Scottish independence: future historical counterfactuals

by Paul Maharg on 04/09/2014

In my post on the Scottish independence debate I quoted the distinguished medieval historian Geoffrey Barrow’s words from his inaugural lecture when he was made Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography at Edinburgh U in 1980, entitled The Extinction of Scotland:

Now and again a picture comes into my mind, a scene from the early 14th century.  In a remote cave high up on a hillside at the north end of Loch Lomond Robert Bruce, recently made king of Scots at Scone but driven by the concerted hosts of his enemies into desperate flight, is explaining to his small band of followers how he proposes to recover Scotland from its conquerors and restore the kingdom to its pristine liberties.  Like any good medieval king, he asks his friends to give him their comments and advice.  The youthful James Douglas is eager to speak first.  ‘Sir, we are a very poor country and always have been’.  Thomas Randolph, only a little older, shakes his head gravely.  ‘It is well known’ he says, ‘that we are not good at governing ourselves’.  The king, a trifle dismayed by these remarks, turns finally to the experienced and comparatively senior Neil Campbell.  ‘What’, asks Campbell, ‘is going to happen to my pension?’  After this, Bruce is silent and thoughtful for a long time, before dictating a letter of abdication to the English king in which he admits that Edward I has been right all along.

A couple of folk have commented on the power of Barrow’s scenario.  I think it is so for three reasons.  First, because it’s not just concerned about the historical detail of one king’s bid for power, but because, looking down history’s telescope at that moment, we can appreciate how it might have turned out otherwise.  Second, it allows Barrow to make an immediate parallel between a moment in recent history (1979 devolution debate) and a critical moment around 700 years earlier that puts recent history into a much more resonant context — a kind of binocular vision.  Third, it enables Barrow to reveal the first-order quality of the decisions, in 1306 as well as 1979.  These are not quotidian moments — this Scots Norman warlord Bruce rather than that one, Comyn, as king; this democratic party to be in power over Scotland at Westminster rather than another.  They are special because they define deeper issues.  Bruce’s recognition of the critical support of the community of the realm in governing the realm; the attempt in 1979 to change Scotland’s democratic constitutionality fundamentally.  In Barrow’s example, the counterfactual illumines contemporary as well as historical meanings.

The current debates around Independence are full of such meanings and moments.  They are first order debates about who we are in Scotland, what we want our lives to embody, how we want to live our lives.  It’s absolutely incredible.  I’ve never read so much remarkable debate about historiographical, political, cultural, historical, educational, economic issues in everyday discourse, in newspapers, on the web and in books and pamphlets.  It’s like the explosion of literacy and high-quality debate that historians remark on in times of revolution[1]

. Even the most ephemeral media (perhaps especially the most ephemeral) reveal it.  Take this for instance from comments on a Guardian Datablog article — Scottish Independence: Four Reasons Why the Narrowing Gap is Significant.  Comment by MDMAok (Comment 660):

This has nothing to do with Alec Salmond. The UK media wants to make it Salmond vs the English. It also has nothing to do with the English. It is a simple exercise in self-determination. I also personally believe that the union of Scotland and England allowed the creation of the British Empire, 30% of whose administrators were Scottish. This was/is a wicked conspiracy to exploit the planet’s people and resources built on slavery, tobacco, opium, exploitation, torture (we still do that!) and genocide (the only complete genocide I know about is the deliberate extermination of the Tasmanian population by us) for the benefit of the elite, who will be the only losers if we vote Yes. It is our moral duty to write the final chapter and bring this to a close. Scottish Independence will be the best thing to happen to England since Clement Atlee. Who are you? What are you for? These are the questions that are being asked and answered nowin Scotland. You see and hear NONE of this in the British media – the hint is in the name.

The action here is 100% social media and activists on the streets. If we win it is because we have out-organised all of the forces of imperialism with a few laptops and strong coffee. We have 95% of the activists, they have 99% of the mainstream media. It is primarily a left vs right struggle, the UK Labour party are now of the right, and the spineless class traitors in Labour’s Scottish MSPs can only mumble about the British-Nationalist solidarity that has delivered the worst state pension in Europe and no seat at the board room table, and do what Westminster wants. We are about 48% in the polls now. Last year I thought we had no chance at all. This might happen. We are winning the arguments one doorstep at a time no matter what the BBC, STV, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent, Daily Mail, Sky, The Times, and all the other dinosaurs say. Rupert Murdoch? Who?

I haven’t felt this much passion since I was a teenager. Lovin’ it.

50 commenters replied, and MDMAok was probably stimulated by an earlier poster, Malkatrinho (comment 551), who posted the crucial counterfactual:

An interesting thought experiment is to imagine Scotland was currently independent, and the referendum would be to join the UK.

Could the Pro-union side convince us that getting together would be better when we were told what would happen to Scotland after such a union? Some bullet points from the campaign…

-Your main Parliament will move 600 miles away, and your MPs will be in a tiny minority & will therefore have limited ability to effect policy on your behalf
-Scotland will get a government it didn’t vote for.
-All of your oil and gas revenues will be handed over to the treasury in London.
-Even though not 1 inch of track will touch Scottish soil your taxpayers will contribute £4.2bn to the HS2 project.
-Your taxpayers will also subsidise the crossrail project in London.
-The biggest nuclear weapons facility in Western Europe will be built on the river Clyde, just 30 miles from your largest city.
-Even though you only have 8.2% of the UK’s population you will contribute 9.9% of the UK’s total tax take yet will only receive 9.3% of that tax take back to spend in Scotland (you will lose £4.4bn per year to the UK treasury)
-You will devolve all of the economic levers you have used to shape your economy directly to London and will now only have control of 7% of your economy
-Even though 79% of your MP’s voted against it we will privatise your publicly owned mail service
-Even though 91% of your MPs voted against the bedroom tax in your parliament, we will impose it.
-Even though 82% of your MP’s believed that a VAT increase would be detrimental to your economy, we will impose a VAT increase.
-You will join a country whose health and education services are rapidly being privatised.
-Now and again you’ll get dragged into an illegal foreign war.
-An austerity budget will be imposed from London cutting jobs and threatening vital public services even though 81% of your MP’s voted against the cuts.
-The financial regulation system will be so weak and so lax that your whole economy will be brought to the brink of collapse.
-The most weak and vulnerable in society, instead of getting the protection and support they deserve will be interrogated and humiliated in an effort to get them off the meagre levels of support to which they are entitled.

Who would vote for that Union?

59 replies to that one, most of them arguing in some depth, and little of the usual scurrility you encounter this deep into comments online.  The issues are too important, for Malkatrinho’s scenario, like that of Barrow, clarifies the values at stake to be deeper than those of party politics.  It’s about democratic deficit and accountability, the nature of our community and the ethical values attending it, and how those values played out in Scottish history, how they act on us now, how they can be transformed by constitutional choice.

When I studied Greek at school I had to come to terms with a new tense we don’t have in English, the aorist.  It’s as if there’s a new tense in Scottish politics: not a future conditional, but a future historical, and it redefines the very nature of grammatical tense, because it doesn’t just refer to a point in time, past present or future.  We’re building our own future narratives even as we reshape our view of the past, focused on one moment on 18 September that will irrevocably define the present we are living in.  The effect is dizzying, coldly clarifying, electric.  Lovin’ it.

  1. [1]Before the 1789 revolution in Paris, there were around 60 newspapers throughout France.  As Schama points out, there followed an explosion of communication genres, both in type and quantity, following the overthrow of censorship (Schama, S. (1989) Citizens.  A Chronicle of the French Revolution, London, Penguin Books, 180). By the middle of 1792, for instance, there were around 500 newspapers in Paris alone. many of them were short-lived, with tiny circulations. But what is remarkable is the explosion of communication channels as well as the sheer increase in volume – newspapers and gazettes with a huge range of formats and tone; subscription journals; and illustrated literature such as almanacs, copies of speeches, prints, engravings and the like. The sales figures also point to a remarkable literacy among the general population. As Schama remarks, ‘literacy rates in late eighteenth-century France were much higher than in the late twentieth-century United States’, and it was this literacy that, through the media of posters, brochures, reviews, journals, almanacs, fantasy novels, pornography and non-fiction of many kinds, fed the appetite of the people, in Paris and beyond, for information about the political and cultural events of the revolution.

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