Why does Scottish nationalism get a free pass from the Left? After all, the usual woke party line is that nationalists are prejudiced rabble-rousers. Radical politicians and academics are fond of quoting Albert Einstein: "Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind."
Yet the same radicals, on both sides of the border, often hail Nicola Sturgeon as an enlightened, modern, progressive leader. Where British withdrawal from the EU was seen as the work of populist bigots, Scottish withdrawal from the UK is seen as a reasonable democratic aspiration. BBC presenters can't mention French or American or Japanese nationalism without pursing their lips. But Scottish nationalism , like Irish nationalism, is treated as a legitimate option.
The reason, it seems to me, is that, for a certain kind of Leftist, victimhood is the supreme virtue, trumping internationalism. Hence the election video put out last week by Alex Salmond's new party, Alba. Narrated by Angus Macfadyen, who played Robert the Bruce in Braveheart , it pans from a statue of the 14th-century monarch to scenes of crowds waving Saltires, and presents the coming election as a choice between "freedom" and "oppression". It sells Scottish separatism as a form of anti-colonialism. The "sma' folk" of Scotland, Macfadyen's voiceover tells us, "broke the spine of English superiority".
No doubt it makes tactical sense. The idea that Scotland was annexed by its larger neighbour is preposterous – if anything, the impetus for unification came mainly from north of the border – but, in casting themselves as the champions of a subjugated people, the separatists catch the statue-smashing, anti-imperialist mood of our age.
Now we can hardly blame Salmond for the absurdities and anachronisms in Mel Gibson's 1995 blockbuster . As one critic put it at the time: "The events aren't accurate, the dates aren't accurate, the characters aren't accurate, the names aren't accurate, the clothes aren't accurate – in short, just about nothing is accurate."
The French philologist Ernest Renan said that getting your history wrong is what makes you a nation. Yet even by that standard, it is exceptionally dishonest of Salmond to go along with the shoogly idea advanced in Braveheart , namely that Scotland was somehow colonised.
If anyone felt colonised when James VI inherited the English Crown in 1603, it was his new subjects, who feared that a swarm of landless lairds would swoop south with their sovereign to snap up sinecures.
In his first address to the House of Commons, James declared (in his Scottish accent) that he was completing the work of the Almighty : "Hath not God first united these two kingdoms, both in language, religion, and similitude of manners? Yea, hath He not made us all in one island, compassed with one sea?"
The autocratic Stuart wanted to create a single realm and to style himself King of Great Britain. But England's MPs were having none of it and insisted on keeping their institutions separate. Nor did their attitude soften much over the following century. When ministers came around to the idea of an Act of Union, largely from strategic considerations, many MPs raged against absorbing Scotland's debts and protecting her mercantile ventures. A certain amount of cajolery and inducement was needed in both parliaments to get them to agree to amalgamate.
It may well be true that, had referendums been an option in 1707, the sma' folk on both sides of the border would have voted against the Acts of Union. But the idea that the merger was an English takeover is – to use a fine Scottish expression – pure mince. Scots, whose schools and universities were superior to England's, were quick to take advantage of their new opportunities, both within Britain and beyond. They were disproportionately represented as missionaries, merchants, soldiers and colonial administrators. There is a reason that no one called it the English Empire.
Many Scots saw the creation of Great Britain as providential . Presbyterian ministers spoke of Scotland and England as Israel and Judah, sister kingdoms raised by God. Listen to the opening lines of Rule Britannia!: "When Britain first at Heaven's command arose from out the azure main…" We barely think of their significance these days, but their author, the Scottish poet James Thomson, was expressing what was, in 1740, a widely held belief that Britain's ascendancy was divinely ordained.
These days, of course, hardly anyone thinks in such terms. Indeed, the pendulum has swung the other way, with our intellectual elites largely embracing a Black Lives Matter view of British history. If you insist on seeing the world as a hierarchy of privilege and oppression, you will dislike Britain simply because it was top dog. What used to be the chief attraction of Britishness – its global success – is now presented as something shameful. Even our most altruistic achievements, from defeating the slave trade to defeating the Nazis, are recast as somehow selfish or sordid. That, in a nutshell, is why British identity is in retreat in all four constituent nations.
Yet Scotland's past is far nobler than the Alba/ Braveheart myth. A small nation at the edge of the world bred a peculiarly enterprising and inventive people. Seeking an outlet for their genius, they joined the kindred nation to their south, a nation to which they were already bound by blood and speech and faith. In doing so, they created a new nation, the most powerful and influential humanity had known, a nation which used its strength to spread parliamentary rule, private property, free inquiry, limited government and personal liberty. Isn't that the most inspiring story of all?
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