It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
Many Scots are of no country. Historically often concerned with the wider world, conventional nationhood was (at least in part) broken by an early abortive attempt at becoming a colonial power.
Since then, whether through the empire or the arts, commerce, professions, or dire need: economic opportunism and a wandering impulse have been defining characteristics.
There are of course many countries with proud diaspora based traditions: the British and Scandinavian nations all have similar stories here. Hard though it might be to believe, there is still a Welsh speaking enclave in Argentina.
None are more expert at utilising this than the Irish, who have done more than any other nation to celebrate their globe strewn offspring. Scotland has not done so to the same extent, yet is equally definable due to its diaspora. As Tom Devine said at the opening of his definitive study of the subject, Scots are: “a global people whose diasporic roots were established in medieval and early modern Europe and then spread across the world”.
The lack of a national centre point has placed this aspect of Scottish history in the foreground. Let’s not forget that Edinburgh, now indisputably a global capital city, was until a few decades ago mired in a provincial drabness. The writers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance did not flock to it, in the 1930s Edwin Muir famously described the capital as “a blank, an Edinburgh”.
This is part of the reason why culturally, politically and economically Scots have tended to look out, not in. This means that we are also happy to lay great stock in those who have achieved great things after emigrating.
Scots-Americans like Carnegie, or the great conservationist John Muir, found their way back into a national tradition that was largely a distant childhood memory. Yet a quick visit to Dunfermline or Dunbar will leave the visitor in no doubt as to their influence on the old country.
Despite this mass diffusion of people, Scottish identity and indigenous civic nationalism never disappeared. Whether in the form of several cultural renewals or the more plodding institutions of kirk and state, a vital and frequently political sense of Scottishness prevailed.
Neither the adventure of imperialism or the invention of a “New Jerusalem” (though less green and pleasant Scotland was still afforded a portion) could rid Scotland of its sense of being a different place.
The need to get along with a large neighbour and its metropolis has always caused a certain degree of angst for Scots. Yet this is often premised on the idea that the ability to fit in with another culture a sign of weakness. It did not stop Hume from being, alongside Rousseau, the foremost thinker of his age. The philosopher famously observed the contradictions of the success of Scots within the union:
Is it not strange that, at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the Presence of our chief nobility, are unhappy, in our Accent & Pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of; is it not strange I say that, in these circumstances, we shou’d really be the People most distinguished for Literature in Europe?”
This acknowledgement of an influence despite of and beyond the existence of the badges of a nation state can be drawn upon in our own century as a great asset. It’s a testament, not so some cringing inferiority complex, but to a truly internationalist spirit long reconciled to the demands of globalisation.
We look beyond our borders as a small, mainly English speaking, nation. This is not a reason to stick with the union – to do so would be the equivalent of not building a new cathedral because the stained glass in the old, derelict structure was so dammed good. To put it more simply: our internationalist credentials will be the icing on the independence cake.
No longer the shock troops of an imperial aggressor ever ready to project its power, asserting self-government can highlight the fact that democratic states are the only foundations on which to build a just internationalism. That’s why Scots, as a global people, are ideally placed to demonstrate how a progressive small country can punch above its weight in the 20th century.
Only the vast cultural anachronism of the union could persuade Scots that their ability to settle, prosper, and govern abroad is somehow a reason for not doing so at the point of origin.
There is often an attempt to blur the lines between settling in another country and having a cross-border existence. The lights of London, Paris, New York or L.A will still be, for better or worse just as magnetic, whatever happens in Scotland. The only difference in terms of opportunity will be that, post independence, 60 Scots will not be able to seek preferment and power in the Palace of Westminster as MPs.
Many radical Scots have seen this. Not least John Maclean for whom there was no contradiction between revolutionary international socialism and the need for self-government. If the century since his death at the hands of the British state has taught us nothing, it is that democracy needs to begin at home.
Anyone who knows anything about the impetus behind the development of Scottish nationalism knows it was far from parochial. Form its inception it has always been about Scotland taking its place in the world.
Formative figures in the Scottish nationalist movement: Hugh MacDiarmid, R.B Cunninghame Graham and Eric Linklater were all stridently internationalist in their politics. Their decedents in the SNP have maintained this stance.
There is no better expression of this characteristic than the anthem of Scottish independence and global solidarity, Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come a Ye (penned in 1960).
The song took part of its inspiration form Harold Macmillan’s landmark “winds of change” speech on the decolonisation of Africa. It decries Scotland’s imperialist past and looks towards the better future for all offered by independence. Its words remain strikingly relevant 60 years on.
Sae come aa ye at hame wi freedom
Never heed whit the houdies croak for Doom
In yer hoose aa the bairns o Adam
Will find breid, barley-bree an paintit room
The croaking may be at fever pitch, but the room, that Scotland that welcomes all the world, has never looked more real or enticing.