Scottish Independence: From clans to a constructed culture

November 11, 2014

Photograph: Flickr / Lawrence OP 

 

Scottish independence from the United Kingdom has always been an influential component of the country’s identity. The collective memory of an autonomous, sovereign and, most notably, Scottish Scotland runs through the veins of the country’s history and forms the argumentative basis for independence, far beyond questions on oil and currency.

 

While the impact of independence on taxes, pensions, immigration policy and health is being weighed on debate panels and newspaper columns, let’s start with the beginning: a time where borders equated to territory and leaders fought with swords in lieu of the number of retweets of a moving yet light-hearted speech. A history we must consider if we are to uncover why Scotland may want independence and why we are being told now is the time to grant it.

 

Only two months ago was the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the event in which Robert the Bruce marked his stamp on Anglo-Scottish history (Alex Salmond was very wise to choose 2014 as the year for his referendum). It did not directly result in independence but played an instrumental role in demonstrating the King’s worth against the Union and how far he was willing to go to avenge the English in the name of his country and loved ones. Unlike next week’s referendum, the Battle did not yield immediate returns but signposted the Scottish will power and spirit for independence in contemporary times. While the economic arguments used today for the yes campaign seem a distant reality from the romanticised battles and medieval imagery, there are some striking parallels that confirm that this is the same fight, packaged differently.

 

Today, as it was hundreds of years ago, the revived call for independence is a battle for territory. Yet these, more emphasis is placed the economic rewards, rather than regional ones. Questions being asked in the commercial media are along the lines of: how much would it cost for Scotland to leave? How many jobs would we loose? What will happen to the oil? (the last query being the most critical, of course). Rewards and loses are painted as crucial elements in deciding which camp to support.

 

It’s nothing new. During the Wars of Independence, the then Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, would offer land charters to clans in exchange for support against the English. While this was plain and simple bribery, nowadays support-building is a little more sophisticated.  The fear of loosing something that has developed over time is subtly used to ensure unity against the enemy, whichever side you’re on. Essentially, it’s the same tools being used to inspire the national unity that has come about because of the possibility of independence. The more the possibility seems like a tangible goal, the closer it becomes to reality.

 

There is an air of certainty that comes with an independent Scotland that reassures the yes campaign. Independence means a completion of a goal, but it is not that straightforward. The characteristic makeup of Scotland means it is about a lot more than picking a side. Scottish history has seen boundary disputes take place when the landowning elite became less of a reflection of the clan occupying the land itself, as well as migration and a change in chief leadership. Looking back at the fluidity and flexibility of these boundary changes can remind us of the transformative character of circumstances and the ever-present reality that nationalist sentiments can never be satisfied. Indeed, the necessary arrangements needed to enact a “yes” victory and create a fully independent Scotland could take years to complete. Who knows?

 

The point is, ideas and identities transcend borders and a darker line separating England and Scotland on the map if Scotland becomes independent, means just that, a line on a piece of paper. That certainly does not render the desire for independence void. But, appreciating the confidence behind the yes campaign, when arguably people are not sure which institutions they associate themselves and whether they are one or a melange of things, is part of understanding the power of labels and how they can and do silence these qualms.

 

Despite nationalistic sentiments, a study conducted by Jan Eichhorn, Chancellor's Fellow in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh, found that young people (those aged 18-24) feel less inclined towards the yes camp and are more likely to be supportive of their ‘British’ and ‘European’ identities. Unsurprisingly, it is those aged 65 and over that make up a large part of those who feel strongly for independence. This only confirms what we’ve known all along: the spirit for freedom from the English has been brewing for a long time. It’s only a matter of time.

 

While the multi-layered aspects of the younger generation may be becoming more prominent, seeing the upcoming referendum or any event that has led up to this moment in isolation, limits our scope to appreciate history’s weight in the situation. One day – whether that’s in a year or 10 - Scotland will be independent, not because of one speech or debate but because of the power behind ideas that surpass the outcome of a referendum.

 

How have these ideas been reshaped to gain force in the twenty-first century? Many would hold an erosion of British identity to account. Lack of British identity equals Scotland wanting out. This sounds simple enough, and the thought is worth entertaining. Not being British enough is the plausible answer to the question: why does Scotland not like the rest of us anymore? They never belonged to us to start with – an accusation Salmond repeatedly fires at everyone in the Commons who he doesn’t believe are trying hard enough to include Scotland at playtime.

 

Politicians aside, as much as the Scottish may want to be making their mark on the world as a distinct people, the historical conflict between Scotland and England is a, part of overall British identity and using an ideal of what we ‘used to be’ against what ‘we’ve become’ means little. There is no one identity to be eroded; the fact that British media is questioning our ‘Britishness’ has become one of the very notions that make up our identity. Really, it’s not so much about conflicting identities but which narrative we choose to buy into. Just as much as stories can bind us together they can also tear us apart. The key is to question who is telling these stories rather than what they can give us.

 

Whether we buy into narratives which call upon Scottish freedom or the strengthening of tradition through the Union, what matters at the end of the day is how we can progress, however you envisage that progress. The world may be a complex caldron of identities and ideas and it may not solve enduring issues by ticking ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the questions and answers run much deeper than that.

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