Professor Katie McCullough Comments on Scotland's Relationship to Europe in the Wake of Brexit

August 23, 2016
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Scotland and Europe: A Reflection

Scotland has always been a European country. Since at least the late medieval period Scots have been trading goods with their European neighbours. Early evidence exists for the movement of iron, fish, and other goods, outwards, and goods such as wine, citrus, and spices coming in from as far away as Spain. Scotland and France had a long connection from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries known as the “Auld Alliance” beginning with the Scottish king John Balliol and the French king Philip IV in 1295 and ending with the Treaty of Edinburgh signed by Elizabeth I in 1560 shortly after the Scottish Protestant Reformation. The Scottish diaspora has its roots in Europe. From the late 15th century, increasing numbers of Scottish merchants and craftsmen began migrating to Poland, for example. By the 17th century, according to the estimates of some modern scholars, over 30,000 Scots resided in Poland. The recent UK Referendum has shown that Scotland—as far as the majority of Scots are concerned—is still a European country with 62 percent of Scots voting in favour of remaining in the European Union. Connections to Europe spanning over 700 years or more demonstrate the forward-thinking and international character of the Scots. Scots traded and traveled throughout Europe to pursue economic opportunities. Europeans have historically also come to Scotland to do the same.

            If contact with Europe demonstrated the pragmatism of the Scots so did the parliamentary union with England in 1707. Despite a shared monarch (James the VI of Scotland inherited the English throne in 1603) many tensions existed between England and Scotland. As the larger and wealthier England developed its international empire over the course of the seventeenth century, Scotland lagged behind. In spite of these tensions enterprising Scots manoeuvered the English empire, settling and trading most notably in the Eastern seaboard of North America; however, attempts to establish Scottish trading colonies in this period failed. Some, like Nova Scotia, failed before they even began; others, such as the spectacular failure of the Darien scheme of the late 1690s, left Scots painfully aware that they could not go it alone. There were many reasons for the union of 1707; however, one of the most notable reasons was that Scottish elites wanted access to the English empire. And, well, the rest is history. After a slow start the Scottish economy exploded. The tobacco trade, the slave trade, the East India Company, the North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company (the list goes on) were dominated by Scots who became wealthy through the opportunities available in the (now) British Empire. In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution turned Scotland into the “Workshop of the Empire” largely through the construction of the heavy machinery used to move goods to international markets. Most notable was the famous Clyde shipping industry.

            As long as the Empire remained a place for the acquisition of wealth and Scotland a producer of goods for export, Scots were comfortable considering themselves British. Scottish nationalism in this period was largely limited to demands for a better relationship with Westminster—what has been called “Unionist-Nationalism.” But as the British Empire began to fail in the twentieth century, came the rise of modern Scottish nationalism. A keenness to be British in the nineteenth century was replaced for many with questions about what it meant to be “Scottish.” Could the Scots go it alone? The Scottish Nationalist Party made gains in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including sending Margo Macdonald to Westminster in 1973, the same year the UK joined the European Economic Community. The spectacular unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in Scotland over the death of Industrial Scotland, and with it any sense of commonality with other working Britons, and the early introduction into Scotland of the notorious poll tax, set in motion the path to devolution under New Labour. The devolved Scottish Parliament opened in 1999, almost 300 years after the Union.

The majority of Scots voted ‘no’ to exit the UK in the 2014 Independence Referendum, at a narrow margin of 45/55; however, many did so over fears of uncertainty over EU status for an independent Scotland. The EU has been good for Scotland. Numerous projects all over the country have been funded by the EU, helping to develop Scotland’s economy. Notably, huge benefits have been seen in the more remote parts of the Highlands and Islands, areas that Westminster has consistently overlooked or treated with disdain. The EU has given the area an economic future. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Scotland is poised to choose its own economic future. No doubt that famous Scottish pragmatism will inform their decision. This decision will almost certainly include continuing its long history of exchange of goods and people with its European neighbours.


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