The Scottish Referendum: Social Science and National Identity


David Hume and Adam Smith
Could David Hume and Adam Smith and other Scottish thinkers of the 18th century have created a social science that was markedly Caledonian and yet not parochial?
On 18 September, Scotland voted against re-establishing its independence from the rest of the United Kingdom – for the time being. In England, ‘business as usual’ has swiftly been restored. Westminster politicians are preoccupied with their annual party conferences and internecine disputes. The momentary panic when it seemed that Scotland might vote ‘yes’ has dissipated. UK leaders’ main concern now appears to be how to backtrack on the promises of further fiscal and legislative devolution that are thought to have secured the ‘no’ outcome.

This is a foolish strategy, which further signals the disconnect between the political elite and many of the people they purport to represent. When there is an 87 percent turnout and 45 percent of the voters say they are unhappy with the present constitutional arrangements, this must pose a serious problem of legitimacy for the existing order. The third biggest city in the United Kingdom has an outright majority against remaining part of that state. English politicians simply do not get it.

This is not the romantic nationalism of the 1970s, when I was a graduate student at a Scottish university. In those days the nationalist movement was a collection of genuine eccentrics and mavericks. It was disconcerting to discover that a favourite graduate student bar was also the meeting place for the Scottish Republican Army, a sad group of malcontents trying to pretend they were the armed vanguard of independence. The modern ‘yes’ vote reached deep into the heart of the urban working class, people who had been dismissed for a generation, thrown out of work by the economic policies of every government since Margaret Thatcher, and harried by welfare cuts and disinvestment from public services. The underclass discovered that it could kick back.

For others, the memories of the broken promises of the past also returned to haunt the present. The 1979 referendum on a more limited programme of devolved government had resulted in a majority in favour, which did not carry the day because of the rules on minimum turnout added by the Westminster Parliament. It was another 20 years before Scotland got its own legislative assembly, during which it became a test-bed for radical neoliberalism imposed by the Conservative governments of the 1980s. Could any greater trust be placed in the promises of a new generation of Westminster politicians?

The referendum attracted a range of international interventions. Most of these, not least those from the US, betrayed a profound ignorance of the accidental nature of the present constitutional arrangements in the United Kingdom. We are exactly what that title implies – a country united by a shared monarch. When James VI of Scotland inherited the English crown in 1603, the governing institutions of the two countries remained entirely separate for another century. The Scottish Parliament dissolved itself in 1707 as the English price for baling out rich Scots who had lost heavily in the failed Darien scheme to develop a colony in Central America. Promises of compensation were supplemented by outright bribery to obtain a majority. It was, however, only the parliaments that were joined. Scotland retained separate legal, religious, and educational systems and remained a nation state in all senses except the political.

This presents a particular challenge to Scottish universities. Scottish higher education operates on a very different model to that of England. Their four-year undergraduate degree, with a relatively general foundation year and gradually increasing specialization, can be contrasted with the narrow three-year degrees offered by the English. This is the model that the Scots exported to other colonial universities. Although the imagery of the ‘democratic intellect,’ of wide access to poor students, has probably been overstated, there is no doubt that locally-based recruitment has given Scottish universities a very different relationship with civil society. The experience of moving from an elite English university, where townsfolk greeted students with sullen hostility, to standing behind people in queues at corner shops and listening to enthusiastic conversations about the achievements of their sons and daughters at the local university, profoundly affected my own thinking.

As with other small countries, the universities of Scotland have played a key role in sustaining a national identity through law, literature and philosophy. I was recently at a conference in Riga, for example, where I learned about the role of the Latvian Society in sustaining the idea of a nation under successive generations of occupiers. The Scottish referendum, however, exposed tensions in this mission. Scientists were more likely to vote ‘no,’ in order to retain access to the UK’s streams of research funding, while those working in the humanities and, to some extent, the social sciences were more likely to vote ‘yes,’ reflecting their belief in a role in the national culture.

On looking a little more closely, however, it is not clear how well this role is really being fulfilled because of the pressures from the national research assessment system. A focus on Scottish literature, politics or society is seen as marginal by the English-dominated assessment panels. When one looks at what is actually being researched and taught to students in Scotland, these interests stand at the margins of the curriculum in many areas. They are electives rather than core.

This is a challenge to future thinking about teaching in Scottish universities. Those social sciences that claim to be scientific in the narrow sense of that word may not be unduly bothered. The issue should, however, concern those who bring a wider perspective. There are, for example, very good arguments to be made that the Scottish thinkers of the 18th century are the prime movers in thinking that human behaviour and human societies can be the objects of systematic inquiry. The American Constitution is strongly influenced by their approach and it is the basis of pragmatism, which is often thought of as the most distinctive American contribution to philosophy. Placing Scottish thought at the center of Scottish social science does not impose a parochial vision on students. It does, however, provide a strong counter-narrative to the utilitarianism beloved of the English. It offers a positive vision of civil society, of community and of mutual interdependence. The contemporary world has need for such visions.


Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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Elizabeth Meehan
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Elizabeth Meehan

As a person who was active in attending meetings and seminars in the two years leading up to the referendum – and enjoying the whole experience, I pretty well agree with Robert Dingwall’s analysis. However, his use of the phrase ‘national identity’ carries risks. That is the ‘moniker’ nearly always unleashes the kind of response exemplified in some of the previous comments. For all my life, it has been regarded as a ‘fact of life’ that all Scots are nationalists, some of them seeing the national interest as best pursued through union with England, Wales and, – since 1922 –… Read more »

Virgo Kyri
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Virgo Kyri

The problem with both unionists and separatists is a failure to objectively analyze the philosophy behind national and ethnic identities. They are ideological constructs. One isn’t born something. One learns and chooses their national identity. They are what modern anthropologists sometimes reference as “imagined communities”. One imagines a distinct special relationship between themselves and large groups of other people based on some ad-hoc criteria. Nationalists personify themselves as if they are part of a singular organism. There is no Scottish values. No Scottish genes. And certainly not British ones either. There are genetic differences between individuals in different regions but… Read more »

David Walker
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David Walker

In their different ways, aren’t RD and SS raising the same question. Do universities in ‘our’ kind of society have a national vocation or have they floated as free of nation state identification (some might wish jurisdicton) as the big private companies. During the Referendum campaign the universities conspicuously withdrew from civic identity, both by their corporate silence and their cultivation of the view that Scottish independence ‘didn’t matter’ to their vocation. It’s a risible position. Institutions as large as the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh would bulk even larger in an independent Scotland where, unless observer behaviour during 2,000… Read more »

Stephen Senn
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I’m a Swiss who has an English wife and mother (neither of which entitle me to British nationality, which I don’t have), British children (born in Scotland) and a Scottish son-in-law and English daughter-in-law. I lived for many years in England and also twice in Scotland for a total of 17 years. I have also taught and studied at English and Scottish Universities. One particular point that the Scots and (often) the English don’t like to recognise is how much they have in common. In fact from an outside-of-Britain perspective they are almost indistinguishable: fish and chips, beer, football, betting,… Read more »

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