Modern Scottish Nationalism has led a fluctuating, intermittent existence since 1853. Now, quite suddenly, it has become a more serious political reality. In the past it has gone through many renaissances, followed by even more impressive and longer-lasting collapses into inertia; but the present upsurge looks likely to last longer than others, at least, and to produce more of a mark on history.
Seen from without—from London, or in the perspective of British politics—the change appears welcome for many reasons. Like the companion Nationalism of the Welsh, it brings an element of novelty into the hopelessness and corruption of the post-imperial political scene. Obviously, fringe nationalisms will be good for the English, by forcing upon them a more painful reassessment of
The importance of the phenomenon demands that we should look at it less superficially, however. What is Scottish Nationalism in itself, as distinct from its external repercussions? Such a consideration of its meaning—as with other, comparable phenomena of modern nationalism—must lead to recognition of the deep contradictions embodied by it. Only some insight into these contradictions can allow us to try and form any real estimate of the movement’s significance.
Externally a positive reaction to the humiliating agony of a long era, Scottish Nationalism has another inwardness. For the Scots themselves, it is the late reflorescence of a dream, the hope of an identity, to which they have clung, obscurely and stubbornly, across centuries of provincial stagnation. Such a dream—and still more so, the time of its reflorescence—have a meaning which is bound to be far from clear outside Scotland.
Not that it seems too clearly appreciated within the country, either. Nothing demonstrates more surely the mythical nature of Scottish matter-of-factness and ‘realism’ than the small amount of effort the Scots have given to the prosaic understanding of what really matters to the country. Their dourness is at once a disguise, and a shield. A stony confrontation of the small change of living—counting the pence—protects them from a broader understanding that might threaten their identity: and also from what a Calvinist heritage apprehends as the sinful inner chaos. Behind the wary eyes and granite countenance of Scotland there lies not one dream only, but a whole inheritance of dreams, whose accumulation has made the psychology of modern Nationalism.
The now dominant dream of Scotland re-born should perhaps be seen as the third phase in the dream-psychology (which has very often been a dream-pathology) of Scottish history. It is deeply marked by both the great dreams that preceded it. Like them, its most important trait is a vast, impossible dissociation from the realities of history. The best short definition of Scottish history may be this: Scotland is the land where ideal has never, even for an instant, coincided with fact. Most
But this is to anticipate. The logical place to begin is with the first tormented vision Scotland was subjected to: the Reformation. The great debate about Protestantism and Capitalism established a certain affinity between the two; it has not given us any formula for the easy interpretation of the actual relationship in any given society. However, this is not too hard in, say, 17th-century Holland, or in the London or Bristol of the same period. There the immediate value and efficacy of Protestantism as the ideology of a dynamic, mercantile middle class is evident. But the case of Scotland is radically different.