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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Scottish exceptionalism?

I am a Scot – although it’s interesting that I forgot to include this in the list of ways I set out in a 2010 blogpost in which I could (and had) describe myself over the years! Perhaps this reflects my ambivalence about nationalism.
Most people are proud of their nationality – I certainly am – but some are hesitant. We are told that Germans, for example, associate more easily with their Land (Province) than with the country – although Peter Watson’s recent and encyclopaedic German Genius sets out in amazing detail what German culture and science have given the world. At the other end of the scale, the Hungarian arrogance I experienced when I worked and lived there for a couple of years seemed to be a psychological defence against their feeling that Hungary had failed in everything it had attempted. Emigre Hungarians, however, have an amazing record – witness Arthur Koestler, photographic genius Andre Kertesz, and economist Thomas Balogh. 
Romanians, as I said recently, are a proud people – that is not the same thing, I suspect, as being proud of their nation. Most Romanians I have known are ashamed of how their nation’s governing elites have behaved over the years - but react violently to external criticism. They are certainly proud of the contributions which various Romanians have made to modern life eg the jet engine (Coanda) – although the guy who became Head of Romania’s Cultural Institute in a recent political coup seems to have made a bit of a fool of himself in suggesting that Romania invented the…radiator    

All this is by way of an introduction to the post I did exactly two years ago on the Scottish contribution to the world – at least as seen through the eyes of an American historian, Arthur Herman in his book The Scottish Enlightenment – the Scots invention of the modern world (200). One of our younger generation of writers summarises the story nicely
The Knoxian reformation of the 16th century had resulted in 100 years of almost uninterrupted violence and bloodshed. Three consecutive failed harvests at the end of the 17th century, against the backdrop of England's imperial growth, set the circumstances for Scotland's ruling classes to sell out its sovereignty - literally. The Earl of Roseberry was paid £12,000 from a slush fund operated by the London government to enable the merger between Scotland and England to take place. But rather than suffer the expected dilution into insignificance, Scotland became proportionately the most significant player in the union's empire. And through innovations in philosophy, education, commerce, engineering, industry, architecture, town planning, soldiering, administration, medicine and even tourism, the Scots invented the modern world of capitalist democracy. The springboard for this was the most powerful legacy of the Presbyterian revolution: a universal (or near-universal) education system.
The Presbyterians popularised the notion that political power, though ordained by God, was vested not in the monarch or even in the clergy, but in the people. Yes, Scottish Presbyterians could behave like ayatollahs and the Kirk could regularly incite public executions for spurious blasphemy or witchcraft charges. But one of the last acts of the Scottish parliament was to establish a school and salaried teacher in every parish.
The effect of this was that by 1750, with an estimated 75% level of literacy, the Scots were probably the most well-read nation on earth. The dichotomy between authoritarian repression and liberal inquiry in Scottish society was embodied in Robert Burns. At 16, the poverty-stricken Ayrshire ploughman was versed in Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Locke, the Scottish poets and the French Enlightenment philosophers. The knock-on effects of the education act were felt in universities and the book trade. By 1790 Edinburgh boasted 16 publishing houses.
I knew about Adam Smith and David Hume (although not properly appreciated the latter’s arguments eg “reason is – and ought to be – the slave of passions”). I knew about the openness of Scottish universities in medieval times and their strong links with continental universities (not least as a final stage of legal education); about the Scots role in the British Empire (and in exploiting the opium trade); and that most of the stuff with kilts is actually a Victorian invention. What, however, I hadn’t realised until I read the book were things such as 
·         The speed with which Scotland apparently changed from a backwater of Iran-like religious domination and prejudice to playing a leading role in the development of the “study of mankind”
·         just what a galaxy of stars there were in Edinburgh and Glasgow between the last 2 Scottish uprisings of 1715 and 1745. Frances Hutcheson I had vaguely heard of – but not his core argument that “all men of reflection from Socrates have sufficiently proved that the truest, most constant and lively pleasure, the happiest enjoyment in life, consists in kind affections to our fellow creatures”.
·         The role Scots politicians played in liberalising British politics in the 1830 period
·         How major a role Scots played in the American revolution – and, indeed (on the downside), in the development of its “revivalist” religious tradition!

Many people feel that Arthur Herman has gone too far in his claims - and there is a short professional piece here which takes a more balanced view and reminds us that most Scots (certainly in and around Glasgow) are renowned for a strange sense of victimhood and inferiority.
Coincidentally, another book with a similar argument has just appeared - Capital of the Mind - how Edinburgh changed the World

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