What happened to the United Kingdom?
These isles have a long and winding history. Tribes and forts, languages and religions, immigrants and emigrants have all come and gone. But we’re told one thing will never change – this United Kingdom. But hasn’t it already gone through a change? From birth under a shared crown to adolescence sailing across the world capturing and taking to the twilight resting in the welfare state. What happened to the United Kingdom?
The United Kingdom in the eighteenth century had a shared identity underpinned by Presbyterianism, patriotism, and empire. The conception of the British empire was distinctly Scottish. We culturally and mechanically built the empire.
The Scottish culture we’ve recently revitalised was wiped out during the highland clearances after the failed Jacobite uprising. But this isn’t the full story, because Scottishness was still discussed, wrote about, celebrated, just differently. Our national poet and infamous novelists lived in the shadow of the clearances. From that they birthed a new Scottish identity, palatable to the English, the Europeans, the Americans. Walter Scott’s image of misty highlands and wild stags denoted a mysterious tame-ability, while the Scottish lowlands were given a Romantic make-over by Robert Burns. Scottishness became a brand as opposed to a national identity.
During this time, the Scottish enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were major for the British empire. Thinkers from across the nation wrote on fundamental and economic rights of imperialism. Adam Smith summed up Scotland’s place in the empire best:
“A great empire has been established for the sole purpose of raising up a nation of customers who should be obliged to buy from the shops of our different producers all the goods with which these could supply them.
“For the sake of that little enhancement of price which this monopoly might afford our producers, the home-consumers have been burdened with the whole expense of maintaining and defending that empire.”
As the industrial revolution changed our landscape and our philosophy changed the world, Scotland was not just along for the ride of British imperialism. We were driving it and getting rich off of it. Cities were built on the backs of slave trading and tobacco imports. Scotland built the empire. And the empire built Scotland.
As imperialism waned, the domestic and international struggles of the 1920s and 30s saw independence first flicker into life. Leftist movements and class consciousness grew across the United Kingdom, but in Scotland they came with an air of statehood. Political parties and movements were formed like the National Party of Scotland, The Scotland Party, and finally the Scottish National Party in 1934.
However, after World War Two, the world had changed. The communal act of fighting in such a war and the introduction of universal social system created a sense of Britishness. A replacement for the now twilight imperial strength as Britain lost her empire.
During the 1950s and 60s, Scotland was unionist. We voted conservative to a higher proportion than England (1945 saw 40.3% in Scotland while England voted Tory by 39.3%). However, this active and participatory state society didn’t last, and by the 1970s there was a deepening crisis of class and geographic divide. The successive UK governments worked to privatise so called ‘lame-duck’ industries which affected mainly West and North UK. In Scotland, the damage was felt in Glasgow and Dundee (now yes voting cities) as future-proofing these cities proved difficult. Meanwhile, Edinburgh and Aberdeen would adapt to the burgeoning oil industry and modern financial services industry.
By 1976, the UK was in full blown crisis. Needing a bail out from the IMF for £4 Billion and achieving the name ‘the sick man of Europe’.
Culturally, Scotland was imagining a different world. Its first ‘national company’ was formed by the Scottish Ballet in 1969 and in 1971 the 7:84 company was founded. Challenging zCheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil was notably explosive for Scottish culture.
The shared identity was unravelling, which would only be supercharged in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher won the election. At first, her policy was a shift away from the post-war one-nation conservatism and to a neo-liberal tearing down of the state. Industrial action followed. The most damaging aspect was the 1981 recession continuing to 1986. Job losses continue in manufacturing effecting north and west (Dundee and Glasgow mainly) fuelling independence calls.
1987 saw Thatcher’s share of MPs halve from 22 to 11 in Scotland. In the same year, The proclaimers release A Letter from America. A continued cultural renaissance exploring Scotland’s story and our place in world history.
The end of the Thatcher era saw her popularity plummet. A famous example of this is her attendance at the 1988 Scottish Cup final, a final played between Celtic and Dundee United. A bad PR choice for a Tory PM who is seen as the sole destroyer of these communities. She was booed throughout the match. However, this PR blunder would be overshadowed by her own actions. The introduction of the Poll Tax into Scotland.
The damage of the Poll Tax set about a dismal end to the 1980s. But the 1990s were the death rattle of the union. In 1991, Ravencraig finally closed. A symbol of Scottish regeneration as a part of the union, now a symbol of neglect by successive conservative UK governments. In response, Scotland fought back. A divide that has never been healed. In 1993, Strathclyde regional council held a referendum on water privatisation. The largest public body in Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of public ownership. A massive 97%. An indication of just how different the Scottish people are to UK politics.
As the twilight years move further and further into memory, we are left looking to the future. Where we’re going, what we’ll become, is still unclear. What’s clear is that history isn’t circular. What happened to the United Kingdom is a long and complicated story. What we do know is that it has changed. Politics, society, our needs and our dreams have changed. What can the United Kingdom offer? It’s unclear. All we know is what Scotland wants. Change.