It is time to bust some myths about our national identity, says proud Scot and Labour councillor Bill Cook
A few years ago now, whilst debating with a Scottish nationalist, she suddenly asked whether I had seen Braveheart. Bemused, I answered “yes”. I couldn’t quite understand why a brilliant but largely fictional film had anything at all to do with an argument about what was best for modern Scotland.“Having seen it do you feel more or less Scottish? ”she asked. I spluttered that this was a movie, it was a fairy tale, it was as historically accurate as the tales of Sinbad The Sailor. What possible bearing could a Mel Gibson adventure story have on my sense of identity?
The reality, of course, is that a society’s myths do contribute to a community’s sense of identity. That sense of identity can contribute to the political outcomes in the here and now. It’s perhaps no coincidence that, as the traditional Scottish working class identity wanes, the force of national identity appears to be in the ascendency. Perhaps no wonder that the Scottish National Party invests public money in loss leaders like The Gathering. They see the political advantage in fostering a strong nationalist identity no matter how spurious the basis.
As a working class boy, no different from any of my mates, alongside my class identity I developed a very strong sense of my Scottish identity, fuelled by tales of Robert the Bruce’s heroism, of Bonnie Prince Charlie raising the standard, of the Highlanders’ charge. I was inspired by Scots Wha Hae – some 47 years later I can still recite a couple of verses.
Of course, what these gallant tales and poems omitted was that proud Robert was a Norman despot who murdered his rivals and usurped the throne. No one mentioned that the Bruces and England’s Plantagenet rulers were bosom buddies. Their families fought in the Crusades together. Bruce actually helped Edward Longshanks invade Scotland in the first place. No-one ever mentioned that The Bruce attempted to exterminate his Scottish enemies with the upmost brutality.
Likewise, with Bonnie Prince Charlie. No one mentioned he was a blatant opportunist whose primary dream was the throne of England. No one mentioned that the Royal Scots helped defeat him at Culloden.
No-one ever mentioned that both these supposed struggles for independence were in fact largely civil wars between nobles who quarrelled amongst themselves about who could best exploit the wealth created by the ordinary peasantry of this country.
There is an almost endless list of myths and mistruths that have embedded themselves in Scotland’s historical narrative. This wouldn’t matter a dot if it wasn’t influencing today’s political debate. But sadly it is. Why else would Alex Salmond even think about having a referendum on the anniversary of Bannockburn? Doesn’t he know that Scots were also on the losing side that day.
In considering the future of our country we shouldn’t indulge these myths. Let’s look to the future with objectivity and reason. Let’s not allow misplaced sentimentality to influence the stability and future welfare of our country. Let’s not take a regressive backwards step.
However, if we are to look at history let’s be impassioned and go beyond the myths in understanding our identity. In the past 300 years there have been massive population movements across the British Isles.
Statistics show that the majority of Scotland’s central belt population are descendants of people arriving here over the past 200 years or so.
The largest single group entering Scotland in the 50 years before the Great War actually emigrated from England and Wales.
Take a look at the London telephone directory. The number of Macdonalds listed is a testament to just how far Scots have embedded themselves south of the Border.
In considering the future we should also reflect on Scotland’s industrial development since we and England joined forces. This has contributed strongly to the development of our identity and values.
There are countless comparisons to be made right across Scotland – whether it be the massive increase in Dundee’s jute trade or the development of Edinburgh’s financial sector. The combination of our countries has brought untold opportunities. We experienced the Enlightenment and Scotland’s influence has reached far beyond our shores. This simply would not have happened had we not joined forces with our southern neighbour.
When Alex Salmond waxes lyrical about our country, see it for what it is – a blatant appeal to sentimentality. He wants emotion to trump reason.
Let’s not ignore the benefits that unity brings. We’ve achieved much more through the strength of our common endeavour than we could ever achieve alone.
• Bill Cook is a Labour city councillor for Liberton/Gilmerton