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History Starts and Ends Local (February 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Sadly, history can't teach lessons, but it can recreate a political landscape, show where changes occurred and what longterm effects were caused



The mark of the patriotic citizen is less pride in his or her country than shame when it betrays itself: James Joyce's "centre of paralysis"; Hugh MacDiarmid's fear that to stay in Scotland meant, quoting Soren Kierkegaard, "being trampled to death by geese"; the perversion of the past in Orwell's 1984.

Scottish history has a negative mood to it. As Iain Crichton Smith wrote, returning from Europe can be:

Like shifting
from a warm flat
to a lonely castle, hissing with ghosts.

It isn't value-free or classroom-friendly. Nor is it fairly dealt with in almost any standard UK account. Look at Simon Schama's preposterous A History of Britain for the BBC, God help them, where after 1800 nothing happens to the place until we Scottish nationalists appear, apparently hellbent on an ex-Yugoslav, chaotic future.

History can't teach lessons: but it can recreate a political landscape, show where changes occurred, what longterm effects were caused. It starts and ends local. I learned this at Kelso high school in the 1950s, where my history and geography teachers Lewis Lawson and Leonard Clark were Scots and English, but worked out from the burgh to the world. Mind you, this was eased through having the Norman ruins of Kelso Abbey a few hundred yards away, Flodden only a dozen miles off, Rennie's Kelso Bridge as the model for old Waterloo bridge, the French prisoners who built the great wall round Floors Castle ...

We lived in the shadow of the ballads and David Hume. I wish I could model myself on the Berwickshire infidel, who gave up writing history because he was "too lazy, too fat, too old and too rich" - particularly the last bit.

Scottish history, in its various episodes, has also been British, European and world history. That doesn't make it unionist. One episode remains highly relevant today: perhaps Scotland's finest hour, but with a deadly sting in the tale.

Put it in exam style:

Subtract the Clyde munitions district from the first world war and Germany would have won. Discuss.

The Germans had not expected that the Clyde, a peaceable industrial region, could convert itself in a matter of months into a world arsenal. After a sharp industrial conflict in 1915-16 – ‘the Red Clyde’ - it supplied the western front with artillery, tanks and aircraft, but above all high-explosive shells. It made good the losses inflicted on the merchant marines by the U-boat war in 1917, when the UK armed the Americans and enabled Sir Douglas Haig to hold off General Ludendorff in the following spring.

This adaptation was crucial, but it ruined the Scottish economy, like the peasant in Chekhov's Platonov who for a bet raises a huge load on to a cart, then falls exhausted and doesn't rise again.

By 1922, the Clyde and Scotland had gone from ‘workshop of the world’ to ‘that distressed region’ - a shattering reversal: and one from which the small- and medium-sized (SME) level of enterprise simply never recovered. The Scots saved themselves by nestling in the fur of the big beasts - the railways, the banks, ICI, the British state - and their entrepreneurialism was maimed.

In the 1970s they did something similar in North Sea oil. Astonishing technical feats, then exhaustion. On those experiences - accessible only through history - the country now has to face adaptation to an amazing third chance: the renewables revolution.

This is crucial, and this time we cannot afford to get things wrong. But first we must sort things in the schools, to make the kids see the landscape and not isolated incidents. Like Lawson and Clark half a century ago (and as I now recognise, behind them the ideas of Patrick Geddes) by working out from the known to the unknown.

"The present's theirs, but the past an' future's oors!" Alex Salmond ended his first campaign speech in 2006 with MacDiarmid's lines. Not an aggressive challenge but a necessary reordering. The sooner England sorts its own memory out, the better for all concerned in the social union.

"To be an internationalist, one must first be a nationalist." That was the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, a lifelong radical and pro-European, quoting the German liberal Gustav Stresemann. Outside the Holyrood parliament are graven Sir Alexander Gray's lines:

This is my country,
The land that begat me.
These windy spaces
Are surely my own.
And those who toil here
In the sweat of their faces
Are flesh of my flesh,
And bone of my bone.

The man was a liberal and not a Scottish Nationalist, but such attachment to a place is not dishonourable and I hope I will die still believing in it.

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