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The imperial legacy of the Scottish independence referendum


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The rise of a powerful Scottish nationalism, which has brought Britain face-to-face with an independence referendum on 18 September, is a very recent phenomenon.  In fact, the catalyst for modern Scottish nationalism was decolonization. The Scots had gained so much from the British Empire from the mid eighteenth century and its effective loss in the 1960s rocked the Scottish psyche.  If the British Empire was still an effective force in the world there would be no talk of independence. The imperial legacy looms large over this referendum.

In a week’s time the Scots will flock to the polls to vote on a single question: Should Scotland be an independent country? If successful, Scotland would leave the Union that was constructed in 1707.  When the Union was first created, Scotland was in a terrible financial state and desperately needed the Union.  Scotland took full advantage of its access to the opportunities offered by its political marriage to England and Wales. Specifically, however, it was access to the empire that played a major role in defining what it was to be a Scot from the late eighteenth until the mid-twentieth century. 

Following the Second World War, Britain began decolonizing its massive empire. India quickly became independent as insurgencies wreaked havoc in Palestine, Malaya, and Kenya. Elsewhere, the British Government allowed for the construction of federal governments in Central Africa and the West Indies to help develop these territories for independence in the Commonwealth. 

Within the Central African Federation was the Protectorate of Nyasaland. Nyasaland had been incorporated into the British Empire in the late nineteenth century following pressure from Scottish missionaries and business interests. The famous Scottish missionary David Livingstone had been based there during the last years of his life. Shortly following his death, the Glasgow-headquartered African Lakes Corporation (ALC) was established, albeit under a different name at first, to rid the region of Arab slave traders by introducing Western commerce into the region. When the ALC failed to make this system work, capped off by a two-year war with the Arab slave traders that captured the British public’s imagination at home, they turned to the ministry of Lord Salisbury and asked for the territory to be incorporated into the British Empire. Following the creation of a protectorate over the region, the Scots trading in this region enjoyed British Government-enforced security to develop their trade, advance the region for entry into the world economy, and eliminate the slavery so despised at home by the general public. Scottish businessmen and missionaries had played a major role in formally involving the British Empire in Central Africa.

When the Southern Rhodesian-dominated Central African Federation was established in 1953, the Scots were very interested and invested observers. The Scots had developed a strong connection to the indigenous peoples of Nyasaland with many Church of Scotland missionaries calling for decolonization. Even the vast majority within the Church at home who felt the peoples of Nyasaland were not yet ready for independence, strongly believed it was their duty to protect the Africans from the potential discrimination of a white government ruling the Protectorate from Salisbury.  The Church of Scotland, national newspapers, and propaganda organizations like the Scottish Council for African Questions and the Scottish Study Group, all provided the general public with an unending dose of information on Nyasaland’s fate within the white minority-controlled Federation. The apex of interest was reached in 1959 when the British Government declared an Emergency in Nyasaland to stem the rising tide of indigenous nationalism.  This would lead the Reverend George MacLeod, as Convenor of the Church of Scotland’s Committee anent Central Africa, to call ‘for a daring and creative transfer of power to the African people’ at the Church’s 1959 General Assembly. The Church, and many within Scotland, were fed up with empire in Central Africa.

As the British Empire rapidly decolonized in the 1960s following Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s Wind of Change speech, the Scots remained captivated with its fate. The empire, after all, was one of the most important components of modern-day Scotland and the identity of its people. During decolonization, Scottish identity continued to be closely associated with the nation’s significant contributions to the empire. As the material benefits of empire quickly disappeared, combined with the harsh reality of white settler discrimination over Nyasaland, the imperial component of Scottish identity was undermined. In these uncertain times, many Scots responded by turning to an independence-seeking nationalism predicated on the idea that Scotland could do better on its own. Drawing on lines of argument deployed by colonial nationalist movements, Scots claimed the opportunity to control its own destiny free from English interference. This was an interesting development given that support for nationalism, as evidenced by votes for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Westminster elections, was almost non-existent until the mid-1960s.

One of the most significant moments for the nationalists occurred on 2 November 1967. On that date, Mrs Winifred Ewing, the Nationalist candidate, defeated Labour in their safest Scottish constituency of Hamilton.  This spectacular victory for the SNP did not appear out of nowhere. At the 1966 General Election the SNP fielded candidates to contest 23 of the 71 Scottish constituencies.  This number was up from the fifteen who contested the 1964 General Election. Even more importantly, the SNP candidates more than doubled their percentage of the vote from the 2.4 per cent mustered in 1964.  The empire, which had kept the nationalists at bay both economically and psychologically, could no longer prevent their advance.  

The nationalists would soon be viewed as a competent alternative to the major parties, especially since their national focus has made them appear more in touch with the problems afflicting the average Scot.  At the 1970 British General Election, the first to be held following Ewing’s victory, 59 SNP candidates garnered eleven per cent of the vote. This was a massive shift of support for the party dedicated to achieving independence for Scotland from the rest of the British state. The number of candidates and the support they received from a Scottish electorate adjusting to its post-imperial reality would continue to mushroom as the 1970s progressed.

Empire and the British state went hand-in-hand, and the loss of the one may spell the eventual disintegration of the other. The high levels of Scottish interest in the British Empire and its fate during the era of decolonization demonstrate what this outlet meant to the nation.  With the empire, Britain offered the Scots opportunity, prestige, and power on a global scale. When this outlet closed it may well have ended Scottish interest in Britain, too, as this once-proud nation of empire-builders looks to reinvent itself and cultivate partnerships with other, potentially more powerful, partners around the world.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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