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Issue 52, October 2000

The State of Scotland

The Origins of Scottish Nationhood
By Neil Davidson, Pluto Press, 2000, £14-99
Reviewed by Bruce Wallace

IN HIS introduction, Neil Davidson describes Scottish national consciousness as a modern phenomenon arising from the 'democratic deficit' created by the string of Tory election triumphs from 1979 to 1997, while the vast majority of Scots voted for other parties.

Davidson argues that, because Scotland is a nation and not a region or urban district, opposition took a form which was impossible in most parts of Britain. The curve of national consciousness ascended with each result.

Davidson concedes that the Scottish people already have a national consciousness and would therefore constitute a nation even if there were no organisations committed to Scottish nationhood. It appears, however, that Davidson wishes to have his cake and eat it too. Scotland is a nation but her national consciousness is focussed on the demand for a Scottish parliament, not a Scottish state. He creates a division between Scottish national consciousness, which has grown, and Scottish nationalism, which has not (a highly debatable point)!

In order to bolster his thesis Davidson begins with 46 pages of academic theory. While stating that he intends to argue from a Marxist position on the national question, Davidson relies on a mixed bag of historians, sociologists and psychologists for support.

Davidson focuses on Scottish history from the Union of Parliaments in 1707 to approximately 1832. The title of the book leads the reader to expect that answers would be provided to questions like, when was the Scottish nation founded? How has the Scottish nation evolved up to today, when the issue of complete independence is posed? Alas the reader will come away disappointed as Davidson argues that there was no Scottish nation before 1707. There was a Scottish state which united with England in 1707, but states have no more embodied nations than nations have always sought to be embodied in states.


Having set out his stall, that modern nationalism is only possible when there is a bourgeoisie capable of defining its interests in national terms, he goes on to show that there was only the beginnings of this consciousness in lowland Scotland. Union intervened to enmesh the developing capitalist interests with the British bourgeoisie.

In the period studied by Davidson, Scotland did not achieve nationhood in the modern sense, as exemplified by the national bourgeois revolutions in England and Holland of the 17th century and France of the late 18th century. Scotland, as an impoverished and economically backward country, was only beginning to aspire to nationhood. This was based on a weak and bankrupt bourgeoisie in lowland Scotland which was developing a 'proto-national consciousness' (the beginnings of consciousness).

The Union absorbed a feudal absolutist Scotland, which was too weak to survive as an independent state, into a more politically progressive, economically advanced English state. This was a product of the rivalry between the major European powers of the day, England and France. Scotland, in any case, could not be described as a unified nation, as it was divided between the English-speaking lowlands and the Gaelic highlands.

After Union there was an onslaught on the Gaelic peasantry and their culture, carried out primarily by the lowland ruling class and highland landowners after the defeat of the clans at Culloden in 1746. This culminated in the highland clearances and the replacement of the indigenous population with sheep towards the turn of the 18th century, an outcome of the protracted class war waged by the more advanced lowlands against the feudal remnants of highland society.


Union facilitated the rapid development of capitalism in Scotland in the 1790s and early 19th century, which did create national consciousness. But a British consciousness - Scotland had missed its national bourgeois revolution. The Scottish bourgeoisie, enriched by the Union and the industrial revolution, which surpassed England in its explosive growth, embraced Britishness. The Scottish bourgeoisie, and a rapidly expanding petty bourgeoisie, then went on to reap even richer rewards through British imperialism's colonial exploitation.

In contrast the Scottish working class did not adopt a separate national identity but developed a proletarian consciousness, albeit one which was imbued with reformist and nationalist illusions. These nationalist illusions, counterpoised to the proletarian internationalism which was an embryonic feature of the growing working class, also took on British characteristics.

This, in a nutshell, is Davidson's thesis - that, in the period of his study, he can find only British national consciousness amongst the Scottish bourgeoisie and working class. Very interesting, but we are still left wondering where the origins of Scottish nationhood are to be found?

There is only passing mention of mass opposition to the Treaty of Union. The demonstrations in Edinburgh against the Union are explained as being due to the threat of increased taxes and the weakening of plebeian control over the Kirk. Davidson does admit that it would be inadvisable to dismiss these as merely base material concerns. Given the highly circumscribed lives of most people at this time, a worsening of their material conditions was a serious matter.


Davidson fails to mention that England was prepared to absorb Scotland by force if need be. At the time of the treaty an English spy reported: 'I never saw a nation so universally wild'. He said that most Scots cursed the nobles who betrayed them into Union, and that for every man who supported the treaty there were 50 against it. English regiments had been marched to the border should they be required.

Scotland was on the brink of a national rebellion against absorption by England. That events took a less dramatic course was primarily due to the capitulation of the Scottish ruling class who ratified the Treaty of Union by 110 votes to 67 on 16 January 1707.

Lenin pointed out in 1914 that if in a country whose state system is distinctly pre-capitalist in character there exists a nationally demarcated region where capitalism is rapidly developing, the quicker capitalism develops, the greater the antagonism between it and the pre-capitalist state system. The antagonism between Scotland and England, of a less developed as against a more advanced and bourgeois nation, was solved by unification.

The attitude of the English ruling class was summed up by the Lord Treasurer of the unified British parliament when debating increasing taxes on linen: 'Have we not bought the Scots, and a right to tax them?' This was an expression of the centuries-old contempt that the English ruling class had for the 'backward and barbaric' Scots.

The central theme of the book is that arguments in favour of the continuity of nationhood in Scotland are based on a misconceived mythology: that Scotland has a traceable history as a nation state; and that the struggle for self-determination is based on mistaken notions of Scotland as an oppressed nation.


Davidson certainly knows his porridge and he does a workmanlike job in debunking some of the historical myths used by Scottish nationalists to justify calls for independence. The Scottish ruling class is shown to have participated in the exploitation of the colonies and he puts forward a sound case against those who declare that Scotland was subjected to colonial subjugation by England.

Genuine Marxists, however, have always argued that the Scottish bourgeoisie benefited enormously from the exploitation of the British Empire and were almost indistinguishable from the British capitalist class as a whole in their rapacious greed. In fact, the indigenous Scottish capitalist class has been the most vociferous defender of a unified capitalist British state.

The greatest weakness of this book is that Davidson selects a period of Scottish history which supports his arguments then fails to deal with the subsequent 170 years up to 2000! In reality, the development of political nationalism begins in the late 19th century. This is omitted from Davidson's study. In this sense, Davidson's work has no discernible value in aiding contemporary Scottish socialists develop a class position on the national question.

To arbitrarily divide national consciousness from political nationalism - demands for devolution or autonomy counterpoised to national independence - sows confusion. Writing of the secession of Norway from Sweden in 1905, Lenin explained: 'Autonomy, as a reform, differs in principle from freedom to secede, as a revolutionary measure. This is unquestionable. But as everyone knows, in practice a reform is often merely a step towards revolution. It is autonomy that enables a nation forcibly retained within the boundaries of a given state to crystallise into a nation, to gather, assess and organise its forces, and to select the most opportune moment for a declaration... in the Norwegian spirit'.


Faced with the concrete reality of a parliament and the crystallisation of a nation state now, and how Scottish socialists should react to this situation, Davidson's efforts can only foster confusion.

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