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Writing about Scotland and Britain

The following by Allan Robertson appeared in the May 2009 issue of Sovereignty.

Scots should show no sense of inferiority and be much more self-confident, and stop blaming others for their troubles. The achievements of Scots men and women are manifold and the world is a better place because of their enterprise and endeavour.

We must rebut anti-English prejudice as Scottish people have no reason to wallow in self-pity as you will see from these histories.

Union and Unionisms

Colin Kidd, Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland, 1500-2000, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 312 pages.

Professor Kidd's book explores the little studied area of Unionist political thought in Scotland. There has been a bias towards nationalist thought in Scottish academia and this book is an attempt to restore some balance, as was the 2006 book The Scots and The Union by Christopher Whatley.

The book aims to show that Scottish Unionism is a complex historical force and that it has a history which pre-dates the Union of 1707 [see also Frank Taylor, Sovereignty, March 09]; that the Monarchy and British Empire were widely supported in Scotland, that Scots always sought an equal partnership with England through the Union of 1707, and resisted attempts at further integration or Anglicisation. It says that Scottish nationalist groups up to the outbreak of WW2 were not separatist groups but were interested in the creation of a Federal Britain or even a Federal Parliament of the British Empire, with Scotland having dominion status like Canada or Australia.

It relates some of the early history of the modern SNP, from 1934. The party moved to a neutralist position; it opposed conscription in 1939 and was "green tinged", that is, identified with Irish nationalism rather than creating a better Union with England. The SNP's newly elected leader in 1942, Douglas Young, went to prison twice in WW2 rather than serve in the Armed Forces or participate in industrial war work.

In 1988 the SNP adopted the slogan 'An independent Scotland in Europe'. A tautology if ever there was one!

It is not the purpose of the book to examine in detail the reasons for the collapse in Conservative party support in Scotland after 1964, but the concluding chapter suggests that the abolition of the title "Scottish Unionist Association" in 1965 is one reason. It also criticises the Thatcher Government's Unitarist Unionism of the 1980s and its attempts to foist unwanted things like water privatisation and the poll tax on an unwilling Scotland as being other solid reasons for electoral collapse.

Between 1979-83 there were still 22 Tory seats in Scotland, down from 37 in 1955. The number of Tory seats fell to 10 in 1987, and there is now only one! This book is strongly recommended.

Great Scots! How the Scots Created Canada

Matthew Shaw, Great Scots! How The Scots Created Canada, (Winnipeg: Heartland Publications, 2003), 224 pages.

There has been three centuries of Scottish emigration to Canada, since 1702. Orcadians were the first to arrive. 170,000 Scots came to Canada between 1815-1867. 15% of the Canadian population today is comprised of those of Scottish ancestry.

While the forces responsible for Scottish emigration to Canada are fascinating, the truly astonishing part of the story is what happened after the Scots arrived. They literally took over the country, dominating all institutions in the budding nation. Yet ironically, most Canadians and Scots are unaware about how the Scots controlled and moulded the nation, it is a largely untold story until now. It should be read in Scottish schools today!

There is no single factor that easily explains the Scots' exceptional success in British North America, rather it was a combination:

  • Similarities of climate - brutal and icy winds; lots of water to navigate;
  • Scots were flexible and adaptable;
  • Education also afforded the Scots a huge advantage over other immigrant groups - by 1750 male lowland Scots' literacy rate was at 75% (compared to 53% in England);
  • No rigid class system in Canada enabled the Scots to take over key clerical, administrative and business positions;
  • Religious freedom was a reality and taxes were low;
  • Scots control of the fur trade, Canada's first large commercial enterprise.

The many prominent Scots who created Canada are listed, including:

  • Alexander Mackenzie (Isle of Lewis) - in the 1790s he explored Canada's unknown west coast;
  • James Murray was Wolfe's second in command, and became Governor of Quebec after its fall. In 1763, the British government proposed the effective liquidation of French culture in Quebec, which Murray opposed and refused to enact. He believed that misguided policies could cost Britain its Empire in Canada. Murray's view prevailed but he was recalled to London in 1766. Fortunately, there was no rebellion in Canada but there was in the 13 colonies further south. How Britain avoided rebellion in Canada in the 1790s is told in the chapter 'Shaping the political landscape'.
  • Lord Elgin - Governor of Canada 1848-1854, established responsible Government in Canada.
  • John Macdonald (b.1815, Glasgow), an Orangeman, was the first Prime Minister of Canada after Confederation in 1867. He founded the Progressive Conservative Party.
  • Alexander Mackenzie (born in Dunkeld in Perthshire) became the first Liberal Prime Minister of Canada in 1873 - he created some enduring institutions like the Supreme Court of Canada, the Office of Auditor General to Oversee government spending and the secret ballot.
  • William Lyon Mackenzie - PM of Canada 1921-26; 26-30; 35-48.
  • Tommy Douglas (born Falkirk 1904), a Scottish Baptist Minister elected to Parliament in 1935; as Premier of Saskatchewan in 1944. He gave North America its first avowedly socialist government.

The book also has a fascinating chapter on how the Scottish (and Highland) military tradition shaped Canada's present day military institutions. The front cover is an 1899 painting of the 48th Battalion, Highlanders, Toronto. The Scottish Enlightenment

Arthur Herman, The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots Invention of the Modern World, (Fourth Estate Ltd, 2003), 454 pages.

The author, who is Professor of Modern History, at Georgetown University, Washington DC, rightly criticises the majority of Scottish historians for concentrating too much on so-called romantic episodes like Mary Queen of Scots, William Wallace and the 1745 Rebellion and not spending enough time reviewing how and why Scotland made so much progress in the 18th and 19th century after centuries of plague, poverty, political and religious turmoil and economic failure. Of course, the progress of the Lowlands occurred at the same time as the Highland Clearances and recent works highlighting this century of social tragedy for the Highlands are praised.

Chapter 13 on "Scots and the British Empire" is an effective rebuttal of Michael Hechter's absurd 1975 book, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, which suggested that Scotland shared a common identity with Ireland, India and the Third World as the exploited victims of 'English colonialism'.

Herman argues that it was a Scot who created the idea of a British Empire.

Charles Pasley from Eskdalemuir in Dumfriesshire, published in 1810 an essay entitled 'an Essay on Military policy and Institutions of the British Empire'. It changed completely the way Britons thought about their Empire in relation to the world.

In fact Pasley had created modern geopolitics. He warned Britain that they could no longer rely on the Royal Navy or Splendid Isolation to keep them safe in the future. True national security rested on military power. That included large overseas colonies which could supply men for Britain's armies and navies.

Between 1815 and 1865, the British Empire grew by 100,000 per year. At each turn a coterie of Scots or people of Scottish descent took the lead - operating sheep farms in New South Wales; growing crops in lower Ontario, cutting lumber in British Columbia, trapping beaver on the Mackenzie River, managing plantations in the Caribbean or Ceylon or trading opium in Hong Kong.

Herman concludes by writing:
As the first modern nation and culture, the Scots have by and large made the world a better place. They taught the world that true liberty requires a sense of personal obligation as well as individual rights. They showed how modern life can be spiritually as well as materially fulfilling. They showed how a respect for science and technology can combine with a love for the arts; how private affluence can enhance a sense of civic responsibility; how political and economic democracy can flourish side by side; and how a confidence in the future depends on a reverence for the past. The Scottish mind grasped how, in Hume's words, 'liberty is the perfection of civil society,' but 'authority must be acknowledged essential to its very existence'; and how a strong faith in progress also requires a keen appreciation of its limitations.

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