Colonialism, Empire and Scottish Independence

Once upon a time, Scotland was an independent country.  Under feudal rule, clan chiefs oversaw land on which tenant farmers toiled. Taxes were primarily local as were military power bases.   When land disputes arose, they were settled under the command of the feudal chief, which the serfs looked to for protection, while the Chief looked to the serfs for continued wealth.  The introduction of capitalism saw massive changes in Scottish society.  Crofting and the runrig system were abandoned in favour of agricultural styles that would yield more profit.

The clan chiefs and lairds who had been traditionally looked upon as a benevolent protector had identified the source of their wealth as the land on which their clans and tenants lived, and that wealth could be generated more effectively than by subsistence farming.  So they cleared them.  This period, following the Union of the Crowns was the colonisation of Scotland, as the Scottish and English ruling class ganged up on its people creating the fledgling British Empire.

We were bought and sold for English Gold,
sic a parcel of rogues in a nation

A Parcel o Rogues in a Nation, Robert Burns

In the Highlands, the clearances were brutal.  Factors were employed to burn families out of their homes in the middle of the night.  The source of power and authority that these families had always looked to provide security and protection from external threats was now turned in on them.  Many men, women and children were burn alive, many more died of exposure huddling in hillside nooks, and more died on the way to the Americas if they were lucky enough to sell family heirlooms to buy a ticket in the first place.  All over the Highlands you can see the ruins of crofts.  Crofts from which people fled scared and confused.  Like in Palestine, ruins that were once homes now sit abandoned, reminding us that they once did the same to us.

 We stood wi’ heads bowed in prayer
While factors burned oor cottages bare
The flames licked the clear mountain air
And manys were dead by the morning.

 Smile in your  Sleep, Dick Gaughan

The Lowland Clearances were less violent, the cottars off the South, pushed off their land and moved to the new industrial centres of Glasgow Edinburgh and Northern England to find work in mills and foundries as well as contributing to a massive wave of emigration to the Northern Americas.  Those that left on the ships for New World, left behind those that now toiled in the dark satanic mills, the mines and the foundries.  The newly colonised America was the land of opportunity, and the ousted Scots became the Israeli settlers of the 18th century: displaced from their own homeland, they colluded in the theft of other people’s.

The landlords came, the peasant trials
To the sacrifice of men
Through the past and then quite darkly
The present once again.
In the name of Capital
Establishment
Improvers, its a name.
The hidden truths, the hidden lies,
That once nailed you to the pain

 Dance called America, RunRig

And so began Scotland’s involvement in the British Empire.  There were opportunities you see. Whether that be through labouring in the industries built on the one-sided trade agreements that an imperial power could negotiate, acquiring the right of access to and even ownership of foreign land or serving in the military that ruled the waves while the Clyde built the ships.   During this period Scotland benefitted from the British Empire. As a privileged entity within a brutal regime, Scotland’s colonisation became not just a physical manifestation but a cultural reality.  While Scottish intellectuals promoted “Common Sense Realism” which supported kyriarchial frameworks over religious superstition and Scottish advances in science and engineering proving the technical means, the flag of St Andrews gave a sold base to the ever growing spread of the Union Jack as the British Army offered opportunities for its plucky and adventurous sons.  But as empire dwindled, the cultural buy-in to the project dwindled with it.

By the 1950s, empire was in serious decline.  Indian independence and the wave of decolonisation that swept Africa after the end of the Second European War saw Scotland start to re-evaluate its role within it.  A gradual emergence of a Scottish consciousness that has been buried in the glory of Empire started to re-emerge with the theft of the Stone of Scone and the Pillar Box War in the 50s, the election of an SNP MP in the 60s and the Gaelic Revival of the 70s, and culminated in the 79 referendum on Home Rule.   What was offered in ’79, was essentially devo-lite yet a rigged election saw the view of the majority ignored and a wave of Thatcherite vengeance set in.

The optimism of millions of Scots who had hoped for more say in their own affairs were dashed as they saw large chunks of Scottish land sold off to absentee speculators, Scottish forests bought up as investment vehicles, Scottish historical monuments were acquired by celebrities and playboys as trophies, while our waters were used to house the nuclear missiles that secured the rich their global domination.

Our land it is owned by the faceless investor,
Our fishing and farming no longer our own,
Our industry ruined, our assets are squandered,
Our souls are in hock and our children in pawn

The Dawning of the Day, The Corries 

The old heavy industries were in decline and left to rot as revenue from the newly discovered oil fields in our waters paid-off a generation who saw their future demolished as foundry after foundry closed, steel and mining were decimated and the shipbuilding industry was sank.    Central Scotland turned from an industrial powerhouse to a barren wasteland, as the UK state seized the revenue from Scottish oilfields to fuel a monetarist coupwhile burying the McCrone Report which revealed the exact extent of the rip-off that the UK state was presiding over.

Time and time again Scotland returned Labour MPs, followed by more Labour MPs, in the hope of protection from the Thatcher’s Britain that post referendum SNP parliamentary votes had helped bring into being.   But slowly a decolonisation of consciousness started to form.  The 80s saw distinctive and authentic Scottish voices emerge in pop-music, literature, visual arts, theatre and film…and these voices spoke of a distinct Scottish cultural identity.  The imposition of the poll-tax in 1988, a year earlier than in RoUK, saw a crystallisation of what had been fermenting. If Scotland could exist in a form in which it could be targeted in such a manner, it also existed in a form in which it could fight back.

So don’t talk to me of Scotland the Brave
For if we don’t fight soon there’ll be nothing left to save
Or would you rather stand and watch them dig your grave
While you wait for the Tartan Messiah?

No Gods and Precious Few Heroes, Brian McNeill

In the face of a rising national consciousness, but anxious to hang on to the critical block of Scottish MPs, the Labour Party offered devolution as a sop to the rising tide of independent thinking. Rather than choking the independence movement, devolution gave it a base.  From 1999, the Scottish Government, regardless of incumbent, found the freedom in the devolution settlement to develop policies more suited for Scottish conditions and sentiments while politicians of all stripes were able to appeal to progressive and popular opinions over Trident, military spending, involvement illegal wars, and foreign affairs without the responsibility to implement.

Which brings us bang up to date – two years from a critical moment in Scottish history.

There is a British Empire – still.   There is an empire which displaces Chagos Islanders, which assists the US military in Afghanistan and Libya, which holds weapons of mass destruction. An empire greatly weakened by the events of the past century, but an empire none-the-less with post-colonial interests all over the globe and fingers in many pies.  An empire which exports language and culture globally, partly piggybacking on the strength of former colonies where the settlers perfected techniques of land-theft and re-exported them.   An empire which still maintains the world’s most prominent Royal Family which no amount of lampooning, sex-scandals or exposure of their vile arrogance can dislodge.

Scottish independence is a blow from and at the heart of that empire. It is a rejection of Britain and all that it stands for.  It is an acknowledgement not only that the Scots should rule Scotland, but that the Scots should only rule Scotland. That we must invest our time and attention in ensuring the well-being of our citizens, not chasing halfway around the globe after evildoers at the behest of a foreign power with the hopes of securing more resources to buy off the poor in the hope that this will distract them from the obscenities of the rich.

The demand for Scottish Independence is more than national self-determination, in freeing ourselves from participation in empire, we free others from empire’s domination.   The thousands that were burned to death, who died of exposure and starvation after the clearances were nothing on the atrocities that the British Empire inflicted on other lands once it had honed its technique, but they still did it to us.  The vast majority of Scots will have family history of persecution as the British Empire established and grew its power, be that in the clearances of Scotland, the enclosures of England, the Indian famines, the narco-trade of China, the concentration camps of Africa and the blood baths of the Middle East.

This is an anti-colonial struggle: it is a rejection of our colonisation and a demand that we once again have national self-determination, but it is also a rejection of our participation in colonisation and a demand that we in turn allow others theirs.

It is a struggle for national liberation: too important to be left to nationalists yelling “Freedom”.

Broken faimlies in lands we harrit,
Will curse Scotland the Brave, nae mair, nae mair,
Black an white ane anither marrit
Mak the vile barrack o their maisters bare.

Freedom Come A Ye, Hamish Henderson.

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2 comments
Murdo Ritchie
Murdo Ritchie

SCOTLAND: OPPRESSED OR OPPRESSOR? Don't go along with the history here. But it would take too long to answer. I agree that Scotland's various Unions with England were driven by the drive to build a commercial Empire. "This period, following the Union of the Crowns was the colonisation of Scotland, as the Scottish and English ruling class ganged up on its people creating the fledgling British Empire." Firstly, there were some at the time who thought Scottish monarchs has colonised England. But, more importantly, by this logic if a class "colonises" did it also "colonise" England too? It's worth recognising there were massive number of people in Scotland who looked for "protection" from English monarchs against Scottish arbitrariness. However, a lot of Scottish nationalism and calls for "independence" is solely about getting a better deal in the imperialist trough. That is why it is necessary to approach independence differently from simply shouting for "independence" without defing what that independence should comprise. The current way the independence referendum is being rigged to imply assent for the continuation of the monarch and membership of NATO is a worrying development. A case can be made for Scottish independence, but it will always fail if it starts from some sense of Scottish persecution. Even among European nations, Scotland has done reasonably well. A Scotland that attempts to break its imperial past is to be welcomed but, at the moment, it seems that most demanding independece are only looking for a special seat at the imperialist top table.

Kate
Kate

I did know most of the historical context you've described but it was quite useful to see it all in one post, in chronological order. My question, though, would be, what about the North of England and even the poorer de-industrialised boroughs, towns and cities in the South? (Such as Peterborough) I think the national self-determination stuff is absolutely fair enough and the best reason to be pro-independence. The stuff, however, about Scotland being particularly put upon by the British ruling classes in recent times, is only true to some extent. Scotland has been hit particularly hard but so have many of the English working classes. I see that mainly as class oppression rather than national oppression, again because of the myriad of poor post-industrial places I've been to and lived in in England (and because of some of the incredibly wealthy Scots in places like Edinburgh and St Andrews).

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