Sunday, 29th August 1773
“Mr Keith breakfasted with us. Dr Johnson expatiated rather too strongly upon the benefits derived to Scotland from the Union, and the bad state of our people before it. I am entertained by his copious exaggeration upon that subject; but I am uneasy when people are by, who do not know him as well as I do, and may be apt to think him narrow-minded.”
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, James Boswell 1785
Dr Samuel Johnson, although expiating almost 250 years ago while on his journey with the Scottish writer James Boswell, espoused the same sentiments familiar to nationalists of today easily summed-up by a neat triad: too wee, too poor, too stupid. Unionist like Dr Johnson assume, we Scots need the Union: we needed it then, we need it now and we will need it in the future otherwise our economy will collapse, since we do not know how to manage one, and we will be ‘eating grass within two years’ as one comment to a Telegraph article memorably put it quite recently.
Union prejudices about Scottish capabilities for economic competency have been incredibly consistent on this point over the past couple of centuries. One of Johnson’s contemporaries, probably the greatest historian England has produced, Edward Gibbon, author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, could not resist a swipe at Scots in the prologue to that epic history. The Romans did not conquer Scotland for lack of martial power but ‘turned in disgust’ from a land where ‘blue painted savages chased deer, naked, across the heather’. (We assume it was the Caledonians who were naked.) What civilisation could the Romans possibly bring to such a people? Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and the Scottish branch of Unionists parties would argue the same thing now.
The germ of truth to this longstanding prejudice is that Scotland was a poor nation and remained one for a long time into the Union. Reasons for that poverty can be found in many areas, however, they would seem to be supported by some basic, inescapable facts about Scotland itself. Before the agricultural revolution of the 18th Century, Scotland’s soil was thin; its weather unpropitious and the yield on crops was a subsistent three to one. This means that for each oat sown the three that were produced were pre-destined for specific use – one to the Laird, one for seed and one for the pot. There was very little possibility of a surplus. There was a great likelihood of crop failure and starvation. Roads were poor or non-existent and exporting or importing was tremendously difficult. All of which contributed to a lack of saved capital for people to invest for improvements.
As Karl Marx noted, surplus is the key to civilisation. Surplus allows groups to pursue more than mere survival. Initially, surplus allows a priest caste and oligarchy to be formed. In the modern age, this becomes scientists, technicians, entrepreneurs and innovators; people who have the education, leisure and capital to increase the means of production and the blessings of complex societies. Once Scotland resolved its difficulties in producing an excess of food, distributing it and creating the framework for business and innovation look at how it flourished!
The engine of this transformation has not been the Union. It has been ideas and education. Expose an educated Scottish culture to ideas and it will take them as far as any country can take them. The agricultural revolution’s ideas of drainage and enclosure with hedgerows has populated a barren, treeless landscape with fertile fields of grain crops and herds of cattle. Our absorption of metallurgy, engineering and physics not only created great scientist such as James Clerk Maxwell, but led to foundries which changed the balance of power in the western hemisphere, excellence in ship-building, the first car being built in Springburn and the world’s first electric car constructed in Granton, both over a hundred years ago.
Continually recounting Scottish achievement would be tiresome and it no longer needs to be recounted as an attempt to build the nation’s confidence. What is required is a refusal by Scots to accept ancient, out-dated shibboleths held by Unionists who have so little faith in their fellow Scots that they believe a vote for independence is a vote for famine, desertification and food trucks from the UN ranging over Scottish glens, delivering biscuit to pleading Scots with imploring eyes and thin, withered, out-stretched arms.
Nonsense! We know that Scotland, if governed correctly for the benefit of the people, and not avoiding necessary reforms, nor supinely capitulating to City banks who assume Scottish capital and resources is best disposed of in the service of their interests, will be a success. It is the obligation of all nationalists to define those benefits, specify those reforms and refuse to accept anything that may compromise the material prosperity of the nation (refusing debt denominated in a non-Scottish currency is the big one).
If Scotland has benefitted from the Union in some respects, and that has to be acknowledged, then it is also Just to question how much it has lost? At a specific point in time, Scotland’s gains from the Union started to be outweighed by its losses, and, I would argue, that happened quite a long time ago. Where are our car manufacturers, despite producing the world’s first car? Where are our shipyards, in spite of being the greatest shipbuilders in the world for over a hundred years? Where is our electric car industry, notwithstanding the fact that we had a hundred year start on Elon Musk? Even more pertinently, where’s our one trillion sovereign wealth fund?
If these have not been actively sabotaged by Interests acting within the Union, then they have been passively neglected by the Union. An independent Scotland, with people that want what is best for all its inhabitants, would not and could not afford to let these sort of sectors, innovations and technologies disappear from economic landscape. Instead, it would work to put the educational, cultural and economic foundations in place to allow Scots, infused with new ideas, to drive Scotland to even greater heights.