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Passions are running low in Scotland

Chris Bowlby takes a look at the history behind the campaign for Scottish independence

Published: May 28, 2012 at 10:40 am
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With a referendum on Scottish independence now looking certain within the next few years, the battle lines may seem clear. On the one side stand the nationalists, champions of a separate Scottish identity, keen for a clear break with England and the rest of the UK. Against them are the unionists, who feel every bit as British as Scottish, and who wish to remain part of the UK, subject to the authority of the Westminster parliament.


Yet that polarity is far less distinct than we might assume, suggests Professor Colin Kidd, author of Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland 1500–2000. Both unionism and nationalism have, in their moderate forms at least, more in common than their political leaders might admit.

Scottish unionism, for example, has been based on a strong sense of Scottish nationhood engaging with England, rather than submersion in a wider British identity. Many unionist politicians, says Kidd, “subscribe to the idea of Scottish popular sovereignty” with traditions ranging from the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath to the 1689 Claim of Right. Unionists were even prepared, at times, to celebrate William Wallace and Robert the Bruce as early defenders of Scotland against English imperial incursion. If anything, Scottish unionism “began as an anti-English idea. British union was an alternative to an English empire”.

Unionists’ approach to relations with England is revealed in their interpretation of the 1707 union between the two nations. They have seen this step, suggests Kidd, more as a “partnership of equals”, a treaty between nations, rather than absorption into a British imperial state. And Scots of all political stripes have always been especially sensitive to the idea that, under the union, Westminster has any right to interfere with what are seen as fundamentals of Scottish distinctiveness – notably the independence of the Presbyterian church or the Scottish legal system.

There may have been periods when more submissive unionism was stronger – perhaps among enthusiastic 19th‑century Scottish participants in the British empire or mid-20th‑century Labour party unionists embracing the British welfare state. But, says Kidd, leaders of British political parties have often had to respond to sensitivities in their Scottish ranks, fears that Westminster was becoming overbearing or distant from Scottish concerns.

Edward Heath in the late 1960s and Harold Wilson in the early 1970s proposed more autonomy for Scotland, well before devolution was agreed. The 1980s Thatcherite era confirmed that a British government attempting to impose on Scotland what was seen as an English agenda alienated Scots of all persuasions, including many Scottish Conservatives.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) benefited from that alienation and from subsequent disillusionment with Tony Blair’s Labour government. Historically, however, Scottish nationalism, just like unionism, has been more ambiguous in its approach to relations with England than impassioned SNP rhetoric might imply. Scotland did not evolve the same kind of 19th‑century separatist national identity found in many other European nations. Its nationalism, says Kidd, was “always somewhat half-hearted”.

Take the question of monarchy. Whereas there has always been a republican element in Scottish nationalist support, it has never been as dominant as in, say, Irish nationalism. The SNP’s policy towards the monarchy developed in what Kidd calls a “softly, softly” way. SNP leader Alex Salmond has cultivated good relations with the Queen, and has announced that, in the event of an independent Scotland, she would remain head of state as Queen of Scots. In other areas, Salmond has been using language that emphasises an active, positive relationship with the rest of the UK, rather than separation. He talks of a continuing ‘social union’ after independence.

So in the campaigning leading up to a referendum on independence, expect to hear politicians from all sides attempting to address a kind of historical middle ground, where most Scots have probably always been. “Whether describing themselves as unionists or nationalists,” concludes Professor Kidd, they have sought “some form of relationship with England to preserve the institutions of Scottish nationhood”.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

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