24 August 2020

Is Scotland a civilisational state?


In his stimulating The Rise of the Civilizational State (2019), the LSE professor Christopher Coker sketches how those nation states who also see themselves as civilisations – China, Russia and the US above all others – define themselves. These ascribed virtues include social solidarity, popular values, a history of upright and noble leaders, opposition to “savage” capitalism and to the moral vacuity of other states – in the case of these civilisational states, Europe.

Scots nationalists share a belief in most of these civilisational traits for a future independent Scotland. They define it, not against the European Union, which they revere, but against England – and think, like all three of the presidents above, that theirs is a more moral country. It’s tacitly an argument that Scotland is a different civilisation.

Like the civilisational states, Scots nationalist leaders buttress their claims to civilisational status by cultivating popular resentment against past humiliations.

China has the Opium War, Russia the collapse of the Soviet Union, blamed on the West; and President Trump pictures the Obama presidency as one of national abasement.  For the Nationalists, the 1707 Union with England is represented as the decision of a bribed and cowed Scots parliament; Robert Burns wrote a song – Such a parcel of rogues in a nation – popular in nationalist circles, blasting the noble Scots parliamentarians who took large sums from England on condition they voted for the Act of Union in 1707. The poet claims he would rather be in his grave with Wallace than agree to such a corrupted vote, where Scotland was “bought and sold for English gold.”

Nationalists see Scotland as much more inclined to equality and social decency, less devoted to the market and money than England. The writer Neil Ascherson, a veteran supporter of independence, believes the Scots are “communitarian rather than individualist…Spartan in their insistence that solidarity means more than free self-expression”. England, by contrast, and especially the City of London, is the home of fevered moneymaking and greed.

Scotland has, like the US, Russia and China, absorbed separate cultures into a national whole – in Scotland’s case, the once antagonistic Highlands and Lowlands, now woven into a common culture. The country has remained attached to its dance, song, poetry and national dress in a way the English have not – as have the Chinese and Russians: the popular cult of Burns is matched by the popular cult of Pushkin. The warrior knight William Wallace occupies a place of honour akin to that accorded by the Chinese to the still-famed 2nd century general Guan Yu, their reputations greatly enhanced by epic poems, and in contemporary times, by TV series and films.

Scots culture sees itself, and is seen by others, as distinct from English. The English critic Matthew Arnold believed that Scots, with Irish and Welsh culture was “Celtic” in influence, while English was Anglo Saxon – “the steady-going Saxon temperament and the sentimental Celtic temperament”, as he put it in Celtic Literature(1891). More recently, the novelist Ian McEwan remarked that the 1707 Act of Union was a political, but not a cultural union: Scots writing marched to the beat of a different drum.

In a recent piece in the New York Review of Books on the just-published novel Shuggie Bain, James Walton notes that the violent 20th century reaction against the 19th century “kailyard” (cabbage patch) tradition of warm-hearted, uplifting tales of village life set Scots novel-writing on a diametrically opposite path – of fictions of hopeless, degraded lives in working class or poverty stricken surroundings – among which Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) and James Kelman’s Booker prize-winning How late it was, how late (1994) are the best known. Kelman has written that he does not read English novels – since the English treat the Scots as “animals”. Nothing in the 1960/70s social realism school of English novels – from writers like John Braine, Sheila Delaney, Nell Dunn, Alan Sillitoe, David Storey – touches the misery and self-destructiveness of the Scots novelists’ characters.

The distinction was amplified greatly by the poet and nationalist activist Hugh MacDiarmid, whose influence on the 20th century was large, and extremely anti-English, seeing the neighbours as an alien ‘race’. In one poem, discovered a few years ago among his papers in the National Library, he hoped for a destruction of London by the Nazi blitz.

More directly influential on Scots politics was the nationalist writer Tom Nairn, who in books like The Break-Up of Britain (1981) saw in post-war England “an indefensible and inadaptable relic, neither properly archaic nor properly modern”, trapped within “the hopelessly decaying institutions of a lost imperial state.” Scotland, as a nation free of such cancers, had no choice but to free itself from “the slow foundering of the British state (which was) not in the Celtic bloodstream”.

Brexit has deepened the division. It allows Scots nationalists to see England as Nairn’s imperial state, lost in fantasies of power. It puts Scotland on the side of modernity; once free from the decaying English hulk, it can join a comity of nations in the building of a European Union. Deprived of the most progressive part of the United Kingdom, England would drift into a beggarly dependence on the US, seeking in an “Anglosphere” a shadow of its colonial greatness and a protection against the world’s cruel blasts.

Yet the best “modern” strategy for every part of the UK isn’t clear, and has been made positively opaque by Covid-19. The European Union cannot become a civilisational state: civilisations tie their citizens into an unquestionable agreement on values and thus on both domestic and foreign policy. President Emmanuel Macron’s urging for the EU to recognise its destiny and become a civilisational state has so far fallen on stony ground, since Europe has too many national states protective of their democratic institutions and practices. Besides, the EU still yearns to be part of a Western political civilisation which has been led and defended by the US: and hopes a Joe Biden victory will reconstitute that, at least in some measure.

But the EU is no port in a storm for an independent Scotland, offering no fiscal union on whose sharing of revenues Scotland’s economy will depend even more heavily in a post Covid-19 future.  Nor can it expect a warm welcome and rapid enfolding into the EU’s ranks, since secession on Scotland’s part provides a malign example for fissiparous regions in Spain, France, Belgium, Italy and beyond.

Scotland fits better in with England, Wales and Northern Ireland than any other union on offer. The 1707 Union, as McEwan suggests, has had no homogenising effect on culture which – as it did before the Union – partakes of and donates to the rest of these islands’ cultures. Ironically, it will be best protection for its alternative civilisation, if promoted in less abrasive terms than by the Scottish National Party .

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.