On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Eyeing the Scottish Independence Vote and Its National Questions (May 24, 2014)


The upcoming referendum on Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom (September 18. 2014) is quite clearly a landmark event—although, considering Scotland’s status as an archipelago , as well as the vital economic and legal importance of its many maritime borders (see Stuart Elden here), we might do better to call it a watershed event. On September 18, all British-, Commonwealth- and EU citizens resident in Scotland aged 16 years or older (as well as government employees and soldiers with Scottish voter registration) will answer a single question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” (See the referendum details here).You can see some variously skewed analyses on both .gov and .com sites here, here , and here.

The straightforward vote on whether Scotland will become an independent, sovereign nation is of acute geopolitical significance: the United Kingdom is a major economic, political, and military power, so its fracturing will, like that of the U.S.S.R., involve extremely high stakes). Such a territorial division invites weighty material questions, such as what will happen to the British pound sterling, what would be the place of an independent Scotland (and a diminished UK) in such organizations as the UN, the EU, and NATO, and  just who will control which nuclear weapons. Rarely does an election seem to decide so much—and, unlike the recent (March 16), hastily assembled, and deeply ambiguous referendum on Crimea’s political status, the Scottish Independence referendum is proceeding with intense deliberation.

It is the existential and epistemological issues that most interest me, especially insofar as the Scottish independence vote calls attention to the fraught, deeply ambiguous meaning of the concept of nation. Having done quite a bit of research on medieval Scottish literature and culture (and even more on medieval England), I have a keen interest in both the continuities and discontinuities of British cultural identities. At times, an identity like Scottishness or Englishness seems to have deep roots and to involve an ongoing ethnonational identity: surely, many a self-identifying Scot feels a frisson of national pride at seeing a statue commemorating the anti-English military activities of William Wallace or at hearing the (translated) words of the Declaration of Arbroath speaking about a fight for “freedom,” while many self-conscious Englishfolk surely feel that the 1215 Magna Carta is part of their national inheritance and that the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada is part of their nation’s glorious history of exceptional skill and luck. Such traditionalist notions of nation can easily lead to the view that the United Nations has incorrectly assessed the number of sovereign states on British soil—and there is more than just sentiment to account for this. Besides such institutional markers of actual (if sub-national) regional autonomy as the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales, or the Northern Ireland Assembly, there are other, less weighty indications of British citizens acting as if they bear more than one national identity:  the World Cup validates such a viewpoint, recognizing the right of the “national” teams of Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland to compete for qualification in its championship tournament.

Such vehicles of national self-identification, however powerful, obscure the fact that, as far as the term “nation” is understood in current international law, Northern Irish, Welsh, Scots, and English individuals are all citizens of a single nation—the United Kingdom (aka Great Britain). On September 18, 2014, Scottish voters will choose whether to remove the territory of Scotland from this British nation-state. The political union of the imperial kingdoms of Scotland and England (I say imperial because each of these kingdoms involved the establishment of a centralized state through acts of conquest and consolidation throughout the Middle Ages) goes back officially to the 1707 Acts of Union, which merged the states of England (which had, since the 1280s fully absorbed Wales) and Scotland, whose crowns had already been merged in 1603.

Common Anglo-Scottish cultural and economic interests, of course, go back much further in time—particularly in the Northern English and Southern Scotland regions abutting their often hotly contested border. Despite heartfelt appeals by many to absolute differences, whether it be of traditional, pre-modern military loyalties or of such difference-markers as the Scottish Gaelic language or Highland Tartan dress, profound continuities of Scottish and English culture are quite apparent. For one thing, much of what we think of as Britain’s supremely pragmatic, industrious mindset come from Scotland: capitalist ancestral hero Adam Smith and empiricist guru David Hume are just two of the many seminal figures of the Scottish Enlightenment who shaped Britain’s eighteenth-century ascent to global imperial power, much of which British dominance was materially sustained by Scottish soldiers, such as the famous Highland Regiments.

.           Linguistic continuity is another key area (and in a future post, I would like to compare the fascinating juxtaposition of appeals to Scottish linguistic apartness to the deadly stakes connected with linguistic otherness currently playing out in and outside of the Ukraine). Although some would argue that Scots is a distinct language standing alongside English in the Germanic language family, most linguists regard Scots—not to be confused with the Celtic language of Gaelic—as a dialect of English. Indeed, since the late Middle Ages, the presence of Gaelic speakers in Scottish lands has been a minority (see the excellent Wikipedia article, which includes statistics), and the dialects spoken in southern Scotland and northern England are not just mutually intelligible, but sometimes virtually indistinguishable.

What fascinates me most about this upcoming vote is how it exposes how national self-identification involves multiple, overlapping, often conflicting identities. As much as rabid nationalists would like to portray the vote in their favored, simplistic, either-or terms, it seems clear that many Scots are deeply conflicted. Many who want an independent Scotland nevertheless see themselves as also British: competing ethnic and political ideas thus come into focus. Many would like an independent Scotland, but want to retain the pound—a clash of economic and cultural modes of pride come into view. Many other examples of conflicts between Scottish and British identities could be named, as the independence referendum forces individuals to decisively prioritize among the multiple layers that make up one’s identity. Moreover, as John Harriss has argued, the Scottish referendum is illuminating numerous conflicts and instabilities in English identity.

It is hard not to surmise that such institutions as the Scottish Parliament or the Scottish Football Association are designed to maintain British identity by serving as pressure-release mechanisms. By allowing Scots to see themselves as uniquely Scots in actual, but materially circumscribed contexts (such as educational policy or World Cup qualification), such institutions offer much of the personal satisfaction that can come with feeling part of a large, but unique and limited ethnic group. But ethnic groups do not get to vote in the United Nations, nor do they get to exert complete control over a state—nations, as we now understand them, do this. I know that I will be glued to my laptop, television, and telephone screens on September 18 (very early on that date, considering I am on US East Coast time), as this momentous, messy, and fascinating vote begins.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

10 thoughts on “Eyeing the Scottish Independence Vote and Its National Questions (May 24, 2014)

  1. On the issue of whether Scots is a language or dialect, please note the following from the online Dictionary of the Scots Language:

    On 4th June 1998, the UK government announced its intention of signing the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and finally did sign on 2nd March 2000, with ratification from 1st July 2001. Scots is listed under a section of the Charter which imposes no actual obligations on national governments. Nevertheless, its inclusion is de facto recognition of language status, as dialects are specifically excluded from the terms of the Charter. Furthermore, provisions have been made for some use of Scots in the Scottish Parliament. Ulster Scots is the subject of an international agreement (the Good Friday Agreement, 1998) with the Republic of Ireland. Such official recognition, limited and belated though it is, settles the question in favour of regarding Scots as a language in its own right, and it will accordingly be referred to here as a language.

    • Thanks for this, James. As should be clear from my May 25 post on Russian and Ukrainian, I am especially intrigued by the ways in which political factors often play a powerful role in linguistic taxonomy (while many know this to be the case, many others seem to see linguistics as an objective science that transcends the political). The United Kingdom’s signing off on this Charter shows how intensely political factors shape language-dialect distinction– and I suspect that similar factors are a key engine driving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict (though I don’t know the languages well enough to adequately assess the evidence).

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