By David Zylberberg
Benedict Anderson famously wrote that nations are Imagined Communities brought together by a vision of common identity. The ways in which history is taught and understood play an important role in fostering national commonality. Many current countries do not have that sense of common identity. Such countries are held together by chance, inertia, military force or the cost-benefit analysis of referendum voters. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is one such country since most Scottish or English people do not see themselves as part of the same nation.
Scotland and England have shared a monarch since 1603 and have been formally united since the Act of Union in 1707. At that point, the Scottish Parliament ceased to exist and representatives were sent to Westminster. In 1999, the Scottish Parliament was resurrected with jurisdiction over some regional services. Currently, the Scottish National Party forms a majority government and it has promised a referendum on secession for 2014.
Scotland has been integral to the United Kingdom of Great Britain since its inception. Moreover, English was the most common language of Scotland prior to that and most Scots have always lived in the Lowlands. The northern portion of the island also underwent similar social and cultural developments to southern regions throughout the last half millennia. Due to their many similarities and shared political heritage, it would not be difficult to construct a coherent national history that incorporated the island’s shared social, cultural, political and economic developments. Yet this does not usually happen.
Education falls under Scottish jurisdiction so the school History curriculum differs from that used in England and Wales. In Scotland, the current curriculum includes separate units at each level for Scottish, British, European and World History. The English curriculum claims to be national and uses the term ‘Britain’ to refer to the nation. However, it places considerable emphasis on events that barely affected Scotland, such as the Roman Empire or the Norman Conquest. Many of the points at which Scotland appears involve conflicts between the two nations, such as the Battle of Bannockburn, the English Invasion of 1639 or the Jacobite Rebellion. Although most of the social and cultural changes of recent centuries affected both regions, the English are generally taught them using English examples and without reference to Scotland.
Academic historians also research the social, cultural and economic history of England and Scotland separately. This can be seen in how the Industrial Revolution was taught, since it was one of the key developments in both regions. It also emphasizes the ways in which Scottish History is treated separately. As a historical development, it involved a major expansion of manufacturing, new technology and the rise of large factories and was regionally concentrated in a few areas. At the beginning of the 19th century, the most industrialized regions in the world were northern England, central Scotland and Wallonia. Yet, most of the scholarship focusses on northern English industrialization without reference to Scotland. There are many more books and articles on Yorkshire and Lancashire industrialization than on Lanarkshire. Most courses are also taught with Scottish industrialization either as an aside or not mentioned, while syntheses deal exclusively with English industrialization. The Scottish Industrial Revolution has its own separate textbooks.
National identity is fostered through a sense of commonality. This occurs through a common language, cultural institutions, migration and social organizations. It also occurs through sport. In this regard it is telling that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compete separately in the two most popular team sports. History curriculums also play an important role in creating nations by emphasizing a common heritage and similarities. National history does not need to occur at the expense of analysis. Whatever subjects are selected, every book or course inherently ends up creating a narrative, which often emphasizes similarity. For the United Kingdom, a national history could be created that emphasized common developments. Industrial Glasgow had many common experiences with Manchester and both benefitted from the Clean Air Act. If such similarities received greater emphasis than 700 year old battles, British people would be more likely to see themselves as part of the same nation.
It is not my place to suggest whether the lives of most Scots would be better or worse if they voted for independence. However, it remains striking that the discussions are entirely centred on a cost-benefit analysis without much thought of the larger cultural connections. The British government is committed to austerity and is reducing military procurement which is causing layoffs at Scottish shipyards. Some analysts suggest that this could have a large impact on the 2014 referendum. A shipyard closure would not have such effects on the referendum if Scots believed themselves to be part of a British nation.
David Zylberberg is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at York University.