Smout Leading the People

liberty leading the people

Alasdair Darling hits on an important point in his speech on the “positive” case for the union. The idea of an independent Scotland realising a Scottish statehood already contained within it is bizarre, as Scotland never was a state or a nation in the way we understand those entities today. This is a problem for those in favour of independence who wish to realise essential democratic values through the creation of a Scottish state.

As Darling points out, institutions that remained independent in Scotland following the Union of the parliaments were those of religion and privilege: Kirk, education, and law. The qualities we associate with modern nationhood, liberty and equality before the law and the state, were missing from pre-union Scotland, quite understandably. Following the union, all of Scotland’s meaningful development as a liberal state developed through the British Parliament, and thus in the context of the British state. Thus, since the union, Scotland’s history of thought and philosophy, its industrial revolution, the extensions of democracy, the fights of the working class, the fights for women’s liberation are movements within or against the British state, expressed through British institutions.

This presents a considerable problem for Scottish nationalists of a neo-18th century disposition. As T.C. Smout pointed out in an interview in Perspectives magazine, a historical understanding of nationalism invokes the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It is a fight for the rights of the people of a nation through the state. He points out that our current nationalism is somewhat disappointing, because it involves a utilitarian weighing up of each side of the argument (“bean counting”). Liberty, equality and fraternity are understood to have been achieved through the British nation already, so our current nationalism cannot be based upon it:

“From Victorian times onwards many who were passionately Scottish were also convinced that the union was a guarantor of their liberties. They saw the United Kingdom as having constructed democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law”

In the same vein, Darling says that in Britain we all believe in rights, and “the point is to put rights into practice: that is what the UK does, and in a culture that we all recognise and are comfortable with”. Scotland’s historic relationship to “rights” cannot be disentangled from the development of this ideology and practice in the British state.

But if Hobsbawm is correct, and the principles of the 18th century Enlightenment are still the most important to us today, Scottish nationalists should be constructing an argument for political independence based on these revolutionary principles.

There is probably no point looking to the history or aspirations of Scotland for these state-based values, as there has never been a Scottish state for them to develop in. But one possibility, for the pro-independence lobby, is to claim the values of liberty, democracy and welfare which have already developed through the institutions of the British state. If these institutions were still developing in line with people’s aspirations for them in Britain, then there would be no nationalist impulse which could legitimately claim to realise a better state in Scotland based on liberty or equality. However, many of these British institutions and aspirations are being undermined by an austerity consensus. This is why Scottish nationalists aspire to develop state institutions in accordance with values associated with the British state.

But there is another approach to invoking liberty as the basis of Scottish nationalist sentiment. It starts with the claim that Britain has a conservative history in comparison to nations in Europe or America. A mixed, unwritten constitution and conservative political and public sphere allowed Britain to slowly rumble through the ages of Enlightenment and bourgeois revolutions, implementing slow parliamentary reforms, and developing a hearty trade union movement that never quite had a revolution. We can’t claim Scotland was any different – we played the British Whig game better than anyone else. But a modern acknowledgement of British conservatism gives rise to the more radical alternative:  if Britain never did realise some aspects of liberty in full, Scotland could, through the creation of a state, have the basic tenets of 18th and 19th century nationalism restored – such as a democratic understanding of a written constitution and a national citizenship presented in terms of common liberty.

This is the beginning of an answer to Smout’s request, “I would like to know from each side how they would like to further these ideals, because you don’t hear very much about that at the moment. In what senses will Scotland be more free? Will it be more equal? Will it be more fraternal? These are very important questions. That’s what true liberty is about and I don’t see it being debated.” These questions are especially important now as values such as liberty have a new relevance, women and working class people being formally accepted as citizens.

That we don’t hear this type of nationalism at the moment in Scotland is unsurprising. Neither institutions create through devolution, nor institutions that have always been Scottish, have been able to realise the kind of public values that can be created by a coherent state.  Institutions like church, law, education, the NHS and welfare need to be held together in a state for citizens to achieve democracy and freedom through them.

While in the 1700s the state did not require all institutions to be held in common in order to be a coherent entity, by the end of the 18th century this was a necessity, and Britain became increasingly centralised. Today, to maintain its coherence, Britain needs to sterilise every internal demand for freedom and democracy, and present them as valueless, functional, or utilitarian demands. This was true of devolution, and we see the same phenomenon with independence today. This is what gives the rhetoric of independence as self-determination (and the extension of devolution) such a hollow ring, echoing in claims that the demand for independence comes from our culture of self-determination. A demand for the liberty of a people goes deeper than any of that.



2 thoughts on “Smout Leading the People

  1. I agree, the answer to the slow rise and fall of British liberalism is not to re-affirm the liberal revolution 200 years later. After all, it has long since forgotten what the argument was. Scotland was never a modern state – but nor was England. England/Scotland projected their Thermidors into each other, then out into Empire.

    What it seems you are requiring is a discourse – no, in fact a real general movement – which does not reflect the rights of Scots (which ignores such ideas), but which manifests the real *will* of Scots? Cool.

    This is why the discourse of “it is possible, we can have it if we want it” leaves me cold. Where is the movement saying “THE PEOPLE WILL IT!”?


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