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Winners and losers in Scottish history

September 5, 2014

Sometimes the Scottish independence debate seems to take place in a kind of two-month old bubble, with the media’s idea of “political history” the outcome of a June opinion poll. But it’s important to look at Scotland’s more distant past. Unearthing the background, interests and motivations behind the main protagonists in the current campaign helps provide context to the vote and leads to the identification of future gainers and losers. To disaggregate should be the goal of most political economy. Scots aren’t all going to fare the same under independence. Many in the no camp are simply those with something to lose. Those who vote yes hope for a better future.

Here’s a couple of fascinating passages from historians Neal Ascherson and Tom Devine (who’s just come out as Yes man).

The first, from Ascherson clarifies Scots’ role in empire: “Scots… established distinct and almost exclusively Scottish fiefdoms: the fur trade, the tobacco trade, the jute industry, the opium business in China, the “hedge-banking” outfits in Australia, the executive levels of the East India Company. Later in the 19th century, in the second phase of industrialisation, the Clyde basin achieved something approaching world domination in shipbuilding, locomotive and bridge construction, and other branches of heavy engineering. Overseas enterprise was a pattern of near monopolies from Scotland’s regions. The Hudson’s Bay Company was staffed by Orcadians; its Canadian rival, the North West Company, was run by Highlanders; the sugar plantations of Jamaica were packed with younger sons of Argyllshire lairds; the great trading houses of South East Asia were mostly family businesses from Aberdeen and north east Scotland; the outflow of foreign investment was cornered by Edinburgh solicitors.”

Many modern-day exporters, industrialists, financiers and solicitors are largely against independence because they have, unsurprisingly, something to lose by leaving the British state — although some should perhaps be more aware of their inglorious heritage.

According to Devine: “the sugar, tobacco and cotton produced by these slave-based economies were absolutely central components in Scottish overseas commerce for most of the 18th century, and the dominant factors in the country’s international trade to a much greater extent than even the equivalent sectors south of the border.” Scottish regiments provided “the military cutting edge of the British Empire”. (Devine, T M, 2011, To the Ends of the EarthScotland’s Global Diaspora (Allen Lane): pp37, 26.)

Scotland’s unique role in slavery and colonialism is why i’m not a patriot or nationalist. We should be voting for a break with this past.

But what’s also interesting is how the same economic process that enriched some ultimately led to stagnation and impoverishment for others. Devine argues that even before the first world war a lack of domestic opportunity slowed industrial progress as capital flowed abroad:

“The strategic weaknesses of the extraordinarily successful Scottish heavy industry economy were now revealed in stark detail. The achievement had been built on low wages and the interlocking critical mass of shipbuilding, engineering, coal, iron and steel, which fixed the economy into the past rather than creating fresh opportunities for the future. Despite some attempts, the “new” consumer-based manufactures (household goods, electrical products, motor cars and cycles), which were expanding south of the border, did not take off in Scotland because of the levels of relative poverty among the mass of the population and the small size of the domestic market. The nation, therefore, missed out on the next big stage of economic development.” (Devine: p249).

Ordinary Scottish people have been living with the consequences of this missed opportunity ever since. The Westminster political parties want to maintain a hands-off approach to economic policy which would ensure that Scotland remains mired in its underperforming past. Most Scottish parties favour an activist industrial policy which would propel the country into a more equal, prosperous future. Unsurprisingly many of the modern beneficiaries of Scotland’s inglorious past want to preserve the union. The grandchildren of those on the losing side — ie. most of us — should be arguing for separation.

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