its fate with that of the British state.
However, differences remained. Although England and Scotland were both anti-Catholic, which provided a clear cement of Britishness, they also had rival Protestant establishments, and the contrast between the Church of England and the Calvinist Church of Scotland was highly significant to the continual separateness of the two. Had there been a union of England and Scotland at the religious level, in the sense of a common Church structure, liturgy and much else, it would have encouraged a joining of national histories. Instead, the Scots in part defined themselves separately by successfully pursuing and defending a distinctive religious settlement.
While the English tended not to differentiate themselves from Britishness, there was also a crucial multinational character to the latter. In particular, the Scots played a major role in both the British army and the British empire. Its major city, Glasgow, was a key port for empire, to which many Scots emigrated. Demographically, Scotland was overshadowed: England and Wales had a population of 17,928,000 in 1851 and 32,528,000 in 1901, whereas the Scottish figures were 2,889,000 and 4,472,000. That Scotland retained considerable independence within the United Kingdom also militated against political nationalism.
Scotland had its own educational system as well as a distinctive legal one. Furthermore, in 1885, the Scottish Office, and Secretary were created, the first Secretary of State for Scotland since 1746. There was in the nineteenth century a re-emergent cultural identity, with kilts and literary consciousness, but no real drive for independence. Far from being separate, Scotland was in the mainstream of British politics: the Liberals were powerful there, but so were the Conservatives. Indeed, five of the ten British Prime Ministers between 1880 and 1935 were Scottish. Launched in 1853, the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights pressed for administrative devolution and Cabinet-level representation, but was not explicitly nationalist.
It was not until the 1960s, that the Scottish National Party began its rise, and not until the 1990s that Scottish nationalism helped to undermine notions of Britishness in Scotland. The rise in Scottish National Party (SNP) support from the 1960s hit both Labour and the Conservatives. Moreover, the lack of a strong government in Britain in the 1970s forced the Scottish issue forward as did concern that Scotland might follow Northern Ireland into disorder. In the October 1974 general election, the SNP won 30.4 per cent of the Scottish vote and returned eleven MPs, coming second in thirty-six further constituencies. A Scotland and Wales Bill introduced in 1976 by the Labour British government proposed assemblies for Scotland and Wales with control over health, social services, primary and secondary education, development and local government, but with no taxation power and with the Westminster Parliament retaining the veto.
The Bill met opposition from Scottish nationalists, who felt it did not go far enough, but, more substantially, from Conservatives, who saw it as a threat to Britain, and from some Labour MPs. In order to secure the passage of the legislation, the government had to concede referenda. Held in 1979, the majority of the votes cast in Scotland was for devolution, but it was not the necessary 40 per cent of those on the electoral register. As a reminder of the dependence then of Scottish developments on British politics, the general election soon after in 1979 returned a Conservative majority in Britain and, under first Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, the Conservatives were not interested in any change in Scottish arrangements. It was not, despite SNP arguments, England versus Scotland, but, rather, the interaction of divisions in each, a pattern that went back to the Middle Ages.
Polls in the late 2000s indicated that about 84 per cent of Scots identified themselves as Scottish
When Labour created in 1997 a Scottish Parliament and Executive, the drift became very much away from a British identity, not least as separatism became an incremental process. Just as this identity was created by an Act of Parliament so it may well be dissolved by another, with parliaments in Edinburgh and London playing the key role, albeit this time with a referendum being decisive. 22 per cent of the Scottish votes cast in the 1997 general election had been for the SNP and in 2007, an SNP government gained power in Edinburgh.
In 2002, the Daily Record, the most successful Scottish tabloid newspaper, urged Scots to support England’s opponents in the World Cup, and they did so, much to the shock of the English. By the late 2010s, constitutional judgments and documents, such as the 2009 report of the Calman Commission set up after the 2007 election, were beginning to talk about shared sovereignty as a constitutional solution. Moreover, polls in the late 2000s indicated that about 84 per cent of Scots identified themselves as Scottish not British. In 2014, 44.7 per cent of those who voted in a referendum of Scottish independence supported the proposal, in the 2015 general election, the SNP won all bar three of the Scottish seats in Westminster, while, in 2016, 62 per cent of the Scots who voted opted to remain in the European Union, and in 2019 the SNP won forty-eight out of the fifty-nine seats in the British general election, albeit on only 45 per cent of the vote.
The bullying of English children in Scottish schools and the beating up of English students on Scottish streets allegedly became more common. A distinctive Scottish viewpoint, frequently opposed to that of London, had been encouraged by the activities of the two Scottish independent television companies — Scottish Television (established 1958) and Grampian Television (1960) — which operated only in Scotland. SNP success is in accordance with the now official presentation of Scottish history and identity, whereby the new National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh greatly downplays the role of the Scots in the British empire, while the National Library of Scotland also plays up distinctive Scottish aspects in its displays and exhibitions.
By 2021, pressure for a second referendum was to the fore anew. This was very much the goal of the SNP which wished to time the referendum to a moment of its choice: it only needed to win once to succeed, but, as with Quebec, each defeat would represent a failure and one that had the potential to weaken that cause and, more particularly, to end the career of whoever was the party head at that time. To most outsiders, the SNP is a coherent group striving for independence, but, in practice, it is bitterly divided. The apparent coherence of the goal of independence in fact is overlaid by differing emphases on the society and ethos of an independent Scotland, differences that reflect general ideological contrasts and, also, the extent to which the SNP is necessarily a coalition due to the very diverse nature of Scotland and the degree to which the SNP has taken electoral support from all the other political parties.
Chaos on the Catalan scale is possible after the Scottish government threatened to hold a referendum by 2023 regardless
In specific geopolitical terms, there is a clash, or at least significant tension, within SNP ranks about international alignments; one that cannot look back to the deep history of an independent Scotland due to the major changes that have occurred since. There is, however, one obvious parallel, that of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Thus, just as the Republic of Ireland has been able to use EU membership to exert pressure in its relations with Britain, notably so over Brexit, so Scotland has a long history, dating back to the twelfth century, of using Anglo-French tensions to its own end. With France ascendant in the EU, and notably so in foreign policy, the attraction to both is readily apparent.
So also with SNP doubts about active NATO membership, a British governmental policy, as opposed to a European defence force, which is the French goal. A key issue here is that Britain’s nuclear submarine base is at Faslane in Scotland. This underlines the significance to NATO of the SNP stance, and also Scotland’s role in the strategic architecture of the containment of Russia, as, before, of the Soviet Union. Moreover, this issue has become more significant with the melting of the Arctic ice cap and the great (and lesser) power race in the wider Arctic as the parameters of economic and military power alter.
In European terms, Russia supported the Scottish independence campaign in 2014 with propaganda, and this is very likely to recur as a factor. The Russian tendency to see Scotland as an equivalent to Ukraine contributes to this situation. At the very least, chaos on the Catalan scale is a possibility as the Scottish government has threatened to hold a referendum by 2023 whatever the view of the United Kingdom government and the courts on the very dubious legality of such a step.
In terms of United Kingdom geopolitics, the uncertain peace in Northern Ireland is a seriously complicating issue, while there is the question of the significance of Scottish steps for options and developments in Wales. Moreover, some of the solutions currently under discussion may well weaken the United Kingdom geopolitically, not least the idea of a four-part federalism of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as Scotland and Wales are likely to be more pacific than England.
In addition, England would be disunited if constitutional regionalism within England was seen as part of the solution. These are among the ideas floated by Gordon Brown, a former Labour Prime Minister and a Scot who is totally opposed to independence but whose concern for English interests is minimal. The West Country, London or the West Midlands, and the outer South East, have more people than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. The volatile nature of this issue is underlined by the very different fiscal underpinnings and expenditure expectations of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
Historical analogies are not helpful. The United Kingdom may seem at times to have a case of the late Habsburg empire; but there is no prospect of a war to destroy it, as happened to that empire. Moreover, in the elections in May 2021, the SNP failed to win a majority of the Scottish voters, and that despite the election being, in part, a referendum on its prospectus. However, with the Greens, they have a majority for another referendum.
As a government of Scotland, the SNP has relied on transfers of money from England to fund ambitious programmes that, in turn, it has not done particularly well in administering. Yet, despite its manifold policy failings, notably in education, the SNP benefits from the major collapse of Scottish Labour which is part of a more general and continuing crisis of the Labour party, and from the Conservative failure to mount a widely convincing message in Scotland. As in many periods of Scottish history, the contingencies of the moment are crucially important to its development and to the resulting geopolitics.
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