What makes Scotland different doesn’t depend on referendum result

The future of Scotland … this boy waves the flag for an independent nation. cx1uk/Flickr

One month from today, the people of Scotland will vote in a referendum. The question is: Should Scotland be an independent country?

The immediate issues surrounding this question have been widely reported in the Scottish and UK media and further afield. Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has even bought into the debate, telling a British newspaper that it was “hard to see how the world would be helped by an independent Scotland”.

But the long-term underlying issues are often ignored, possibly because they are so misunderstood – even by the Scots themselves.

As a Glasgow university student, I once led a seminar discussion on the topic “Is Scotland different?” Somewhat mischievously, I allowed it to run for some time before pointing out everyone had assumed the question meant something else: is Scotland different from England?

The union of Scotland and England

Scotland is one of a small number of nations that had a distinct national identity long before the age of nationalism. What makes Scotland different is that its statehood ended with the Act of Union in 1707. Scottish political philosopher Tom Nairn called the act a “peculiar patrician bargain” between two ruling classes.

This bargain abolished Scotland’s political independence, but preserved the independence of its civil society. The “trinity” of Kirk (the Church of Scotland), Law and Education was largely untouched. It would later be joined by an independent football team.

The independent education system produced a relatively egalitarian ethos personified by the mythos of the “lad o’ pairts”. This was an 18th or 19th-century boy from a humble country background who went to one of the four Scottish universities (when England had two) and achieved high office. It’s hard to separate myth from reality here, but myth is usually more powerful.

Education, Unionism and the Kirk

The lad o’ pairts was produced by the network of parish schools run by the Kirk (the Presbyterian Church in Scotland), which had guarded its independence from the British state. The British monarch, while Supreme Governor of the Church of England, still takes an oath “to defend Presbyterian Church government in Scotland”. It’s no exaggeration to say that from 1707 until 1999, the Kirk’s general assembly was the closest thing to a Scottish parliament.

The Kirk general assembly hall was effectively Scotland’s de facto parliament until 1999. Wikimedia/Kim Traynor, CC BY-SA

These days, fewer than half of Scots describe themselves as “Church of Scotland” in their census returns. About 9% are communicant members. But there is still a secular Presbyterianism in Scottish culture.

This is illustrated by the story of a Church of Scotland minister who visited a school in Glasgow. He asked: “How many of you are Christians?” About two or three put their hands up. He then asked: “How many of you are Protestants?” He said they all put their hands up – and this included a couple of Muslim Protestants.

Secular Presbyterianism and Protestant unionism used to go hand in hand. The British Empire provided an opportunity – even a mission – to spread the Protestant faith. In the early 20th century this turned into explicit racism concerned with defending the “Scottish race” and the “Godly Presbyterian Commonwealth” against Irish Catholic immigration.

At the same time, the Calvinist equality of the elect had its secular counterpart in the dour and puritanical egalitarianism of the Scottish trade union movement. A belief arose that Scotland was a more collectivist country than its southern neighbour.

By the 1980s the Kirk had a more left-wing ethos on social issues, or at least a commitment to social justice. This didn’t exactly produce an ideal climate for Thatcherism.

In 1988, Margaret Thatcher addressed the Kirk’s general assembly. She provided a theological justification for her political beliefs, quoting St Paul:

If a man will not work he shall not eat.

Thatcher compared her free-market emphasis on choice with Christ’s choice to lay down his life and our God-given right to choose between good and evil.

Rise of the Scottish National Party

This took place just before the Poll Tax was introduced. In Scotland, the opposition took a strongly nationalist form. The tax was introduced a year earlier than in England and this was seen as a breach of the Act of Union, which stated both countries would be taxed on the same basis.

The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) played a major role in the non-payment campaign. The argument that “English” Thatcherism was alien to Scottish egalitarian traditions gained much more traction. However mythical, this argument has not gone away.

The SNP’s socialist wing became stronger and one of its members, Alex Salmond, is now campaigning for a yes vote as First Minister of Scotland. The socialist wing was always willing to accept a gradual move to independence.

The fundamentalist wing held that the party was for all who supported independence and devolution was not an acceptable compromise. But in 1997 Scotland voted for devolution and the SNP backed the Yes campaign. They made a strong showing in the elections of 1999 and 2003 and formed a minority government in 2007.

To some extent this gave the SNP the opportunity to demonstrate the policies an independent Scottish government would follow and what sort of country an independent Scotland would be.

But who are the Scots?

Most formulations of Scottish nationalism have been civic. In other words, Scottishness is not seen as an ethnicity. The SNP holds that everyone who lives in Scotland is a Scot.

The postcode principle determines who can vote in the referendum. It will probably form the basis for citizenship afterwards, if there is a Yes vote.

This could be a strength or a weakness. The strongly civic doctrine seems to contrast with an ethnic nationalism, which can have damaging consequences anywhere. This was seen in the former Yugoslavia. But as Nairn says, all nationalisms are both healthy and morbid.

The lack of an ethnic basis for Scottish nationalism could frustrate its aim of independence. At the same time, the Presbyterian tradition now looks like a resource of nationalism rather than of unionism. So, there will still be a strong British identity in an independent Scotland or there will be an independent Scottish identity within the United Kingdom.

Either way, Scotland will still be different.

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