Scotland Small? Making Sense of Nations in the 21st Century

Making Sense of Nations in the 21st Century

seminar on
'New Politics: New Governance:
the experience of Scottish Devolution'

Scotland in Sweden
18 October 2002

by David McCrone


Largo, Blebo, Dunino
Into Europe seem to go,
But plainly Scottish we may deem
Auchtermuchty, Pittenweem (2)

How to put Scotland in meaningful context? It is a seeming bundle of contradictions. It is one of the oldest nations in Europe, established more or less in its present frontiers 1000 years ago, and yet there is an important sense in which it can be said not even to exist. Evidently, it is not a state. Its people certainly had a sense of themselves as a distinct nation as early as the middle of the 14th century, forged in the wars with its larger and more powerful neighbour to the south. Yet it more or less willingly gave up its constitutional independence less than 400 years later, and embraced union with its auld enemy. In so doing, it transformed itself economically to become the second country in the world to industrialise, and to punch well above its political weight in the context of the greatest empire the world has yet seen. Are we then a nation? Some brave souls, furth of Scotland, as we say, point out that we are too similar to the English, sharing a common tongue, similar cultural, religious and political beliefs, to be that distinctive. At this point, I usually give a peroration that one should look at the Scandinavian peoples and try to sell them the argument that they, ostensibly, are the same people, but I will mercifully spare you that, for I know that you would knock it down in an instant, and I would have transgressed your hospitality .

Our people remained fiercely and proudly Scottish, while adopting a second, state, identity to be British also. We know who we are, and we certainly know who we are not. We tell ourselves jokes: God created the world, we say, and when he had finished, the angels marvelled at the utopia Scotland seemed to be: it had oil, coal, a temperate climate, water in abundance, and a spectacular landscape. What, the angels remarked, could be more perfect? The Scots had everything they could ever want. Huh, said God, just wait till they see the neighbours...

Those, the people who are most like us, we call 'the auld enemy', and we celebrate as our oldest allies their neighbours, the French, who we happily went to war against almost before the ink on the Treaty of Union was dry. We treated that Union as a marriage of convenience, a 'mariage de raison' as our erstwhile allies have it. We retained and grew our own civil institutions of law, education and religion. We defended with ferocity our money - it took, of course, a Tory, Walter Scott, to do it best in his epistle of Malachi Malagrowther - and we organised ourselves sufficiently to reinstate our parliament in 1999, a most peaceful revolution. We inhabit a land of political contradictions. Those who describe themselves as Scottish not British are not necessarily in favour of constitutional independence; our nationalist party is supported by many who want to keep the union; and lest our First Minister become complacent at that, many of the supporters of his party are in fact in favour of independence.

To coin the phrase; we contradict ourselves? - very well, we contradict ourselves. Where I come from - Aberdeen, on the north-east coast, which has its personality shaped by looking east to the Baltic - we tell the story of the Gordon Highlanders marching down the main thoroughfare, Union Street, and the proud mother commenting: my, they're all oot o'step except oor Jock. Well, oor Jock may not be quite as oot o' step as some have thought. I recall discussions with Danish scholars, and their conception of Denmark as a 'big little country' insofar as it punched well above its weight in geo-political terms as a state for much of its history, and possibly Swedes have the bruises to show for it. Perhaps, on reflection, Scotland is a little big country, because it had, and still has, a conception of itself well out of proportion to its actual size.

Why the contradiction? We are neither simply 'North Britain', a northern appendage to greater England, nor are we some kind of latter-day colony waiting to have 'freedom' bestowed upon us in some liberation struggle. In that respect, Ireland is a poor analogy for us, although our two countries have much in common otherwise. Back in the early 1990s, I described Scotland as a 'stateless nation', a country with a strong sense of being an 'imagined community', with distinctive institutions, but without the apparatus of statehood. Even at that time, I was properly taken to task for seeming to ignore the self-governing apparatus vested in the Scottish Office, which, I am told, had more civil servants than Brussels. Now that we have our parliament, the first properly democratic one in our history, to say that Scotland is stateless makes even less sense. Nowadays, I have taken to calling Scotland an 'understated nation'.

Much of the problem in using terms like 'state' and 'stateless' is that they set up the issue as a zero-sum game. You either are, or you aren't. You are an independent, sovereign state, or you are nothing. I'm not at all sure about that, and becoming less sure by the day. I look at the list of intending EU states, and note that most of them are significantly smaller than Scotland, and none have its economic clout. We are not alone. The EU contains some very powerful understated nations and regions. We make common cause with Catalonia, Flanders, Bavaria, and with our Celtic cousin, Wales, and do not feel at all out of place. I am not suggesting that Sweden may like to give up its sovereignty in favour of what we have. Who, after all, is to play the part of England? We start, however, from a different position. Scotland is a nation which has lived quite happily within a loose confederation, a union, and now finds itself within a bigger union - of Europe. We know from our history that political unions, properly managed, do not destroy the identities of small nations, and indeed allow them to prosper. The 'devolution' position, then, might seem to be the best possible position in the best of all possible worlds. This might be music to the ears of our own First Minister. I counsel caution.

Academics are to modern politics what court jesters were to mediaeval courts: licensed to say the unthinkable, to stand reality on its head, but not to be taken too seriously. 'Academic' is, after all, also a pejorative term in the English language, a synonym for being 'excessively concerned with academic matters' it says in my dictionary, and that is not meant as a compliment. I offer you an alternative perspective. I prefer the old 19th century term 'home rule' to 'devolution' because it captures much better what we are about. 'Devolution' implies power delegated, but authority retained at the centre. 'Home rule', on the other hand, is about self-government; where one is positioned on a spectrum; a matter of degree, not of kind. Scotland, indeed, has always been self-governing. It retained and developed considerable civil autonomy within what purported to be a 'unitary' state of the United Kingdom. As long as (a) Scotland was allowed to govern itself without upsetting the constitutional applecart; and (b) it more or less voted in the same way as England did, all was well. All this began to change in the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps it was always going to be thus. After all, the UK was and is a democracy with full adult suffrage. The problem was that majoritarian democracy is a blunt instrument, conferring on the territorial majority power to govern the minority. In a unitary state with a simple first-past-the-post electoral system, Scotland was always likely to get the government which the English - 85% of the UK population, after all - voted for. The wonder was that the contradictions did not emerge sooner and more often. But happen it did with considerable regularity since 1979, though in practice for much earlier than that. Thus did the 'democratic deficit' enter our political lexicon. To be sure, Scotland was always going to be the big anomaly in the British state: a distinctive nation, with considerable institutional autonomy, but governed by a unitary state. To put it another way: until 1999, the UK was a unitary, but also a multi-national state. To coin another phrase, if you were us, you wouldn't have started from here either.

So what do we now have? - in large part, we have quasi-federalism, territories with variable and assymetric powers. There is no game-plan, no template, for unrolling at variable speeds the same set of powers the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. This is not a failure of political will; it simply reflects the reality of the place. Some are critical that there is no enshrined and formalised powers, constitutional tablets of stone, to which, periodically, we the peoples of the UK can make supplication. This state of affairs has allowed governments to react and devolve as needs be, according to the circumstances of the day. Muddling through may be a symptom of a wider British disease, but it has its uses.

The academic, of course, not only plays the part of court jester, but also rune-reader. My runes are numbers, and they tell me that Scots are content, for the moment, with the home rule settlement. There are 10% hardy souls who want to turn the clock back, but they are, literally, a dying breed. Around 25-30% claim to want independence, and they are by no means simply found in the ranks of the SNP. Devolution is the main game in town; for the moment at least. What is more intriguing is that Scots are really quite promiscuous in their attachment to constitutional options. They are rather bored with the constitutional battlings of our two main political parties, Labour and the Nationalists, and are much more interested in policy outcomes - what makes Scotland a better place to live and work in. On the one hand, they do not care much for arguments that further constitutional change will make it all better. - good news, perhaps, for our First Minister. On the other hand, if making Scotland a better place requires further powers for its parliament, even to the point of independence, then so be it. - maybe not so good news for our First Minister. If currently there is no great demand for independence, then there is little popular hostility either. It is a matter of means and ends. Constitutional matters are treated properly as secondary to social and political outcomes. For the main political parties in Scotland, this sounds a bit like one of those old jokes which begins; there is good news, and there is bad news.

This, of course, is not simply a Scottish, or even a British, story. We live in a 21st century world where the very meaning of 'independence' is attenuated. Sovereignty should be thought of as layered and shared, not an either/or condition. Further, it is a matter of politics and sociology as much as constitutional law. The Scotland Act of 1998 might say that the Scottish parliament is a subordinate one, existing at the whim of Westminster, but Scots are not given to such legal niceties, and confer upon it at least equality of prestige, but even popular primacy. They may like to 'peeble it wi' stanes' but it is their right so to do, and no-one will take it away from them. If anyone tells you that they know where this process of self-government is going, they are either a prophet or a fool, or possibly both. Neither is it especially wise to accuse one's political opponents of living in the past if one cannot know the future. Let me end on a provocative note: all Scotland's political parties are 'nationalist' in the sense that all accept without demur that Scotland is a nation, not a region, free to decide its own fate inside or outwith the United Kingdom. Pre-devolution Tories would argue that the best way of preserving and developing Scottish national identity and interests was to remain within an undevolved UK. There was never any question that Scots did not have the right to decide their own collective fate.

Where stands Scotland? We have grown somewhat used to explaining our complexities to a puzzled world. We are also aware that, like that soldier in Aberdeen's Union Street, Jock may actually not be so out of step after all. If we now recognise a world of constitutional contradictions, a messy and incomplete world, then maybe that is how the world is meant to be at the beginning of the 21st century. The Scottish poet, High MacDiarmid, once wrote what was probably his own epitaph; that he would 'hae nae haufway hoose, but 'aye be whaur extremes meet; it's only way I ken to dodge the cursed conceit o' bein' richt that damns the vast majority o' men'. - a most Scottish of conditions, if one may say so.

David McCrone
University of Edinburgh




The poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a poem called 'Nothing but Heather!' which begins:

Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?.

It ends:

'Nothing but heather! - How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete!'

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Quoted in Douglas Dunn's Scotland: an anthology (Fontana, London, 1992), and attributed to that shy but prolific poet 'anon'.

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(Published Online: 16 October 2002)

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