An interview with Professor Michael Fry
Michael Fry (1947) is one of the most distinguished historians of Scotland. He has taught in several American and European universities, and has been active in politics, as a Scottish candidate for the Conservative and Unionist Party. He is now a strong supporter of Scottish independence. Dr Fry is the author of several books on different aspects of Scottish history. His works include: The Union: England, Scotland, and the Treaty of 1707 (Edinburgh 2006); Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History (London 2005); How the Scots Made America (New York 2005); The Scottish Empire (Edinburgh 2001). He and Paolo Bernardini first met at Brown University (USA) in 1994. Paolo has interview him for the PNV.
(Paolo Bernardini) – 1. Professor Fry, it is difficult to write history with “ifs” and “buts”. However, do you think that Scottish history could have been different if the 1707 union never took place, and Scotland had preserved her freedom until now?
(Michael Fry) It was difficult for any small nation to preserve its independence in the era of imperialism, which had begun in the sixteenth century and only came to an end in the twentieth century, if then. During this era the great European powers extended their rule not only over the other continents of the world but also within their own continent. Many of the small nations which had emerged in the Middle Ages then lost their independence, and Scotland was one of them.
Just as France sought security by pushing its frontiers to the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees, so England set out to gain exclusive control over the archipelago which it partly occupies in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Wales had already been absorbed in the sixteenth century, and Ireland was conquered during many decades of savage warfare ending only in 1690. That left Scotland, which had always successfully defended itself against English aggression. In the end the solution was a peaceful and more or less voluntary union, offering the Scots economic benefits in exchange for the sacrifice of their political independence. The treaty forming this union came into force in 1707. In this way the British Isles were able to safeguard their territorial integrity against other European powers and secure the base for imperial expansion overseas.
Because the Anglo-Scottish union was voluntary, and not the result of conquest, the Scots were able to negotiate the preservation of many of their national institutions notably the Church, the law and the universities.. This stood in contrast to the situation in Ireland, where all native institutions were swept away and replaced with essentially English ones. In Scotland, therefore, national life retained a certain continuity into the modern era, and indeed down to today. So long as the Scots did not cause any trouble, the English were largely content to let them run their domestic affairs as they wanted. Some historians have called this `semi-independence¹. The arrangement was only broken by the rise of a much more powerful and intrusive British state (the welfare state) in the late twentieth century. The old Scottish institutions, now under attack but also supplemented by newer ones, then formed an important basis for the revival of nationalism.
It is an interesting question whether Scottish nationalism has been helped or hindered by this unusual history. If England had acted in a more imperialist fashion towards Scotland, by overwhelming native society and suppressing native institutions, it is arguable the nation would have re-emerged quicker. That was what happened in Ireland. Because the Irish saw English rule as wicked and cruel, they felt readier to rise up and overthrow it if they had the opportunity (such an opportunity arose during the Napoleonic Wars, when the rebellion was unsuccessful, and during the First World War, when it led to the eventual foundation of the Irish Republic). But the British state has assumed in Scotland a more benign aspect, the result of a voluntary association which has been free of violence since the eighteenth century. Rebellion has not been a necessity for the national survival of the Scots. Yet the British parliamentary system has been a liberal one leaving scope for the rise of a nationalist movement. Scotland remains free to choose an independent future if it wants. That is the debate we are having now.
2. In 2010 the Scottish people will vote for independence. What is your forecast about the results? And why Scottish people will vote like that?
The political outlook is extremely uncertain because of the financial crisis in the United Kingdom, which in a certain respect has been especially severe in Scotland. One facet of `semi-independence¹ was a Scottish banking system. It had already been established before 1707 and it continued to operate afterwards, though in the twentieth century the number of banks was greatly reduced by mergers and takeovers. Still, at the turn of the twenty-first century, three banks remained. Now two of them have in effect been taken over by the British government, because of the scale of their financial losses. So an important sector of the economy is no longer Scottish but has become British.
What do the Scots think about this? Many resent it because they believe that something could have been done to maintain the status of the banks as Scottish institutions, and that the government in London has taken this opportunity to destroy an important element of `semi-independence¹. But others fear that if Scotland had been a fully independent nation, then the banks would just have collapsed as they did in Iceland. Their conclusion is that Scotland also is too small a country to protect its own interests properly, especially in an international crisis.
I give this as a good example of the general debate about independence in Scotland. Having been part of a big European country for three centuries, the Scots can see that their status is not without its advantages, especially in periods of political or economic difficulty. At the same time, because Scotland is only a small part of this big country (with less than 10 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom), it is too easy for Scottish interests to be manipulated or even ignored if that suits the people ruling in London. So again the Scots’ feelings are torn in two directions.
Amid so many problems, it is really difficult to predict their effect on a Scottish referendum in 2010. If Gordon Brown¹s government saves the country from its terrible economic situation, then we might expect the Scots to be grateful and to vote in favour of maintaining the union with England. But it is by no means certain that the government will succeed in its policies, in which case the Scots may decided that nothing could be worse than remaining a part of Britain. Despite the undoubted difficulties, independence would be preferable.
3. Do you think that the SNP will be a leading party after independence? If so, will Scotland be ruled according to centre-left politics, which might result not so good in a free-market world, where little states normally are oriented in other directions?
Clearly independence can only be won if the SNP remains in power for some years in Scotland. It formed a government in 2007 with only a minority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, but to reach its goal of national independence it will have to do better than this and over a longer time. For half-a-century before the last election Scotland had been dominated by the Labour party, even during the times when the Conservative party ruled England and had a majority in the United Kingdom as a whole. Indeed one reason for the rise of nationalism was that the Scots did not like being governed by a Conservative party that so few of them voted for. But this nationalism, unlike nationalism in many other countries, has for a long time been of the Left. In essence, Labour and the SNP compete for the same groups of voters, the working class and the many members of the middle class who work for the public sector in Scotland, where private industry is weak. Because of this fact about the Scottish social structure, politics is likely to tend to the Left for as far ahead as anyone can see. The free market operates in Scotland mainly through North Sea oil and through the financial industry. The price of oil is beyond the control of any government Scotland has or is likely to have, while the financial industry has been severely disrupted by the credit crunch: we have yet to see the final outcome of the present crisis. Whether little states will be able in future to operate as freely as they have done in the past is now an open question. In any case, I think that question will still be considered by the Scots from a leftist point of view. We shall have to wait and see whether the Left can generate better answers to social and economic problems than it has done historically, or than the Right has done in the last few years.
4. Should Scotland become independent, what will be her relations with England? And with the rest of the world?
In formal terms, Scotland relations with England would in this case be just the same as her relations with every other country in the world. In the last 20 years, many countries have become independent for the first time and most maintain good relations with one another. There is no reason for Scotland to be different. In any event, I expect that both Scotland and England would remain members of the European Union, within which the different countries co-operate in many ways. And in a certain respect, relations between Scotland and England might even get better. In the Anglo-Scottish Union created in 1707, their relations have been getting worse. The English seem to resent that the Scots now have a Parliament of their own, whereas the English have none (they need to conduct their affairs through the Parliament of the United Kingdom). And many Scots still resent what they see, rightly or wrongly, as bad treatment at the hands of the English in the past. With two completely independent countries, this kind of ill-feeling might disappear. That is precisely what has happened in relations between the English and the Irish. In the past there has been a lot of bad blood between them. Today their relations are excellent.
5. How Scottish independence will be considered on the world stage? Will it be accepted, more or less grudglingly, or accepted easily?
Again, there seems no reason why Scotland should not take its place on the world stage along with all the other European countries which gained or regained their independence after 1989, and with the African or Asian countries which had become independent before that. The year of 1848 was known as the `springtime of nations¹ because of the number of different peoples then asserting their identity for the first time since the medieval era, and 1918 was another year in which old imperial systems broke up to be replaced by national entities. I would say the position of Scotland ought to be regarded as normal rather than exceptional.
6. How do you see the future of a free and independent Scotland?
I think Scotland will take its place as a European country like others, maintaining its own traditions and character but contributing to the greater civilisation of the continent and of the world. It is not as if Scots will have any difficulty in defining our nationhood. The Scottish monarchy came into being in 843, the first Scottish Parliament lasted from 1326 to 1707, the Scottish legal system dates from 1532 and the Church of Scotland was founded in 1560. The feeling of distinct nationhood has survived three centuries of Union with England and in recent times has grown stronger. This is, to say the least, a good basis for renewed independence.
7. Do you think that the future of Europe depends strongly from the independence of several nations without a state at the moment (Catalunia, Scotland, Venetia, Bretagne, Corse and so on)?
Self-determination is perhaps the most important principle in politics. It is a human right that people should be free to develop their own personalities and activities as best they can. The same ought to apply to municipal or provincial communities and, of course, to nations too. I believe the whole world will be happier if such rights are universally respected.