Search View Archive

Session PLAN B: the Scottish Model

Wendy Wood was the grande dame of Scottish Nationalism no demonstration was complete without her green cloak. Her folkloric enthusiasm kept the cause alive during the gloomy 1950s. Here she is dancing at a Patriots Ball, courtesy of The Herald. (The Road to Home Rule, p. 68)

“I suggest to you that we don’t allow ourselves to be fobbed off with any talk about the problems and difficulties that varying degrees of devolution would present us with. We don’t require to bother about that. We’re going for devolution right to the end, that’s to say for complete independence, and we rest our case on the virtue of our own personality and the strength of our own determination. Thank you.”

—Hugh MacDiarmid Speech at Glasgow University
6 April 1968

The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part

Only the little white rose of Scotland

That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.

—Hugh MacDiarmid,
“The Little White Rose”

When I was a child I badgered my family for thrilling information about our ancestors. I discovered that we (like millions of other Americans) are largely descended from Irish railroad workers and Scotch-Irish hillbillies. Our Midlothian Scottish forebears, the Cranstons, were “Border Rivers” – i.e., land pirates who lived off raiding the English. The family motto is “Thou Shalt Want Ere I Want”, surely the most blatantly burglarious boast in all heraldry. Naturally I was tickled pink.

The summer I was twelve the family toured Scotland. I insisted on visiting the Edinburgh College of Heralds. An elderly Heraldress rejoiced my proto-romantic soul by describing our tartan (“a lovely apple green”) and our “punning crest” (a crane holding a stone in its claw). With a completely straight face (somewhat resembling Buster Keaton’s) she told me I could wear a tie and sash of the tartan and a lapel pin of the crest, “but no the full honours nor the kilt, lest all your goods be seized and burnt in the public market!”

Later I discovered that Sir Walter Scott wrote about the Cranstons in his great Lay of the Last Minstrel. According to Scott, the family was haunted by an eldritch familiar in the form of a goblin butler.

On the same trip I learned of the Scottish Independence movement and the Scottish Nationalist Party. In 1950 three madcap young SNP activists parked their car in front of Westminster Abbey in London one dark night, broke in and liberated the Stone of Scone or “Coronation Stone.” This featureless slab, symbol of Scottish sovereignty, was stolen by Perfidious Albion in 1296. Monarchs of England sat on it to be crowned – and in a few weeks Elizabeth II was due to be installed on it. Utmost pandemonium!

The enthusiastic but clueless rebels, stunned by their own success, then drove aimlessly around England for a week or so with the Stone in the boot of their car, having been disowned by the SNP. Eventually they abandoned it and escaped. (Note: in 1996 the Stone was given back to Scotland by Tory Prime Minister John Major in a cheap and desperate attempt to keep Scotland in the “United Kingdom.”)

As a result of all this I confess I’ve been a closet Scots Nationalist ever since. Even after I became an anarchist I still joined the Celtic League, a band of eccentrics dedicated to freedom for Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany. After all, as the America philosopher Lysander Spooner argued, the universal right of secession is a fine anarchist principle. In any case, when it comes to this brand of Romanticism, I’m incurable.

Therefore I rejoiced when, on July 1, 1999, Scotland achieved Home Rule and convened a Scottish Parliament for the first time since the Act of Union in 1707. Later I met a congenial Scots anarchist at a Book Fair in NYC and asked him if he too were happy. He was. His attitude seemed to be that freedom’s journey may last a thousand miles but begins with a single step. Hearing the words “government” and “devolution” in the same sentence must sound good to all lovers of liberty, whatever their creed. The radical tradition remains stronger in Scotland than in England. The future could get interesting.

Empires break up. The USSR broke up, or down. The mini-empire of Yugoslavia is still breaking up (Montenegro will soon secede from Serbia), although this process has led to tragic new Balkan wars and civil strife. (Slovenia however, which I visited briefly in the late 90s, escaped most of the violence and seemed to me a very cool little place, swarming with artists and anarchists. The population of Slovenia is about the same as Brooklyn’s.)

The USA Empire may also break up. Given recent history, the dreams of American secessionists no longer appear mere fantasies. In Alaska thousands of people have actually voted for Independence candidates. Republican Party coup d’etats, eternal war, unending debt, a real depression… the USA itself could disunite under such conditions. But violence remains unthinkable, another Civil War impossible – or so we must hope and believe. If devolution lies ahead, let it be peaceful. We need a PLAN B, a model for non-violent political and economic separatism. Could Scotland supply this inspiration?

The most recent books I could find on the subject were: The Road To Home Rule: Images of Scotland’s Cause by Christopher Harvie and Peter Jones (2000); and Scottish Independence: A Practical Guide by Jo E. Murkens et al. (2003); both published in Edinburgh. Perhaps some Net-savvy Rail reader will update me. I know the SNP has a website, but haven’t seen it.

The first point to note is that the modern Scottish Independence movement has been shaped and championed from the start by poets, artists, wits, intellectuals and serious drinkers. Above all: Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, even though (or because) he wrote in a neo-Lallans Scots/English dialect that he virtually invented “out of old dictionaries” in order to give a literary language to the “Scottish Renaissance”. You have to read this to believe it. Try The Thistle Rises, an anthology edited by A. Bold; it also contains MacDiarmid’s seminal essay (in plain incandescent English) on Scottish Independence.

MacDiarmid (as the Irish would say with deep admiration of such a figure) was “mad”. No doubt Celts have always appreciated such bards. For instance in 1934 he helped found the SNP. The SNP then expelled him for being a communist. The Scottish Communist Party then expelled him for being a nationalist. He yo-yo’d between the extremes again several times, a Party of One.

Besides MacDiarmid our readers might also have heard of other supporters of the cause such as novelist John Buchan (author of The Thirty-nine Steps); Ian Hamilton Finlay (artist and gardener); Alasdair Gray, novelist; Compton Mackenzie (Whiskey Galore); Lewis Spence (expert on Atlantis); and Sean Connery (James Bond).

The cause has had some kooky but fairly harmless fans on the right (such as Buchan, or the aristocratic Gaelic enthusiast Ruaraidh Erskine of Mar), heavily into kilts and bagpipes. But MacDiarmid’s leftism is significant. The cause has always enjoyed support on the left, just as Irish Independence has champions such as James Connolly and even Marx. The SNP, which has always insisted on full Independence, could never have achieved devolution and home rule without the Scottish Labour Party.

And Margaret Thatcher was a big help. She has “been credited as the ‘onlie begetter’ of Scottish home rule” (Harvie & Jones, p. 122) – simply by the sheer revulsion she roused in most Scottish hearts. In 1988 she defended her famous thesis, “There is no such thing as ‘society’,” before the Elders, Fathers and Brethren of the Kirk of Scotland, who were horrified, and at once converted to separatism.

In an extremely complex way which I still don’t fully grasp, Scottish Labour cut a deal with English Labour: help overthrow Conservative Party, get home rule in return. It worked. (All that North Sea Oil also played an important role.) Something similar happened in Wales. Tony Blair, himself a bureaucratic centralist at heart, has been forced to concede on devolution.

Let’s try to imagine a New World parallel. In about 2012 in response to Imperial crisis, certain states begin to consider forms of separation and secession. Independence parties are founded. Remnants of Green, Socialist and Libertarian parties are attracted to the new energy. At last, desperate to regain power in DC, the Democratic Party promises some form of home rule or states rights in return for votes. The Dem’s win but inherit a major economic crisis. In order to hold together some sort of rump USA, they allow some states to drift away. Legal and constitutional forms are followed. No civil war. Scotland is forging ahead toward full Independence – at least, according to the writers of the Practical Guide. No one’s quite sure what that means (Commonwealth? EU? Restoration of Stewart Dynasty? Workers Republic?) – but they’re determined to be practical about it all like canny Scots. And after all, no one expects displays of unseemly enthusiasm from such a dour folk. The true voice seems captured in this celebratory poem (quoted in The Road to Home Rule, p. 198):

And after, in the Bow Bar,
we toast our halfway house
with Independence Whiskey,
our parliament of rookies,
a score of well-kent faces
among a hundred unknowns,
a thousand-fingered beast
at Scotland’s greasy till,
a parcel of rogues, we know;
a shower of bastards, no doubt,
but at least, this time, at last,
they’re our bastards.

- Mike Dillon, “New Parliament”.

In Poetry Scotland, no. 9


Peter Lamborn Wilson

Peter Lamborn Wilson is an American anarchist author, primarily known for advocating the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2005

All Issues