Why are Scottish children encouraged to link a war 700 years ago with the “effete arseholes” of England today?
When my brother voted for the Conservative Party in 2015, my family asked how he squared this with his avowed hatred of the Tories. Nonplussed, he asked what we were talking about—the Tories weren’t even on the ballot paper. Though we all enjoyed laughing at him, in truth, I was just as clueless then; voting, knee-jerk, for the Scottish National Party.
Like many Scots, my default support for the SNP was based on a vague (but strong) sense of grievance. Scottish society has more than its fair share of poverty and nowhere near its fair share of social mobility. The source of this inequality, I presumed, was historical English oppression made manifest, most recently, in the evil Tories. Later, after moving to America, I had the distance to be able to change my mind.
Among my new American friends, the history of Scotland is discussed, largely tongue-in-cheek, in relation to the 1995 hit movie Braveheart. Americans naturally feel they can relate to this story. For they, too, fought against an evil English tyrant in their own war of independence, some five hundred years after the Scots. But though theirs is more recent, Americans don’t view historical animosity toward the English as a live issue in contemporary politics.
By contrast, in her book Braveheart: From Hollywood to Holyrood, Lin Anderson argues that Scotland in the 1990s had been broken by Thatcher and “into this time and place the Wallace story re-emerged, creating increased self-confidence in Scotland and heightening the issue of self-determination”. The following year brought Danny Boyle’s film adaption of Trainspotting (based on Irvine Welsh’s novel about heroin addicts in Edinburgh), in which Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) famously asserts that the degradation of Scottish society occurred at the hands of the English. Scotland was “colonised by wankers,” Renton shouts at his junkie pals, “ruled by effete arseholes“.
But the historian and former UK Supreme Court justice Jonathan Sumption rebuts this subtle inaccuracy: “Except for a very short period in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, there has never been a sustained English occupation of Scotland.” So why, then, are Scottish children encouraged to idolise William Wallace, and to link a war 700 years ago with the “effete arseholes” of today? Why are they, at the same time, encouraged to overlook the great advantages bestowed on Scotland by its neighbour following the 1707 Act of Union?
Just as the 19th century gave birth to the flourishing United States, so the 18th century saw the creation of a highly successful union (albeit not for Ireland) in the form of the United Kingdom. Arguably it was her mutually prosperous relationship with England which allowed Scotland to give birth to the Scottish Enlightenment; literary giants such as Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns; and inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, James Watt, and John Logie Baird.
On a visit to Dublin in 2012, Alex Salmond, then the leader of the SNP, told his Irish audience that they of all people would know that “bullying and hectoring the Scottish people [by the English] ain’t going to work.” But while in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Glasgow was home to annual “Orange walks”, and Irish Catholics were systematically discriminated against in the workplace, the root of this tension was religious. Irish Catholics in Scotland were oppressed by Scottish Protestants. Today, the greatest threat to religious minorities in Scotland is neither England nor the established Kirk, but an aggressively secular nationalism, the Church of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion, which last month introduced a bill to the Scottish parliament replacing the blasphemy law, only just repealed, with a direct successor: a law proposing seven years’ imprisonment for “stirring up hatred”, i.e. , offending woke orthodoxy.
In 2014, Scots were told that the independence referendum would be a “once in a generation” vote. But the Brexit referendum—in which the majority of Scots voted to remain—soon changed that. Of course, the “no mandate” argument does have some precedent. Devolution was strongly premised on having endured 18 years of Conservative rule, which Scots had not voted for. Scotland lost nearly a third of its manufacturing capacity in the 1970s and ’80s. Working-class communities were the worst hit. But Thatcher’s failure was also rhetorical. The sociologist Tony Dickson explained in 1988:
The public persona of Mrs Thatcher appears to many Scots to capture all the worst elements of their caricature of the detested English—uncaring, arrogant, always convinced of their own rightness (“there is no alternative”) [and] possessed of an accent that grates on Scottish ears.
This summary could apply to any number of Tory politicians today. Whether it’s a clip of Boris Johnson, refusing to look at a child on a hospital bed made of coats, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, lounging contemptuously in parliament—in the age of internet politics, there’s no shortage of viral material to stoke the Scottish grudge.
The actual implications of an independent Scotland far exceed any jumped-up rhetoric. Scotland currently gets an annual £10-12bn subsidy from the UK Treasury. Like a teenager, then, we trade in some of our autonomy for financial security. How would the SNP make up for this loss? And how do they explain their dismal domestic record, anyway?
It’s no wonder that Scottish children no longer know about history. Under the so-called “curriculum for excellence,” knowledge-based learning has been all but abandoned. That is why Lindsay Paterson, a leading expert in education policy at Edinburgh University, said the curriculum was “betraying a generation”. When this failure was pointed out by the use of international standards, the Scottish government’s response was that it will no longer apply those standards. A recent OECD report, “Improving Schools in Scotland”, found that “it is worse to be poor in Scotland than in any [other] part of the UK”. And if Trainspotting were set today, the scenes would be even grimmer. Glasgow now has the highest rate of drugs-related deaths in Europe.
Of course, none of these failures necessarily translates into a reason to vote Conservative. But it’s good to remember that for every insufferable snob in England, there’s an equally insufferable inverted snob in Scotland. To the extent that it exists at all, the animosity between England and Scotland is more rhetorical than rational. Which figures. In the age of internet politics, it’s the best meme that wins.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.