As small pockets of YES voters huddled together consoling themselves in the centrally-located public area of George Square on Friday they were attacked by thugs brandishing Union Jacks, burning the Scottish saltire, giving Nazi salutes, and singing the Famine Song. Naturally, Unionist political leaders distanced themselves from such shows of naked aggression and prejudice, while continuing to nurture and affirm the underlying mythic narratives and icons that feed the fear and violence that (to iterate a Unionist slogan) “made Britain Great.”
It is commonplace for the rulers and beneficiaries of empires to praise them as bringers of peace, order and civilization. “Western modernity” (for lack of a better term) has inherited this conceit in the rhetoric of development. The hidden and shameful underbelly of the experience of empire and modernity for those who have it imposed upon them by those in charge is colonialism, domination, subordination and marginalization. Empire by its very nature is not an exercise in equality and egalitarianism.
As I witnessed it, the discourse around the Scottish referendum for independence in the last several weeks was charged with the echoes of the anglocentric imperial enterprise which ran directly counter to the aims of many in the YES campaign who were deeply engaged in a grassroots movement for a fairer, most just society in which militarism, authoritarianism and inequality were shameful relics of a past they wished to repudiate.
Empires naturally seek to foster dependency and fear. It is no surprise that the political propaganda machinery devised by Unionist politicians to sway the hearts of Scottish voters was called “Project Fear”, aimed at emphasizing uncertainty, impotence and self-doubt. Of course, such tactics are the stuff of empire and have a long legacy.
I remember well in the run-up to the 1997 vote on the Scottish devolution referendum that the Scotsman (amongst other shameful and shoddy acts of journalism) printed a full-page article about the Klu Klux Klan (with a large picture of a person in a white hood) which claimed Scottish origins for this arm of white supremacism. Although it was implicit rather than explicit, the underlying message of the piece was that Scottish “nationalism” would unleash atavistic forces of savage chaos and violence — forces that were firmly in check by being bound up in an anglocentric Union which (it is claimed) civilized Scotland in the first place.
As I went on to demonstrate in an article in History Scotland (May/June 2005), however, the actual history is quite different from that stereotype and quite relevant to understanding the forces that shaped British identity in “these islands” and in the Empire. The KKK’s primary mission was to reaffirm and reinforce white supremacy, but one of their other targets was the Catholic Church and Catholic immigrants. If there is any institutional ancestor of the KKK to be found in Scotland, it is the Orange Order. And, as Alastair Mcintosh has recently explained, Scotland’s constitutional foundations are still marred by the vestiges of that nasty variety of sectarianism.
It is the lineages of the ideological constructs and mythic narratives that connect the history of domination and exploitation in the British Empire to American imperial enterprises that interest me. Protestant triumphalism, Anglo-Saxon racialism and imperial hegemony in the British Isles easily translated to Manifest Destiny, race-based slavery and indigenous genocide in the colonial experience, as many previous scholars such as Theodore Allen have argued.
Anyone holding the office of President of the United States has a de facto bully pulpit, and Obama and Clinton provided last minute messages of “unity” for Scottish voters, urged concern that the “special relationship” might be threatened by Scottish independence.
But what is this “special relationship”? In practical terms, of course, the US wants to be able to muster nominal partners in various New World Order exercises, and calling up a single master of Britain is easier than trying to deal with numerous distinct leaderships.
One of the major planks of Scottish defiance during the independence campaign was the call to dismember the Clyde Naval Base in Faslane on the west coast of Scotland, which hosts US Trident submarines. A permanent peace camp was established there in 1982 and has been occupied there since that time. The obscene expenditures of money on a dangerous arsenal that England refuses to house on her own territory is a moral affront to all but the most economically dependent in Scotland.
Of course, the “special relationship” is also a reflection of the fact that the United States is largely the child of British imperial ambitions and our ethnocentricities and prejudices come from the same source.
British imperial ideology has a long history of not only glorifying the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon but of denying the personhood and cultural legitimacy of others. Examples from the past are easy enough to find (I discuss some of these in Warriors of the Word), and Unionist discourse continues these precedents into the present. Take, for example, former Labour leader George Robertson, who stated in 2013, in anticipation of the referendum campaign, that unlike regions such as Catalonia and Flanders, Scotland has “no language or culture or any of that”. The sad irony is that he holds the title “Baron Port Ellen”, named for a locale on the island of Islay where a substantial proportion of the population are native Gaelic speakers and where English only made inroads after the Education Act of 1872 made it compulsary and at the expense of Gaelic.
The sentiment “I may be poor but at least I’m white” demonstrates that the dividends of whiteness (as a socio-economic construction in North America) provide psychological and social compensation for those otherwise who might otherwise recognize their economic and political marginalization. Britishness is the cultural analogue in the history of the expansion of an anglocentric empire and the annual Orange parades on 12 July continue to perform the psychodrama of imperial violence that forged Britishness in the first place. And of course the anonymity of social media makes it all the easier for such thuggery to be expressed.
For far too long, Scottish heritage has been the fetish and plaything of right-wing, conservative North Americans espousing barely concealed racist and militaristic views and values. Although such regressive stakeholders do not hold a monopoly (Gaelic learners form one such exception, as I have explained elsewhere), the “clanship, kirk and kilts” crowd revel in romantic ideas of natural-born soldiers deferent to power (tartan-clad Highland regiments), conformist in religious conviction and triumphant in their apparent global dominance via capitalism (“Adam Smith was a Scot, ye ken”). Few probably realize the political chasms between Scottish and American political stances in general.
The emergence of a “YES generation” in Scotland is an encouraging development for myself and other progressives in North America engaging with Scottish history and heritage, ancient and contemporary, who are weary of the conservative domination of Scottishness in exile. A creative, energetic, progressive set of voices has emerged which can critique power and privilege, demonstrate their commitment to social justice, and distance themselves from the obsequious submission to an exclusive élite class willing to resort to the basest of human fears and impulses to maintain their power. Those of us interested in social justice on both sides of the Atlantic – in the products of the British colonial enterprise in North American and in Britain itself – hope that we have seen the glimpses of a new Scotland finally shedding itself of the self-doubt and inferiority complex that has prevented it from unmasking the powers that have kept it bound for generations.