The debt England owes to Scotland

Don’t dismantle the union – Scots helped to make modern England and Britain.

It’s not just about counting the bawbees, then. However belatedly, some on the No side in the Scottish independence debate have been waking up to the notion that there are votes to be won by making the emotional case for the United Kingdom’s survival. Scottish nationalists have accused UK prime minister David Cameron at various points of trying to ‘lovebomb’ Scots.

In a sense, this is less to do with what being part of Britain has given Scotland – or arguing over how the union benefits Scotland or does not – and somewhat more to do with recognising how Scotland and Scots have shaped Britain. Writing in the Telegraph last month, Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative secretary of state for work and pensions, wrote effusively of the union as a family and a ‘kinship of free peoples’. The subtext, aimed at Scots and non-Scots alike, ran along the lines of a notion that had hitherto been expressed rather well by the journalist Alex Massie – that ‘Scotland is Britain… for without Scotland there’s a much, much lesser Britain’.

What is also apparent is that, for every lovebomber, there are others in England who believe their country would be better off in a ‘lesser’ Britain and well rid of the Scots, with their statist ways and tendency to inflict men like Gordon Brown on everyone.

Brown himself sees matters somewhat differently and has blown once more into the public square with a weighty-ish new tome called My Scotland, Our Britain. ‘At the heart of [Brown’s] understanding of British values’, writes the man from the Guardian who was brave enough to read it, ‘there lies an unexpectedly lovely fusion: that Scottish principles of solidarity, civil society and “the democratic intellect” have, through the union, entwined themselves with English values of liberty, tolerance and pragmatism’.

Iain Duncan Smith’s list of things Scotland has given Britain, by contrast, includes the Bank of England – or, at least, William Paterson, its supposed founder. Paterson was a great advocate for the union, although it must be noted he was also one of the originators of the disastrous Darien Scheme to establish a Scottish colony in the New World. This nearly brought Scotland to its knees, so it’s likely Paterson’s own interests were at stake when he called for English help. But beyond Paterson, there were, certainly, more notable Scottish architects – conservative and radical, Tory and Whig – of Britain’s nascent identity. Adam Smith elaborated the theoretical framework within which the new nation pioneered capitalism; James Mill’s History of British India had a profound influence on Britain’s imperial destiny; and actual architects such as Robert Adam and James Gibbs were responsible for many of the defining buildings of the age in both England and Scotland.

David Hume and James Mackintosh, meanwhile, laid the foundation for modern histories of England – of England, not of Britain, nor of the British Isles. After the union was established, England influenced Scotland’s sense of Scottishness in incalculable ways; but so, too, did Scots help to shape England’s sense of itself. Were it not for Scotland, one might suggest, there would be a ‘lesser’ England.

The key historical figure here is probably Sir Walter Scott. The most widely read novelist (in his own lifetime) perhaps of any age, Scott created and romanticised myths about Scotland’s pre-modern nationhood precisely in order to secure Scotland’s status as a full, rather than subordinate, partner in the United Kingdom. With Ivanhoe, however, he focused England’s attentions on its own medieval past, in the process stamping the myth of a country forged out of the conflict between proud Saxon yeoman and Norman oppressors indelibly on England’s collective consciousness.

And then, of course, there was Thomas Carlyle, the Scot who rhapsodised about England and Englishness probably more than any other writer before or since, and whose studies of the English character – ‘frank, simple, rugged and yet courteous’ – still have a certain currency. His anti-intellectualism also remains something of an English tradition.

Carlyle’s somewhat reactionary outlook later in life has not endeared him to the Scottish establishment of today. He also wrote, in a letter to Goethe, that ‘We English, especially we Scotch, love Burns’. Even Scott, who occasionally referred to Scotland as North Britain, would not have approved. But even so, though today’s go-it-alone Englishman might rejoice at a Yes vote in Scotland come September, he may never quite shake Scotland’s influence on his national culture. 

Kenny Hodgart is a Scottish journalist based in Hong Kong where he works for the South China Morning Post. He has previously written for the Glasgow Herald, The Times, Tatler and others. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @hodgartkenny

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