Scots' nationalism - fixated on historic grudges Splintering: In the face of increasing world integration, tribalism is gaining ground.


January 04, 1998|By Lloyd George Parry | Lloyd George Parry,Special to the sun

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - Here in the land of bagpipes, good whiskey and bad dentistry, the natives, as usual, are not going along with the program. With the British government committed to full participation in the European Union, the Scots are 'N seriously debating a major retrograde maneuver: pulling out of the United Kingdom and establishing their own republic.

As Europe lurches fitfully toward the Brussels-based New World Order and the nirvana of a centralized super-government guaranteed to solve all problems from global warming to hangnails, Scotland is taking the first steps toward becoming an independent nation. And it's making the English crazy.

What brought this about? Why, 40 years after the intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic pronounced the death of the nation-state, do the Scots insist on swimming against the tide of history by forming their own republic while the rest of Europe unifies? Is this merely another unneeded example of Celtic perversity in the face of all reason and forward thinking? Or is Hollywood propaganda - in the form of "Braveheart" - to blame? Will Mel Gibson be remembered for all time as the father of the Scottish Republic?

To understand this nationalist dynamic, one might refer to the prose and poetry of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns or John Prebble, who have so eloquently described the Scots' tribal character and tortured history. In that context, a study of Scotland's independence movement offers insight into similar ethnic yearnings of the Quebecois, the Basques or even the Slavic Crips and Bloods who are settling scores in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union.

However, in addition to racial pride, Scottish nationalism appears in part to be incongruously driven by outrages and injustices inflicted centuries ago by the English. Many Scots view those remote events from a somewhat unique perspective best summed up in the definition of "Celtic Alzheimer's," i.e. a mental condition in which the patient forgets everything but the grudge. Thus, the release of "Braveheart" in Scotland went beyond shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. It more closely approximated setting the screen ablaze.

Kenneth Fraser, local secretary of the Scottish Nationalist Party, dismisses Mr. Gibson's blood-soaked movie as "atavistic nationalism" of a low order. A member of the distinguished faculty at St. Andrews University, Mr. Fraser speaks softly instead of "devolution," a tame-sounding process whereby the Scots will gradually take charge of their own affairs, starting with the convening of a Scottish Parliament which will soon begin meeting in Edinburgh. More akin to an American state legislature than a national Congress, this Parliament, the result of a recent countrywide referendum, will address the types of local issues that have heretofore received scant attention by the legislators in London.

But don't be deceived. If you listen carefully, you will learn that this mild-mannered academic and thousands like him are stirring a potent brew. Spell "devolution" with an "r" and you will understand their real purpose. To be sure, they are not advocating Mel Gibson's Cuisinart-the-English approach, but their goals are indistinguishable from those espoused in ancient times by the real Sir William Wallace: a free and independent Scotland where the people can exercise their right to self-determination.

While the yearning for Scottish nationhood has endured for centuries, only recently have conditions favored the move toward independence. With the end of the Cold War, some Scots question the need for a common defense with England. Also, to a degree unthinkable even a decade ago, the cultural ties with the English have frayed.

Moreover, until Margaret Thatcher's term of office, there had been a tacit understanding that Scotland's broadcasting stations, universities and even the social theology of its state churches would be relatively independent of Whitehall's direct manipulations. Under Mrs. Thatcher, all of these became targets for ideological restructuring and government control.

The post-war economic decline of Britain has undercut the previously long-standing argument that the advantages of being British outweigh the disadvantages, a point analyzed by Denis Judd in "Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present"(Harper Collins, 518 pages, $35). Mr. Judd examines the incorporation of Scotland, Wales and Ireland into the United Kingdom and the participation of these Celtic peoples in the English imperial experience. He observes that, for 100 years after the 1707 Act of Union, the Scottish economy and standard of living increased at faster rates than did those of the English.

But that ride is over and, with the United Kingdom's 1973 entry into the European Economic Community, there arose a belief that an independent Scotland could prosper as England's co-equal in the new Europe.

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