This week, King Charles had a second coronation in Scotland, following the official one in London. He took part in a parade through Edinburgh and received the Scottish crown jewels in St. Giles Cathedral. While this was not technically necessary, as England and Scotland share the same throne, it indicated his desire to unify Great Britain and increase his standing among Scots.
They were, as the New York Times reported, “ambivalent.” While many appeared to cheer the parade, many others protested. Charles is not polling very well in Scotland, where his mother seemed rather popular.
What was missing from the Times’ story, however, was the very obvious reason why Scots would be ambivalent about the British monarchy. It’s not just anti-monarchical feelings. It has to do with the long history of English mistreatment of Scotland and its current frustration of Scottish autonomy. This relates to assumptions about the desirability of international union that filters down to analyses of Scottish independence. As a result, scholars and policy experts were and continue to be misinformed about the need for greater Scottish autonomy.
Of Stuarts and Jacobites
Most Americans learned of English-Scottish tensions from Mel Gibson’s 1995 movie Braveheart (much to the chagrin of historians everywhere). That war for Scottish independence was certainly important, but its aftermath was equally so: when Robert the Bruce’s son David died childless, the Scottish throne passed to Robert Stewart.
His dynasty (later changed to Stuart) ruled for almost 300 years. They included the famous Mary Queen of Scots, who fought with John Knox, was deposed from her Scottish throne and was later executed by Queen Elizabeth of England (who saw Mary as a threat given her claim to the English throne). After Elizabeth died childless, Mary’s son–James VI of Scotland–became James I of England and Ireland. He was succeeded by Charles I, whose religious and monarchical policies sparked the English Civil War, leading to his execution by Oliver Cromwell. After the restoration of the monarchy, there was Charles II and James VII/II, the latter of whom was overthrown by the English parliament in the “Glorious Revolution.” This revolution placed Mary–James’ daughter–and her husband William on the throne. After their death, the throne passed to Anne, the last of the Stuarts. When she died childless, the parliament gave the throne to a random German guy, George (ok, he wasn’t completely random, but it was a stretch) instead of her brother James.
As many will know from high school history, much of the opposition to the Stuarts was religious. They were predominantly Catholic, while Protestantism was dominant in England since Henry VIII. So English anxiety about a Catholic ruling the country led to the overthrow of James VII/II and the passing over of his son.
The controversial union and treatment of the Stuarts makes the later Jacobite uprisings more intelligible.
From the English/Angophile perspective–which is how I was taught it–this was an attempt by England to defend its sovereignty in the face of Roman Catholic interference and French and Spanish threats. From the Scottish perspective, however, this was English nobles executing one of their kings (the Scottish parliament turned Charles I over to England, but did not intend for his death), deposing another, and refusing the throne to the third.
This also occurred in the context of the formal union of the Scottish and English crowns. In 1707, the Scottish and English parliaments passed the Acts of Union, merging the two countries and creating Great Britain. The Scottish parliament was dissolved with the British parliament based in London. This may seem to make sense given their rule by a single monarch, but the background was a bit seedy. The Scottish economy was badly damaged by poor investments, such as a scheme to build a canal in Central America. Scottish merchants and nobles responded by seeking English aid, which led to talk of union. The vote over the act was contentious–and allegedly lubricated with bribery–leading Robert Burns to lament “we’re bought and sold for English gold.”
The controversial union and treatment of the Stuarts makes the later Jacobite uprisings more intelligible. The Jacobites were initially supporters of James VII/II in opposition to the Glorious Revolution. The cause persisted past the Acts of Union and the end of the Stuart dynasty, with Charles Edward Stuart–James’ grandson, known popularly as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”–launching an uprising against the British. While the Jacobites had some initial success–taking Edinburgh–they were eventually crushed at the Battle of Culloden. Charles fled to the continent, an episode popularized in the Isle of Skye Song (which was later adapted for the theme song of Outlander).
The revival of Scottish nationalism
The Scottish nationalist cause seemed dead. The Highland clearances removed much of the restive population from Great Britain. George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, the first royal visit since Charles II. Sir Walter Scott organized the pageantry surrounding the visit; this and his literary works revived Scottish pride in their culture and inspired English interest in the country. Highland regiment participation in the Crimean War, the Great War and World War II solidified a unified sense of nationalism.
This changed as the 20th century wore on. The discovery of oil in the North Sea in the 1970s led to greater potential revenues for Scotland. According to some I talked to, Braveheart actually inspired nationalist sentiment. And some suggest Westminster’s desire to tamp down on oil-related nationalism talk led to some of the progress. Whatever its genesis, Scotland finally regained the right to rule itself when the Scottish parliament was reformed and granted devolved powers in 1999.
The Scottish parliament set about distinguishing itself as a progressive force. Scotland has been at the top of European countries for LGBT rights, and has a strong plan on environmental protection. In August 2022, Scotland was the first country to provide period products for free. And Scottish opinion tends to be to the left of general British opinion. Scotland was more supportive of the EU (more on that below) and opposed foreign policies such as the Iraq war. Accordingly, the Scottish National Party–which combined progressive policies with calls for Scottish independence–overtook Labour in Scottish elections during this period.
This culminated in the 2014 independence referendum. In 2013 the Scottish parliament passed an act calling for a referendum. After negotiations with the UK government, the referendum was held in September of the next year. The referendum failed with 55% voting “No” and 45% voting “Yes.” The “No” side seemed to prevail because of uncertainty of how an independent Scotland would be set up, with particular concerns about currency. I was actually there for the referendum, and was repeatedly approached by “Yes” campaigners who ended up disappointed on hearing my American accent.
The general trend in international relations to assume that greater union is a good thing limits our ability to understand the inequality in the English-Scottish relationship.
Events since then, however, have continued to frustrate the Scottish people. Over 60% of people in Scotland voted against Brexit, but they were forced to leave the EU. Last year, the UK high court ruled that Scotland could not hold another referendum without Westminster’s approval. And the Tory-led government has pushed back on the powers devolved to Scotland. When Scotland passed a new rule easing gender transitions, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak blocked it, pointing to a section of the devolution act limiting policies that may undermine nation-wide laws. Some in Scotland saw this as Sunak engaging in the culture wars. But his resistance to Scottish autonomy extends beyond that, as he also blocked an attempt by Scotland to include glass in its bottle return plan, meant to encourage recycling.
Towards an international relations of Great Britain
Thus, Scotland’s history in Great Britain involves a fair share of English exploitation and frustrated promises. The independence referendum did not appear out of nowhere and was more understandable than many American observers seemed to acknowledge. The fact that Scotland was forced to leave the EU against its will and is now ruled by a conservative government that won’t even let it recycle as it pleases should generate some sympathy.
Yet, serious foreign policy thinkers opposed Scottish independence and continue to ignore the downsides of its current arrangement as part of Great Britain. The New York Times‘ editorial board was critical of the referendum, while the Obama Administration seemed to “cheer” its defeat. Some defense experts worried that independence would harm NATO due to the important UK submarine bases in Scotland. There were few acknowledgements of Scottish concerns in these discussions, or praise for the progressive nature of Scottish nationalism by otherwise liberal commentators. The Times later called for Scottish patience after Brexit, to see how the negotiations with the EU went; the disastrous impact of Brexit since then hasn’t seemed to have led to any updated opinions.
I remember many serious foreign policy thinkers approvingly citing Niall Ferguson’s op-ed on this, in which he claimed that “Scotland and England were united as equals.” Even a cursory review of history would reveal how ridiculous this claim is (many of those people have probably since disavowed ever liking Ferguson).
Some of this likely has to do with the “common wisdom” that can emerge among “serious” foreign policy thinkers. But I suspect it also has to do with limitations in how Western thinkers approach this issue.
The standard political science perspective would be through comparative politics. Scotland would be like other regions seeking autonomy–Quebec, Catalonia, Transnistria. Or it is a case of nationalist tensions within a country, like the Basques or Kurds. The policy implication would involve finding the proper balance of regional autonomy and central control to satisfy Scottish opinion.
But this really seems more like an international relations issue. Scotland was a separate country for almost a thousand years before joining with England. It may be better to approach it as a case of increasingly formal hierarchical ties, so addressing Scottish concerns requires a more fundamental reshaping of the political system.
However, even reformulating this through the lens of international relations would run into problems, as the general trend is to assume that greater union is a good thing. Deudney studied the early American states system as an increasingly unified set of international relations, Ikenberry discussed states’ incentives to unify, Slaughter praised transgovernmental linkages among states. The history of scholarship on the EU assumes that this union is both desirable and inevitable. Generally, nationalism is seen as a reactionary and dangerous force, while its replacement with supra-national identity is progressive.
Research on international hierarchy may be a good alternative, as it recognizes and explores the power dynamics that arise in international order. And work on state formation is obviously relevant. Combining the two–such work by Dan Nexon and various colleagues–could be a good approach. I wonder, though, if uncovering the coercive hierarchy that catalyzed Scottish independence efforts would lead IR scholars to be more supportive, or if the sub-field’s biases and desire to be taken seriously in DC would prevent that.
I am not necessarily calling for Scottish independence. There are questions about its feasibility after so long under Great Britain. The SNP is struggling electorally, and its former leader–Nicola Sturgeon–was recently arrested on suspicion of fraud. But there are serious problems with the current situation in Great Britain. A progressive polity is being restricted in its ability to express its views by a conservative government. That is not tenable, and it’s telling how little concern US policy experts and scholars show for this situation.