The Rising of Scottish Nationalism
There have been few times in democracy’s history that a “populist” movement has swept clear a body politic. It happened this spring in the General Election, when the SNP rode a groundswell of Scottish nationalism to victory across the breadth of the kingdom. The grandees in Westminster, especially a devastated Labour party, are still reeling. The sleeping lion rampant has been aroused once more.
That the Scots feel themselves to be a people unto themselves is hardly a modern phenomenon. When the Roman legion of Hadrian withdrew to the Northumbrian mountains and built a wall across the island in A.D.122, they isolated the Picts and tribal Scots from the Roman Empire for 300 years.
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Hadrian’s Wall ceased to be an effective border after the Romans withdrew early in the 5th century. In only a few generations, however, the old Roman province of Britain felt the in migration of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons. The Wall became the rough northern border of the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in what gradually became England. Over the next few centuries the Pictish and Celtic tribes of North Britain coalesced by fits and starts into Scotland.
Never anywhere near as populous or wealthy as England, the kingdom of Scotland has always been under one form or another of domination by its southern neighbor. Though Scotland’s battle victories at war with England through the centuries have been dramatic and celebrated, in the long run, the English generally triumphed. Scotland took on the resentments and humiliations of the defeated and dominated. We might think of it as the resentments of the Confederacy toward the Union following the War Between the States—on steroids. Scotland felt it for 1,000 years.
The Union of the Crowns in 1603 and ultimately the 1707 Acts of Union that dissolved the Scottish parliament created Great Britain—the island nation comprised of the kingdom of England, the kingdom of Scotland and the principality of Wales. In the last 300 years, these component countries have made common cause to astound the world with their accomplishments, as Great Britain has played much above its weight on the world’s stage. In this, Scotland has played no small part. At the same time, neither Wales nor Scotland were assimilated American-fashion into a predominantly English identity.
Over the ages, each of Britain’s three countries have maintained and nourished their individual cultures, with distinctive dialects and music, poetry and customs, foods and religious institutions. They have evolved their own national myths, symbols, emblems and social orders. The kilted bagpipe player eating haggis is Scotland alone.
Scottish nationalism is nothing new. It flamed in the medieval battles of Flodden Field and Bannockburn, and flamed again in fierce Jacobite loyalties when Scotland’s own royal family was displaced by the Hanoverians. Though their hopes for the Stuart restoration died on Culloden Field in 1745, Hanoverian treatment of the defeated Highlanders merely drove the Scots historic resentment of the English deeper into Scotland’s national memory.
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After two centuries, in our modern post-World War II world, perhaps the most tangible demonstration of native loyalties and pride has come on the playing field. The passions of each nation come to the fore when Scotland and England’s national teams meet on the football pitch or in the Six Nations rugby round-robin. Ted Turner paraphrased a George Orwell observation is a much-quoted quip, “Sports is like a war without the killing.” For either the Welsh or the Scots, no victory is sweeter than beating England.
In last autumn’s much-anticipated Independence referendum, Scotland voted (wisely in the general judgment of the Western world) to remain in the United Kingdom—and by a decisive margin. In the course of the campaign, however, the Scottish National Party generated a new public consciousness of Scotland’s identity. The SNP did convince the Scottish people that they could create a more effective force for Scottish interests in the UK and its parliament as a united voice than they could split between the major English-dominated parties. The result was the virtual sweep of Scottish seats by the SNP in the spring General Election, with the SNP sending 56 of Scotland’s 59 MPs to Westminster.
In the British Parliament, this result is a seismic shift in the political landscape. On the balance sheet of history, it was a landmark Scottish victory. As the third largest party in Parliament, the SNP has a voice that can’t be ignored, and a block vote that can sway legislation.
One of the reasons Americans have such a confused view of the world is that we have no real conception of “tribe.” The bloodied history of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the incomprehensible and brutal alliances of the Muslim Middle East, and the years-long rebellion of Spain’s Basques are all examples of tribal allegiance trumping national borders. In one sense, the SNP comes to Westminster as a tribe. They are there because their winning platform was simply: “Scotland First” and independence from the UK still their avowed objective.
This is one of those occasions when we have to conclude that the story isn’t over, it’s just beginning. How the SNP will challenge David Cameron and the Tory Government remains to be seen, but he will always be aware of their presence. Unquestionably, Scotland will continue to seek the process of devolution, taking more and more functions of government out of the hands of the English-dominated House of Commons into Scottish control.
On the other hand, Scottish voters are more left-wing than the English electorate. The SNP’s decimation of Labour in Scotland left England overwhelmingly Conservative. Scotland has long received from Westminster far more per capita in benefits and grants than elsewhere in Britain. England knows it picks up more than its share of the tab. The SNP could easily push the English voter and their elected representatives too far. The first result could be that Scottish MPs lose the right to vote in Westminster on purely English measures. There are several other scenarios possible, none of them in Scotland’s long-term best interest. The danger of populist movements is that sometimes they get what they wished for.