This is the centenary year of the enactment of the Third Self-Government Bill, as well (of course) as the year of the Scottish Independence Referendum. Yet the centenary conversation in Ireland and the somewhat more vigorous debate over Scottish independence have been conducted – for the most part – quite separately.
While it would be wrong to push the analogies too far, there are some striking similarities – and some differences – between the Home Rule debate of 1912-14 and the current Scottish independence debate. These similarities (and even distinctions) might well give the protagonists of Scotland’s ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ camps food for thought – and indeed, there is evidence that Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond ruminated as a result.
A critical difference between Ireland in 1914 and Scotland in 2014 is that of militancy – Ireland on the eve of World War I being an armed camp comprising the Ulster movements and Irish volunteers, opponents and supporters of Home Rule, as well as the British Army. . The Scottish political debate has not been militarized and there is no indication that it will become so (the Scottish National Liberation Army, for example, has never posed a significant threat). Modern Scottish nationalism has developed as an entirely constitutional and peaceful phenomenon.
Of course, mainstream Scottish nationalism only recently emerged, through the successive Holyrood elections, as a majority phenomenon. But he never had to rise to the challenge (taken up by Irish nationalism a century ago) of dismissing a majority of elected officials, while encountering long resistance in London.
One aspect of the Irish experience in 1914 was that a heavy constitutional debate, heightened political expectations, and the delay or disappointment of those expectations (with Unionist resistance and the onset of the war), combined to create a chemistry very volatile policy. The hardening of expectations for change across Scotland in 2014 means that national aspirations (as well as social and economic) may need to be addressed swiftly and sensitively, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
A critical dimension of this activism in 1914 was the uncompromising support given to the Unionist paramilitary Ulster by the British Conservative leaders – this in part a symptom of the deep divisions in British and Irish politics and society precipitated by the Home Rule debate. . Strikingly, both the Home Rule issue in 1914 and the referendum in 2014 each attracted an unusually wide range of declarations of allegiance from a complex array of interest groups and individuals. In 1914 there was a high level of ‘celebrity’ endorsement and intervention against Home Rule: by taking only literary figures, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became a Home Ruler, while Rudyard Kipling was a strong unionist. In 2014, Irvine Welsh declared himself in favor of independence, while JK Rowling is against. Ian Rankin provides a case study of the complexity (and depth) of the division: He’s agnostic on the matter, but it’s clear his characters would have strong opinions. Thus, Inspector Rebus joins the trade unionists of 2014 (although actor Ken Stott, the most recent of TV Rebuses, would be in the “yes” camp).
The analogies between Home Rule and the Scottish independence debate, however, go far beyond the “A” list. The substantial strength and defiance of Home Rule sentiment produced a striking intellectual movement both before and in 1914, just as the strength of the Scottish independence movement produced a similar movement a century later.
In 1912-1914, the constitutional deadlock on Home Rule actually helped spur support for (then called) “federalism” among part of the Unionist elite, including even Edward Carson. In terms of the (almost) equal forces fighting for Scottish independence, Gordon Brown has now embraced the idea of a federal UK; and he was joined or preceded by others, including (for example) the Scottish Conservative journalist, David Torrance. The discussion of a possible English parliament was featured prominently in 1911-1914 and again in 2014. Both in 1914 and 2014, it appears that the still-malleable UK constitutional form is once again in transition – but because trade unionists now don’t change less than nationalists.
And indeed, some Scottish nationalists have adopted at least some of the symbols of the British connection. John Redmond, the leader of Home Rule, emphasized the monarchy and empire in his view of Irish autonomy during the Home Rule era, partly out of personal conviction and partly in terms of subversion of the unionist arguments. In the same vein, Alex Salmond (despite a strong tradition of Republican sentiment within the SNP), adopted “the union of crowns” as the SNP’s strategy and has referred in recent years with deference to the queen (“d ‘Scotland’), and its central place in an independent nation.
Here, as elsewhere, Ireland’s century-old Home Rule debate evokes the current situation in Scotland. Indeed, here as elsewhere, Ireland’s broader experience of the Union coincides with that of the Scots.