Postcolonialism and Scottish Studies

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The advertisement for a recent BBC Scotland documentary series, Scotland's Empire (2004), depicts a muscular and manacled 'slave', shot from behind and naked from the waist up, over a brooding, dark blue background. White swathes intersect the figure's saltired back, the Scottish flag marking a symbolic and material impression of violent domination. Six words are emblazoned above the head: 'WE CAME. WE SAW. WE EXPLOITED'. (1) In its blunt amplification and capitalisation, this emblematic representation exemplifies the recent boom in academic and popular interest in the significant role of Scots and Scotland in the British empire: both as influential contributors to the moral and philosophical reasoning, the economic theory and the material practices and management of empire and imperialism, and also as a key source of resistance to the project. The narrative of the ambivalent nature of Scotland's imperial history is well established, yet it is important to recognise a contemporary attempt to question and renegotiate the terms and meaning of this stated ambivalence through the revelations of a recently revitalised Scottish history, politics and culture that has made great use of postcolonial resources. In this context, a contemporary fervour for admonition and admission of Scottish colonial culpability can be perceived as part of an anti-imperialist argument made by several established and emergent writers and academics galvanised by the resonance of postcolonial studies in a Scottish/British context. It is not coincidental that this development has formed in the context of political devolution in the UK, recently described by Michael Gardiner as a 'postcolonial process' exerting renewed and sustained pressure on the present structure and validity of the Union--pressure that can only lead to the eventual end of the 'imperial anachronism' known as Great Britain. (2)

The fact that demands for greater political autonomy by Britain's largest devolved nation are being made from a postcolonial platform is significant, and needs to be registered by the wider community of postcolonialists, not least because the received corpus of postcolonial studies has often been criticised by scholars in Scottish Studies for its neglect of the internal, intra-national distinctions, tensions and fissures in British culture and politics. It is equally important to register that this devolutionary postcolonial argument is bolstered by an identifiably leftist and nationalist cultural production in Scotland. I will seek to emphasise the significance of this in the latter part of this position paper, when I discuss the politics of contemporary Scottish writing. My suggestion there will be that this body of literature, emerging at a time when the retention of the 'traditional' structure of Britain and Britishness is under persistent pressure, is not only central to the establishment of postcolonial criticism in Scotland, but also contributes decisively to the ongoing debate concerning the appropriate mode and future direction of postcolonial studies generally. (3)

One may ask: why analyse Scotland's empire when the country's only independent attempt to establish an empire prior to Parliamentary Union--the ill-fated Darien Expedition--collapsed so spectacularly? Why Scottish postcolonialism when British imperialism was and has continued to be managed in several areas so 'effectively' by a disproportionate number of Scots--in administrative, intellectual, military, and governmental positions? Part of the answer lies in the potential resources of postcolonial studies as a historical and theoretical toolkit that may yet, if we are to believe some of its most dynamic Scottish proponents, have far reaching political consequences for the future of the political entity 'Britain'. An analysis of the Scottish postcolonial situation presents several repercussive questions for postcolonial studies in general, regarding the portability and feasibility of its predominant and emergent theories; its uses in a contemporary 'stateless nation' context; its disputed legitimacy in 'semi-colonial' European semi-peripheral zones; its ability to navigate and negotiate volatile intersections between nation, culture and politics, especially in areas where (neo)colonialism and imperialism remain underwritten and where national independence movements remain active. …