The SNP and Empire

“The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England” — Dr. Johnson

The leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, thinks that Scotland will be independent within five years. Nationalism is resurgent in British politics, and hers has been cloaked in the argument that a vote for Scottish independence is a vote for internationalism. This is entirely dependent on whether the EU can be considered an internationalist institution (debatable), and whether Scotland would be allowed to join (again, debateable).

The SNP regularly typecast Brexit Britain as representing everything Scotland isn’t. The Brexit vote is said to be the result of a misplaced sense of pride, something smelling of xenophobia, and something harking back to the days of imperialism. This might be true, but even if it was then it would not be a manifestation of Englishness, but rather a manifestation of Britishness. After all, Scotland did not always disapprove and distance themselves from the empire. For example, when Lord Elgin, a famous Scotsman of famously low moral standing, was sent by his mother to England so that he did not acquire the Scottish accent, it seems reasonable to assume that he was also meant to pick up an English one. In other words, little Lord Elgin was to take the high road that led to nobler, more ‘British’ prospects.

Lord Elgin’s mother was wise to want her son to associate in this way, given how much Scotland used to benefit from the British Empire. The Scottish city of Dundee was known as ‘Juteopolis’ because its industry was founded on the importation of raw jute from India, Glasgow was self-described as the ‘Second City of the Empire’ because of the economic benefits it incurred, and the great Indian agency houses were dominated by Scots to such a degree that Scottish mercantile companies operating in Calcutta outnumbered English ones in 1813. If you look at the whole of the 19th century, you see that the Scots were vastly over-represented as colonialists. There were Scottish evangelicals, educators, physicians, soldiers, administrators, missionaries, engineers, scientists and merchants; and they were all manning the outposts of empire.

The United Kingdom was created in 1707, when a mercantile company called ‘The Company of Scotland’, which drained Scottish finances, was dissolved. The United Kingdom is still battling it out over Article 50, but back when ‘The Company of Scotland’ was being dissolved, there was a dispute over Article 15. Article 15 stated that, because ‘The Company of Scotland’ was to be liquidated, Scotland would be compensated £398,085 and in exchange would assert the primacy of a new mercantile company: ‘The English Company’. The Scottish resisted Article 15, and although at first they did so in vain, the relationship as it was eventually established incurred enormous benefits to Scotland, as outlined in brief in the previous paragraph.

The historical record shows that Scotland stood up for their share in the ill-gotten gains of empire. And today, the Scots still want their fair share. Scottish resistance to Article 15 mirrors the Scottish resistance to Article 50. The difference this time is that the Scots are not being open about their intentions. Instead, the SNP display themselves as quite the opposite of what they are, which is to say, they display themselves as progressive internationalists.

The reason they get away with this is that, from the 1960s onwards, a Scottish victim-history took centre stage, as a Braveheart narrative painted the Scottish historical experience as one of oppression in modernity. The Scots have been made out to be subjects of the British Empire, rather than beneficiaries, in the way that is far more reminiscent of the Irish experience than the Scottish one. In the 1880s, three-quarters of all British companies established for overseas investment were Scottish in origin, and some estimates suggest that the value of overseas per capita investment in 1914 was £110 for every Scot, compared £90 for the United Kingdom. Again, the past mirrors the present. Just think of Wales.

The British Empire does not make for light reading. The sins of the British Empire were numerous, as I suppose they are with any Empire. Yet the Scots were not victims here. They were participants: in the violence, in the destructiveness, and in the exploitation.

If you accept that Scots were willing participants in empire, then the question might be asked: is it possible that the Scots can be proud of certain aspects of their imperial history? As a proud Scot, could you be proud of individual Scottish achievements? Like in India, for example, where individual Scots tried to establish the freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Are these the actions of good people? If we admit that these are positive things, and say that they should be encouraged, then we might ask a corollary question – if we can attribute positive actions to the Scots, why not to the English? If, however, we decide that these are not the actions of good people, (because trying to establish Western ideals of freedom is patronising regardless; or because whatever actions you take are irrelevant in comparison to the damage done), then what we have here is a double-standard whereby you can replace a Scottish person with an English one and ignore the bad actions of the Scot while continuing to bang-on about the bad actions of the Eng. They were both British in modernity. It is this fact that the SNP would have you forget so that, using the Brexit fog as their cover, they can move in on their Braveheart moment.

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