Scots, fearless clansmen of the past, always prepared for the worst, have through time become self-inflicted victims of the Stockholm syndrome. They became afraid of an independence from others’ yoke. This reason alone was a significant contributor to the failed 2014 referendum for Scotland’s (and Scottish) independence. If the next referendum occurs in a not too distant future it may pass, but it should not pass for the wrong reasons.
Peripheral Fear and the Fear of Periphery
People of Scottish heritage have made extraordinary contributions to the world, many of them within the sphere of individual and collective freedoms: economic, social, and political. Equally remarkable is that the rich heritage is perhaps the least evident in Scotland’s contemporary landscape. The current condition is an outcome of the State’s autocratic power, which as a system, has overwhelmed the power of a more egalitarian folk cultural system.
Figure1. Statue of economist Adam Smith, erected on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. As if Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, is looking down the street towards the Scottish Parliament (Holyrood), thinking about Scotland’s future. (All photos by the author.)
The State made sure that all threatening aspects of the traditional way-of-life would be a distant memory, particularly those related to social and political organization. A contemporary Scot may still be a fearless fighter in Leith’s (Edinburgh) “bar of flashing blades”, or in a similar exchange at an individual level elsewhere. Yet his bravery rapidly collapses the moment he encounters her Majesty’s bureaucrats. He can proudly acknowledge that the law based on folk customs and traditions allow him to freely walk over anyone’s land in his own country—a luxury not allowed in England. Yet he laments a little when talking about who actually owns the land he freely walks over.
As occurred in many similar rural mountainous regions, the State in Scotland made sure to eliminate (or at least drastically reduce) the significance of folk cultural traits on the population. In general, a State tries to destroy the folk cultural system, because the two systems are diametrically opposed and cannot co-exist without conflict. It only retained the ones like freedom of passage (in tribal societies this social option was utilized to prevent blood feuding), which in essence makes a low overall impact on the exercise of its power.
On the other hand, the State utilized its power to restrict people’s access to land in the form of ownership, residence, and cultivation, thereby increasing economic, political, and social dependence. Furthermore, for the past three centuries the State’s power originated from outside of Scotland, which made it both figuratively and literally peripheral within the United Kingdom.
[For more about mountains societies and the conflicts between the state and tribes read my “Culture Change and Conflict in the Mountains (of Montenegro and Northern Albania).”]
Accumulation of power through land ownership in the hands of few is generally an outcome of the State’s conquest. Today, fewer than 500 people own half of Scotland’s land. Highland Clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries were effective in reducing the rural population and largely destroying the agricultural economic base, the results of which remain evident today. Left with few possessions, many ordinary Scots emigrated, aware of the phrase that, “A man is not a man without land.” Among those who remained, dependency on the State increased.
Figure 2 (Source): Land ownership and the geography of conflict in Scotland.
Figure 3. Landscape in the Highlands has been drastically altered in recent centuries to fit the State’s needs. The impact is clearly evident today.
In essence, the Scots became accustomed to not fearing failure at all, but, like in some other regions in Europe, to anticipate that changes in status quo are always negative (See my “A Tradition of Fear and the Geography of Conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina”). When in 2014 the referendum arrived, I was living in Scotland and observed that very behavior; people were fearful for their future. Inexplicably, however, they were not afraid of failure, but very much afraid of the potential outcome of success. As a result, the independence movement was defeated.
After centuries of being put down and having little freedom in their own affairs, ordinary Scots could not break out of the fear that they could end the dependency. This is completely understandable behavior. In current and previously-tribal mountainous regions, peripheral areas take the most time to subdue and, as a result, receive the brunt of impact from the State’s expansion. The State makes sure to exercise as strong as possible control over people and that these areas remain under its jurisdiction indefinitely. That control is seldom in the form of greater than average economic development and expansion of liberties. Rather, peripheral areas generally fall behind in development.
When an opportunity to exercise independence arrives, people feel that they may not be able to do it without someone else’s help. This is what happened to Scotland in 2014.
Efforts must be Doubled
By remaining in the Union, the Scots have achieved another “success” on the list of low expectations. They remained dependent on someone else, prolonging the sense of captivity they have acquired and experienced through the past several centuries. Paradoxically, however, they also appear to have realized that the “success” was a failure that can be turned into real success.
Now engraved in the collective Scottish memory is a sense of accomplishment. Minimally, they made an attempt to achieve independence, maximally, they gained an understanding that they, too, could run their own affairs like the other fifty countries in Europe.
Figure 4. Paper butterflies expressing their preference for Scotland’s future, by supporting “Yes” vote, prior to the 2014 referendum.
Nations, like individuals, have difficulty in avoiding relapse and tend to fall into the same groove, often deeper than before. If Scotland conducts another referendum for independence and fails to reach its goal again, the Scottish Stockholm Syndrome may return as strong as ever. This is why Scotland should not conduct a referendum just so people can prove it can be done politically, but for the historic socioeconomic and moral independence of the Scottish people.
The right timing is much more important for the latter than for the former option. That is, assuming the Scots, as a nation, understand such an effort may require even more courage for liberty by each individual, than what has regularly been displayed in Leith’s “bar of flashing blades.”