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The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 2 – History)

June 24, 2014

“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”- George Santayana

Released to mark the 700th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, this article asks what role, if any, does history play in the present day independence debate? Is it all about the future, or must we first reconcile ourselves with the past? What can we learn from it? Or is any reference to history, as some have suggested, an appeal to the emotions, to romanticism? And if it is, is that a bad thing?

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The thing about discussing the place of history in this debate is that, for the ‘Yes’ side at least, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Today is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. The ‘No’ side don’t want us to discuss it. Don’t take my word for it. Go anywhere where ‘No’ supporters congregate and you’ll immediately be accused of romanticism, appealing to emotion and (annoyingly, if you’re a bit pedantic like me) ‘Braveheartery,’ a blatantly made up, meaningless word which commits that most foul of linguistic crimes, taking a noun and unilaterally turning it into a verb. Like ‘top-scored’ (shudders).

I’ll come back to Bannockburn in a minute, but first I want to explore the attitude of the ‘No’ camp, and what it means. Actually there are a list of things which they don’t want us to talk about, and quite a lot of people on the ‘Yes’ side seem to have accepted this. “We can’t talk about the past, it’s all about the future!” Most of these topics can be grouped under the heading of ‘History.’ They are happy for us to talk about economics, because they know that most people don’t really understand the subject, so they can simply quote contradictory figures at the electorate, and even utterly discredited ones are quoted repeatedly, at the same time as they accuse ‘Yes’ supporters of being mercenary (it’s all about the money/oil). But I am getting ahead of myself. ‘Economics’ will be the subject of a future article in this series. Why are they so keen we not talk about our history?


Well, we have participated in the intellectual debate. We’ve won it (though to be honest, it was really a ‘No contest’). That won over a certain number of people. We’ve participated in the battle of facts, and won that too, winning over more people. In the battle of slogans, well that’s always a lottery, and I don’t like lotteries. Now, I believe, we do have to appeal to people’s emotions. Because that’s how some people make decisions. The other side have tried to take that away from us, by decrying and ridiculing any reference to our history. We will need to take back that ground. That is a battle that must be won before September. But in the meantime, remember that anger is an emotion too. And the realisation that someone has just insulted your intelligence and taken you for an idiot is enough to seriously annoy most people. We can use that!

I’m kind of speaking here with two hats on. As a writer/blogger myself, I have to organise my thoughts carefully to satisfy my other self, the experienced campaign strategist. With the latter hat on, every instinct tells me never to abandon ground you don’t absolutely have to in a campaign. And as I say, they have tried to deny us the historical (and emotional) ground, with all their talk of ‘Braveheart and Brigadoon.’ We must ask ourselves why have they put so much effort into doing that, rather than, say, thinking up a coherent, positive case for the union.

I believe the reason is that they know the subject of history would be fertile ground for us. Look what they’ve done with the Bannockburn commemorations for instance. They have ridiculed any mention of it, but they have scheduled a big military display, ostensibly to commemorate the start of WWI (though why anyone would want to celebrate that I don’t know) in Stirling, to clash with the Bannockburn anniversary. Basically so they can accuse anyone who prefers the Bannockburn event of some kind of disrespect or treachery. But just think about it for a moment. Bannockburn was the culmination of a three-decade series of events, known as the Wars of Independence, by which the people of Scotland proved and proclaimed their independence and their sovereignty. Many had paid for it with their lives by then. The build up to the decisive battle lasted a year. It came down to an intellectual contest of tactics and strategy. How can that not be relevant??? To this debate, about independence, nationhood and sovereignty? This one we’re having right now?

Any mention of this history, however, has been branded as romance. History as romance? So they concede that our history is romantic then. And we must admit, there is a certain romance to being Scottish. But history is not romance. History is context. And the context of our history is that we have been a nation for almost 1200 years. At about that time, the nation of England was also forming. Now let’s not mince words. For most of the time since, for over a thousand years, the rulers of that nation have sought to possess ours. The strategies by which they have pursued that aim have been many and varied. The one thing they all have in common, until the last one, 307 years ago, is failure. But the one which came closest to succeeding prior to the union was that of the late 13th/early 14th Centuries, the events leading up to the Battle of Bannockburn. The events Scots refer to as the ‘Wars of Independence.’ Yes, independence. That word has power. It did then, and it does now. Have you noticed how the unionists point blank refuse to utter that word?  Ever wonder why that is? They constantly talk of separation, because that is a word with negative connotations for many people. It reminds many of an unhappy time in their lives. The word ‘independence,’ on the other hand, makes people think of leaving their parents’ house and starting to build a life of their own. A positive thing. We need to be aware that this use of the language is absolutely deliberate and calculated. For the same reasons they have attempted to demonise certain symbols:


There you go, I did it. I’ll be criticised for it I’m sure, just like Alex Salmond was a year ago at Wimbledon, even though Centre Court was full of Saltires that day. In most countries displaying the flag would be entirely uncontroversial and that sort of criticism would be unthinkable. But that symbol happens to be the oldest continually-used sovereign flag in the world, dating from the 9th Century. And we all identify with it and love it, don’t we? Why should we not display it with pride? Not the kind of pride that relies on putting anyone else down, the kind that says, “We know who we are, and we’re comfortable with it.”


So what can we learn from events 700 years in the past? Well, for one thing it is surprising that a people who self-confidently proclaimed their independent nationhood that long ago should doubt themselves today.

That can only be the result of psychological manipulation, otherwise known as propaganda. But its effects are, fortunately, incomplete. Despite the fact that the period of the union has lasted more than ten times longer than the Wars of Independence, our sense of Scottish identity and nationhood has survived. Poll after poll, the Social Attitudes study and the last census all confirm this. They also confirm that it is an inclusive identity, with people who have come to Scotland, or whose parents and grandparents have done so, feeling that Scottish identity as strongly as anyone.

So surely this must be the most important thing that we can learn from that history – that far from being, ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid,’ we are an ancient nation, a proud nation, an independent, self-sufficient nation for three times longer than we have been in the union. A nation recognised by all the other nations of the world at the time. We have nothing to fear. We’ve done it before, and we can most certainly do it again. In those days it took the better part of three decades of Edward I’s, and the II’s, attempt to possess and subdue Scotland before the culmination of Bannockburn. We learned that persistence pays. Initially we were somewhat daunted by the scale of the undertaking, but increasingly we grew in confidence and determination. And I’m only just getting started. The parallels are extremely numerous. Yes, that was conflict, this is democracy. But you know what they say, war is the continuation of politics by other means. And vice versa. The basic rules are the same. But rather than do that, I want to look in particular at one result of Bannockburn and the Wars of Independence, one that came six years later in 1320, namely the Declaration of Arbroath.


The Constitutional Bit

England is one of the few countries not to have a written constitution.  It does, the High Court has held, have an unwritten or ‘uncodified’ constitution, consisting of some ‘bedrock constitutional documents’ (ie; Magna Carta, etc.) and a whole lot of conventions and practices.  Scotland must be considered a similar case, as prior to the 1707 Act of Union, we had no written constitution either.  A country which is a real entity must have a constitution however, and if there is no single document then one must be implied (or should that be inferred – I think so) from whatever documents do exist, and from the bodies of convention and practice. On the 6th of April 1320 Sir Adam Gordon and Sir Edward Maubisson were handed a document sealed with the seals of eight earls and thirty one barons, in the name of the ‘Community of the Realm,’ for safe delivery to the Pope at Avignon (the closest thing at that time to an international authority).  I do not intend to quote the whole thing, but the following passage is instructive:

“At length it pleased God who alone can heal after wounds to restore us to liberty from those innumerable calamities, by our most serene prince, King and Lord, Robert who, for the delivering of his people and his own rightful inheritance from the enemies’ hand did like another Joshua or Judas Maccabeus, most cheerfully undergo all manner of toil, fatigue, hardship and hazard.  The divine providence, the right of succession by the laws and customs of the Kingdom (which we will defend till death) and the due and lawful consent and assent of all of the people made him our King and prince. To him we are obliged and resolved to adhere in all things, both upon his right and his own merit, as being the person who has restored the people’s safety, in defence of their liberties.  But, after all, if this prince {prince with a small p at that time would have meant, approx., political leader, hereditary or otherwise – see Machiavelli} shall leave these principles he has so nobly pursued and consent that we of our Kingdom be subjected to the King or people of England, we will immediately expel him as our enemy and as the subverter both of his own and our rights and will make another King who will defend our liberties:  For so long as there shall be but one hundred of us remain alive we will never give consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English.  For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honour, but it is freedom alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life.”

You may recognise the excerpt as coming from the aforementioned Declaration of Arbroath.  I mention it not because of the emotive language, which you must admit is rather compelling, but because of its constitutional significance.  It establishes the principle that sovereignty resides with the people (community of the realm) and not with the monarch or anywhere else.  It further explicitly denies any devolved authority to cede that sovereignty.  I think we have to consider the Declaration of Arbroath to be a bedrock document of the Scottish constitution, therefore the 1707 Act of Union was unconstitutional!  The Declaration specifically denies the Scottish parliament the right to make such an act.  It is also arguable that the same logic would have precluded James VI & I’s succession to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I.  If the Scottish people could not be subjects of an English King, his legitimate claim to the Scottish throne lapsed when he became King of England, and since every subsequent monarch has claimed both thrones, we have to conclude that there has been no legitimate claimant since, rendering us a de facto republic.  The implication is quite clear – the two thrones cannot be held by the same person.

But I’m An Internationalist!

So far, so legalistic.  None of this addresses the point that people damn well ought to be able to get along together, and so they should!  I’m still an internationalist, not a nationalist. I believe world government is not only desirable but also inevitable – eventually.  However, most governmental functions would still have to be at a more local level, otherwise the structure would simply be too rigid and too unwieldy.  So the question would still have to be answered, do we want to be part of the English ‘region,’ for want of a better word, or be a region unto ourselves?  On the basis of a common identity we’ve held for a long, long time?

Now despite how people ought to be, the history of our relationship with our southern neighbours, ever since the Angles and Saxons  first washed up on the shores of our island, has rarely been an easy one. That is why, 700 years ago we were already making such ringing declarations that we are one people, one nation, and the English another. We have never seen ourselves as the same, and the union has done little to alter that. Often our interests do not coincide and nor do our outlooks on many things. This is in part because of our relative sizes. England has long been large enough to participate in the major European power plays, whereas we have spent most of our time trying to avoid being collateral damage. This difference in outlooks leads me to conclude I can be a more effective internationalist in an independent Scotland. Europe used to be a dangerous place for a small nation, especially one with a large and extremely acquisitive neighbour. And yet we negotiated it and survived for all those centuries without ever being conquered militarily. Europe has changed much since then, and now some of the most successful and prosperous nations in the world are small European states.

What About The Rest?

Now the Declaration is a whole article in itself, which I’ll put together in due course, but that is just one small episode in our history, albeit an important one. It’s not just that. We know that we have a great deal in common with, and a great deal of affection for, the ordinary people of England, but the truth is that we have faced a thousand years of English foreign policy, and I use the term advisedly, including the 307 years of the union, aimed at suborning Scotland to the interests of England, and when I say England I really mean the English ruling class, which has changed remarkably little over most of that time. There were the Normans, but since then many of the same families have remained a part of that establishment. The descendants of the original robber barons. The ordinary English people, and since the union the Scots too, have been the cannon fodder in their geopolitical games. There is a certain kind of mentality found amongst these people. A need to feel they are participating in running the world. This is why they keep talking about ‘influence’ and ‘clout’ and ‘punching above our weight.’

Ordinary Scots need to ask themselves: is this kind of ‘influence’ something which is in any way important to them? This ‘influence’ which buys a vanity permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the right to possess weapons of mass destruction denied to the vast majority of nations, and the ‘clout’ to help the US to invade Middle Eastern countries, often illegally? What is that worth to you? Would you choose to retain that position in the G8, whilst children go malnourished and pensioners die of hypothermia? Or live in a smaller, fairer economy where everyone is sufficiently warm and fed? Would you choose being the world’s 6th largest economy and 4th or 5th biggest arms manufacturer, with a quarter of our children growing up in poverty, or would you prefer to live in a smaller, high-skilled, high-wage, diversified economy with a nice niche market in green tech and a reputation for quality?

I’ll be talking a lot more about history. I will. I don’t care what the detractors say. I will not be dictated to by our opponents about what I can and cannot discuss. But I’ll do that in other pieces, as the point of this one is to identify the role of history in this debate. And as I indicated back at the start, I do not for a moment accept that it is merely an emotional or romantic role. I say again, history is context. Without context nothing can be understood correctly. It is what led up to this point. So whether it is the Battle of Bannockburn or the Poll Tax, it is a valid subject for discussion, as one thing continues to lead to another and the string of causality is unbroken. And our history tells a story, and not a pretty story for the unionists. We must feel free to tell that story, and not accept the ridicule of ‘Brigadoon and Braveheartery.’ Because the similarity of the wording of such ridicule suggests it is orchestrated, and that undoubtedly means the ‘No’ campaign badly doesn’t want us talking about it. And if they don’t want us talking about it, then we definitely do want to be talking about it, as often and as loudly as possible.

A Tenuous Grasp On Reality

In conclusion, the idea that history is not relevant to the current debate is an extremely silly one. The fact that our opponents suggest such an idea shows either utter cynicism or gross stupidity. What makes us, as individuals, who we are? We are the sum of our memories. How do we express our relationships with friends and family? By the remembering of shared experience. So how does a nation understand itself? By reference to its history. It has made us who we are, and taught us many valuable lessons. We ignore it at our peril.


See here for the previous and next articles in the series:

The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 1)

The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 3 – Politics)

  1. Reblogged this on Are We Really Better Together? and commented:
    The No campaign really, really don’t want us talking about our Scottish history – have you ever wondered why?


  2. Excellent my friend. You’ve just introduced something new into my narrative. That was a sound, logical argument from a sound, logical mind.

    Kindest regards,

    David Milligan Lvss


  3. Excellent post Derek. In case you missed it, Isobel Lindsay gave a fine Aye! Talk on the subject of the legitimate use of emotion, myth and, by extension, history in this debate, which she also points out is being disqualified by the other side as ‘braveheartery’ (not her choice of words however). A good listen.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 1) | The Babel Fish
  2. The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 3 – Politics) | The Babel Fish
  3. The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 4 – Economics) | The Babel Fish
  4. Why Scotland? – The Hitchhikers’ Guide To Scottish Independence (Part 5) | The Babel Fish

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