2007 - 2021

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.



Comments (19)

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  1. Alex Mitchell says:

    I don’t dispute your overall take on Scottish enthusiasm for the empire. However you are omitting any references to the virtually continual discontent as expressed by for example the uprising of 1820.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      My understanding is that 1820 was both part of UK wide dissent ( Peterloo was just a year earlier) and would not have occurred if employers had listened to demands for higher wages for weavers.

      Its an interesting incident. Feel free to correct me.

  2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    What I’m wondering is what happened to Theresa’s arms. Are they her own? Or have false ones been attached to the podium?

    1. Derek Thomson says:

      She borrowed them from Brother Lee Love.

  3. Julian Smith says:

    As a scientist, I really appreciate that statement about history not being circular. I see time as a vector and the second law of thermodynamics defines the direction of that vector. Brexit and the direction of travel of the U.K. is in direct conflict with the Second Law. Lol.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      Having once been a mathematician I consider history as a set of strange attractors between which we oscillate. We have left the UK attractor and are headed, probably, for the Independent Scotland Attractor.

      Another way of looking at history is not as a vector but a distorted corkscrew.

      History may not repeat but it rhymes.

      As an example I think Neoliberalism was a revival of 19th century Manchesterism, which fell out of favour when other countries started denting England’s domination of trade.

      1. mince'n'tatties says:

        Have the accepted core values of mathematics changed? ”Having once been a mathematician” is an an agnostic nonsense.
        As for ”distorted corkscrews” you can play all day with John Lennons ”I am a walrus”. That should keep you happy, while the rest of us mere mortals wrestle with the
        current bloody awful difficulties of our earthly day to day.

      2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        Having been neither a scientist nor a mathematician, but only a simple hermeneut, I see history an interminable dialogue between reader and text; a glorious gallimaufry of interpretations and reinterpretations, revisions and erasures, spins and weightings, in which the text’s true narrative is ultimately undecidable and a matter of what William James called ‘the will to believe’.

        History is ideology, in other words; an expression of our relations of production as these obtain in any given time and place. And everything is history, even science and mathematics.

        (There you go! Historical materialism in another nutshell.)

  4. MacNaughton says:

    I don’t like to be overly harsh on a writer who is debuting on Bella, but this is just another example of bad history.

    The kingdom has not always been united, that dates from 1603, England is a country with its own faith, the Anglican Church whose head is the queen, it is only Scotland which is presbyterian and the difference is a large one.

    The Scots vote conservative in the 50s because the conservatives, almost unrecognizable from the party of the same name today, attract the protestant vote in Scotland. As the importance of Protestantism declined in Scottish life, so does the Conservative vote…

    The English empire precedes the union of 1707 by almost two centuries and while the Scots may be proportionally overrepresented in its administration, Scotland is very much the junior party in the Union of 1707, much smaller, poorer and weaker than England historically…

    It is hard to think of an example where Burns romanticizes the Lowlands soecifically, though he does romanticize the Highlands, but he is one of the forerunners of romanticism which didn’t exist when he was writing. As for the Adam Smith quote, it is a criticism of Empire, not an endorsement of it, precisely the opposite of what the author thinks.

    As I have said elsewhere, we are lucky to have some great historians working today in Scotland. Does anybody read them?

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      I’m with you most of the way here, MacN; there is a terrible ignorance among the public, which demagogues can exploit in pursuit of their own will to power. There are a couple of points on which I’d disagree, however.

      The beginning of the conservatism’s decline in Scotland coincides with the amalgamation of the Unionist Party with the Conservative and Unionist Party in England and Wales in the early 1960s. Conservatism thereby lost its specifically ‘Scottish’ identity within the so-called ‘unionist-nationalist’ tradition that the Edinburgh Tories had begun to cultivate back in the 1820s, which asserted a uniquely ‘Scottish’ patriotic identity within both the United Kingdom and the British Empire and issued in such later social phenomena as separate national sporting teams and ‘home’ as well as ‘overseas’ internationals, with all their associated patriotic fervour. It was at this point, in the early 1960s, that Labour finally overtook the Tories in Scotland in terms of electoral support.

      And Burns’ poetry is full of sentimental twaddle that romanticises so-called ‘Lowland’ rural life for the Edinburgh market. Just think of ‘The Cottar’s Saturday Night’ or ‘The Holy Fair’, for example.

    2. bill low says:

      Even the Anglican church in Scotland differs in administration from the English, hence the name Episcopalian up here, Further, Elizabeth is not Queen of Scotland, but Queen of Scots.


    3. Josef Ó Luain says:

      Name our “great historians”, please.

      1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        Dr Esther Mijers, a Senior Lecturer in Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Scottish History Research Group, is a great historian. She had an excellent paper on the latest edition of the Scottish Historical Review on the Covenanters’ links with Holland, and last year I read her chapter on the continuation of Dutch intellectual influences in early Hanoverian Britain in Macinnes and Sirota’s ‘The Hanoverian Succession in Great Britain and its Empire’. I’m hugely impressed by her scholarship.

        1. Josef Ó Luain says:

          The question was, in fact, intended for McNaughton. Thank you, nonetheless, for your interesting reply, FL.

          1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            As was, in fact, my response to your question… directed indirectly at MacN., that is, as a kind of antidote to the Great Historians syndrome.

            Esther Mijers is worth a read, nonetheless, as are many of the SHRG.

  5. MacNaughton says:

    I would respectfully suggest to both the authors and the eds that neither the history of Gaelic Scotland elsewhere on these pages, nor this potted (mis)history of 300 years of Union with England, can be done in an article a couple of thousands of words long…

    The author of this article does not know enough about Scottish culture – which was never ‘wiped out’ as he claims here – not history to try to sum it all up in just a thousand words or so…

  6. Alan says:

    “Thinkers from across the nation wrote on fundamental and economic rights of imperialism. Adam Smith summed up Scotland’s place in the empire best:…”

    Except Smith didn’t believe imperialism had “fundamental and economic rights”. The Wealth of Nations is a critique of mercantilism. One of the major targets was the East India Company and their monopoly as is evident in your quote: Smith did not think it was a good thing that customers were “obliged to buy” or consumers should be “burdened”. This was of course one of the main reasons for the American Revolution, with which he sympathised. The good people of Boston had nothing against tea; they just didn’t like being forced to pay extravagant prices for tea the EIC was trying to unload.

    Smith was all for the ‘free market’ but not as this is now commonly understood. He was well aware it is an ideal that will never exist in reality: “To expect, indeed, that the freedom of trade should ever be entirely restored in Great Britain, is as absurd as to expect that an Oceana or Utopia should ever be established in it.” And the reason is that private interests buy off legislators, establish monopolies, and “enflame their workmen to attack with violence and outrage the proposers of any such regulation” against their monopolies, etc. He would not be surprised by the current British government and all their cronies profiting at the public expense, or, I suspect, that his work has been twisted such that it is now commonly understood to mean the opposite of what he intended to justify the very corruption he criticised.

  7. M Cochrane says:

    A minor point, but I think relevant, is that at the time of the above election World War 2 was (though in it’s final stage) still raging. After the surviving Scottish soldiers/sailors/merchant seamen/airforce eventually came home things changed.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      Although, to be fair, while the vote was held on the 5th July, the count was delayed until the 26th July to allow for the votes cast by the surviving Scottish soldiers/sailors/merchant seamen/airforce who were still serving overseas to be brought home and counted.

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