For a number of reasons this seems an appropriate moment to reconsider the problem of Scottish nationalism. With its November 1973 electoral victory in the Govan Constituency the Scottish National Party has recovered from its setbacks in the 1970 general election. At the same time the Kilbrandon Commission has supplied a stimulus to regional self-government in the United Kingdom, by recommending the establishment of Scottish and Welsh parliaments. Both the tenor and the reception of these recommendations indicate, significantly, that nothing will come of them unless they are strongly and vociferously supported in Scotland and Wales. The English majority will not enact such reforms unless pushed. But then, why should it do so? In Ireland we are at the same time witnessing a wholesale alteration of the constitutional status of Ulster. But it is not only the United Kingdom’s multi-national state which is in motion. In continental Europe too important movements have arisen in a similar direction. In a recent study of the present condition of the nation-state, Nicos Poulantzas wrote that we are seeing ‘ruptures in the national
What do the terms ‘objective’ and ‘comparative’ mean here? ‘Real understanding of one’s own national history begins only where we can place it within the general historical process, where we dare to confront it with European development as a whole,’ writes Miroslav Hroch in his own invaluable comparative study of the genesis of nationalism in seven smaller European lands.
More generally still, it should be remarked that the history of theorizing about nationalism displays two dramatic faults. One is a tendency to treat the subject in a one-nation or one-state frame of reference: so that each nationalism has to be understood, in effect, mainly with reference to ‘its own’ ethnic, economic, or other basis—rather than by comparison with the ‘general historical process’. The second (and obviously related) tendency is to take nationalist ideology far too literally and seriously. What nationalists say about themselves and their movements must, of course, be given due weight. But it is fatal to treat such self-consciousness other than extremely cautiously. The subjectivity of nationalism
In short, the theory of nationalism has been inordinately influenced by nationalism itself. This is scarcely surprising. Nationalism is amongst other things a name for the general condition of the modern body politic, more like the climate of political and social thought than just another doctrine. It is correspondingly difficult to avoid being unconsciously influenced by it. footnote5
So we must try and avoid the empiricism of the nation-by-nation approach, and the subjectivism involved in taking nationalist rhetoric at its face-value. What exactly should we compare to what, in circumventing such influences? Broadly speaking, what merits consideration here is, on the one hand, the characteristic general evolution of European nationalism, between say 1800 and the major nationalist settlement of 1918–22; and on the other, whatever ideas and movements in modern Scottish history can be held to correspond to that general development. I am aware of course that the general category begs a number of questions. Nationalism did not come to a stop in Europe in 1922 after the Versailles agreements. Everyone knows that nationalism is still extremely alive, if not exactly in good health, everywhere in present-day Europe. But that is not the point. It remains true nonetheless that by the time of the post-World War I settlement European nationalism had gone through the main arc of its historical development, over a century and more. And the main lines of that settlement have proved, in fact, remarkably tenacious and permanent. Hence it is the outline provided by that century’s development which—without in any way minimizing Europe’s remaining problems of terre irredente—should provide our principal model and reference point.
What corresponds to this now classical model of development in Scotland’s case? Here, we encounter something very surprising right away. For what can reasonably be held to correspond to the mainstream of European nationalism is astonishingly recent in Scotland. As a matter of fact, it started in the 1920s—more or less at the moment when, after its prolonged gestation and maturation during the 19th century, European nationalism at last congealed into semi-permanent state forms. Thus it belongs to the last fifty years, and is the chronological companion of anti-imperialist revolt and Third World nationalism, rather than of those European movements which it superficially resembles. While the latter were growing, fighting their battles and winning them (sometimes), Scottish nationalism was simply absent.
I am aware that this assertion of Scottish belatedness also begs many questions. There is much to say about the precursors of nationalism in the 19th century, like the romantic movement of the 1850s and the successive Home Rule movements between 1880 and 1914. These are well described in H. J. Hanham’s Scottish Nationalism. But all that need be said here is that they were quite distinctly precursors, not the thing itself, remarkable in any wider perspective for their feebleness and political ambiguity rather than their prophetic power. While in the 1920s we see by contrast the emergence of a permanent political movement with the formation of the National Party of Scotland (direct ancestor of the snp) in 1928. And, just as important, the appearance of the epic poem of modern Scottish nationalism (a distinguishing badge of this, as of most other European nationalisms), MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, in 1926.
So, we have to start with a problem—a problem written into the very terms of any comparison one can make between Scotland and Europe, as it were. Why was Scottish nationalism so belated in its arrival on the European scene? Why was it absent for virtually the whole of the ‘founding period’ of European nationalist struggle?