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Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Clock Watching

The nuclear threat lingers still

Spending Power

Can compassion and efficiency be combined in the use of public funds?

The Advantages of Union

Does the history of Scotland foretell the future of Canada?

Mark Lovewell

How the Scots Invented the Modern World

Arthur Herman

Random House

392 pages, hardcover

When James Boswell first arrived in London, at the age of 20, it was impossible for him to hide his unease about his national origins. On meeting Dr. Johnson he announced, “I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” Johnson showed no surprise: “That, Sir,” he responded, “I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”

Modern Scots are rarely so sheepish about their background. But contemporary Scottish patriotism is often a caricatured affair, and in the popular mind Scottishness is identified with little more than bagpipes, Burns, tartans or whiskey. Mildly amusing, but hardly noteworthy.

In How the Scots Invented the Modern World, American historian Arthur Herman attempts to show how we underestimate the Scots and their influence. “People of Scottish descent are usually proud about their history and achievements,” he observes. “Yet even they know only the half of it.” The entertaining tales of Braveheart and the Bonnie Prince are of scant relevance when assessing Scotland’s impact on the course of history. It was a less romantic era, after Scotland’s effective disappearance as a separate country, that saw Scottish influence at its apex. And it is just this period that we tend to know the least about.

For Canadians, Herman’s argument has particular resonance, given the parallels between the position of Scotland in the early 18th century and Canada today. But before a look at these parallels, Herman’s account deserves close consideration. His story’s critical date is 1707—the year of the Treaty of Union. Before then, England (which by this time included Wales) and Scotland were closely related through their allegiance to a common crown, but each had its own capital and legislature. In that year, the two countries were merged into one nation with a single parliament and joint rule, with only a few remnants of Scottish independence (such as control of the Presbyterian church) remaining.

In England, there was lukewarm approval of the new arrangement, not least because it ended what had been a festering conflict over the Darien Company, a Scottish trading firm that had established a colony in Panama. During the years before Union, English merchants had managed to dissuade Dutch and German banks from making loans to this company. After the venture went ahead anyway, and when Scottish colonists arrived in Panama, the English did their best to stop the colonists from purchasing local provisions.

As students of Scottish history are well aware, the Darien venture turned into a full-scale disaster. It spawned popular Scottish outrage against the English, who were viewed as the main culprits in its failure. For Scotland’s political elite, the Darien debacle was also a warning. If their independent action was to be stymied at every turn, then Union was the only alternative. Spurred by the prospect of political influence for themselves in the new British Parliament, as well as the more immediate incentive of English-sponsored bribes, Scotland’s parliamentarians ratified the Treaty of Union by 110 to 69 votes.

For large parts of the Scottish population, this ratification was nothing less than a betrayal—the end of an age-old struggle to maintain the country’s identity. Widespread anger led to attacks against pro-Union parliamentarians, and forced their leader, the Marquis of Queensberry, to call up the royal troops to keep order. But there was still the threat of a violent standoff on the day the treaty was to be signed at Edinburgh’s Parliament House. Herman’s account captures the stench of dishonour in the air:

Finally [Queensberry and his parliamentary allies] pretended to give up and go home; then, one by one, they found their separate ways to a cellar in High Street … There, with hushed tones and frequent glances out the window, they signed the documents and slipped out the door. Everyone took Queensberry’s cue and left for London that night. Rumors said the Edinburgh mob was planning to meet Queensberry’s carriage as it left the city in the morning. No one was in the mood to take any chances.

Hardly a propitious start to a new era, and the first years of Union were little better. In 1713,

catalogues the various milestones of this astonishing burst of progress. Entering the 18th century as arguably Europe’s poorest independent country, a century later Scotland was one of the world’s most innovative societies, with a high level of prosperity, a largely literate populace (with higher rates than any other part of Europe, including England), and an intellectual culture with few rivals.

Herman is not the first to note the irony of this transformation: that it should happen in a society that had surrendered virtually all vestiges of political independence. What were the causes of Scotland’s progress? Luck played a part, since Scotland joined with England just when the latter was beginning to overtake France as the dominant European power, both economically and militarily. But much of the credit rests with the Scots themselves. Ingenuity was one important reason, as was a clear-eyed pragmatism in taking advantage of available opportunities. At times this pragmatism was heartless; for example, Herman makes much of the complicity of Scottish landowners in the tragedy of Highland clearances, when many Highlanders were forced out of their homes to make way for modern agriculture. At other times, it seemed somewhat outlandish, as when educated Scots did their best to cast off their traditional dialect and laboriously learn to speak with proper English pronunciation. But by the early 19th century, when Sir Walter Scott and others were turning Scottish history into legend, the Scotland of even a century before had already become little more than a quaint cultural artifact.

This century-long metamorphosis is remarkable enough. But Herman is intent on telling an even grander tale: the 18th-century Scots not only transformed their own society, but they also led the way in developing a modern view of the world as well. No one could deny the significance of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment. This intellectual movement succeeded despite the Scots’ lack of proximity to political power or royal favour. It was nurtured instead in a few fine universities (in which the middle classes were well represented) and a rich assortment of informal clubs and societies, in both Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Herman provides an elegantly readable account of the work of the two founders of the Scottish Enlightenment, both of whom tend to be overlooked today. The first was the reform-minded theologian Francis Hutcheson, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, whose work was a response to the austere form of Calvinism prevalent among the country’s Protestant majority. A charismatic figure, Hutcheson taught a version of moral philosophy based on divine reason and human liberty, stressing the importance of human happiness as well as Christian altruism. This was an outlook countered by the second founder of the Scottish School, the acerbic Edinburgh-based legal scholar Henry Home (Lord Kames), who believed that all laws were based on a self-interested desire to protect property. This view led him to devise a materialist conception of history in which society’s economic evolution through a succession of identifiable stages played a key role in the advance of culture and human happiness. (This makes Kames the originator of the type of historical materialism that is often thought to have been the creation of Marx.)

Hutcheson and Kames each played a part in helping form the theories of their better known Scottish successors, David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume had close personal contact with Kames, and Herman argues that there were important intellectual connections between Kames’s materialist conception of history and Hume’s skeptical agnosticism. In contrast, Herman views Adam Smith’s theories as a synthesis of both Hutcheson and Kames, with elements also borrowed from Hume. In Herman’s account of Scottish ideas, it is Smith’s writings that receive most attention—both his less famous work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the famous classic The Wealth of Nations, which Herman calls “the Summa of the Scottish Enlightenment.”

It is in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that Smith’s debt to Hutcheson is most apparent, given Smith’s claim that sympathy is the all-important glue binding self-interest to the broader demands of society. Sympathy is connected with the ability to imagine the situation of others, says Smith, and it spurs acts of altruism, based on our need to justify our own conduct to ourselves. When individual sympathy is not at work, Smith believed it was the task of governments to ensure that each individual’s pursuit of happiness was not overly disturbed by the actions of others. Although not the most convincing of moral philosophies, these Hutchesonian views are a counterpoint to Kames’s materialism that underpins Smith’s economics.

When discussing The Wealth of Nations, Herman stresses how Smith’s blueprint for national progress was infused by his intimate knowledge of Scotland’s ongoing economic transformation and the extent to which its benefits had coloured Scottish life and underpinned its achievements. Even Smith’s bitter attacks on the interventionist economic policies of governments such as Britain’s stemmed in large part from his opposition to the ideas of a fellow Scot—his contemporary, the economic writer Sir James Steuart. While Herman deals with Smith’s borrowings from Scottish sources, he downplays Smith’s other intellectual debts, except to mention the French Physiocrats and the Dutch philosopher Bernard de Mandeville. Readers unfamiliar with the voluminous secondary literature on Smith will be left with an exaggerated sense of the “Scottishness” of Smith’s work. Also, they will be unaware of the problems Smith had in weaving a logically consistent outlook. The contradictions between the views expressed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations are significant enough. Just as important, there are numerous baffling inconsistencies within The Wealth of Nations. Indeed, the development of economics by Smith’s successors, such as David Ricardo, owes a good deal to the need to reconcile these glaring inconsistencies.

Herman’s neglect of these issues is defensible, since he is a popular writer and does not claim to be a historian of ideas. What is less defensible, however, is his strongly stated conviction that there is a distinctive Scottish intellectual mentality, which Smith epitomized, and which influenced not just the 18th century, but the entire modern era by providing the groundwork for the modern conception of the individual’s place in society. What are the basic tenets of this distinctive mentality, according the Herman? First, a focus on the tension between the interests of the individual and society, and how these two interests can be reconciled. Second, a presumption that people of all cultures share a variety of underlying characteristics, so that when faced with similar circumstances they will behave in predictable ways.

Surely the claim that these principles represent a distinctively Scottish intellectual mentality is a distortion. The outlook Herman describes is more rightly associated with the broader European Enlightenment. It is found not just in the Scottish writers of this era, but also in French thinkers such as Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire, and writers from other national traditions. It is truer to say that the main Scottish Enlightenment figures were important players in this cosmopolitan European movement. This looser claim fits better with prevailing perspectives in the history of ideas. It also allows for the clear differences that existed among the Scottish thinkers—in particular, between Smith’s economistic forward-mindedness and the nostalgic romanticism that underlies the treatment of Scotland’s past by his contemporary, the historian Adam Ferguson.

Despite the problems with Herman’s claim of precedence for the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, he ably shows the practical impact of their ideas, both in Britain and in North America. He provides an entertaining account of the breakthroughs of Scottish innovators such as James Watt, Alexander Graham Bell and Robert Owen. He gives a nod of recognition to self-made capitalists such as Andrew Carnegie. But his main focus is on the broader political and cultural effects of Scottish thinking. In the case of Britain, he tells the story of how several prominent Whigs with Scottish roots (Lord Brougham and Thomas Babington Macaulay being the most notable) helped to instigate the electoral reforms that transformed the British political landscape in the first half of the 19th century. Herman argues that it was their Scottish brand of Whig thinking that inspired the changes that culminated in the 1832 Reform Bill—by ironic coincidence, exactly one and a quarter centuries after the original Treaty of Union:

125 years earlier, the Scottish old regime had abolished itself, under an onslaught of English-inspired ideas and hardball politicking by the Crown. All at once, Scotland found itself thrust into the glare of the modern world. Now the roles had been reversed. Scottish ideas and brinkmanhip had toppled the English old regime, and nailed together a constitutional formula suitable for a modern nation, both north and south.

Herman contends that the Scottish impact on North America was almost as strong. During the American Revolution, immigrants from the Scottish Lowlands and from Ulster (where the Protestant inhabitants had overwhelmingly Scottish cultural roots), as well as their descendants, made up an estimated one third of the Continental Congress delegates. In Canada, the role of the Scottish diaspora was, if anything, even more pronounced, with a disproportionate number of Scots and their descendants represented in the country’s political class. Even in Quebec, they were a force to be reckoned with, given their importance in the fur trade and the New World version of the “auld alliance” that had developed with the province’s French-speaking inhabitants. Indeed, it is possible to argue (although Herman does not do so) that, of any country outside Britain, Canada is the one with the most pronounced Scottish legacy. It is a legacy that owes a good deal not just to modern Scottish thought, but also to Highland traditionalism, given the extent to which Highland immigrants and their descendants stayed loyal to the British crown.

If only for this reason, Herman’s story of Scottish development should be of interest to contemporary Canadians. But there are other less obvious reasons as well. For Canadian readers, the story told by Herman evokes striking parallels with Canada’s current position on the world stage. It also throws up possibilities that most of us would prefer not to think about. Like Scotland at the start of the 18th century, Canada has an ever closer relationship with its southern neighbour that involves intimate economic ties, political similarities and a gradual merging of cultural values. For contemporary Canadians, just as for the Scots at the time of Union, the relationship with this southern neighbour is a source of unending frustration and ambivalence—frustration at the extent to which political independence is compromised by proximity to a global power, and ambivalence at the extent to which national survival and prosperity nonetheless depend on this relationship.

While Canada and the U.S. are much more alike in terms of economic development than Scotland and England were at the time of Union, the gap between them has been large enough to drive the recent Canadian political agenda, ever since the unsuccessful attempts by the Trudeau regime in the 1970s to steer a more independent economic course. During the Mulroney era came free trade with the U.S. More recently, there has been the establishment of NAFTA, and the push for further integration has not ended. Attention has merely shifted to emerging debates over

proposals for a customs union (already some continent-wide tariffs, such as those on steel, are being negotiated), the adoption of the U.S. dollar as the official Canadian currency (a change already supported by a sizeable minority of Canadians) and—in the longer term—possible economic union.

Despite these changes, few present-day Canadians are willing to do what Scotland did in 1707 and, in one momentous step, become part of a political union with our southern neighbour. For the foreseeable future, we will probably do all we can to maintain our formal political independence. But Herman’s story of Scotland’s political evolution in the years before Union makes it clear that the slow momentum of events can create its own impetus for further integration. Canadians’ wish to ignore such long-term consequences does not mean these consequences will disappear.

At some future date (presumably not for several decades, unless Quebec sovereignty succeeds in the meantime), parts of Canada could be faced

with doing what many of the country’s citizens might now consider an impossibility—voluntarily becoming part of the U.S., either as several new states or through some sort of confederated status. The prospective economic benefits of full political union, as well as the advantages of complete continent-wide mobility, will be two factors pushing this change. But there will likely be other trends at work as well. For the U.S., control over Canadian resources will be key. For Canadians, constitutional deadlock could easily be one of the issues that lead to voluntary political union—a prospect that becomes more probable the more our evolving mosaic of cultures and languages clashes with the unchangeable political compromises made at Confederation. As has been shown often in the past (not just in early 18th-century Scotland), major changes, such as new political union, can sometimes be easier to initiate than smaller changes, such as renegotiation of past political compromises within an existing constitutional structure.

Perhaps a union with the U.S. will never materialize: the economic gap with the U.S. may disappear, and constitutional change within an independent Canada may somehow become possible. If not, would the result necessarily be a tragedy? Again, Herman’s account is instructive. Eighteenth-century Scotland was able to sacrifice political independence, yet gain unparalleled cultural influence. Why could 21st-century Canada not do the same? If the tide of Scottish history can tell us anything, it is that Canada after North American union might be a much more vibrant and dynamic cultural entity than we can now imagine.

Mark Lovewell has held various senior roles at Ryerson University. He is also one of the magazine’s contributing editors.