Neil Davidson’s new book has sparked debate on the Scottish left. It covers the period when Scotland moved from a backward feudal society to one of the most dynamic centres of emergent capitalism – a bourgeois revolution that most historians fail to recognise.
Davidson argues it was not the Act of Union in 1707 that sparked this rapid transformation, but the last Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Its defeat was decisive and not just for Scotland: ‘Events in Scotland were integral to the survival and consolidation of British capitalism and consequently to the phase of world history which its expansion and imitation initiated. If the word “revolution” retains any meaning, then this process is surely one to which it can be applied.’
The bourgeoisie had already triumphed in England and crushed Ireland. The Scots played a role in this – by the early 17th century Ulster was a Scottish colony. Davidson shows how a kind of proto-British imperialism and an embryonic British army were operating before the British state formally existed.
The Treaty of Union of 1707 was the start of a long partnership in crime. It was not designed to transform feudal social relations in Scotland but to preserve them. Yet the transformation soon began to happen: ‘The Treaty of 1707 seemed to guarantee the Scottish nobility a preservation order in perpetuity but it could not prevent the subtle corrosive influence of commercial society from undermining the basis of their noble rule.’
The way forward was to become capitalist landlords. But only the most powerful could take this road. The supporters of Jacobitism were the group of declining lairds and great magnates who looked to the past. The Stewart cause ended in defeat at Culloden in 1746. More Scots fought for the British state. It was a turning point in Britain’s development and helped lay the basis for the first industrial revolution.
Between 1750 and 1780, Scotland compressed into 30 years of development the economic growth that in England had spread over two centuries. It was Scots who pioneered Britain’s industrial revolution and spearheaded empire. It is quite wrong to portray them as a junior partner in the union.
What nationalism remained was no threat to the British state. It became a component part of an all-British nationalism – a tartan gloss on Britain’s imperial adventures. The prominent role played by Scottish regiments in the occupation of Iraq is just the latest example.
Some on the Scottish left have difficulty recognising this Scottish bourgeois revolution. As Davidson explains: ‘For Scottish socialists the Scottish Revolution cannot occupy the same place that comparable events do for socialists in England or France – or even socialists in Italy and the USA. The key turning points do not involve the revolutionary crowd storming Edinburgh Castle or a levée en masse overwhelming royalist armies against all the odds, but deals struck in snuff-filled rooms off Edinburgh High Street and Royal troops hunting down defeated peasants across Culloden Moor.’
What has this go to do with today? Scots may well have a degree of national consciousness, but for the majority this has never been transformed into support for nationalism as a political movement. That’s because the Scottish identity was largely shaped after the Act of Union and within the context of the British state. It was really only after 1746 that a unified Scottish nation could emerge. But it did so as part of another nation – Britain.
Neil Davidson argues this has enormous consequences for the struggles of today:
‘The formation of the Scottish working class was, at the same time, part of the formation of the British working class. This makes it unlikely, whatever the nature of any subsequent constitutional changes, that there will ever be a second proletarian Scottish revolution separate from one in Britain as a whole. Whether or not the Scottish working class will eventually participate in such an event is still open to question. If it does we can be certain of one thing: the revolution that it helps to make will be quite unlike the one that brought it into existence.’
Anyone who wants to understand Scottish history and the limits of Scottish nationalism should read this book.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot