Scottish independence — an historical view and a Peruvian perspective

45% of Scots vote for separate nation. The “No”s have it but only by a whisker.

By Paul Goulder —  Peruvian Times History Special

This article looks at the historical roots of Scottish disillusion with the constitutional arrangement called the United Kingdom, composed of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland & Wales. It was this strong disenchantment bordering for some on Anglophobia that underlies the result of Thursday’s referendum, in which 45% of Scottish voters, despite all the risks, preferred Scotland to become an independent country.

One effect of the emergence of the Americas into European consciousness, the so-called discovery of the New World, was to create a lust for colonial adventures. In 1698, more than one hundred and sixty years after Pizarro invaded Peru, the Scots entered into the disastrous Darien venture with the intention of creating Scotland’s own colony in an area to the south of what is now the Panama Canal. They ignored the facts that the jungles of Darien already had their inhabitants, and that the Pope had allocated the area to the Spanish under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. In any case, the Scots were no respecters of Catholic edicts and the investment prospectus had naturally downplayed that bit about Darien being an impassable inferno ridden with cocktails of tropical diseases.

The Union

The failure of the Darien colonization project, in which a great many individual Scots had invested, left the nation bankrupt and ready prey for the proponents of Union with England and Wales who offered to bail out the Scots. But there was a price: in 1707 the Scottish parliament agreed to its own extinction and its powers passed to Westminster, the parliament in London. Scotland already was in “union under the crown” since the death — childless — of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 when the Crown passed to James IV, King of Scots.

 Warriors, engineers and philosophers

Scots quickly built up a reputation as fearless fighters in the newly extended British Army at the beginning of the eighteenth century, as engineers at the forefront of the industrial revolution, and as creators of concepts and ideas during what came to be called the Scottish Enlightenment. It was notably those ideas of freedom and the free market — which came so much to influence the development of the modern world — that were given wide expression in the debating halls of Edinburgh and St Andrews and disseminated via the pen of Adam Smith and other Scots. In writing the “Wealth of Nations” at the time of the US war of Independence and the first British settlements in Australia, Smith challenged the mercantalist argument for Empire and changed the way in which the Scots came to play their part on the world stage.

Scots in diaspora – Latin America and Peru

The failure of Darien did not diminish the propensity of Scots to settle down in other nations. Latin America did not escape their reach. Scottish websites today boast the achievements of individuals whose accomplishments appear to us today as simply dazzling. In Peru, Henry Swayne arrived soon after independence in 1821 and built up a chain of plantations (haciendas) introducing, along the way, a series of new technologies from the first steam plough in Peru to trains and tramways linking up his estates. He managed at the same time to maintain a reputation as a fair-minded employer in an industry notorious for labor exploitation. By the early twentieth century the Swayne dynasty had reached the Presidential Palace: Julia Swayne was first lady to President Leguía during a previous boom period in Peru.

Thomas Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald, was another Scot who earned an honored place among the street names of Lima. He was a swashbuckling naval hero who became admiral of Liberator San Martín’s small navy, which nevertheless cleared the Pacific coasts of imperial Spanish shipping and opened the way for an extraordinary succession of Scottish socio-economic magicians such as Henry Swayne. And they were not always acting in brute self-interest nor were they alone.

A roll-call of the Irish in Peru would also produce a list of individuals punching above their weight and doing so using the British brand. In part it was the Union which provided some of the muscle. It was the Irish who were to be the first to pull away from the Union and in so doing divided themselves, as might have happened in the case of Scotland.

The Empire externalized tensions

Scotland joined the union at a time that the great era of European imperial expansion was about to take off. Scotland together with England, Wales and Ireland formed then what’s known in Peru as Britain or in Spanish simply as Los Británicos or Los Ingleses without necessarily differentiating between them. From the date of the union in 1707 right through until the 1960s, Scotland was involved in the grand economic and political ventures which constituted British imperial expansion. It was only towards the end of this period that debate in Scotland focused again on the issues surrounding the relationship with England.

For the past fifty years the secessionist movement in Scotland has been growing from, at first, a small marginal, sometimes extremist, fringe – the Scottish National Party was regarded as almost “beyond the fringe.”  Winnie Ewing’s surprise victory for the SNP at the Hamilton by-election of 1967 perhaps foretold and warned Westminster of what was to come.

Also the centuries of mistakes, indifference and sheer, brute disregard with respect to Ireland which led to the 1916 “war of independence” produced lessons that should have been learned. Of course, there is one major difference. Today the ballot box has replaced the rifle and a line-up of regions around the world that have some reasonable claim to secede: Catalonia, Kurdistan and Tibet are watching the Scottish case with increasing interest.

The Scotland – London gap

But in this case it has become the issue of “the economy – stupid” or rather the inequitable way in which economic forces have favored London and the south-east as against Scotland. The economic gap between London and the North has increased dramatically since the 1970s as the whirlwind of global change relocated heavy industry – in which Scotland had excelled – to East Asia.

These changes were accentuated by new neoliberal policies in the 1980s associated with the Tory party and Thatcherism, at a time that the “white knight” of North Sea oil, seen in Scotland as its particular resource, was seen as disproportionately benefiting England and English companies. So associated had the Tory or Conservative party become with the industrial decline of Scotland and the near-obscene differentials in incomes and house prices that the Tories could only manage to get one member of parliament elected in the whole of Scotland. In 1955 the same party (called the Scottish Unionists until 1967) had a Scottish majority, riding high on their being the political party of Union.

In brief

If in any country one region becomes relatively deprived compared to the prosperity in, say, the capital city, there is a potential for friction. If in addition, that area has a strong sense of identity and has in fact always been considered a nation apart within the same country, as is the case with Scotland, then that friction at some moment may trigger a conflagration. Lima politicians could also learn from all of this and think again about Peru’s regions, starting first with Puno!

“Better together” was a phrase used during the recent referendum campaign — It had certainly been truer for the first 250 years of the Union than for the last fifty.

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