Union city blues

Claiming Scotland: national identity and liberal culture

Jonathan Hearn <em>Polygon at Edinburgh,

This is a quiet book. It addresses the reader in an undertone, as if reluctant to take up his or her time with so many thoughtful and balanced accounts and verdicts. Jonathan Hearn is an American anthropologist who has dwelt in the Scots encampment for many years, moving discreetly from one tent to the next, but all the while keeping his own counsel. To his great credit, he has ended with a story that not only says more about what has been going on than most other recent accounts, but also questions the preconceived notions of nationalism and liberalism, in terms of which the current battles are being fought out. These are "stumbling blocks, rather than rules of clarification".

One would expect an anthropologist to spend much time on the ethnic foundations of politics. But Hearn was not fooled for a minute. He appears to have known from the start that Scottish ethnicity consists of two pensioners and a three-legged dog, and turned to more serious matters. His true inspiration is indicated by the quotation with which he starts, from a 1994 public address by William McIlvanney. The latter's tone, he notes, is "representative of the language that permeates Scottish nationalism". Its emphasis was not on blood, song lines, captivity and offended faith: "If there was to be a Scottish motto . . . you wouldn't have across the bottom 'Wha daur meddle wi' me. Take another step an' I'll bash yer heid in.' No , I said you've a very simple motto: 'Hey, wait a minute - that's no' fair!'" Many of the interviews in Claiming Scotland reiterate the novelist's point.

Ethnic nonsense is of recent coinage among the Scots, but a potent and double-edged egalitarianism was injected into their national foundations during the later Middle Ages. Even then, it was the sole resort of an uncomfortably variegated and precarious society. The two sides of this antique belief system supported one another: internal "equality" was a myth sustained by the external fairness with which Scottish crown and state were (supposedly) treated and regarded. England was the key, and combat was the normal way of securing equality. Fortunately for Scotland, winning such battles was less significant than the long-term maintenance of rights - which, until 1707, the Scots none the less managed, save for the short interlude of Oliver Cromwell's occupation.

Then combat was replaced by negotiated external "fairness", founded on a contrived equality with England: the Treaty of Union. This contraption lasted a long time, but it was falling apart by the time Hearn arrived in Scotland. He discovered a country that was in the process of being "claimed", in the sense of reclaimed. Gaelicism, halfwit racism, economic calculation or the dour passivity of pre-1997 Scottish reservation - these were no more than the prickly vestments of ages now fortunately past.

The book's jacket depicts the lines on the MacDiarmid memorial at Langholm, which is practically on the English border. These are an evocation of "Scotland's hidden poo'ers" - which, in spite of present travails, guarantee that, for reasons unrelated to DNA, "A' the past and future's oors". In such long perspective, the only real difference is that, today, the European Union has replaced the Pope as the "higher authority" appealed to as arbiter of fairness.

But even since Hearn's Claiming Scotland was published, the EU has begun to wobble off this pedestal. Intended as a safeguard, the euro now looks to be turning into its nemesis. Should that collapse altogether in the coming few years, only the United Nations will be left. The renegotiation of all matters British will then have to proceed via Scottish independence, rather than being (as devolutionists hoped) a substitute for the latter.

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake