It’s Simple, Simon – a rejection of Schama’s vision of a fine mess of a union

The historian Simon Schama is the latest contributor to a series of essays in support of retaining the union published in the Financial Times. It has to be said they vary in quality.

While he describes himself as a British historian others might consider Schama to be an essentially English historian i.e. a historian who interprets the past from his perspective created out of shared relationships and experiences in England. He has never, to my knowledge, lived and worked in Scotland so is unfamiliar with life and culture here. Assumptions are not knowledge. His assumption that the Scots are a northern equivalent of the English leads him to conclude that whatever differences may exist between Scotland and England they are negligible and not sufficient to break up the Great British home.

He was criticised for his BBC series on the History of Britain. I didn’t watch it not least because I don’t find his work innovative or particularly interesting and expected to learn nothing new from it. I did read, however, that despite what I’m sure were his best efforts to be objective, Schama regurgitated the same old same old – Anglo-Saxons and their roles in the creation of England, Alfred the Great, Norman Conquests, Magna Carta and the like without comparable references to developments in Scotland to illustrate how bordering nations developed in different ways. In other words, Schama’s Britishness turned out in the end to be Englishness. How Scotland became the nation it is remains for the majority of ‘British’ historians an area outside their field of competency.


It’s an exaggerated claim that we have a shared history. Our pasts coincided and clashed from time to time but there’s much more to Scotland and England than these incidents usually related from a southern perspective.

Schama may think his approach is all-inclusive but he’s fooling himself if he thinks he is going beyond the Anglo-centric standard interpretation.

He certainly displays no sensitivity to Scotland’s distinctive cultural references, separate system of laws, variant attitudes to monarchy and hierarchies, separate religious groups, distinct languages and dialects instead he is eager to dismiss such differences as inconsequential set against what was shared. Of course what was/is shared is not those aspects of Scotland that are unique to it but what he sees as British, ie Englishness. England ready for war

In pursuit of his argument we are homogeneous  Britishers Schama cites our peoples’ shared involvement in the two world wars. It is all the more unacceptable then to read accounts of those times, and not just by past historians, where British is blithely replaced by English and Britain with England so cancelling out the sacrifices of Scots men and women with the stroke of a pen.

In the spirit of Schama let me provide him with another reference to our shared British state but one he omitted. It was disappointing in 1953 that the monarch decided to be known as Elizabeth II despite there never being an Elizabeth I of Scotland, symptomatic of the Anglo-centrism that covers everything in this parcel of nations and gets regurgitated in a mess of mythology tarted up as historical fact and fed to us by historians and the BBC among others. We in Scotland don’t get our fair share of coverage or of respect as an equal partner. There is no equal partnership. That is part of the myth.

In his FT piece Schama condemns Scots’ re-writing history to glorify Robert the Bruce – creating a heroic figure behind which Yes voters will rally forth in September 18th. If Schama was more familiar with Scotland and Scottish history he would know that we are well aware of conflicting allegiances of the Bruces and others during the period of the Wars of Independence when opportunism and the accumulation of land and establishment of family dynasties took precedence over loyalty to any country or nation-state. It may come as a surprise to Schama that the name of Bruce is far from universally regarded in Scotland – where his drive for self-aggrandisement and vacillating allegiances has placed him far behind the much more revered figure of William Wallace.

Schama summarily dismisses Scottish protests against the bedroom tax and Trident which both in their ways expose something of that gulf between the two countries . At least the SNP government in Scotland is determined to tackle the iniquity of this attack on the poor which doesn’t seem to bother Schama. If the bedroom tax doesn’t impact on Schama then neither does Trident, stored as it is in the very part of the UK most eager to be rid of it.

So as not to complicate his argument Shama fails to explore what sets us apart – religion, language (the subtle differences between Scottish English and his English escapes him), legal systems developed through our differences and which in turn have retained those differences. Instead Schama is determined to keep us all cosying up together. Then he goes and makes a curious reference to the time England was invaded by the Scottish Jacobites.

How could England have been invaded when we were already in a political union as Great Britain? Sloppy thinking Mr Schama. Jacobitism was a movement aimed to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. Schama’s hint at it being a cross-border inter-clan skirmish demonstrate his muddled thinking and confusion over Scotland/England/Britain.

Running down his list of events in British history to demonstrate our togetherness Schama pauses at the Scottish Enlightenment long enough to place it within the wider context of Britain, which is true, but it would have been good to see him show he knew it extended beyond Edinburgh and Glasgow within Scotland too. He doesn’t say, or perhaps know, that the Scottish Enlightenment had more in common with mainland European Enlightenment than the English. He does however claim to know that Adam Smith and David Hume would have voted No. Maybe they would – in the 1740s Scotland was a different place. But so what? So would David Bowie but like him Smith and Hume don’t have a vote.

The ‘splendid mess’ of Schama’s understanding epitomises for some of us why we have lost patience with the British Establishment who superimpose their values, their experiences, their ambitions on us.

Like so many who support the No side Schama wallows in the past – this happened, that happened so nothing should change. A recipe for inertia, stagnation – we have achieved the best there is so shouldn’t strive for better.

Schama makes a nasty little aside comparing Alex Salmond with Nigel Farage and Vladimir Putin – describing them as ‘die-stamp patriots’ ‘for whom similarity is identity’ A bit unseemly Mr Schama. Were the men who landed on the Normandy beaches ‘die-stamp patriots’ or Churchill? And isn’t it Schama pushing the line we are all British together? Didn’t patriotism come into the British state drumming up support when it came to going to war against Germany and its allies in 1914 and 1939 – and since? Was that die-stamp patriotism rearing its ugly head? And what was it that drove thousands of Scottish men into joining regiments to fight for the British crown after foreign Scotland invaded England in the Jacobite rising? Might Shama regard that as patriotism towards the British crown/British identity? or might it have been that those men discovered Britain under the union did not provide them with anything better than they had before, did not provide any means of living except the lean existence that came from accepting the king’s shilling and so enforced separation from their families, at the very least? england expects

Schama’s arguments expose his shaky grasp of what comprises Scotland, at ease with immigrants but which he regards as intolerant because it dares to criticise and reject the role of the inferior partner in a lopsided union, impatient with promises to tackle the UK’s concentration of wealth in the southeast of England, confident of applying Scottish solutions to Scottish problems – not as ‘die-hard patriots’ but as active participants in a democracy.


5 Comments to “It’s Simple, Simon – a rejection of Schama’s vision of a fine mess of a union”

  1. I know I’m late to this party but I found your article when looking for book recommendations on the history of Scotland. I had never considered Simon Schama’s work in that light, but you’ve made me rethink a lot of my previous reading. Thank you so much for a well reasoned and impassioned post.

  2. I never really understood the shared history bit that invariably is trotted out. To me Scottish history differs from English, and actually I’ve always felt more akin to much in Scandinavia than I have in England. The Gynfor Evans quote is spot on, with television and films continuing the process. Yet you only have to glance at comments on Scottish articles in the Guardian to realise how little many English people actually know about Scotland, yet how determined they are to tell us we are rubbish.

    • In any union it should never be acceptable to bury one of the partners’ experiences while retaining and telling the stories of the others. That’s what’s been going on in England through its education system and regrettably within areas of the curriculum in Scotland as well. Until recently you could pick up any history textbook in Scotland and find far more references to English conflicts, English agrarian changes, English industrial struggles, poverty, health, housing, political campaigns, suffragettes etc etc than Scottish equivalents. No wonder so many Scots cannot imagine Scotland as an independent nation – we’ve for too long been viewed as inferior and a less capable part of the UK.

      Our struggles, defeats and victories are there for people to discover and we are a nation of 5 million brains with nothing to fear from becoming independent. When was that word ever a negative?

      Thanks for your comments, as usual.

  3. That’s a really good analysis of a pretty run-of-the-mill article by a good English historian. At least David Starkey is open about being an English historian, and I can’t see what this ‘British’ stuff is that Schama goes on about..

    • Thanks Iain. It was an improvement on the guy who said the only reason anyone would vote yes was because they were thrawn – but not much better. Appreciate the comments.

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