Reading History backwards: review of Chris Bambery’s A People’s History of Scotland

Reading History backwards: review of Chris Bambery’s A People’s History of Scotland

A People’s History of Scotland is a gallop through Scottish radical history from the Picts and Gaels through the industrial struggles of the 19th and 20th century to the impending independence referendum and beyond. The pace and scope of Chris Bambery’s book precludes any opportunity for critical analysis of the movements and characters sketched throughout the 330 or so pages but his encyclopaedic approach succeeds in bringing together a diverse series of stories in readable and informative manner. At its best it shines a light on oft neglected figures and events, leaving the reader longing for more detail and insight. If only he had stopped there.

There are three distinct sections to Bambery’s book. All are problematic, to varying degrees. The opening chapters race through Scotland’s early history, pausing only for contradictory truisms and dubious nationalist sentiment – and, glaringly, an almost complete absence of the ‘people’ promised in the book’s title. Take the account of William Wallace. First introduced as a ‘great leader’[1], fighting against oppression, only to be reappraised, in the end, with a quote from G.W.S. Barrow acknowledging the conservatism of Wallace, being, as he was, firmly embedded in and accepting of feudal society. The latter is, of course, much closer to the, albeit banal and well-charted, truth, while the former is about as nuanced and considered an analysis as Mel Gibson’s – and it would be remiss not to mention the inexcusable and bizarre reference to Braveheart as ‘a good account of Wallace’s life.’[2]

All too often it seems that Bambery’s understanding of these early movements as, at the very least, problematic gets in the way of his attempt to give the impression of a nation slowly forging itself through its struggles against oppression. For example, Bambery’s assertion that ‘freedom was finally won on the field of battle at Bannockburn,’[3] is later tempered with his description of the Declaration of Arbroath:

[T]he War of Independence had ultimately involved a section of the common people, but it should not obscure the fact this was a nobles’ document, and it was their independence that was being asserted. There was little in the way of ‘freedom’ for the ordinary folk over the coming centuries.[4]

However, to give credit where it is due, Bambery avoids some of the pitfalls of his fellow travellers in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC); his account of Culloden is sensible and unambiguously rejects the nonsense uttered by Tariq Ali in his May interview for the nationalist blog Bella Caledonia.[5] He is also alive to the problems of imposing the concept of the nation on a people for whom the idea would be entirely alien. But the flaw in Bambery’s approach is neatly captured in his statement, ‘Legends will appear throughout this book, and in a way it does not matter if they are real, because a legend can take on a life of its own and so inspire a future generation.’[6] The failure to interrogate these legends, to explore the complex and contradictory relationship between the history and the myth, prevents the book from becoming anything more than a greatest hits of radical – a slippery political term at the best of times – Scottish movements.

Fortunately, things significantly improve when we get to the 19th century. Bambery is evidently more comfortable in this terrain and many of the stories he tells, both well known and undeservedly obscure, are compelling. This second section takes us up to the Thatcher years and covers a lot of ground. His account of the upsurge of working class struggle in Scotland is, at its best, well-rendered, informative and engaging and does make explicit the links between the struggle in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain. Unavoidably, it is tinged with a nostalgia – which, at times, serves to underscore the poverty of today’s movements and organisations – and the occasional hint of parochialism. And again one wishes he would slow down and take the time to draw out the complexities of the various struggles and characters. There are omissions, most notably the sweeping over of the post-1945 gains, presumably as they do not fit with the idea that the UK holds back the innate Scottish tendency towards social justice and equality. And there is an inevitable cherry-picking of subjects which neatly fit with this notion, mitigated to an extent by nods towards the clearly reactionary tendencies in Scottish society, in particular anti-Catholicism.

However, by the time Thatcher makes an appearance it is clear that the preceding 200 pages are merely a preamble to the central thesis of A People’s History of Scotland. That is, that the Thatcher years represent a turning point where Scotland’s political trajectory diverges from the rest of Britain and the only way to achieve a fairer, more equitable society in Scotland is through Scottish independence. For all the space devoted to the Thatcher years – a reversal of the problem plaguing the rest of the book – there is still a distinct paucity of ideas. In fact there are only really two: first, that Thatcher presided over a vicious attack on the working class; and second, that the people of Scotland never voted for Thatcher.

There are problems with both. It is true that Thatcher presided over a vicious attack on the working class but that cannot be properly understood in isolation from the wider social forces at work. Thatcher and the British state were operating in the service and interests of a capitalist class intent on rolling back the concessions won by the whole British working class after WWII; a phenomenon not confined to Britain, it must be added. The second claim is even more problematic. Thatcher failed to win a majority in Scotland just as she failed to win a majority in many areas throughout Britain with a high concentration of working class people. Furthermore, the Tories collected 24% of the vote in Scotland in 1987, a not insignificant share. Having abandoned a class analysis, this leads Bambery to the bizarre conflation of Scottish identity with anti-Thatcherism and Conservative support with British identity. The result is the subordination of working-class politics to nationalism with the fight against Thatcher’s free-market fundamentalism translated into a struggle for national freedom.

And it is this abandonment of class politics which characterises the remainder of the book. The 21st century is another role-call of radical movements including the G8 protests and anti-war movement – although their British-wide nature is now sidelined. There is surprisingly little on the rise and fall of the Scottish Socialist Party, presumably its inclusion would have somewhat detracted from the book’s teleological charge towards its conclusion and raison d’etre: vote ‘yes’ on 18 September for the chance to build a new era of peace and equality in Scotland. From hereon in the claims become more outlandish. On NATO, ‘Scotland has no interest in this war-making alliance.’[7] Well, the Scottish capitalist class does; the working class, in Scotland and beyond, do not. And so breaking with NATO will not be ‘very easy and very possible’[8] within a Scottish capitalist state, just as breaking with NATO is not easy in the existing British capitalist state – particularly given what is actually on offer on the 18th offers very little in the way of real independence. Not that meaningful independence is possible or desirable in the globalized capitalist economy we live under.

However, Bambery is clear in his rejection of the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland. Whether campaigns like RIC merely serve to give left-wing cover to the reactionary programme of the Scottish nationalists is a discussion best left for another time. But what is striking about the final pages of the book is the political timidity on show. ‘It’s time for a change, surely?’ ‘There’s nothing guaranteed, but surely we can deal with our own rapacious ruling class and move on to a better society than this.’ ‘…we have a chance to take control of our destiny.’ And the final sentence, ‘If we can take control of our destiny and the wealth of this country in our own hands the Scottish people can go forward to make a far better chapter in their history.’ All this talk of ‘destiny’ in the context of nation building should turn the stomach of any socialist, but it is the complete absence of any notion of what agent can bring about this change – beyond the nebulous ‘people of Scotland’ – that should be of most concern.

There is clearly a problem of agency in Bambery’s image of a new Scottish state. For socialists, the RIC slogan – ‘Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours’ – is fundamentally wrong. An independent capitalist Scottish state will no more be ours than the existing British capitalist state is ours. By laying the blame for the devastation wreaked by decades of neo-liberalism at the door of Westminister and Britain is to somewhat miss the point. In other words, the problem is capitalism.  What we need is an independent working class movement that breaks down national barriers, that rejects both Scottish and British nationalism, and unites our class against capitalism and for socialism. Instead, Bambery would have us place our faith in a new Scottish state to build a better society.

All in all, Bambery’s book suffers from its ambitious scope and less than ambitious depth. There is no real contribution to Scottish historiography, perhaps in part due to the lack of any original research. Setting the initial chapters to one side, the assemblage of stories and characters from a wide range of secondary sources – essentially an encyclopaedia of Scottish political movements – is a worthwhile project in its own right. And left at that, A People’s History of Scotland would be a valuable contribution to the history of Scotland’s working class movements and characters. But the political conclusions drawn leave a lot to be desired. The Scottish exceptionalism and the abandonment of class analysis represent a capitulation to nationalism. If we are to build a free and equal society we must do it for ourselves, not in concert with the bourgeois of any nation: after all, lest we forget, the working class has no country.

[1]               Bambery, A People’s History of Scotland, p.18

[2]               Ibid, p.23

[3]               Ibid, p.18

[4]               Ibdi, p.27


[6]               Bambery, p.5

[7]               Ibid, p.301

[8]               Ibid, p.301


Published by Verso Books

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