Alex Harvey was a remarkable musician – Glasgow-born, a committed pacifist, toured with the Beatles in Hamburg, eclectically famous reworkings of Jacques Brel’s tango ‘Next’ and Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’ with his proto-punk Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Hearing his music, I realised everything that I wanted to do as a musician had already been done – and brilliantly well. Sadly, I put down my guitar, and turned my attention elsewhere…
Alex also did a song called ‘Roman Wall Blues’. In it, he imagined himself as a legionnaire guarding the wall as the rain lashed down on him from Scotland, feeling miserable, fed up, and wishing he could go home. It’s a perspective of the Roman Empire’s interface with (what would become) Scotland that I reflect on, when I hear the ‘Scottish cringe’ version of that history. You could say that Scotland (let’s keep those geopolitical concepts contemporary) was ‘more trouble than it was worth’ for the Romans to subjugate. But that description holds true whether you think it was militarily too difficult to conquer (more trouble), or just too miserable to bother taking (not worth enough). Your interpretation tends to be coloured by whether you think Scotland has/had intrinsic value, or only had value when incorporated into something larger – an Empire. Alex’s Roman legionnaire had a very clear opinion on the subject. And the Romans – one could perhaps say – were the first serious attempt at a Europe-wide empire.
I find myself reflecting on this subjectivity of perspective – and the political dimension of such perspectives – in the light of BrExit. It reminds me very much of another subjective historical event that is often trotted out by unionists with the weary predictability of Scotland ‘not being worth the Romans conquering’ – a little story called the Darien Project.
The enacting of Westminster’s Navigation Act of 1651 followed a period of decline in Scotland’s fortunes since the point of the Union of the Crowns almost 15 years earlier. The ensuing years had seen Scotland become poorer, suffering from its new close association with its neighbour through being dragged into England’s wars on other countries (does this scenario sound familiar, yet?), where before Scotland had separate and secure international alliances. Westminster’s Navigation Act, often enforced with gunboat diplomacy, had the effect of circumscribing Scotland’s international trade, placing an ever-tightening iron grip on her economy. Having lost her only colony – Nova Scotia – in 1632 (as a result of England’s war with France), Scotland therefore desperately needed a new colony to develop international commerce with, without being ringfenced and suffocated. The plan was to form a colony in central America (what today is the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién), in order to establish trading links with Africa and the Far East. But the East India Company was keen to preserve its monopoly in traffic from these territories, and applied pressure on the King in London, and those who had invested in this bold scheme, to withdraw their support. This left Scotland no choice but to be the sole investor in this ambitious project: in the face of disappearing external investment in the scheme, the only option remaining was for the people themselves to take the financial risk entirely on themselves.
It seems remarkable in this day and age that such a venture was entirely privately-supported (therefore zero national debt entailed), by all walks of Scottish society. Yet perhaps this reflects that in this time of sharp national decline, it must have been a comparatively easy and straightforward decision…there being no other option left to the people except to sit and watch the situation deteriorate more as they were further starved of commerce by the powers in London. In this scenario, Darien was a last throw of the dice for a country being bullied by its supposed ‘ally’ – the other alternative would have been to respond with similar gunboat diplomacy. As a population of only around 1 million at the time, there would seem to have been some strong resentment of the treatment of them by both the King and Parliament, for the Scots to so enthusiastically have bought into the Darien scheme, raising £400K in a few weeks – equivalent to 20% of the nation’s wealth at the time – from all walks of society, so that every lowland Scotland family was affected or linked in some direct way to the outcome of Darien.
Tellingly, the first ships set out in secret from Leith, going the long way round the north of Scotland to start their journey west, anticipating that they would be attacked by English warships as part of the ongoing ‘gunboat diplomacy’ of the Westminster Navigation Act which had cost Scotland so many ships by that stage. Ultimately, the project failed, in large part due to the King and Parliament in London: the intended initial trade with the West Indies and North America, prior to the trade routes west being established, did not materialise, because the King had forbidden those colonies to trade – or even communicate – with the new colony, for fear of upsetting either the Spanish (who had neighbouring holdings) or the East India Company. The colony died in disease and isolation, further betrayed by their King in London.
Although the Darien Project was a bold gamble by the people of Scotland…it seems somehow less bold when you consider that it was a gamble made by a People with no remaining choices.
The cost, however, was much greater than one of money. As unrest at London’s treatment of the Darien colony increased in Scotland, the monarchy in London, in an attempt to stem the increasing likelihood of a war with Scotland that they could ill afford, initiated the Union of the Parliaments. They knew that many of the members of the Scottish Parliament (including some exceptionally wealthy landowners) had invested heavily in Darien, therefore would be susceptible to some financial leverage – in particular a ‘get out of jail free’ card to write off their losses. Hence Article 14 of the Treaty of Union was ‘The Bribe’ (called ‘The Equivalent’, it consisted of £398,085 and 10 shillings) to pay off the debts (and more, in some cases) in the event of union being agreed to by the Scottish Parliament.
Daniel Defoe (known today as the author of the novel ‘Robinson Crusoe’) was at that time a spy, and this quote from him summed up the clear intentions of the Union of the Parliaments – “ …all that is dear to us, daily in danger of being encroached upon, altered or wholly subverted by the English In a British Parliament, wherein the mean representation allowed for Scotland can never signify in securing to us the interest reserved by us, or granted to us by the English.”
In one smooth manoeuvre – probably not even an intended outcome from the hostile approaches to Darien – London rid itself of a potential war on its doorstep (with the possible result of asserting a different monarchy on a London throne), and acquired a truly lucrative asset for its long-term future. The members of the Scottish Parliament were plied with financial promises until the required numbers were achieved to vote through the Act of Union, in spite of the riots in protest throughout the country, so that they could salvage their own personal financial resources – Scotland itself was still in credit at the time of union, and not (as widely stated within more pejorative accounts of Darien) a ‘bankrupt nation’. The bells of St Giles rang ‘Oh why am I so sad on my wedding day’, the signatories were chased through the streets of Edinburgh by an angry mob, ultimately forced to sign the act (so it is said) in a baker’s shop off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
Here comes the subjectivity of perspective, and Alex Harvey’s legionnaire: today, the Darien Project is often propounded by unionists as being ‘proof’ of either Scots being incapable of running a project or of the quite exceptional generosity of the English in bailing them out – but (of course) usually omitting the negative role played by the king in London at the time, in attempting to ensure that the project would fail. Scott Minto (see quote at end) deals with the subject more extensively in the context of political revisionism, pointing out that rather than an example of great charity, it is “more akin to having your neighbour beat you with a baseball bat in order to gain access to your home, only to chastise you and claim you should be grateful for the first-aid they administered after they’d got your keys” – but notes that the issue was all about access to international trade.
And so we come – perhaps less than seamlessly – to BrExit, which presents a remarkably similar threat of restricted trade access as the Navigation Act did almost 400 years ago. But the world has changed – as has Scotland: the interconnectedness of the modern global marketplace prevents such embargos as could be initiated by London centuries ago – unless we are isolated within an inward-looking UK outside of the EU.
This time we need no Darien Project as a gamble for a lifeline to our own economic salvation. In this context, if Article 50 is invoked by the Westminster Government to pull Scotland backwards out of Europe, it will again have the effect – whether intentional or otherwise is irrelevant – of once again threatening Scotland’s international trade economy. This time we need no colony, no great gamble, no declaration of war (as was considered back in the early 1700s) to defend ourselves. Our economy is strong, so strong that we can entirely discount the oil and gas sector (when the oil price is low, it still only provides added extras to a healthy economy, and does no harm – indeed quite the reverse), and still have the same living standards as the rest of the UK (the GDP per person is almost identical to the UK, even when Scotland’s oil and gas revenues are excluded), and our economy is more evenly spread with far less reliance on financial services than the rest of the UK – and ready for independence. We are a net export economy (not a net import one as per our southern neighbours, who are overly dependent on their financial services sector), and therefore far more able to stand on our own feet.
Subjectivity of perspective means that no doubt unionists would argue that Scotland has to stay in the UK outside of the EU to preserve its future…meaning, to preserve the future of the UK, not the future of Scotland. Other perspectives would say that Britain has become a toxic thing to be associated with, particularly in the last 20-30 years.
Staying with Britain has now become the Worst of all Worlds, representing the worst possible future for Scotland. It’s time to move on from trade blockades – whether through legislation or gunboats – and move away from the imperial xenophobia of our island neighbour.
Alex Harvey’s legionnaire would be only too happy to agree.
“…would you consider the Union as an act of rescue from England towards Scotland? It is, I’d venture, more akin to having your neighbour beat you with a baseball bat in order to gain access to your home, only to chastise you and claim you should be grateful for the first-aid they administered after they’d got your keys. To describe the Union, as Professor Chalmers did this week, as a benefit that had ‘convinced the business classes that they needed the military protection of the Royal Navy if they were to benefit from the new riches that colonialism promised’ is to stretch the truth to breaking point. In reality Scotland’s nobles were bullied and bribed into signing the treaty by their more powerful neighbour, and when they none-too-reluctantly acquiesced it wasn’t for the benefit of the people of Scotland.
“Scotland was not bankrupt and could have continued on as an independent nation. But being in the Union benefited Scotland by removing the impact of the Navigation Acts (allowing the Scots to trade with the colonies) and removing the threat of English privateers commandeering or destroying Scottish shipping. Access to trade – the same goal pursued by the Darien Scheme – was what brought Scotland into union with England, not some mythological pride in “Britishness”.” (Scott Minto, “Skintland”, Darien and the mythology of the BritNats, 14/4/2012, http://wingsoverscotland.com/weekend-essay-skintland-britnat-mythology-and-the-darien-scheme/ )