- Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 127. Anglo-Scottish Relations, from 1603 to 1900, and: Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 128. Anglo-Scottish Relations: from 1900 to Devolution and Beyond
These two volumes were designed to commemorate the quatercentenary of the regnal union of 1603. They sit together like unidentical twins, and the result is less than the sum of their two parts. Perhaps this is inevitable. Chris Smout’s [End Page 345] volume, in suggesting that the Union can be analysed as a succession of phases in which a variety of strategies were used to solve both the internal and external relations of ‘these islands’, suggests a maturity of vision within the discipline of history and an optimistic world-view in which, perhaps, some of these skills and conventions can be deployed in a European arena. By contrast William Miller’s second volume, more about the last thirty years than about the long (or even the short) twentieth century – in this context ‘long’ meaning 1884–2007 and ‘short’ 1914–1999? – seems oddly truncated in technique and understanding.
The irony afflicting both is that the academic good sense on show is a product of what Richard Titmuss called ‘the gift relationship’, while the now-rampant commercial side increasingly churns out the London-centric tosh of Simon Schama’s Millenium History and flashy post-modernism from the likes of Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts. Just as, on the social sciences side, the folk from PR, marketing, and political branding have long evicted relationships concerned with anything other than Carlyle’s ‘cash nexus’.
One problem is that political scientists, while only intermittently influential on politicians, tend to resemble them. Some of the latter can, in the decadence of the British state, expect equally silly advances (from usually foreign-owned firms) for cognate tosh. Trapped in some secular drinks party, the latter radiate a despairing loneliness until their eyes clap on another politician, of whatever party. Historical fact, and its ambiguous relation to theory, is an unwelcome intruder. There is no chance whatever of either of these volumes getting within spitting distance – I choose my words – of Waterstone’s bookshelves. Yet there should be, because civic-minded historians can suggest interpretations of the events of the months since May 2007 – momentous in all conscience – which social scientists haven’t begun to grasp.
There are reasons for this. Angela McCarthy’s analysis of oral histories of the Scottish diaspora in England (vol. ii., chap. 11) shows them. Ways of speaking presuppose a certain sort of audience, with its received opinions and sense of decorum, and this often gives a better sense of milieu than precise number-crunching, as the empirical data on national identity are themselves based on subjective impressions. These appear to show, in this case, convergence and then distancing, but many of the statistical shifts involved were so slight that they fall into the pool of ‘acceptable error’ or are negated by other social factors. The stats show nationalism as popular among the young and secular: but other surveys also show this cohort as predominantly non-voters; (in my own campaign the SNP activists were middle-aged to elderly, often church-going, and difficult to tell apart from the Labour activists of my own youth in the 1960s).
Something of the ambiguity of the two paths is conveyed by summarising the two historical essays in Volume ii: Richard Finlay on the monarchy in Scotland (vol. ii., chap. 1) and James Mitchell on A. V. Dicey (vol. ii., chap. 2). For Finlay, much of the popularity of the Victorian monarchy derives from Victoria herself, for Walter Bagehot the ‘dignified part of the constitution’. Scotland’s Victoria was physically present for much of the year; Ireland’s scarcely figured...