Sunday 21 April 2013

The Union is an accident of history

A set of quite unlikely historical circumstances led to Scotland becoming part of the United Kingdom. The first of these was that Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, married James IV of Scotland, who died fighting the English at Flodden. The second unlikely circumstance was that none of Henry VIII’s legitimate children gave birth to an heir. This despite him being married so many times. What this meant was that the descendants of Margaret Tudor, through her son James V, her granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots and her great grandson James VI and I eventually gained the throne of England. It was as much as anything a Scottish takeover, owing to the succession crisis left by Elizabeth I choosing to be known as the Virgin Queen.

Two other European countries were also experimenting with a union of the crowns at around the same time as these events in Scotland and England. The Portuguese King Sebastian I died in battle in 1578 without an immediate heir. This led to a succession crisis, which eventually, after the War of Portuguese succession (1580-1583)  led to the Union of the crowns of Portugal and Spain, with Philip II of Spain king of both countries. This union however, did not last. The Portuguese revolted in 1640 and fought a long restoration war with Spain, leading to the eventual Spanish recognition of Portuguese sovereignty in 1688. It is for this reason that Spain and Portugal are today two nation states rather than one.

It is entirely an accident of history that Scotland likewise, is not a separate nation state from England. The Union of the crowns in 1603 was an unlikely end to a series of unlikely events. Moreover, it might well have broken up, especially because, owing to the execution of Charles I in 1649, there was a time when the Union of the crowns was broken. For six years Britain was ruled by Cromwell’s Protectorate. At this point it is easy to imagine how history might have played out differently. With civil war being fought throughout Britain there must have been times when it seemed unlikely that a Stuart king would again rule the whole of the UK. There was nothing inevitable also in the eventual political union of Scotland and England. At any point Scotland could have gone the way of Portugal and reasserted full sovereignty.

What would have been the result of this? Scotland’s position would be rather similar to that of Portugal today. The Portuguese speak a language which is similar to Spanish, but it is not fully comprehensible to Spaniards and thus has to be translated. If Scotland had not joined the Union, or if the Union had broken up, the Scots language would have remained the spoken and written language of daily use for Scots living in the Lowlands, as it was prior to the Union, and would have diverged further from English. Scottish Gaelic would also have remained an important feature of the life of the Highlands. After all, as late as the 18th century over 20% of Scots were monolingual Gaelic speakers. Without the pressure and influence of the English language, which came with the Union, Scotland  would have been very different linguistically from the place we know today. We would have been a bilingual society, speaking the historic languages of Scotland.

Describing this Scotland that might have been is to describe something romantic that appeals to a Scottish sense of patriotism. But it is also to describe a place and a people which are unfamiliar to us. I grew up speaking Doric, the form of Scots used in Aberdeenshire, but I struggle to understand the Scots that was common even in the 18th and 19th centuries, let alone earlier. When I read Walter Scott I frequently need to use the glossary. The vocabulary of Burns is quite remote from the language we hear on the street today. Like the vast majority of Scots I hardly speak a word of Gaelic. But, even as we regret how the language of the Gaels has been lost, it is also necessary to recognise that when Scotland was a bilingual society, it was also a very divided society. The division between the Highlands and the Lowlands was a real one with mutual misunderstanding and mistrust. A Lowlander considered a kilt to be the proper dress of a thief. Which side a person took during the Jacobite rebellions was to a considerable extent determined by which language he spoke.

The language, which I speak and to a large extent the culture that I recognise as mine, would have been massively different without the accident of history which saw Scotland join the Union. It might have been, under those circumstances, that we would now be learning English as a foreign language in order to do business in a language the rest of the world could understand. Three or four centuries of being in a Union with the other parts of the UK have influenced us in ways that we are hardly even aware of. To wish that the Union had never happened is to wish that I am someone other than I am. The Scot who would be today if the Union had never happened would be someone I might even struggle to converse with. There is no resurrecting that Scotland, because it really has been lost, not least because it has few connections with who we are today.

To deny that our language and our culture has been shaped by the Union is to suppose that the Scottish people have not changed since 1707, have not grown and developed and been influenced by our historical circumstances. But once we recognise that our language and our culture has to a large extent been shaped by the Union, it begins to seem strange that we should want to break up the very thing which has most influenced how we are today. It’s as if nationalists look back to a period remote from nearly everything we are today, a period we can barely comprehend, seeking to recreate a land that was lost. But even if we could recreate that lost Scotland, we could not understand anyone who lived there. It would be quite foreign to us. Like it or not, the Union has made us British. The Scotland that would have existed without the Union is another country, where we have never lived and where we would struggle to recognise ourselves. The denial of our Britishness, which is at the heart of the independence campaign, is to deny how we have been changed by the Union. It is really to deny ourselves and to resent or regret a part of each of our identities.

Scotland is part of the UK due to an accident of history, but that accident has had consequences and has changed each and every one of us. If Henry VIII’s sister had married someone else and Scotland had remained independent, the Scotland of today would have been massively different from the Scotland that we actually live in. It would have been as different as Portugal and Spain. The gap between these two Scotland’s is the amount that the Union has influenced us in terms of language, culture and history. It is the measure of our Britishness. To deny this is to deny even the language with which I write, what is familiar to me, and what I know of my culture. All of this has been influenced by the Union, all of this would not have been without the Union. Scottish nationalists would cut each of us off from a part of ourselves, for each of us is the product of the Union, influenced and changed by the common history that we share with the people in the other parts of the UK. The accidents of history have made us what we are. We are Scottish, but we are also British. To fail to understand this is to fail to understand Scotland, its history and its people.