“I see us entering a world divided not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do.” — Joseph Stiglitz, writing in The New York Times, October 13, 2013.
“We’ve got a saying around here,” says Alec MacDonald through a heavy Scottish brogue, before proceeding to gutturally emphasize each syllable: “We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns.”
I’m in the Yes campaign office in Scotland’s Western Isles, a diminutive room made even smaller by an impressive clutter of pro-independence leaflets, pins, balloons, and banners. Paper flags of countries that have fought for freedom hang on strings from the ceiling like nationalist Christmas lights. MacDonald mans the office despite being—like most of the rest of the Western Isles, it seems—in his 70s.
I have no idea what the phrase means. Only one of the five words makes sense—who is Jock Tamson and what are bairns? I’m halfway through a bicycle trip around the coast of Scotland—which was doubling as a harebrained scheme to interview Scots about the upcoming independence referendum—and I haven’t yet conquered the idioms. What MacDonald is trying to explain to me is a curious, recurrent theme that comes up every time I speak to independence supporters: the belief that Scots are fairer, more caring and more egalitarian than the rest of the United Kingdom.
Initially a bemusing, inconsequential assertion, after enough repetition I realized it was a fundamental motivator for Yes voters, and therefore key to understanding independence. Since Scottish nationalism isn’t an outright ethnic, religious or linguistic movement, it relies heavily on socio-cultural definitions of “Scottishness”—namely, a shared egalitarianism. It’s the bedrock of the country’s liberal politics. It’s why First Minister Alex Salmond believes Scotland will be the next Denmark or Norway. Its roots, however, are hard to pin down, and even harder for Scots to explain to a panting American journalist on a beat-up retro road bike. It is, essentially, a living, breathing myth.
By using some sort of filter—like, perhaps, a universally understood saying—the trait is more easily conveyed. I’ve heard of Jock Tamson’s Bairns before, but am no closer to comprehending it than the first time it was spouted at me a few weeks prior by a sweaty hiker. He didn’t elaborate. MacDonald at least clues in to my ignorance, but also demurs. “Look it up.”
Looking it up isn’t easy. Finding good wifi in the Outer Hebrides is about as common as finding someone between the ages of 18 and 30. When I finally hunker down in a pub on the harbor, Google raises as many questions as it answers.
Essentially, “We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns” means, “We’re all part of a common humanity.” “Bairns” are children, so another more pious explanation is “We’re all God’s children.” But who Jock Tamson is (or was) is a mystery. Some say he was a 19th-century minister named John Thompson. Or, an innkeeper from Montrose. Or, simply, God Himself. One interpretation suggests he is the embodiment of whisky, a lewd allusion to a tenured tradition of Scottish alcoholism. The confusion explains why MacDonald, or anyone else, for that matter, couldn’t explain the adage. No one knows where it came from—just like the myth of Scottish egalitarianism.
Clearly, some help is needed. And if there’s an expert on the Scottish myth, it’s Professor David McCrone, a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Governance.
“It’s like asking Americans about the American Dream,” McCrone explains to me, once I get back to Edinburgh. “‘Where does it come from?’ ‘I don’t know.’”
The comparison between the two myths is apt. Both buttress national identity, and both are concerned with equality. In America, equality of opportunity is—in theory—sacrosanct. In Scotland, equality of condition occupies the same space. To McCrone, “it’s a piece of ideology, in a positive sense—just as the American Dream is alive and well and living. It’s in people’s thoughts, because they behave as if it’s true, regardless of evidence or reality. As a driving force, it’s a truth that we hold to be self-evident—to coin a phrase.”
But could the myth be strong enough to forge an independent country? To break apart one of the paragons of the modern Western world?
Ironically, you can only understand Scottish egalitarianism—and how it might affect Thursday’s vote—in relation to the country’s inequality. (To belabor the comparison a bit, the same could be said for the American Dream.) One of the most common answers I found when asking Scots about the roots of the myth was poverty.
Following the attrition of heavy industry in the 1980s, the income gap across the United Kingdom has grown substantially. The most recent numbers place it as the seventh-most unequal among 35 OECD states. In Scotland, hourly wage inequality matches the rest of the United Kingdom once the skew of London is factored out. Part-time work is rising (particularly for men), and the percentage of households surviving on a single income has more than doubled since 1961.
Aberdeen, perched on the North Sea, offers a perfect example of the schism between the top and bottom earners. The city’s energy micro-economy supports over 100,000 jobs in the area. There are more millionaires per capita than anywhere in Britain. The heartbeat of it all is the sprawling harbor, a dizzying maze of concrete docks and fluorescent-vested workers on humming forklifts, which forms the gateway to the “Oil Capital of Europe.”
But across the street, there is a food bank.
Inside, Christine McLean—an undecided voter—guides me on a tour through the makeshift garage where Community Food Initiatives North East is temporarily housed. Pallets of produce and food parcels are stacked shoulder-high. Heads of lettuce. Cans of beans. Knockoff energy drinks. Due to new government policies that sanction welfare recipients who miss appointments, more people are showing up than ever before.
“When I first started here, maybe only one or two people were being sanctioned,” McLean explains. “Last week, we dished out 111 food parcels. That’s a lot, because there’s a lot of food banks.”
Full-time workers on minimum wage are coming to get parcels, too.
“It’s just that last four days of the month. You see a lot of married men—the debt, the unemployment has broke up the family. And, obviously, the mother has the children, so she gets more benefits. Ken.”—an old Scots term, literally “to know”; idiomatically, it functions like our somewhat redundant “Ya know what I mean?” She furrows her brow. “It’s a vicious circle.”
It all raises the question: Is severe inequality a rebuke of Scottish egalitarianism, or precisely the reason why Scotland should have more self-governance?
There’s a strong case to be made that the current Conservative-led coalition in London is responsible for the short-term perpetuation of this “vicious circle” of poverty. Beyond the welfare sanctions, means-testing benefits are being replaced by a universal system. (On this topic, after trying to be diplomatic, McLean blurted out, “They say they support you, but by Jesus, where’s the money?”) In 2012 the so-called Bedroom Tax was passed, an under-occupancy penalty that disproportionately hits low-income families.
For Scots older than 30, it’s all too reminiscent of Thatcherism. The Bedroom Tax might as well be the dreaded Poll Tax, a 1989 levy that prompted riots and local Scottish Councils to rebel against enforcement. David Cameron isn’t as despised as the Iron Lady, but until last week he didn’t dare campaign in Scotland for fear his presence would bolster support for independence.
But blaming contemporary politics for the deep roots of inequality in Scotland is a misdirected, short-term fixation. Scotland was an active, eager partner in the two grand economic projects that created such social stratification in the first place: industry and empire.
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, England was already a patchwork of towns and cities, boasting administration and infrastructure capable of handling economic change. Scotland wasn’t. It was a diffuse, factionalized nation of far-flung rural communities—and yet, between 1750 and 1780 it saw the most rapid industrialization and urban growth in all of Europe. Socially and economically, the shift was seismic. Manufacturing jobs in Scotland’s southern belt paid less than the English equivalent, and rent was higher. Emigration to North America became more promising than risking the cities—Scots still grimace when they say their biggest export has always been people. Between 1815 and 1939, 2 million people left Scotland, out of a median population of 4 million.
This burgeoning inequality wasn’t an English imposition. It was Scottish imperial pursuits that supplied the capital needed for industry, all while concentrating wealth in fewer hands. And far from being secondary partners, Scots featured disproportionately in overseas imperial exploitation. Outnumbered five to one in Britain, Scots made up 60 percent of the merchants in Bengal, Calcutta and Madras. Over 75 percent of the staff of the Hudson Bay Company was from Orkney alone. Scots in the East Indies rarely settled abroad, so the new cache of uber-wealthy merchants returning home forced even minor landowners from the upper classes. The grossly unequal societies we now know were beginning to form.
So why is there a lingering tendency among independence supporters to divert responsibility for economic injustice away from Scotland, despite evidence to the contrary? And how has the Scottish myth of egalitarianism survived two and a half centuries of severe inequality?
Two 20th-century phenomena, occurring in quick succession, are the culprits.
The first is what Scottish historian Tom Devine calls “imperial amnesia.” After the postwar disintegration of the British Empire, Scots curiously disassociated themselves with the period altogether. So-called “victim history,” focusing on marginalized classes, took over in academic circles. Without complicity in the empire, Scotland, certainly, couldn’t have created the economic conditions that resulted from it.
“I don’t think about the empire,” I was told by Angela Quail, a Yes campaigner (and Alec MacDonald’s sidekick). “I don’t have any hang-up.” At a debate in Orkney at the end of August, I watched as an elderly man with a posh southern accent asked the panel, “Do you have no pride in the Empire?” Angus MacNeil, a Scottish National Party Member of Parliament, responded dismissively with an anecdote about Scots killing indigenous South Americans in Chile. “Am I proud of that history? Certainly not.” Best not to dwell on these things.
The second phenomenon came in two waves. First, the postwar welfare state finally addressed dire economic conditions, which had been exacerbated by severe depression in the 1930s. Next, that exact web of social safety nets was dismantled by Margaret Thatcher, along with the heavily subsidized coal industry. Almost a third of manufacturing jobs disappeared within a decade. For a mere generation, UK-wide public policy had matched the notion of Scottish egalitarianism, at least moderately. You don’t have to bike around the coast to hear people say, “There were no food banks in the ’50s.” (I heard it three times.) But it was also the UK government that took it away. Paradoxically, the Scottish myth thrived at the end of the 20th century precisely because it had been smothered by the powers that be. Although it’s a bit cliché and reductive, Thatcherism and the national mood that conspired against it is why there’s a vote on Thursday.
Against this bitter backdrop, we’re now seeing a moment of hope and change among independence supporters, much like America’s Obama fervor of 2008. There are striking similarities between the two campaigns. Both clearly won the battle for social media domination. Both mobilized a grassroots organization unprecedented in their countries, and both hawked progressive agendas. Initially, for an outsider looking in, this moment is a sight to behold. It is, at least for the topic at hand, a clear attempt to materialize the Scottish myth, which has long awaited its time in the sun.
What is utterly unknown, however, is how an independent Scotland will achieve its goal of becoming a left-wing, egalitarian Nordic state.
Such states use a high-tax, high-spend system that broadens access to public services. But the Scottish National Party (SNP) has no plan to raise taxes. “Scotland’s Future,” the 670-page white paper that serves as a blueprint for independence, has one specific tax alteration: cutting the corporation tax by 3 percent, which, if we’re sticking with the analogy of American elections, is a very Romney thing to do. Two weeks ago, when parliament had a vote on repealing aspects of the Bedroom Tax, two-thirds of the SNP MPs didn’t show up.
And while the UK welfare system is clearly imperfect, it has been effective to a certain degree. A study by the Economic and Social Research Council last year found that although Scotland’s earnings inequality has increased since the 1990s, net household inequality hasn’t—meaning that the UK system has, at least moderately, picked up the slack. Even if the SNP had a grand plan—which, once again, it doesn’t—the state cannot make economic guarantees in an age of globalized markets and shared currencies.
As I prepped to leave the States for this trip, most fellow Americans I talked to had no idea Scotland was voting on its independence. With so much domestic political drama, this in itself wasn’t surprising. What surprised me was the nearly universal reaction to the news: “Well, it’s about time!”
This reflex may have something to do with the inexplicably strong impact that Braveheart has had on Americans’ notion of Scotland. But I think there’s something else at work. The belief that Scots are culturally different from the rest of the UK is so potent that it has penetrated the collective psyche of a country that, admittedly, often finds it hard to parse the fine details of foreign countries. And while the material evidence is there—the kilts, the bagpipes, the haggis—it’s rather the fact that many Scots believe in this difference, too, that is enough to make it true (a Polar Express kind of identity creation, if we’re on to movies now). If Scotland vote Yes, and acts on this cultural distinction, it would become the first nation to be founded partially on the idea of diminishing that bane of the 21st century, inequality. The hard truth, however, is that without a plan to do so, it won’t be banished by simply believing in its ugliness.