O Scotland! Scotland!
—The Tragedy of Macbeth IV, 3
—The Comedy of Errors III, 2
The “breakup of Britain must now be considered a realistic possibility,” according to James Kirkup of the Daily Telegraph, because in the United Kingdom’s May 7 general election the Scottish Nationalist Party swept all but three of Scotland’s parliamentary seats—an event that took nearly the entire British establishment by surprise. But the 7 May results are really two surprising events: as the New York Times reported, in the United Kingdom as a whole the Conservative Party won “an unexpected majority in what was supposed to be a down-to-the-wire election, proving polls and pundits wrong.” The two victories have made both Scotland and England virtually one-party states—which perhaps paradoxically may be a sign that the British state has taken a first step to a republic. At least, if golf’s British Open is a guide.
“Who’s he when he’s at home?” is a British idiom, meaning, “what’s he like when he’s among friends, when nobody’s watching?” Admittedly, the idea that a golf tournament might tell you something useful about an important thing like a national election is odd at best. But scholar Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism shows how the claim might be justified: he argues that the “generation of the impersonal will” necessary to nations is “better sought in … diurnal regularities” than in the “rare and moveable feast” of an election. In other words, consulting official papers, census returns, election results and economic data and so forth are like visiting someone’s front parlor on Sunday: you’ll get a story, but only the most sanitized version. But by looking at something like the British Open it might be possible to get a sense of what Britain really thinks.
Anderson’s method, which teaches paying attention to small details, is after all rewarded by the very results of the 7 May election itself: reading the granular measurements of incomes, polling, and past results is what the official press did leading up to Election Day—just in time to receive the proverbial pie in the face. The Scottish Nationalist Party’s triumph is a classic example of an underdog’s victory—and it’s the definition of a David vs. Goliath battle that David’s win should be a surprise. Just so, when scholar Tom Nairn published The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism in 1977, few would have thought that Scottish nationalists would ever become the majority party in Scotland: at the time, Scottish electoral politics were dominated by the Labour Party, as they had been since the 1960s. Until this past election, Labour was still the top dog in Scottish politics—and then they weren’t.
Nevertheless, the idea that the SNP’s triumph might threaten the very integrity of the United Kingdom might, to the outsider, appear to be the apocalyptic hyperbole designed to sell newspapers. Scotland constitutes less than ten percent of the United Kingdom’s population; what happens there arguably can hardly affect much of the rest of the country. But that assumption would be false, as a scrutiny of the British Open might show.
From Anderson’s perspective, the fact that the golf tournament is far removed from the game of electoral politics is just what makes it worth examining—in a manner also suggestive of Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation. Like the dog in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”—the dog that, famously, didn’t bark—the silence of the R & A (the organization that has run the golf tournament since 2004), is after all a bit curious, even on its own terms. The R & A has a vested interest in maintaining the Act of Union that binds the United Kingdom together because the possibility of an independent Scotland presents, at minimum, a practical problem.
The group’s headquarters are in St. Andrews, first of all, but more importantly, of the nine golf courses in the Open Championship’s current “rota,” five lie north of Berwick-upon-Tweed: the Old Course at St. Andrews (the “Home of Golf), Muirfield, Royal Troon, Carnoustie, and the Ailsa Course at Turnberry, within sight of Ailsa Craig. But most of the Open’s fans lie south of the Tweed; logistically, if for no other reason, an independent Scotland would be a great complication for the R & A.
The R & A’s silence then is suggestive—at the very least, it reveals something about how how difficult it might be psychologically to think about an independent Scotland. For example, consider both the name of the tournament—the “Open Championship”—and how the winner of each year’s tournament is introduced following victory: the “champion golfer of the year.” Despite name of the tournament in America—the “British Open”—neither of these make any reference to Great Britain as a nation; the organizers of the golf tournament thus might appear to be philosophically opposed to nationalism.
In that view, nationalism is “the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable of ‘neurosis’ in the individual,” as Tom Nairn puts it. It’s the view that reads nationalism as a slap in the face to Enlightenment, which proclaims, as British academic Terry Eagleton says, “the abstract universal right of all to be free” regardless of the claims of nationality or other conceptual divisions of identity like class or race or gender. Hence, the name of the tournament and the title of the R & A’s champion could be a read as a sign that the R & A heroically refuses nationalism in the name of universal humanity.
Yet Anderson gives us reason to doubt that sanguine view. The name of the old “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” Anderson remarks for instance, billed itself as “the precursor” of an “internationalist order” because it refused to acknowledge nationality in its name—a style it shared with Britain’s current name. But where the Soviet Union’s name was meant to point to a post-nationalist future of a universal humanity, the name of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is the name of a “prenational dynastic state.” Where the name of the Soviet Union bid towards a future beyond the nation-state, the name of the United Kingdom hearkens back before the nation-state.
The name in other words reflects the fact that Great Britain is ruled by an anachronistic form of government: a kingdom, a style of government virtually unique in the contemporary world. Whereas, as Benedict says, in “the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory,” a kingdom “revolves around a high centre”: the monarch, who may add or lose new territories as war and marriage might permit.
A kingdom’s borders are thus “open” to new territory in a way that a republic’s are not: Henry V, of Shakespeare’s famous play, ruled nearly as far east as Paris, and on a historical timescale it wasn’t that long ago that a resident of Calais was as much an “Englishman” as any Londoner. In those days, as Anderson says, “borders were porous and indistinct.” The “openness” of the Open may not therefore reflect a pious refusal of nationalism so much as it is a studied ignorance of nationalism’s terms—which is to say, it would reflect how most Englishmen (and, presumably, women) think about their country. The apparent universality of the name of the Open Championship may thus reflect more the atavistic qualities of the United Kingdom than a utopian vision of the future.
For the R & A to take a position regarding Scottish secession would require revisiting the name of the tournament, which would require rethinking the assumptions behind the name—and doing that would lead to a confrontation with the monarchy, because as Anderson demonstrates, the question of Scotland is necessarily a question of the monarchy. That is why, for example, he says that “[Tom] Nairn is certainly correct in describing the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland as a ‘patrician bargain.’” What Anderson means is that it was the “conception of a United Kingdom [that] was surely the crucial mediating element that made the deal possible”—in other words, only in a world where lands and peoples are no more than pieces on a chessboard can such deals be struck.
One has only to imagine Paris today selling Normandy to London to see how uniting England and Scotland would be “impossible,” as Nairn puts it, once “the age of democratic nationalism had arrived.” Many witnesses at the time testified to the Act of Union’s unpopularity with the Scottish people: one negotiator on the Scottish side—a pro-Union man to boot—wrote that he thought the Act was “contrary to the inclinations of at least three-fourths of the Kingdom.” Only under a monarchy could such a deal have been possible—again, another way to put the matter is to imagine the United States selling Louisiana back to France, or California back to Mexico.
It isn’t any wonder then why the R & A would refuse to bark; or to put it better, avoid discussing the matter. To discuss Scottish independence is to discuss how Scotland lost its independence, and to discuss that is necessarily to discuss the monarchy. To bring up one subject is to bring up, sooner or later, the other. Reversing the polarity, however, solves the problem of the “double event” of the 7 May general election: if Scottish nationalism threatens the monarchy by threatening the premises it relies upon, then why England simultaneously elected the most pro-aristocracy party isn’t much of a mystery—as Holmes remarks about coincidence in Sherlock, the most recent television adaptation of his adventures, the “universe is rarely so lazy.”