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The Struggle for Scotland’s Future

Veteran MR reviewer Paul Buhle is at least half Scotch-Irish.
Chris Bambery, A People’s History of Scotland (New York: Verso, 2013), 328 pages, $24.95, paperback.

By pure chance, this reviewer was nearby and briefly across the Scottish border only days before the September 2014 vote on independence. MR readers will appreciate that the London newspaper coverage was about as fair-minded as the parallel New York Times coverage regarding the battle for Ukraine. The Scots, in this British Establishment (Tories and Labour) view, had apparently entered into a delusion largely of their own making. Oppressed? Why they were the most wealthy section of the United Kingdom, person for person! Better off without Mother England, without NATO bases and nuclear warheads, without London banks and the good will of assorted retail chains? Nonsense! And dangerous nonsense at that.

The Scots wearing Yes buttons had a different story, and of course they would: veteran antiwar campaigners that I cheerfully encountered (“Bairns Not Bombs!” bumper stickers were available at the Yes table, “bairns” being Gaelic lingo for “children”), they considered themselves socialists, proud to be part of a deeply felt Scottish tradition.

The vote was lost, of course, but in the final weeks leading up to it, panic reigned in London and something like it rumbled through the global financial market, not to mention NATO offices. In the end, it was not as close as many predicted (the “fear campaign” hit Scottish pensioners hard), but far closer than anyone expected in July. The urban working class and poor had voted with special determination, making the outcome in substantial part a class vote for independence, if never only that. A point had been made and a hope for the future sustained. And a threat issued to the Labour Party: lean as far left as the Scots on social issues and peace, or face extinction.

Chris Bambery’s splendid People’s History builds upon the scholarly work of others across several generations, including the renowned Scottish historian Thomas Johnson, but also a wealth of nearly forgotten researchers, like the late syndicalist-Trotskyist James D. Young. One might say, more properly, that this sweeping history builds upon a social and class legacy of resistance rarely understood beyond the borders of this curious land with its staggering natural beauty, desperate poverty, and collective memories.

The writing of Scottish history has been, for recent generations, in large part actually a form of rewriting, the discarding of myths. The romance of the highlands created by Sir Walter Scott made the “lairds” into romantic giants rather than the class of exploiters and swindlers who emerged, blood on their hands, into modern times. The hugely popular novels by J.M. Barrie (inventor of Peter Pan) offered another romance, the pious small town Scottsman blessed in his legacy of Presbyterianism, so unsuited for assorted temptations that he seemed unaware of sins worse than pridefulness. The sentimental “kailyard” novels, several of them on the late-nineteenth-century best-seller list, were actually intended for an U.S. audience more than domestic consumption and this, itself, offers an important reminder of heavily commercialized Scottish imagery. No ordinary middle-class reader, especially one of Scottish descent living in either the New World or “Down Under” (Australia and New Zealand) wanted to know about the misery of the mining towns or urban slums, or the class rage against the rich and against the British society that the Scottish upper classes imitated and embraced. Better to enjoy pretty little stories making everyone feel better.

Disguised if not entirely obliterated by this pseudo-history is an ancient Scottish saga of intermittent invasions from nearly every direction, the outright disappearance of some tribes (the Picts in particular) with their language and culture, and a slow settlement into self-constituted, Gaelic-speaking villages. This history is important for reasons that Bambery brilliantly elaborates, because for Scots, like so many peoples elsewhere, the outright and apparently total victory of capitalism following the fall of the East Bloc has prompted an elaboration of particularist memories. Some of these recollected sagas are, of course, right-wing rather than left-wing, and all of them raise important questions about internationalism and class solidarity.

Written Scottish history begins with history written by the conquerors. The Romans told the story of their engagement with the locals in 80 CE, when the Scottish commander Calgacus was supposed to have said that the Roman idea of peace was to “create a desert and call it peace.” Not merely a desert of broken lives but a desert ecology: the forests of central and southern Scotland were devastated for Roman purposes. When Scottish weavers marched on Glasgow in 1820, hoping to rouse an armed rebellion, their banners read, “Scotland: Free or a Desert?” Another, more feminist Roman tale has a visiting Empress telling a local chieftan’s wife that the Scottish women disgraced themselves by taking any man they wanted, at any time, to which the answer came, Scotswomen boldly take the best men in public while the women of imperial culture take the worst in the shadows—a parable of gendered independent-mindedness recalled in many a modern Scottish social struggle. Thus history, at least versions of it, lives on, challenging dominance in many ways.

Gaelic-speaking villages and farming regions, insular especially when high in the hills, were hardly democratic, but they were communal in the sense of continuing to be extended clans, clinging to older ways as long and as best they could. Barons meanwhile gained absolute rights over the lives of serfs as their logistical supervision advanced. Far from the Golden Age imagined by Walter Scott, the emerging system introduced an era of expanded exploitation, offering torture or outright murder for the crime of resistance. The process took centuries longer than in the South or most of Britain, as rulers of remote districts held out against economic and political centralization, for their own assorted reasons. The supposed great heroes of the Scots, like William Wallace played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart (1995), were no radical egalitarians, but tribal leaders seeking to fend off competing powers, in this case from the British crown. The threats to even limited degrees of freedom were many, rising as often from within as from without. Tribal or regional leaders from ancient days to recent centuries made alliances with London against other Scots whenever it proved to their advantage.

In Bambery’s careful telling, the decisive moment in anything like modern Scottish history comes several hundred years ago. The Scots’ real capitalism spread through the savage process of depopulation that Marx described so brilliantly in Capital: enclosure. Over extended decades, thousands of historic villages were literally emptied, so much so that remnants of crude huts can still be found in areas that have fewer inhabitants than sheep. The distinct language, created over thousands of years and retained with great effort in Wales, and with less effort in the rural districts of Ireland, did not need to be crudely suppressed here: the victims, pushed into the cities when not driven to early deaths, seem to have lost everything in this later period but their colorful, characteristic Scottish accents.

The more fortunate or aggressive Scots played a significant role in the British Empire, a fact that has long been treated as a consolation for all the woes Scots suffered, and proof that Scottish nationalism is groundless. Indeed, as Bambery notes, Scottish supervisors and engineers could be found from colonial India to Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, a generalization that does not even cover the use of Scots as Britain’s agents in Ireland or subsequent invaders of Australia and New Zealand. Labor historians of the United States and Canada, to take another example, have often found Scots in the mines and mills of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, overseeing Irish, Slavs, and others engaged in the worst of the dangerous and dirty work.

But this Imperial role benefitted the ordinary, largely urban, Scottish population precious little. The careful social and economic analysis in A People’s History of Scotland offers a close reading of the rise and fall of industry and mining, resulting in consequences which were scarcely cheerful. After early successes in assorted manufactures, Scottish “captains of industry” repeatedly took or sent their money south, toward London bankers. The relatively thin middle class meanwhile took on what appears to be a permanent cringe toward the Empire and the scraps handed out to loyal citizens.

Meanwhile, red radicalism, including labor solidarity and mass strikes, socialist sentiments and threat of revolution, could be heard from the 1880s onward. Like neighboring Wales, the solidarity was more intense, the degree of class consciousness more marked, than in England or most of Ireland, especially as the Scots were not so dogged as the Irish by religious differences or a powerful, reactionary Catholic Church. Scotland had its Irish working-class population, to be sure, but the Church, like its Presbyterian rival, experienced serious setbacks outside of the middle classes and for Presbyterians in particular, in the once-secure rural districts. The Clydesiders, ship builders for the empire, became a human core of syndicalist sentiment before the First World War. But the resistance of Scots to the conservatism of the British labor movement, in the pits as well as on the docks, had already existed for at least a generation.

From the Scottish perspective, the British left never looked all that good. The sectarian British Socialist Party and the heavily bureaucratic Labour Party never outgrew their obeisance to the imperial urge (the Independent Labour Party was often better). Resistance to a “propaganda party” that carried out few real struggles, and likewise to the Loyal Opposition that joined every war effort, gathered wide approval and not only on ideological grounds among the Scots. Terrible poverty, as bad as any in Western Europe, stalked the neighborhoods of the emerging working class. Support for Irish independence spread from the Irish immigrant population to the socialists, and prompted, at least in part, the case for “devolution” or semi-independence, a cause that grew more popular by 1920. So did the slump in Scottish industry, which had failed to share British economic resurgence in wartime, and in a sense never recovered its previous status within the Empire.

The accounts of Scottish factory and mining town struggles are wonderfully detailed, with as much space as could be allowed in these pages, given their proliferation and the complexities of the Scottish scene. The sting of betrayal in 1930 when, in the dreadfully hard times of the early Depression, Labour Party leader Ramsey MacDonald joined with the Tories to impose austerity, turned Scots away from Labour. Their sense of national resentment increased, and their marches for food and living conditions swelled, not much diminished by the turn of an often disappointing Popular Front away from class struggle after the early 1930s. Not that Scots lacked antifascist fighting spirit or for that matter, a surprising solidarity with the victims of British imperialism in Africa and Asia—both of these were strong—but they could not see the defense of British might as their great task.

The post-Second World War Labour government gave early hope—the Tories seemed banished not only from Scotland, where they had been losing popularity, but in Britian as a whole—and then disappointment. Housing and education certainly improved, but the Scots almost always seemed destined to get the least out of the deal. A vibrant response in the folk music scene of the 1950s seems to have been redbaited out of existence, but disillusionment with the sometimes powerful Communist Party of Britain after 1956 also proved devastating in some radical quarters. Bambery does a great job on the details of the 1960s and ’70s cultural (and “counter-cultural”) revolution of sorts, with Women’s Liberation sentiments spreading not only amongst the middle classes but penetrating the demographic-shifting workforce. Folksong records and especially concerts, as in Wales, play a huge role in reviving a sense of identity, of a pervasive hatred toward the oppressing classes, and of hope for something better. We could easily forget how Scottish mass movements deployed music and art against the placement of U.S. Polaris missiles in 1961, highlighted by the folk hit “Ding Dong Dollar” (“Ding dong dollar/Everybody holler/Ye canny spend a dollar when ye’re dead”), which was heard all the way to folk concerts and political rallies in the United States.

The cultural revival successfully legitimized a popular, radical literary (poetry and fiction alike) Scottishness, with what might be called a distinct, proud, often cheerfully vulgar patois that has flourished pretty much continuously ever since. Not quite Gaelic (and in that way, contrasted to the teaching of Welsh in schools and on television, across the border), it continues to be bold and significant in its own way. A trove of widely read (and widely recited) poetry, novels about the lives of the young working class and unemployed, and the occasional hit film (Trainspotting), all testify to the vibrancy of the impulse.

And yet, it was the election of Margaret Thatcher, the defeat of the miners with the closure of the mines, and the discovery of oil off the Scottish coast, that together revived the notion of devolution. If independence earlier had been a desire, lesser or more appealing to different groups, now it became widely viewed as a pressing necessity. As they liked to say, Maggie ruined the Scottish working class and stole the oil to boot, and yet voters to the South reelected her. That was enough to press the devolutionists forward. Scottish identity had become a means of working-class resistance and also a cultural cause.

The creation of a Scottish parliament was widely viewed as a defense against the worst of Tory rule. The Labour Party, whatever its long past of supporting empire, had mostly retained Scottish support until the early years of Tony Blair’s rule. The leader of “New Labour” had agreed to the formation of a Scottish parliament—against his own better judgment—because his advisors convinced him that this move would actually mute nationalist sentiment. Then potential support for Labour turned to disgust, in the midst of the Iraq war, and broke out in massive protests against Blair’s neoliberal programs.

The Scottish National Party recognized the opportunity at hand, cleverly and often deceptively promising a return to old Labourism—while upholding neoliberalism in practice. This political shape-shifting echoed a longer, more complex history of the Scottish National Party/Labour Party competition, full of inconsistencies on both sides. Nationalist sentiment continued to spread in unfamiliar directions as continuing class resentments took form, for instance, in struggles to take control of the emerging technologies (such as using tides for energy) dependent upon fragile environments, for the sake of the land and water as well as the people. Not only in political rallies, but also a genuinely popular and radical theater, played in schools and community centers, has fed the feeling that here is Scotland’s chance, if only it will be taken.

The driving enthusiasm for the Yes vote, as few outside Scotland seemed to understand, was neither “anti-English” nor aggressively nationalist in the familiar Irish/IRA sense. Rather, it spoke to a yearning for more actual democracy, on a local and regional basis, and to the social democratic consensus that not so long ago seemed to be the Labour way. Careful observers could see that the decline of public services, from health to transportation, have made these issues especially palpable in such sore spots as the “Red Clyde” industrial valley and Dundee, whose voters responded to the approaching vote with parades and other expressions of joyful Scottish vigor. Blair’s plan to soothe and deceive Scottish voters had, it could now be seen, led to Cameron’s overconfidence, something grasped in London almost at the last moment.

Also little noticed, the most radical strains within the Scottish National Party also seemed, very often, the most prominent. The Radical Independence Campaign and Women for Independence, accompanied and followed after the vote by outright left-wing activities of Bella Caledonia and the Scottish Left Project have stirred, it is fair to say, widespread enthusiasms far beyond the Scottish National Party leaders’ aspirations. At this writing, sold-out meetings of eclectic and reorganized Marxists may equal, in proportional terms of surrounding population, any others on the planet.

Scots love humor, and the joke of September was clearly on the Tories and the British Labourites who were sure they could not lose. They almost did. And the excitement goes on. A new day seems to have come to Scotland.

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