A Scottish Referendum on the Failed Empire?

Dr. Bryan S. Glass
History Department, Texas State University
Follow on Twitter @glass_bryan

Glass Scottish NationWith the Scottish independence referendum just around the corner, Dr. Glass, General Editor of The British Scholar Society and founder of the journal Britain and the Worlddiscusses the complicated relationship between the British Empire and Scottish nationalism following decolonisation. He will be debating Michael Gove on these very issues later this month at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Dr. Glass’s book, The Scottish Nation at Empire’s End, was released today by Palgrave Macmillan.

The Scottish independence referendum is just a little over three months away.  Pundits are constantly discussing or debating why Scotland should either remain within the United Kingdom or vote for an independence that would look far different from what the Scots last experienced in 1707.

One of the more entertaining recent debates occurred between Jim Sillars and George Galloway in late March on Newsnight Scotland. Sillars argued in favour of independence, stating that Scotland is “a nation and we can escape from what is to come inside the United Kingdom…which is in the final stages of the end of the English/British Empire.”  Now this statement can be read in one of two ways: either Sillars believes Scotland will be escaping persecution from its more populous and powerful southern neighbour by declaring independence; or the United Kingdom is losing its last bit of imperial clout and, therefore, the Scots no longer see any benefit to remaining part of the British state.  The key here is that the British Empire, which was, with few exceptions, dead and buried by the end of the 1960s, is still being mentioned when it comes to Scotland in 2014.  But why are Scots continuing to speak of empire, fifty years after the vast majority of its territory was decolonized, in relation to the independence question today?  The answer lies in the fact that almost every facet of Scottish life was permeated by the empire during its heyday and that empire’s legacy looms large so long after its end.

The Scots were heavily invested in the British Empire. From the Act of Union in 1707 to the dramatic fall of the British Empire following the Second World War, Scotland’s involvement in commerce, missionary activity, emigration, and political action could not be dissociated from British overseas endeavours.  Scottish culture and identity were tied into the empire and its well-being. In fact, Scottish national pride and identity were closely associated with the benefits bestowed on this small nation through access to the British Empire.  The empire, after all, had taken the Scots to the pinnacle of global power.  For the historian Richard Finlay, writing in his 1997 book A Partnership for Good? Scottish Politics and the Union Since 1880, the role the Scots played in the empire “was a source of great pride and they rejoiced in their self-proclaimed status as a ‘race of Empire builders’.”  Accordingly, my new book, The Scottish Nation at Empire’s End, looks at the information the Scots received about the imperial project and how they reacted to it between 1945 and 1965, the era of decolonization, and what this meant for the rise of Scottish nationalism in the late 1960s and the sustainability of the British state today.

Throughout the era of decolonization, Scots received information about the empire from numerous sources. Arguably the most important source was the Church of Scotland, its leading ministers such as the Reverend George MacLeod, its Life and Work Magazine, and high-profile events like its annual General Assembly.  The three main national Scottish newspapers of the post-war period, The Scotsman, The Glasgow Herald, and the Daily Record, provided extensive coverage of all things imperial.  This coverage was especially heavy for the imperial emergencies in Kenya, which began in 1952, and in Nyasaland (1959). The Suez Crisis received front page coverage almost every day from the summer of 1956 through the end of the year.  Scottish propaganda organizations, such as the Scottish Council for African Questions (anti-empire) and the Scottish Study Group (pro-empire), also formed to sway the opinion of the imperially engaged population.  At school, Scottish children were inundated with information about their nation’s proud role in the British Empire.  On the ground, Scots flocked to various corners of the empire to make better lives for themselves for more than 200 years and many of them returned home once their service ended.

These empire-builders were usually willing to relay their experiences to family, friends, and other interested parties upon their repatriation. Finally, Scottish businesses, many of which relied on imperial markets for their very existence, made their workers of differing social ranks aware of and interested in the British Empire.  The empire surrounded the Scots — and they knew it.

The Scots responded to information they received on the empire in a variety of different ways including writing letters to the editor of the Scottish newspapers, purchasing newspapers with extensive imperial coverage, and joining or becoming involved with propaganda organizations such as the Scottish Council for African Questions and the Scottish Study Group.

Whatever might be said about Scottish attitudes following the Second World War, it is impossible to argue that they were apathetic towards the end of the British Empire.  The Scots had been too imperially-engaged for too long to fall victim to absent-mindedness during decolonization.

Following the end of the empire, the Scots began to reappraise their working relationship with the other component nations of the United Kingdom. One of the major beneficiaries of this reappraisal was Scottish nationalism.  In fact, the historical evidence points to Scottish nationalism being a post-imperial nationalism because the British Empire prevented a strong Scottish nationalism from forming. Yet by fostering a strong Scottish national identity, it simultaneously laid the groundwork for an economics- and opportunity-based nationalism to develop once the empire could no longer fulfill these needs.

Scots today want what Scots possessed during the age of empire: wealth and opportunity.  Given that many of them do not think this is achievable through the British state, a large number of Scots have turned to nationalism in an attempt to seize independence and increase Scotland’s chances of playing a greater role on the European, if not the global, stage.

It may be that the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September is one of the final legacies of the failed empire.

2 thoughts on “A Scottish Referendum on the Failed Empire?

  1. An interesting piece but it is too simplistic to say that Scottish independence belongs exclusively to ‘nationalism’. There are a significant number of people who support independence, who would not necessarily associate themselves with nationalism. Yes Scotland is a very broad church in that regard.

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