Socialist Worker

The Declaration of Arbroath in 1320: Scotland’s claim to independence?

by Charlie McKinnon
Issue No. 2700

 The Tyninghame copy of the Declaration from 1320 AD

The 'Tyninghame' copy of the Declaration from 1320 AD


The 6 April 2020 marked the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath and nationalists will use it as an opportunity to assert Scotland’s right to self-determination.

A host of events had been organised to celebrate the anniversary but these have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Patriotic fervour is being whipped up around the anniversary celebrations. Enthusiasts can purchase posters, T-shirts and framed tiles emblazoned with some of the most famous phrases from the declaration.

The declaration has been lauded by nationalist commentator Paul Henderson Scott as, “the foundation of Scottish political thought”.

Other historians and academics have been equally fulsome in their praise. For historian John Prebble it was “unequalled in its eloquent plea for the liberty of man” and “sets the will and the wishes of the people above the king”.

He argued it was an affirmation of Scotland’s independence.

Similarly, Christopher Smout believes that the declaration “expresses all the fierce nationalism of the 14th century” and Geffrey Barrow declared in a famous book that there is “no clearer statement of a claim to national independence produced in this period anywhere in Western Europe”.

These are bold claims. So who wrote the declaration, why was it written and does it deserve these accolades?

It was believed to have been written by Bernard de Linton the Abbott of Arbroath and was signed by 31 Scottish Barons and eight of Scotland’s Earls—in effect Scotland’s ruling class.

It was part of a diplomatic effort to convince Pope John XXII that Robert the Bruce was the rightful king of Scotland and that Scotland was an independent country.

Bruce had been excommunicated by the Pope for seizing the Scottish throne in 1306 having killed his rival John Comyn. Edward II of England did not accept that Bruce was the rightful King and claimed overlordship of Scotland even after his defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Freedom

Central to the declaration some commentators argue is the idea of ‘libertas’ or freedom. One of the most famous passages in the declaration states, “for as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we be on any conditions subjected to the lordship of the English.

“It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting , but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

The declaration also contains a warning to King Robert—“Yet if he (Robert the Bruce) should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King.”

Stirring stuff—but It begs the question of who gets freedom.

The freedom that the Scottish nobles and magnates refer to was not freedom for the peasantry from a brutal, savage and exploitative feudal system. What was important to the Scottish ruling class was that they were free to exploit their serfs without interference from English Kings.

In other words the declaration was a defence of the existing feudal order and structure of society.

It is also worth noting that the Scottish nobility were ruthless and duplicitous, often switching sides and making alliances with the English kings in return for lands and money. Only a few months after the declaration was sent to the Pope, five of the signatories were charged with treason and were imprisoned and some executed.

The philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle was correct in arguing that the Scottish nobles “have maintained a quite despicable behaviour since the days of Wallace downwards—a selfish, ferocious, famishing, unprincipled   set of hyenas, from which at no point, and in no way , has the country derived any benefit”.  

Independence

Some left nationalists argue that it was participation by the common people in the so called Scottish Wars of Independence that proves that they had developed a national consciousness and fought for an independent Scottish state.

However, the peasants who fought—and usually died—in the wars with Wallace, Bruce and the Scottish nobility did so because they were ordered to by their feudal masters. In the early 14th century a peasant’s often short life was a precarious hand to mouth existence.

They were more likely to rebel over food shortages and tax rises as the English Peasants Revolt of 1381 shows.

For many left nationalists the Declaration of Arbroath and Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn are proof that the Scottish nation was a product of the “wars of independence”.  Even some on the left like John Foster argue that “the Scottish nation seems to have been an entirely feudal creation”.

For Marxists, however, nationalism did not develop out of feudalism but is a product of capitalist development. Neil Davidson has convincingly argued that the origins of the Scottish nation lie within the Union itself.

The rising in 1820 was a challenge to the state
The rising in 1820 was a challenge to the state
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It was only after the Act of Union in 1707 that some of the barriers to Scottish nationhood could be overcome. One of the most significant of these was the Highland /Lowland divide.  

Nationality

Scottish nationhood developed alongside and as part of the British state therefore a sense of dual nationality emerged, most Scots perceiving themselves to be both British and Scottish.

Socialists should support the breakup of the British state not for nationalist reasons associated with the Declaration of Arbroath. As socialists we are opposed not just to British nationalism but also Scottish nationalism.

Both of these are wedded to the capitalist system and neoliberalism. We should support the breakup of the British state because it weakens British imperialism. It will make it more difficult for Britain to engage in the military adventurism which has characterised its foreign policy in recent years and its direct and indirect involvement in the bloody conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

It is class not nationalism that is the fundamental divide in society. An independent Scotland offers the possibility of realignment in Scottish politics and more opportunities for the left to challenge austerity and neoliberalism.

Independence will not automatically improve the quality of life for the people of Scotland. It is their involvement in struggles and movements which challenge and fight back against austerity that can make a difference to people’s lives.

A socialist vision for an independent Scotland is one in which there are open borders, that welcomes refugees, scraps Trident and prioritises spending on health and welfare. It is a vision that can inspire people and attract them to the independence movement rather than false and exaggerated claims surrounding the Declaration of Arbroath and the “wars of independence”. 


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