Thursday 18 September 2014

The two Scotlands

Yes, I know, it's almost too late to comment on Scottish independence - they're voting today.  I suspect that the result, whatever it is, won't be the end of the debate, so I'm having another shot at it.

It is interesting, watching the news coverage, how much of the Yes case is bound up with anger about what might be broadly termed 'inequality'.

This is the sense I get from the vision of Two Scotlands.  It isn't so much the haves and the have-nots, but it is about different beliefs about how the have-nots might eventually have.

The financial elite believe inequality is an outdated irrelevance, which has little to do with them.  Meanwhile the currency shoots up and down in value because of the fears of secession across Europe - and all driven precisely because people no longer feel a stake in their own nations.

The truth is this: inequality is market sensitive after all.

Having said all that, I don't know - in the new world of interdepedence - whether nationhood really means anything any more.  Not in practice.

And that fact is, as much as anything, down to the legacy of the Scottish enlightenment, and its emphasis on humanity and rationalism.  That is the message of Adam Smith, Lord Kames, James Boswell and all the rest of them.

And here we really see the Two Scotlands.  In 1745, when the highlanders reluctantly rallied to the flag of Bonnie Prince Charlie, those involved in the Scottish enlightenment barred the gates of Edinburgh and Glasgow against the rebels.

Bonnie Prince Charlie was a Roman Catholic, and therefore wholly unacceptable to the traditional Calvinist elders in the central belt of Scotland – the great medieval cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow

But he was also opposed by the new traders of Glasgow and the new middle class academics and publishers of Edinburgh. He was a symbol of the old-fashioned world for those who were lighting the first sparks of intellectual excitement that were emerging, and would be known to history as the Scottish enlightenment.

The irony was that it was this dismal moment of Scottish defeat that made possible a new kind of Scotland which gave itself to the world. The final capitulation of the other Scotland, the medieval memory of clan loyalty and absolute authority, was finished.

It was dead and mourned, but its destruction had made way for the new Scotland to emerge. It emerged in a way that it did almost nowhere else in Europe, among a group of like-minded writers, philosophers, historians and lawyers, who wanted to dispel the old fog of Calvinism and look at mankind differently.

Human nature and the scientific study of mankind was at the heart of the beginning of the Scottish enlightenment, and the defence of Edinburgh against the rebels also fell to the enlightenment.

They were led by the mathematics professor Colin Maclaurin. The future historian William Robertson joined him as a volunteer on the battlements. The seventeen-year-old future architect Robert Adam  was his assistant. The defence failed and the volunteers repaired to Turnbull’s tavern for claret.

When the news of Culloden came through, celebratory bonfires were lit all across Glasgow as well.

David Hume was away tutoring the Marquis of Annandale, who was classified as a ‘lunatic’ (it was not a happy relationship). Smith was having his nervous breakdown in Oxford. The future writer James Boswell was in Edinburgh, but still only five years old. They missed the excitement, but it was really only after the trauma of the rebellion that the enlightenment was free to spread its wings.

So when we think of the Two Scotlands today, remember that it is in this sense a longstanding division, and it has at its heart a different understanding of nationhood.

I think of it as closer to Robbie Burns' idea that human beings, whatever their nation, "shall brothers be for 'a that".

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