Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Review: Scottish Nationalism’s Roots in British Imperialism

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Scottish nationalist movement’s difficult birth and entanglement with the British Empire is under-examined. Chris Bambery welcomes a new book examining the SNP’s ideological roots in the 20th century.

Despite being hegemonic in Scotland, and the third largest party at Westminster, there is a dearth of publish works on the ideological roots of the Scottish National Party. This is stranger still when you consider that the history of Scottish nationalism was directly informed by the history of the British state, and can tell us much about its development over the 20th century

Richard Finlay’s Scottish Nationalism: History, Ideology and the Question of Independence is therefore most welcome. It is both a history and an examination of the ideology underlying the emergence of Scottish nationalism, and the Scottish National Party, in the crucial period between the two world wars. And like any good history, it illuminates both the continuities and dis-continuities which inform our own time.

Unionist Nationalism

Finlay starts by looking at Scottish identity, or more precisely the Scottish middle and upper classes’ identity in the century leading up to the Fist World War. Though without an independent state following the Union of 1707 he is clear Scotland remained a nation, with most Scots regarding themselves part of it.

Scottish national identity co-existed with identification with the British state and the British Empire. Scots could take great pride in their statesmen at Westminster (before 1918, always men), in their contribution to the victories won in the Seven Years war, the French revolutionary war, the Napoleonic wars and the Crimean War and in their crucial role in building and administering the Empire, eliding its brutal reality.

At this time, Scottish national conscious developed under the aegis of Unionism. Writers like Sir Walter Scott could pen great historical novels about Scotland’s early modern history, influencing the mood of romantic nationalism across Europe and beyond. He was also a Tory, frightened by the new working class and reliant on the British state to repress it, as were the industrialists of Glasgow and the pit owners and iron masters of West Central Scotland.

This dual identity, undergirded by emerging class antagonisms, was secure until 1914. But challenges to it were already developing and would grow greater in the grim inter-war period. Firstly, modern Unionism emerges in response, as Finlay makes clear, to the resistance to Irish Home Rule. The Scottish Unionist Party was created in 1912 by a merger of the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists, who had broken away in opposition to the Asquith government’s Irish Home Rule Bill.

Things really change after 1918, as I have discussed elsewhere (A People’s History of Scotland, Verso). Firstly, indigenous Scottish capital began to fade as mergers and takeovers saw English based companies buy it up. Secondly, the UK economy dependent on staples such as textiles, coal, iron and steel and shipbuilding was becoming uncompetitive with its rivals, and the great export markets of the 19th century were drying up as the world economy hit trouble, culminating in the Great Depression and protectionism. The Scottish economy was even more dependent on these staples and in even greater trouble. Thirdly, Scotland missed out on the growth of new industries responding to consumer demand in affluent London and the South East – cars, electrical goods and so on.

Added to this Scotland, unlike the Dominions, had no representation at the Treaty of Versailles nor a seat at the League of Nations. The Scottish elite felt excluded by comparison with their Canadian or Australian counterparts.

Founding Fathers

Among the middle class and the elite there was a palpable sense of decline. That began to find an expression in an emerging national movement. But as it emerged it could not easily draw on the cannon of other movements seeking national liberation. While it might regret the 1707 Union it had to accept the Scottish Parliament approved it and that Scotland was not an oppressed colony but had played a central role in Empire. A consequence of that was, as Finlay concludes, independence or devolution had to be secured by constitutional, non-violent means.

A leading figure in the new movement, John MacCormick, demonstrated the tensions within it. He had been a member of the Independent Labour Party but, in 1927, left to set up the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association (GUSNA), to promote Scottish culture, nationalism and self-government. The GUSNA convened a meeting, chaired by Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, which agreed to launch the National Party of Scotland (NPS) in April 1928. MacCormick became its national secretary.

Subsequently, he was a leading figure in the Scottish National Party from 1934 until 1942 when he resigned having failed to get the party to adopt a policy of securing devolution over independence. The membership resented his belief that the SNP did not need to function as an independent political force, but rather try to broker deals with the mainstream parties in support of creating a Scottish parliament.

Accordingly, in 1948 he stood in a by-election in Paisley as an independent candidate in support of self-government. The Liberals and Tories stood down to give him a straight contest with Labour who won. MacCormick’s candidacy helped strengthen Labour opposition to devolution and its dislike of Scottish nationalism.

In 1951 MacCormick helped launch the Scottish Covenant Association, of which he became chair, which collected two million signatures in favour of the setting up of a Scottish parliament in the late 1940s and early 1950s. From 1950 to 1953 he was the Rector of Glasgow University, forming a friendship with Ian Hamilton, who organised the removal of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in 1950. MacCormick was involved in that episode.

Imperialist Self-Government

The partner of the NPS in the formation of the SNP was the Scottish Party (SP), formed by members of the Cathcart Scottish Unionist (Conservative) party, an openly imperialist party which stood for Scotland becoming a Dominion of the British Empire (like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) with its own parliament. The price of the merger was the expulsion of left wingers such as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, which MacCormick supported.

This openly imperialist tendency was decisive in driving the formation of the SNP. SP figures who would support the merger included James Graham, 6th Duke of Montrose, and Andrew Dewar Gibb. Montrose believed devolution would strengthen the unity of both the United Kingdom and the Empire. For him self-government meant a Scottish parliament within a wider British imperial context, on a par with the self-governing Dominions; all dominated by the white settler population at the expense of indigenous peoples.

Gibb, Regus Professor of Law at Glasgow University and SNP leader from 1936 until 1940, joined the Church of Scotland in the interwar period in campaigning against (imaginary) mass Irish immigration into Scotland. In 1930 he wrote of the Irish in his signature work of early Scottish nationalism Scotland in Eclipse:

“They are responsible for most of the crime committed in Scotland, which otherwise would be the most law-abiding country in the world. Wheresoever knives and razors are used, wheresoever sneak thefts and mean pilfering are easy and safe, wheresoever dirty acts of sexual baseness are committed, there you will find the Irishman in Scotland with all but a monopoly of the business.”

In this formative phase, the realities of imperialism strongly informed the nationalist movements conception of its aims. Though some nationalist activists could look to the growing labour and socialist movements for inspiration, the centre of gravity was still commanded by those who wanted Scotland better represented within the British Empire.

The limits of Empire Nationalism

It is important to return to the imperial context as it stood in the 1930s. By 1931 the Dominions might retain the monarch as head of state, but they were effectively independent states. During the Second World War Canada, Australia and New Zealand would shift over into the American camp. The Conservatives grasped this and were determined matters should go no further.

Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were prepared to give India a measure of autonomy but would not countenance home rule. Diehards like Winston Churchill and a minority of Tory MPs would not even countenance that. The need to preserve the Empire hardened Tory opposition to any form of Scottish home rule. Nationalists pleading as a loyal opposition for Dominion-type status were sowing their claims on stony ground.

By this point, Labour had supplanted the Liberals as the second party of state, and the party’s dalliance with home rule faded in the wake of economic crisis in the 1930s. State-directed and protectionist economic models were in vogue. Labour intellectuals could look to the apparent success of Stalin’s centralised state-run economy (which bucked trends and expanded rapidly in this period) or Roosevelt’s New Deal and adopted the view that big states brought economic success and prosperity, small ones failed – as they did across much of Europe in the 1930s. The post-1945 welfarism only meant a longer stretch of hibernation for Scottish nationalism.

Nationalism Returns in Rupture

It wasn’t until the post-war consensus began to break down that Scottish nationalism revived as an insurgent political force. Harold Wilson’s embrace of austerity in the late 1960s and then the first post-war global recession in 1973 brought the SNP electoral success. Thatcher, and Blair, war and neo-liberalism would give it hegemony in Scottish politics such as it enjoys today.

Within today’s SNP and wider nationalist and independence movements, there is a curious echo of the debates and tendencies of the first half of the 20th century. When SNP representatives point to the Irish Free State as some kind of model, they motion again to Dominion status (which that state held in its first decade). An attempt to portray itself as part of the status quo – or even the status quo ante – dominates thinking about independence at the top of the SNP. This is why Nato, the Bank of England and the EU remain the emphasis of the official case. What the Catalan artist and independence activist, Luis Llach, denounces as “neo-autonomism” – a conception of self-government or home rule without meaningful independence – has a home in Scotland today.

Finlay’s strength is in outlining the dynamics of the schisms in the early national movement, and how they corresponded to existing institutions and ideological preoccupations among those in the Scottish elite inclined to nationalism. Understanding these strategic fault lines of the past is valuable in understanding the problems of the independence movement today.

Richard Finlay, Scottish Nationalism: History, Ideology and the Question of Independence, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.

Would you like to read more?
Support our work
Donate now