1266 and all that
Modern Scotland is a product of the Union, writes MALCOLM CUNNING
I have to admit that I have very little interest in obscure economic arguments as to whether Scotland, and the Scots, would be better or worse off as an independent nation. For me the unity of the various nations which make up these isles is the natural, inevitable and consistently beneficial consequence of a shared geography and common history.
Scotland has been part of a personal or parliamentary union with England and Wales for significantly longer than it was ever a coherent independent state occupying the borders we recognise today. Indeed, there are very good grounds to argue that Scotland only became unified internally in the period after the 1707 Act of Union. The Union made Scotland.
This is in no way to deny the long and colourful history of Scotland or the significant stages in nation building in the centuries after the ancient peoples of Dalriada and Pictland came together in the ninth century in the guise of Alba. It was another 200 years before the Kings of Alba extended their influence south of the Forth-Clyde Valley and the nation of Scotland began to emerge. In the meantime much of the northern and western fringes had been lost to Viking incursion. The border with England was only finalised in 1237 with the Treaty of York and the Western Isles were finally ceded to Scotland by the Treaty of Perth in 1266. Another brace of centuries were to pass before Orkney and Shetland passed to Scottish sovereignty in 1468. It has to be emphasised that sovereignty did not necessarily imply real political control or effective integration.
When James VI scuttled south in 1603 to claim the throne of England, Scotland was less than 150 years old. It was a nation still riven by internal fractures which were not finally resolved until after Culloden in 1746. In the four hundred years since the Union of the Crowns, Scotland has blossomed as a nation and, thanks particularly to Walter Scott (an ardent Unionist and high Tory) has developed a sense of common experience and shared identity which sees bridegrooms from Lerwick to Langholm don the kilt. The philabeg, need I remind you, was for the average 17th Century lowlander not “the Garb of Old Gaul” but the mean covering for Erse speaking savages. It is only since the Union that we have all become whisky drinking, haggis-eating, tartan-clad clansmen.
The greatest flowering of Scottish intellectual endeavour, the Scottish Enlightenment, is similarly a by-product of the Union. While built on strong Scottish traditions of enquiry and doubt, the pre-eminence of Adam Smith, David Hume and James Hutton would not have been possible without the wider stage and broader influences brought by the Union.
Over the past several weeks I have found it impossible to walk the streets of Greenock or Port Glasgow and not reflect on how vital and invigorating the Union has been. Without the trade in tobacco and sugar these communities would never have existed or enjoyed the enormous profits which once flowed into the pockets of the rich merchants whose houses still stand, however jaded, as testament to their endeavour. That many of the great trades and industries which flourished in Scotland at the height of Empire are now gone is not of itself any justification for tearing apart a constitutional arrangement which has brought so much benefit. The benefits of Union have never been purely economic and the wealth which it has brought can never be measured simply in coin of the realm.
As you may have guessed, I am no apologetic Unionist and I believe that there are huge dangers if we are timid in our defence of the Union against the selfish arguments of devoted separatists. To allow the debate to descend into either economic reductionism or endless constitutional tinkering solves not a single problem nor creates a single job. Any economic advantage in independence must, in the short term at the very least, be heavily dependent on Scotland claiming the bulk of oil receipts. My friends, neighbours and family in England would, as an inevitable corollary, be poorer as a result. As a socialist, the politics of “beggar thy neighbour” holds no interest whatsoever.
The Union has, over the years, enriched all the people of Britain economically, socially, culturally and politically. It is for the SNP to prove beyond doubt that these centuries of common experience have either been a sham or an interesting experiment which has now failed. And, in unashamed common cause with Tories, Liberals and all-comers (within reason) who likewise know the difference between history and myth, Labour can win any referendum, however worded and whenever called, by positively extolling the best thing to happen to Scotland in a millennium.