Sunday, 2 June 2013

A wee history lesson

Ask your average European to name a Scottish Monarch and there would only be one answer. 

No harm to Robert the Bruce but how many 14th Century Kings of Hungary or Denmark or Serbia can you name? So how many 14th Century Kings of Scotland would you expect them to know in reciprocation?

No, only one of our uniquely Scottish Heads of State has entered a wider European consciousness, the one who lost her head.

And the reasons why deserve a bit of consideration.

I was brought up in the tradition that all history was (ultimately) economic history. Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson were the heroes of my youth and beyond. But I have slowly changed my view on that and my ulitimate apotheosis was caused by Diarmid MacCulloch’s great, great book on the Reformation. Here was ideology driving economics and not the reverse. And precisely at Mary’s time.

Now we all know a bit about Mary Queen of Scots. That she was “Celtic minded”; that she ended up ill served by a couple of husbands from the South Side, one of whom she might have had bumped off herself; that her last words were “Keep the heid”. (I think that’s right).

Why however was she such a figure of importance both contemporarily and in subsequent literature and music?

Well there were two reasons, neither of which had very much to do with Scotland.

The first, which needs to be acknowledged before I move on to my central argument, is that she was a woman, and that important women were rare in this age. Not unique; for, important though she was, she was small beer compared to her contemporaries Catherine de Medici or Elizabeth the 1st  of England. Indeed Mary’s own mother had been a woman of some considerable substance. Nonetheless, Queens, in their own right, of any sort, were still pretty exotic creatures in the Sixteenth Century, never mind ones who saw off three husbands and ended up by having their heads cut off. So she would always have had a certain curiosity value. But it was not that which brought her her real fame.

The reason Mary resonates down through the ages, from Schiller to Donizetti to Liz Lochhead (I may have taken that too far), is not because she was Queen of Scots but because she could have been Queen of England. And it was that reason, rather than any mysteriously exploding houses that ultimately lead to her death.

For her undoing was her granny, sister to Henry the Eighth of England; her great uncle’s inability to provide a viable, incontestably legitimate, heir and Henry’s last surviving daughter’s disinclination to help him out rescuing the situation. 

Now all of this was obviously further complicated by the religious politics of the time, as if it was suddenly realised that the fall out from Charles Green and Craig Whyte’s corporate shenanigans might mean that the true owners of the Rangers had turned out to be the trustees of the Croy Miners’ Welfare.

Nonetheless, there is another important point which is that Scotland and England, notwithstanding the Wars of Independence, were always going to end up in each others pockets long before Mary’s boy ended up as King of both. As they inevitably had to be. For, at its simplest, 16th Century, expression, you can’t travel by land and short sea route to anywhere of importance from Scotland without going through England. And yet, at least in a more martial age, the English could hardly growl aggressively towards the Continent if they feared constantly a gnat bite on the bum. What’s more, England has always been a much larger Nation, geographically but much more importantly demographically, than Scotland. So a relationship based, on our part, on occasional bearing of our blue buttocks was always going to end in tears, as indeed it had for both Mary’s dad and granddad.

The irony of course was that the “deal” when it came gave us pretty much everything we wanted at the time. Which amounted to little more than free trade and freedom of our, distinctive, religion. For all the modern reference to the law and education being thrown in, the first was merely a guarantor of that religious exceptionalism and the second a consequence of it.

Now, what has any of this to do with 2013 or more importantly 2014?

Just this, Scotland and England will continue to have to be in each others pockets as we were as long ago as the 16th Century. The idea that we might pursue dramatically different foreign and defence policies is wholly illusory. “They” could do us much more harm than we could ever do "them" and the idea that we could rely on their good neighbourliness stumbles on the proposition that, while wishing them to be polite towards us, we would apparently seek independence precisely so that we could be as rude as possible to them: repudiating “their” nuclear weapons; “their” military alliances and “their“ illegal wars.

Meanwhile, as the acrobatics being performed by the SNP over currency are increasingly demonstrating, economic independence is also wholly illusory. A choice between a joint currency with the terms of our economic policy being set by a much larger foreign country or a separate currency with the inevitable consequence of a flight of capital and the collapse of our financial services industry. And that’s even assuming this would be our choice to make in the first place.

Truly, the choice next year remains whether we have, as we have just now, on this small island, some influence on our own destiny or whether we have no influence at all. Our “own” flag and anthem is to me a small consolation for the latter option.

Let’s not forget that, when the interests of Scotland and England coincided, James the 6th got to be King of both.

And when they didn’t?

Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off.


  1. The historical frame is of academic interest but how does it fit in relation to the aspirations of 21st century Scotland ?

  2. It is true that MQS is known outside Scotland, but mainly as a profoundly ahistorical figure of fantasy. George MacDonald Fraser (in A Hollywood History of the World) describes the John Ford movie on Mary as the worst movie about Scotland ever in terms of historical accuracy, but I'd gues it still reflects what people think they know of her.

    People believe what they want to believe irrespective of what actually happened in history. People still maunder on about the 'Auld Alliance' when the truth is the English helped us chuck the French out of Scotland at the Siege of Leith (perhaps a better example for your argument, Ian).

  3. That is how I remember it. However, you are in the labour party, so you made this up. If you were in the SNP, you would have made up another story.

    In the global warming debate, libraries have been written to justify tribal idiocies and the Guardian has fallen to sub tabloid levels to justify its promotion of billions of dollars of free carbon credits for its big business advertisers.

    Celtic and Rangers are partners in extracting the maximum benefit for themselves from the SPL.

    Scotland's future (devo max) will be a model for future European 'democracy'. It's a control, with the appearance of independence thing. Centrally controlled budgets will remain.

    The Rangers farce makes Scotland look like a third world nation, especially now the bus gangsters and Walter 'daftie' Smith have taken charge.