Lead book review

The impossibility of separating Scotland from Britain

A ‘global’ history of Scotland must, by its very nature, be one of Britain and Empire too, says Alex Massie

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

Scotland: The Global History – 1603 to the Present Murray Pittock

Yale University Press, pp.512, 25

Most histories of the United Kingdom fail to account for, or even acknowledge, just how unusual a country it is. One of the strengths of a history of Scotland within the United Kingdom is that it cannot avoid emphasising the sheer strangeness of Britain. It is a country quite unlike other European nations for it is, at heart, a composite state: a Union of four other nations creating a fifth which exists alongside – and sometimes above – its constituent parts.

The tensions and interplay between these identities form part of Murray Pittock’s handsome new history. Although titled a ‘global history’ of Scotland, it is also, inescapably, a history of Britain itself, albeit one written from an ultra-northern perspective. Britain, he suggests, is the last surviving true ‘composite monarchy’ in Europe. All the others – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – have come and gone. Only Spain – which ‘no longer in practice considers itself to be a composite monarchy’, whatever the Catalans might argue – rivals the United Kingdom as a multi-national union state.

The irony of today’s nationalist dominance in Scotland is that it is made possible by the successes of its Unionist forebears. Scottish Unionism has always been nationalist too, insisting that Scottish privileges, and Scottish distinctiveness, be maintained. The survival of Scotland as an idea – and hence as a political possibility – is a Unionist achievement from which the SNP now benefits. Scotland’s double identity – always Scots but British too, even if not always enthusiastically – is the core of Pittock’s history. Even when unchallenged, Union has often been a bittersweet experience. The Scots Magazine, founded in 1739, lamented that ‘in many things calculated for the good of Great Britain, Scotland is little more than nominally consider’d’. The 19th-century cults of William Wallace and Robert Burns were not accompanied by a demand for statehood but they expressed a familiar yearning for Scottish distinctiveness to be recognised.

For, to borrow from Pierre Trudeau, Scotland shares a bed with an elephant. Union of the Crowns in 1603 was a reverse takeover of a kind, partially overturned by formal Union in 1707. Since then, Scotland has existed as a stateless nation even as it played a disproportionate part in the building of a new one: Britain.

At the end of the 17th century, England’s population was about four million and Scotland’s one. An under-appreciated contributing factor to Britain’s current political instability is that the ratio of English to Scots has over the centuries grown from 4:1 to the current 11:1. Scotland has become a smaller part of Britain even as, in many respects, Scotland and England have grown ever more alike. Voting SNP is not just a matter of political enthusiasm, it is a statement of cultural distinction too. Union, perhaps, but not uniformity.

As Pittock notes: ‘Scotland after the Union was to remain a state within a state, but with this important addition: Scots could now engage as equals in domestic British and – more importantly – international imperial markets.’ The debit side of this bargain was ‘the loss of political (though not institutional) autonomy’. In 1707, ‘Opponents of Union dwarfed its supporters in numbers, though not to quite the same extent in influence’. The defeat of Jacobite risings in 1715 and, once and for all, in 1745 opened the path to a new Scotland and a greater Britain. Scotland would become British without ceasing to be Scotland. And, above all else, there was opportunity on a global scale. By the latter part of the 18th century, half the whites in Jamaica and 80 per cent of those in Antigua were Scots. Most of these were from middling backgrounds who lacked opportunity at home but could take advantage of the powerful networking effect of Scots abroad: ‘Scots Masonic lodges were founded in the Caribbean to establish, reiterate, and accelerate networking, and even a branch of the Fife sex club, The Beggar’s Benison, was established in Grenada,’ writes Pittock.

In India, where in 1780 half the writers appointed to the East India Company were Scots, it was sometimes complained, as Pittock discovered, that: ‘No man of any other nation can serve and survive in an Indian province, where the Chief is a Scot and where there is a Scot to be found.’ India, as Sir Walter Scott put it, was ‘the corn chest for Scotland, where we poor gentry must send our youngest sons as we send our black cattle to the South’. It was never the ‘English Empire’. Indeed, Sir Charles Dilke, the ‘radical Liberal statesman’, suggested in 1868 – tongue partly in cheek, perhaps – that given the disproportionate role of Scots in the Empire: ‘It is strange, indeed, that Scotland has not become the popular name for the United Kingdom.’

The 19th century was Scotland’s age of glory because it was also Britain’s preeminent era. By the middle of the century the Scottish economy had overtaken that of England and Wales in per capita terms. By comparison, the 20th century, whatever its saving graces and improvements, was a period of decline.

If this was relative in real terms, it was absolute if measured on a psychological level. And since Britain was Scotland’s handmaiden of opportunity, British decline consequently altered the terms upon which Scots engaged with Britain. Today’s Scottish nationalism is a response to British decline and retreat; for many – though far from all – the Union is viewed in purely transactional terms. ‘It was to be no coincidence that the decade the British Empire ended was the first decade in which Scottish nationalism achieved significant support,’ Pittock declares.

If that is, perhaps, a little too neat, it is also not entirely wrong. At the same time, Scots could be impeccably British – or even English – overseas but this did not require them to embrace the idea of a wholly integrated Union at home. Even as late as the 1920s and 1930s, Scots considered the imperial project a partnership. My own grandfather left Aberdeenshire for the Malayan rubber plantations for the same reasons as so many Scots before him, and to take advantage of the same networked connections available to Scots on the make; on the other side of the family, my great-grandfather was a bookseller to trade in India.

The Empire is now unfashionable, but even today the sense in Scotland that the Empire was not entirely kosher jostles with a vestigial satisfaction that if there was to be an Empire anyway, at least let it be a largely Scottish one. Nor was it just a matter of overseas adventuring; the Empire sustained Scottish industry at home too. All those ships and locomotives had to be built somewhere and they gave home-based Scots a stake in the Empire as well.

This is not as ‘ground-breaking’ a work as its publishers claim. Other historians including, but far from limited to, Sir Tom Devine and Michael Fry have ploughed some of the same fields. The Scot abroad is no longer, if it ever truly was, a niche or undercover subject. Nevertheless, there is much to admire here. If Pittock occasionally veers close to history-as-listicle – ‘The Top 50 Scots Who Built Canada’ – the sweep of his history and the panache with which it is written more than compensate for this.

Pittock’s sympathies are softly nationalist but not so very far removed from the traditional Unionist concept of the Union. There is, he suggests, a ‘strange tendency… to treat countries without states as potentially or actually illegitimate entities’. If he underplays the enduring strength of the Union – it is not just a matter of ‘nostalgia’ – it remains the case that the sense of a different, or possible, Scotland is a powerful driver of the current nationalist supremacy even if, paradoxically, its keenest supporters see it as a means of guaranteeing ‘a modernised version of the 1945-79 British social and welfare compact’. Hence this irony: to be authentically Scottish, Scotland must also be truly British. That is something for partisans on both sides of the national disputation to ponder.

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