Idioma de EuropaflagsColumba, herring, Burns and Ossian helped put Scotland in Europe a long time ago, argues Neal Ascherson.

In those stunned days after the Brexit vote was declared, John Swinney spoke to the Scottish Parliament. The Scots had voted to ‘Remain’, but the English UK majority had voted to ‘Leave’. Swinney had to explain why the First Minister wasn’t there to speak for herself at such a moment. And he gave an impressive reason. On hearing the shocking news, he said, she had at once gone to Europe.

‘Gone to Europe?’ It didn’t occur to him that Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney and some five million others in his nation were already living in Europe and its Union. But that verbal gaffe was all too revealing. If you are Dutch or Czech, Europe is simply ‘here’, for better or worse. For most Scots, even the most Europhile, their sense of Europe is still that it’s somehow ‘over there’.

It’s of course to do with insularity – living on an island. The Scottish island awareness is much less aggressive than the English (‘God dug the bloody Channel for us, so why do we keep trying to fill it in?’). But the Irish live on an island too, and over two generations the sense of being European has been grafted into Irish identity. Religious affinity played a minor part. Much more important was the notion that membership of Europe, in which France and Spain had historically supported Irish struggles, finally brought Irish independence out into the bigger world and beyond the heavy shadow of Great Britain.

Some of those Irish motives can be seen in Scotland’s vigorous vote to ‘Remain’. Material things were important: Scotland’s reliance on EU support programmes for infrastructure, farming and social purposes was always more obvious and less dispensable than that of the rest of the UK. Immigration from Poland and the Baltic republics was encouraged by Scottish governments, in complete contrast to Westminster attitudes. Higher education will suffer painfully without its European students and teaching staff. (Fisheries were the exception: I’d guess that almost everyone in Scotland connected with the fishing industry voted Leave).

But there were political motives too: the resentment at a referendum all too clearly engineered by an English Tory faction, and the fear that the UK’s massive English majority could force upon Scotland a huge strategic change which Scots did not want. And – as in Ireland – there was the widespread idea that EU membership could be used to spread international recognition of Scotland’s distinctness and – for many – as a path towards national independence.

Scotland’s historic relationship with continental Europe has been spasmodic. The ‘Columban’ period sent Iona missionaries and their disciples across west-central Europe. The mediaeval ‘Auld Alliance’ with France helped at times to protect Scotland’s independence against English incursions. In the early-modern centuries, Scottish settlers colonised the Vistula basin , established trading posts in the Low Countries and Atlantic France, and provided thousands of mercenary soldiers and officers who devastated the continent with almost every European army, including Russia’s. The leaders of Scotland’s Presbyterian Reformation, often under threat or subject to actual persecution, took refuge in the cities and universities of the Netherlands throughout the seventeenth century.

But the Unions of 1603 and 1707 steadily turned Scotland’s emphasis away from Europe and towards the North Atlantic, and then towards the expanding British Empire in tropical continents. France, once invoked as the natural ally against England, now became the enemy threatening ‘British freedom’ , whether led by Louis XIV or Napoleon. The 18th-century Jacobite rebellions in Scotland, growing in scale and intensity, involved vain attempts to revert to that older pattern of invoking French or Spanish support against English pressures.

After the Union, as educated Scots learned to suppress remaining nostalgia for independence, national feeling in Scotland often went into displacement activity – passionate commitment to somebody else’s liberation . James Boswell’s promotion of Corsican independence and its hero Paoli is one example. Another is the extraordinary surge of Scottish enthusiasm for Poland, after that nation was partitioned and suppressed in the 1790s.

The poet Thomas Campbell made Polish independence the cause of his life. Another Scottish example was the response to the failure of the 1831 rising against Russia: a colossal Whig banquet in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms which was planned as a fund-raiser for ‘Polish exiles’.  Several hundred worthy male guests took their seats (their wives packed into a gallery at the back) for a feast which lasted from afternoon to one in the morning, heard something like sixteen long speeches about Polish rights and history and drank at least as many toasts to Poland’s freedom. (A single Tory was present. When he objected that all this independence chatter might give the Irish ideas, he was shouted down).

If Scotland’s awareness of other European countries was intermittent, European awareness of Scotland was pretty unfocused until the late eighteenth century. The awakening took two forms. One was material: the whole Russian empire, for example, came to eat Scottish herring, while ‘improvement’ and early industrial development brought Scottish engineers and agricultural experts from the Lowlands to estates and cities all over central and eastern Europe.

If Scotland’s awareness of other European countries was intermittent, European awareness of Scotland was pretty unfocused until the late eighteenth century. The awakening took two forms. One was material: the whole Russian empire, for example, came to eat Scottish herring, while ‘improvement’ and early industrial development brought Scottish engineers and agricultural experts from the Lowlands to estates and cities all over central and eastern Europe.

The other Scottish influence was cultural. Almost every European and Russian intellectual read ‘Ossian’, which reinforced Johann Gottfried Herder’s theories about the validation of ‘historic nations’ through a heritage of ancient epic poetry. An imaginary Scotland now emerged, a foggy moorland in which tragic giants moved among lonely burial cairns, soon to be joined by the ‘romantic ‘ cast of Walter Scott’s translated best-sellers. As the nineteenth century began, the works of Robert Burns were translated into many European languages, overlaying the image of a land in which picturesque loyalties bound laird to tenant or chief to clansman with the picture of a more astringent, individualist Scotland. Scholars today may have doubts about Burns’s commitment to revolution; the European revolutionaries of the liberal-nationalist insurrections half a century later had no such doubts. The Scots, for them, were a people who had seen through the pretensions of rank, birth and privilege; Burns, they thought, would have carried the same red flag. In Berlin, off Friedrichstrasse, you can still find a bronze wall-plaque where revolutionaries defended a barricade in 1848, and it carries a German translation of ‘A Man’s a Man ..’ In European fiction, hardy, self-sure Scots appear as characters – for instance, in the historical novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz. And Joseph Conrad invented iron-willed Captain MacWhirr, in Typhoon: ‘Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through’.

Through almost all that past, up to the twentieth century, Scotland has seen itself as a ‘donor’ nation, a country which people wanted to leave as emigrants rather than to enter as new settlers. The second world war began to change that: not only through the stationing of a Polish army in Scotland but through the presence of many thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war . Many of these ‘foreigners’ chose to stay and settle, joining the large Italian community which had suffered from xenophobic outbursts at times but which had none the less become absolutely rooted in Scottish society. The year 2004 opened Britain to free movement from the post-Communist countries which had joined the European Union, bringing Scotland to the point at which Polish is now the nation’s second language (or third, counting Scots), more widely spoken than Gaelic or Urdu.

The Brexit moment hits Scotland at a time when the sense of European identity is still shallow-rooted, in spite of the ‘Remain’ vote in July. It’s suggestive that there’s a steep increase now in Scots applying for Polish passports, usually on the grounds of a Polish grandfather; these are people prepared to take a big identity-stride in order to stay European. But the Scottish Government’s desperate efforts to maintain a recognisable Scottish presence in the EU after Brexit still don’t have the popular support they deserve.

Almost half the nations in the EU are Scotland-sized, around five million or a bit more or less. An independent Scotland would fit well into some of these smaller-nation groupings. But it’s argued now that the notion of a nice, social-democratic Scanwegian Scotland is no longer convincing; partly because old-fashioned social democracy in these Nordic/Baltic nations has weakened and changed and partly because Scotland’s main problems are not Scandinavian. They are the legacies of Scotland’s breakneck heavy industrialisation and urbanisation in the last 150 years – and of the almost total collapse of that economy. That is not the portrait of Denmark or Finland.

Almost half the nations in the EU are Scotland-sized, around five million or a bit more or less. An independent Scotland would fit well into some of these smaller-nation groupings. But it’s argued now that the notion of a nice, social-democratic Scanwegian Scotland is no longer convincing; partly because old-fashioned social democracy in these Nordic/Baltic nations has weakened and changed and partly because Scotland’s main problems are not Scandinavian. They are the legacies of Scotland’s breakneck heavy industrialisation and urbanisation in the last 150 years – and of the almost total collapse of that economy.

But, as it happens, it is the portrait of a good many other small nations in the EU. These are countries which emerged after 1989 from the collapse of Communist regimes. There, as in Scotland, heavy state industries closed down, their workers living in vast public housing schemes were stranded and money drained out of the welfare state – leaving populations plagued by ill-health and struggling to survive in a market economy.

There are two possible approaches. One is to stand back and let market forces rip: what survives will be what – and who – deserves to survive. The other is to attack such problems head-on. That means heavy-lifting solutions – the temporary use of state subsidy and interference in the market on a scale which the present European Union bans. But if an independent Scottish government chose the second way, calling for the revolution in social and economic thinking which is so overdue in the European Union, Scotland would find many allies.

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