The Autonomy of Modern Scotland

The Autonomy of Modern Scotland, Lindsay Paterson, Edinburgh University Press 1994. Reviewed by James Foley.

No Scottish politics reading list would be complete without Lindsay Paterson’s Autonomy of Modern Scotland (AMS). Few question its place among the canonical texts of Scottish social science. But for all that the book remains fresh and readable, it is nowadays discussed more as a historical artefact than a living text: its best provocations have thus been absorbed and, as it were, rendered into harmless footnotes.

Published almost three decades ago, in an age of early Britpop and Blairism, it predates the Scottish Parliament, far less today’s crisis of devolved governance. Arguably its time has passed. Yet the cyclical nature of intellectual fashion ensures than an older text may feel more contemporary than a newer one. Tom Nairn’s Breakup of Britain, a product of the Heath-Wilson era, and long dismissed as a dusty pre-Thatcher relic, has acquired a retro allure, with a contemporary reissue to match.

AMS may lack the polemical and theoretical heat of Nairn’s work; but it is a more rigorous historical consideration of Scottish nationhood, with equally contrarian insights. However, it played a minimal role in the debates surrounding 2014 and its aftermath.

The problem, perhaps, is one of mood. Whereas Nairn’s work benefits from a portentous sense of irreconcilable conflicts, AMS presents Scottish history as a succession of shrewd bargains, each re-establishing the new terms of a compound “unionist nationalism”. Scotland’s political development emerges as altogether less romantic and less exceptional than unionists or nationalists may care to admit. A story of unglamorous but canny compromises. The thesis is not just that Scotland is “normal”, but also that, insofar as it has been abnormal, it presages the type of statehood everyone now experiences under the “multilevel governance” of the European Union.

The last decade of endemic crises can sometimes blind us to the overwhelming fact of unionism in Scottish history. It can be tempting, therefore, to present everything prior to our own era of constitutional politics as a story of deviation from an expected path, linked, invariably, to the bungling of a unionist establishment. The recent phase of SNP dominance, in this view, serves to correct historical distortions linked variously to the early onset of bourgeois revolution; the bloody legacy of Empire; and the compromises of Scottish Labour bureaucrats.

AMS, by contrast, emphases the agency, rationality and above all normality of Scotland’s historical elites within the British state. Far from being feckless dupes, Scottish civic institutions craftily used the Union to preserve de facto autonomy for practical purposes. Far from being colonised, Scotland gained unusual opportunities as core participants in the Empire: indeed, Britain’s overseas adventures ensured that local elites had a free hand to pursue domestic distinctiveness. Far from being the quintessential “stateless nation”, Scotland had as much power as most small European countries.

Paterson’s provocation is to question whether formal political autonomy has much to do with outcomes. “The politics that mattered were those of the bureaucracy,” he observes, “in the sense that the autonomy and distinctiveness of any country in the mid-twentieth century rested more on the way its bureaucracy interpreted legislation than on the legislation itself”. Measured by outcomes, insofar as Scotland possessed its own well-elaborated welfare state bureaucracy, it achieved, for practical purposes, as much “independence” as many small nations.

These claims are rooted in a theoretical and comparative account of state power. As the modern state advances, the locus of final authority – of sovereignty, as traditionally imagined – is of declining relevance. In addition to their established duties in security and warfare, states encompass a raft of new responsibilities in health, education and the management of civilian life. For most citizens, these institutions are their everyday interactions with state power. In practice, Paterson observes, the British state permitted almost unlimited Scottish autonomy here, as it had done in the legal system, education and religion.

Nor was Britishness merely a pragmatic adjustment, where Scottishness shrunk in reaction to cultural assimilation. On the contrary, Scottish elites actively celebrated the Union as a Scottish co-production. “The argument was that, unless Scotland asserted its national rights, then the Union would cease to be a true Union and would instead become a subordination of Scotland to England”. Unionism thus implied a mobilisation of Scottish national feeling: even of separateness. The romantic celebration of Scotland’s medieval autonomy, the memorialisation of Wallace, Bruce and the rest, was a paradoxically unionist achievement with unionist purposes. The same is true of many of Scotland’s highest achievements, not least the Scottish Enlightenment and Walter Scott’s Romanticism.

Not that AMS itself is an apology for unionism. Paterson is not pretending that Scotland was governed democratically or fairly; merely that, insofar as it was misgoverned, it was far from exceptional. What Scotland experienced was “political management by a social elite”. Insofar as that elite spoke for Scotland – a crucial caveat – a certain autonomy was achieved.

Arguably, this brings a clarity absent in cruder narratives. Nationalists are often caught between the celebration of Scotland’s greatness – the 2014 Yes campaign thus leant heavily on imagery of Victorian Scottish engineering and entrepreneurship – or the condemnation of its irretrievable cultural backwardness, as with Nairn, whose pronounced “Scottish cringe” was legendary (and often righteously hilarious). By emphasising Scotland’s normality, and the rational motives of its governing elites, Paterson may argue that he offers a more nuanced take on Scotland’s unionist centuries than those who emphasise blundering or false consciousness.

Equally, if Scotland once achieved a semi-stable compound of unionist-nationalism, that leaves the puzzle of explaining the breakdown of that order. Perhaps the oil frenzy, the Poll Tax, the factory resistance and the glide towards devolution can all be imagined, in Paterson’s terms, as successive efforts to reframe the core unionist-nationalist bargain. But that interpretation is harder to square with recent events. If devolution really was about democratising a pre-existing Scottish autonomy, its outcomes, to surface appearances, are far from happy or stable. Certainly, they have not restored the ideological fortunes of unionism, but have rather proved a foundation for outright nationalist grievances (if not, yet, for articulating the substantive goal of independence).

AMS excels as a rigorous, comparative historical sociology of what the Scottish governing class does when it governs. These parts, the most unfashionable and politically contentious, are what makes the book a treasure trove for the intellectually curious. A growing misconception holds that radical analysis must centre on memorialising voices from below. Yet, stripped of the wider context, such efforts quickly become an act of nostalgia that risks fossilising earlier struggles into mere kitsch. For this reason, it is equally important to chart the practices of ruling a class-based society among the victorious bourgeoisie and the governing elite. Paterson’s study was a revolution, in Scottish terms, in understanding the latter.

Indeed, the book’s limitations are clearest when it is forced to depart from intellectual pessimism. The account of Scotland’s growing incredulity to unionism arguably centres too much of the conscience of his own generation of left-leaning professionals (Paterson, like Nairn, was part of Jim Sillars’ abortive Scottish Labour Party before entering the academy). In its account of the crisis of the technocratic state and the problem of Thatcherism, there are clear echoes of a wider New Left effort to reimagine power within capitalist societies, paralleling themes developed by contemporaries like Stuart Hall. It says curiously little about Scotland-specific events like, say, North Sea oil or factory resistance in inward-investment plants.

Paterson suggests that the constitutional pressures in Scotland are less about British idiosyncrasy than symptoms of a wider breakdown in constitutional orders: most especially, the simultaneous New Left and neoliberal revolt against centralised, top-down power, and the search for new ways to organise the state. Indeed, this conclusion has, in hindsight, shaped the book’s core arguments. Most especially, in the distinctive notion of sovereignty as heavily diffused through bureaucratic capillaries: AMS’s thinking about the agency of Scotland’s Victorian white, male elites may thus be an ironic consequence of 1990s feminist themes of decentralisation.

Analytically, AMS’s presents the coherent, centralised nation-state as a passing phenomenon, if not an outright myth. Deconstructing that myth was central to establishing Scotland as a serious subject of academic interest. Much of Scottish sociology in the 1990s would emphasise “post-sovereignty” themes, with Scotland’s arrangements seen as precursors to the tiered complexities of globalised governance.

Doubtless, there was more than a hint of truth in these accounts. As Paterson observes, in the heyday of European nationalism “claims for sovereignty did not [always] require a separate state”.

That said, efforts to deconstruct, decentralise and devolve state power have not always had happy outcomes. Far from offering new channels of resistance to the forces unleashed by Thatcherism and its equivalents, the revolt against sovereignty became heavily complicit in the new inequalities. Complex, multi-layered authorities are harder to hold accountable. Think of contemporary Scotland: child poverty fell heavily as vanguard Thatcherism receded, but progress has stalled recently, despite endless cross-party promises. Who, then, is accountable? Even attempting to answer this question only reinforces the viciousness of the dilemma. Finger-pointing at Edinburgh or London is more than mere hypocrisy: it is the truest expression of the problem.

Many nineties leftist intellectuals drank the Kool Aid of neoliberal globalisation and its new governance arrangements. Description of real processes would bleed over into “charlatanry, bullshit and self-fulfilling prophesy”, as Richard Seymour has observed of Marxism Today. However, Paterson’s text, while inspired by overlapping academic perspectives, is less guilty of these vices. It is held in check by an underlying respect for democracy. Compared to many Scottish intellectuals, there is thus a scepticism here about the progressive pretences of transnationalism and Europeanism.

Paterson’s insights, nowadays, may feel discomfiting, out of place and a little unfashionable. But that reinforces the need to grapple with them. The appearance of apocalyptic constitutional battles, which has dominated Scottish politics since 2014, has only served to reproduce an Edinburgh governing class shielded from accountability or democratic pressure. Sturgeonism, as a political regime, may prove in retrospect to have formed merely the latest iteration of “unionist nationalism”. If that is a hypothesis worthy of consideration, then AMS is due a reappraisal.

Comments (7)

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  1. Doug says:

    “…child poverty fell heavily as vanguard Thatcherism receded, but progress has stalled recently, despite endless cross-party promises.”

    What’s the basis for this statement? Is it a claim for “NuLabour”? The recent state of child poverty in Scotland has been more about the limitations of mitigation in a financially straitened economy in the face of UK government policies that exacerbated poverty.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Doug, when I studied politics at the tail end of the Thatcher era, the Child Poverty Action Group was cited among the most reliable sources:
      I suppose you could argue that subsequent governments continued various strands of Thatcherism, although perhaps none doubled child poverty within the first two years of office as CPAG says Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 government did.

      I would certainly not characterise Thatcherism as a “neoliberal revolt against centralised, top-down power”, quite the opposite. Her government incorporated some extremely deranged neoliberal views but its policies were extremely centralising, high on militarism, thermonuclear monarchy and authoritarian. The UK was and remains extremely centralised by European standards.

  2. Connor Beaton says:

    A shame that Lindsay Paterson today is a founding member of the so-called Scottish Union for Education, a right-wing culture war group linked to far-right and evangelical Christian groups. I recently wrote a piece for Heckle about the group’s origins and politics.

    1. Lindsay Paterson says:

      These media reports were incorrect. I am not a member of that organisation, though I have contributed to its newsletter. As an academic, I have contributed to forums right across the political spectrum.

    2. Frank Mahann. says:

      Stuart Walton, dearie me, anyone take this guy seriously? Even the unionist Herald has dropped him

        1. Frank Mahann says:

          Correct !

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