The nation that lived on without a state;Books

19th June 1998 at 01:00
IMAGE AND IDENTITY: THE MAKING AND REMAKING OF SCOTLAND THROUGH THE AGES. Edited by Dauvit Broun, R J Finlay and Michael Lynch. John Donald Publishers, pound;16

Identity has become confused with political expression. "Scottishness" is obfuscated by pollsters' hypothetical questions about opting for independence when no other choice is suggested to respondents. But the link between national identity and a form of government for Scotland is recent. For almost 300 years we have had no legislature, yet a sense of identity has survived. Why is it there, where did it come from and what forms has it taken?

These are the questions addressed, more implicitly than upfront, in the series of historical essays, chronologically arranged, which comprise this book by academics.

We start in the early middle ages when "Scotland" was emerging as a description, or as Dauvit Broun suggests, when it amounted to a variety of "Scotlands" depending on date, location and understanding on the part of such writers as have come down to us. By the time of the Declaration of Arbroath, a document often wrested from its timeframe to serve a modern political purpose, identity had become equated with "freedom", although the meaning of that term and the constitutional and literary origins of the declaration involve longstanding questions of interpretation which Edward Cowan updates.

With the Reformation traditional hostility to England ceased and with it a defining characteristic of Scottishness. The reformed church and the threat from Catholic Europe moulded the country after its sovereign had left for London. As John Young shows, the Edinburgh parliament developed more slowly and differently from the one in the south, but in the quarter-century before the 1707 Union it attained a role that used to be underplayed by historians obsessed with the Westminster model and the evolution of parties.

Sociologists have struggled with concepts of the "stateless nation" and "civil" society to explain how Scotland has survived without its own government. We were not unique, though Richard Finlay, writing on the 18th century, and Graeme Morton on the 19th, make us sound so. The nations of central Europe struggled with similar problems of identity and political expression. Some won autonomy in the 19th century, others far more recently. It is little wonder that Scotland gave continental liberals a warm welcome.

Morton suggests that our achievement last century was to construct "a thoroughly modern civic nationalism" in which blood need not flow. It is a pity that the last few chapters in the book narrow the focus: neither the burgh of Paisley as an example of civic pride nor the "lass o' pairts", interesting though her place in educational history has been, sheds much light on the greater question.

At their best, historiography and sociology give depth to developing ideas of Scottishness as the referendum result is translated into institutional innovation and political hopes and dreams. This collection of essays is uneven and put together rather than edited (can a publisher at least be asked for a common type size and spacing throughout?). But it deals with issues which, in differing ways, have confronted our forefathers since tribes gelled into a nation. Politicians and the media, who affect to find a new trend every day, would do well to look at the past and how the big themes like national identity, freedom and independence remain with us but their expression gradually changes along with the wider international society in which Scotland has to define its place.

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