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Contemporary Scottish Issues

Free essay example:

Sociology: Contemporary Scottish Issues

How well does Scotland fit “Modernist” and “Ethno-symbolist” explanations for the emergence of nationalism?

Nationalism is a relatively difficult concept to define; it is complex and vast ranging. Significant numbers of theories have been proposed to explain the historical emergence of nationalism and its continued existence, and it is perhaps wholly inaccurate to suggest that any of these theories in isolation can provide an adequate explanation.  The purpose of this essay is to look at the emergence of nationalism in Scotland in relation to just two of the many theories: Modernist and Ethno-symbolist, and to ascertain whether Scotland in fact fits within their proposed definitions.   This essay will look at key dates throughout Scotland’s history and relate them, where appropriate to the two approaches.

 Scholars have disagreed on the definition of nationalism for a number of years but, in an attempt to discover where Scotland lies in relation to the concept of Nationalism from a “Modernist” and “Ethno-symbolist” perspective, it is perhaps prudent to attempt some explanation based on the theoretical stances of these two, quite different approaches.  

The modernist approach claims that nationalism, whilst not strictly a product of industrialisation, does have its roots in the structural needs of an industrial society and should be seen as the end product of an uneven dispersal of modernisation across society (Gellner, 1964).  Thus, as modernisation advances it causes parts of society to progress more rapidly than others creating social cleavages.  Nationalism, according to Gellner is therefore a modern phenomena connected with industrialisation (Gellner cited in Guibernau, 1996).

According to Anderson (1983), a modernist and contemporary of Gellner, nationalism first began to emerge around the age of the Enlightenment. For Anderson, a nation is an “imagined political community” and a national identity is constructed in the minds of individuals and the population.  Particularly at the time of the Reformation in Scotland the Catholic Church was beginning to lose its dominant hold. Nationalism was seen as the new religion of the time.  The Latin language also began to decline allowing for an increase in vernacular.  “Print capitalism” was taking off and creating print languages and individuals began to see themselves not only as part of a wider community but consequently the new forms of communication allowed them to develop notions of their heritage and shared past (Anderson, 1983).  It is this strong cultural base from which nationalism was created.

Alternatively, Anthony Smith is opposed to the modernist argument.  Taking an Ethno-symbolist stance (McCrone, 1998) he essentially claims that nationalism is a natural and historically ingrained phenomenon and is both continuous and periodic in cycle. Smith argues that many examples of nations and nationalism preceded modernisation and that there is a continuity that exists across time between modern and ancient nations. The pre-existing history of a nation is shared and gives a sense of common identity.  Smith argues that this history need not necessarily be academically valid however and accepts that nationalism may indeed be based on historically flawed interpretations of the past.  Nations have a tendency to overly mythologise parts of their history.  He states however, that an ethnic core exists in communities, which he terms “Ethnies”   According to Smith (1991) a nation is defined as

"A named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members."

Further, Smith argue that nations have historical roots and traditions, they share common values, have common myths and symbols that unite them.  Ethno-symbolists state that the roots of nationalism are in these ancient sources and that the phenomenon of nationalism in modern societies is just a recurrence, which rears its head periodically through time (Smith, 1986).

Since the collapse of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, Scotland as a nation has remained separate and independent with its own administrative institutions developing according to its needs.  The church in Scotland in particular had long since asserted its independence and refused to accept any form of interference from south of the border.  Scotland had developed its own sense of identity and resisted any attempts by the English to conquer it.  

From the time of William Wallace in late 13th Century to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 Scotland was a fully independent nation and remained so until 1603 when James Stuart succeeded Elizabeth I to the throne.  At the time of the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland was regarded as the first nation state in Europe and the first to have territorial unity under a single king.  The Declaration itself was signed by representatives from all classes in Scotland and stated that since ancient times the Scottish people had been free to choose their own rulers or Kings (britannia.com).  

Since the modernist explanation only accounts for the “modern” period during and after industrialisation, Scotland’s desire to assert its independence during this time is evidence in support of Smith’s ethno-symbolist argument.  Smith argues that whilst the ideology of nationalism per se is a relatively modern phenomenon, it is no more invented that any other kind of culture, social organisation or ideology and relies heavily on early much earlier ideals (Smith, 1991).  Smith goes on to state that as new nations form and nationalism emerges it is hard to understand the cultural identity that exists without recognising that it is heavily based on “pre-modernethnies

With this in mind, it would be hard to suggest that the Declaration of Arbroath does not reflect a very real form of nationalism deeply rooted in Scotland’s history. Nationalism after all, as previously state by Smith (1991) is periodic and, in Scotland at least, can be seen to rear its head in times of crisis.  

Whilst the Ethno-symbolist approach can be seen quite significantly in the events leading up to the Union of 1707 and those immediately following, it is perhaps the Modernist argument that is more evident in the events after the Treaty of Union between and England in 1707 when the two countries became unified as the United Kingdom.

It is perhaps prudent at this stage to look at the events surrounding the Treaty of the Union between England and Scotland and events post 1707.  Following the failure of the Darien expedition in 1699, Scotland had been left in severe economic crisis.  The ruling classes of each country saw huge advantages to the union.  According to Pocock (cited on www.nationalismproject.org)

“The Britain of 1707 created no new nationality; it was the fruit of an English desire for stability and a Scottish pursuit of economic modernisation”

England saw the union as a way to keep Scotland under control and to prevent European adversaries, such as France, from using Scotland as a base of attack.  Scotland’s benefit from the union was the ability to trade with the English colonies.

At this time Scottish society was considerably behind that of England’s but was soon to be transformed into a comparatively wealthy, industrialised nation.  Many of the Scots however still showed no signs in accepting the union and worried how the union with a once formidable enemy would affect Scottish affairs.  

The Jacobite Rebellions were a series of uprisings that occurred in the British Isles, most notably 1715 and 1746 (bbc.co.uk).  Their main purpose being to restore the House of Stuart to the throne after King James was overthrown by Parliament during the Glorious Revolution.  Not only was there resistance toward the union but also antagonism between the Highlanders and the Lowlanders.  Is this a sign of the modernist argument here?  It is possible that with the uneven process of industrialisation sweeping the British Isles, and the uncertainty, for many that followed the Union, a new form of nationalism was beginning to emerge.  Gellner states:

…two men are of the same nation if and only if they share the same culture, where culture in turn means a system of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and communicating”

The Act of Union in 1707 created some deep cleavages that seemed irreparable at the time and was highly unpopular with the vast majority of the Scottish population.   Scotland, at this time, was very much divided between the Protestant Lowlanders and Catholic Highlanders.  The ethno-symbolist argument is still clearly evident during this time, particularly in the clan systems of early Scotland.  Since time immemorial the Highlanders of Scotland were organised in ancient clans or tribes and were intensely loyal and proud of their customs and traditions.    The clan systems gave the people of northern Scotland a sense of identity and shared descent.  For much of Scotland’s history it is this fierce sense of culture and identity that sets the north of Scotland Highlanders apart from the Lowlanders. According to Smith (1998) periodic interstate conflicts occur between communities in close proximity to each other.  These conflicts create a shared unity within territorial population boundaries.

The Highland Clearances also caused some deep resentment in Scotland.  By some however, they were seen as an integral part of the process of agricultural change sweeping across the United Kingdom.  At its most basic the Highland clearances were seen by northern highlands as a blatant act of betrayal by the ruling classes, the purpose of which was an attempt by the British government of the time to prevent any further uprisings from the militaristic Clan system of the Highlands (www.bbc.co.uk/history).  Despite the controversial circumstances at the time, for many it was a voluntary decision and was seen as a welcome opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of moving across the Atlantic.  For those left behind however, it marked a very deep sense of distrust and bad feeling.  For the modernist argument Gellner (1993 cited in Guibernau, 1996)) states that nationalism is “primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent”. National sentiment is therefore aroused by the perceived violation of this principle and a national movement comes into being as a reaction against it.  Gellner further states that this violation can occur in three ways.  Firstly, if a state fails to recognise or include all the members of a perceived nation; secondly, including others besides those of the perceived nation and finally, national sentiment may be compromised by any governing political unit not seen to have the best interests of the nation at heart.  At no other time in history does the modernist argument for the emergence of nationalism ring so true.  

For the Ethno-symbolists such as Smith, many of the traditions of the Scottish nation were based on a shared history.  Culture, identity and shared customs were all that united parts of Scotland and the images of a previous shared history were strong and memorable (Smith, 1998).

At the centre of Smith’s theory on nationalism and nations he argues that wherever a nation has been built it generally draws on a pre-existing ethnic background, which does not necessarily have to have been real.  Any emergence of nationalism for Smith has to have drawn on distant memories and elements of a culture or alleged ancestry.  

At the time of King George IV state visit to Edinburgh in 1822, the king wore Highland dress for the occasion and the Scots repaid him by turning out in all manner of mass produced tartans.  What had once previously been banned in Scotland after the Jacobite Rebellions had found a renewed voice and restored a distinct national identity that was much required at the time.  The Lowlanders of Scotland had embraced the Highland culture and identity and transformed it into an overall Scottish one.  Smith’s Ethno-symbolist argument would appear to support this renewed form of nationalism in Scotland.  Whether the history of tartan is real or constructed bears no real relevance here, the tartan provided a tenuous link to the past that the whole of Scotland could embrace.  

Possibly the most notable recent period for nationalism to emerge in Scotland was firstly during the late 1960s large quantities of oil were discovered in what would have been Scottish territorial waters, had Scotland not been a part of the United Kingdom.  The Scots saw this as a very real source of revenue for their own country and the answer to many of their economical problems.  The Scottish National Party saw this as an ideal opportunity to motivate the nation toward independence.  As such they achieved 11 seats in the 1974 General Election.  This is perhaps evidence to support the Ethno-symbolist argument as the ethnic and cultural ties to a historical and distant past see it as “Scottish Oil”.

During the years of Conservative government from 1979 to 1997 Scotland’s economy took another nose dive due to the decline of the heavy industries.  According to McCrone (2001) national identities were again called into question as a period of instability reigned throughout Britain.  The Thatcher years saw major changes taking place all over the British Isle with high unemployment, privatisation, deregulation of Trades Unions and the economy opening up internationally.  At a time when national interest should have been high, the British national identity was beginning to wane.  Since the end of the war in 1945, Britishness had gone into decline and new competing nationalism began to spring up.  Conservatism had all but lost its sense of Britishness and, according to McCrone, the Conservative Party had no MPs outside England in 1997.  The Conservative government’s process of modernisation throughout Britain created a sense of rebellion in working class Scotland.  

Nationalism, as can be seen, can manifest itself in a number of ways.  This essay particularly looked at the Modernist and Ethno-symbolist approaches to the emergence on nationalism in Scotland.  Nationalism can be seen as an official state ideology or as a popular non-state movement.  It can be expressed in a civic, ethnic, cultural or ideological manner.  Categories of nationalism are not mutually exclusive however, and many nationalist movements combine some or all of the above elements to a greater or lesser degree throughout Scotland’s history.

The Modernist argument sees nationalism connected with the uneven dispersal of industrialisation.  It is a modern phenomenon and really only accounts for events in history from 1800 onwards.  Gellner argued that industrialisation and capitalism were the necessary prerequisites for nationalism to emerge.  Smith uses a synthesis of primordialist and modernist ideas but acknowledges that the pre-conditions for a nation and nationalism to exist are based on symbols and ancient traditions that are cultural and ethnic in origin.  These pre-conditions create a powerful common mythology to base a national identity, which is indeed more important than territory.

The Modernist argument conveys a valid point during the process of industrialisation in Scotland after the Union of 1707.  Prior to this agrarian society had little requirement of a nationalist movement.  The Ethno-symbolist approach, according to Smith, ignores however the strong ethnic past that Scotland clings to, be it real or imagined.  The desire to hold dear customs and symbols of an ancient past are still quite strong in Scotland today.

Scotland, therefore, fits both models at different times in her history.  If a distinction between these two approaches is to be made, it should perhaps still recognise that all forms of nationalism, whether it ancient or modern, shares at the very least a common culture which cannot and should not be separated from ethnicity.

According to McCrone (2001) the rise of nationalism in recent times, termed neo-nationalism, is difficult to explain in terms of earlier forms of nationalism and that it should be seen as “multi-faceted and adaptable”.  Neo-nationalism occurs in nations with a strong civil society consisting of both economic and domestic levels, where people have multiple national identities, as is the case in Scotland.  

Word count – 2,530


Anderson, B. (1983): Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism; London: Verso

Gellner, E. (1964): Nationalism: In Thought and Change: London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Gellner, E. (1983): Nations and Nationalism; Oxford: Blackwell

Guibernau, N. (1996) Nationalism: The Nation-State and Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: Cambridge: Polity Press

Hobsbawm, E.J. (1992): Nations and Nationalism Since 1780; Cambridge

Hutchinson, J. & Smith, A.D. (1994) Nationalism: Oxford: Oxford University Press

McCrone, D. (2001) Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Nation 2nd Ed. London: Routledge

Smith, A.D. (1986) The Ethnic Origins of Nations: Oxford: Blackwell

Smith, A.D. (1991) National Identity: London: Penguin

Web references

The following web sources cited were accessed at various times throughout October and November 2007




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