No school subject lends itself more readily to political manipulation and propaganda than history. This is especially the case in Scotland, where the purpose of history education has changed beyond recognition since the SNP came to power.
The subject is no longer about encouraging critical enquiry and dispassionate analysis; it is there to guide the socialisation of children into Scottish society. This involves an emphasis on identity and empathy, with Scots cast as perpetual victims.
In the past, it was undoubtedly wrong that little Scottish history was taught in Scottish schools. Instead, there was a depressing emphasis on the world wars and Nazi Germany. Now, the balance has swung the other way, and Scottish history has pride of place in the Curriculum for Excellence. But it is history with a clear agenda.
Terminology, such as ‘English domination’ and ‘unfair’ is frequently used in teaching materials, despite this being emotional rather than evidence-based language. Paradoxically, Scots are also portrayed as ultimately triumphant, with the establishment of the devolved parliament and electoral victories by the SNP listed as recent victories.
From the moment a recognisable polity called ‘Scotland’ appears in the history books (during and after the wars of independence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) the curriculum portrays Scottish history as a long march towards nationhood.
Education Scotland recently created a ‘timeline’ of Scottish history to be used in classrooms, called ‘The Road to the Scottish Parliament’. According to the 27-page document, the evils of the English began with Edward I of England (1272-1307) and continue to the present. The document has a number of references to Scots being poorly treated by the English, and writes that 'for 800 years the Scots have been struggling against English oppression.’
Moreover, in this ‘timeline’ Scotland’s achievements within the Union, such as those during the Age of Enlightenment are disregarded, as is the participation of Scots in the British Empire, despite Glasgow’s position as the ‘second city of the Empire’. It is estimated that one third of slave plantations in the Caribbean were owned by Scots, while 75 per cent of tea planters in Sri Lanka were Scottish. But these facts do not fit the SNP’s narrative, and so are simply discarded. It is no wonder the document has been criticised by historians such as Sir Tom Devine, who has described it as ‘arrant propaganda’.
The Jesuits were believed to have said: ‘give me a child till he is seven and he is mine forever’. The SNP has learned this lesson well, although in its case it is, ‘give us a child till he is 16 and he will vote for us forever’.
Often the anti-English grievances peddled in the Scottish education sector are pure mythology. There are Scottish nationalists who clearly regard the film Braveheart – which appears on Education Scotland’s timeline – as a documentary rather than the parody it undoubtedly is.
A copy of the marking key for last year’s National 5 or N5 history said credit should be given to pupils who wrote that Winston Churchill sent tanks and thousands of English soldiers to Glasgow in 1919 to suppress a demonstration. However, this is a long-standing historical myth. While the Sheriff of Lanarkshire deployed police against the protestors and Scottish soldiers were on standby – after a panic about insurrection in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia – there were no tanks and no English soldiers in Glasgow’s George Square, where the demonstration took place. Winston Churchill was also not involved in the incident.
Nevertheless, this myth not only made its way into Scottish exams, but also appeared on Education Scotland’s historical timeline. To scotch this vexatious lie, the authorities should prescribe the work of the historian Dr Gordon J Barclay, whose painstaking research has demonstrated that the victimhood myth of the ‘Battle of George Square’ is what we call fake news.
The SNP has a similarly cavalier approach to its own history. After Alex Salmond was charged in 2018 with sexual offences (and subsequently found not guilty), he was completely written out of the SNP’s official history on its website.
In the SNP’s version of history, Nicola Sturgeon is credited with leading the campaign for Scottish secession in 2014. But the man who had been party leader for most of the previous quarter of a century, and who first led the SNP into government in Scotland in 2007, does not get a single mention. If anything resembles the air-brushing of Trotsky from photographs of Bolshevik leaders at Stalin’s behest, this is it.
There is a further resemblance to the Bolsheviks in the way that the Scottish education secretary, John Swinney, regularly proclaims that Scottish schools have overfulfilled their quotas for tractor production. Well, not quite. But facts such as a fall in exam pass rates and the failure to narrow the attainment gap between schools in affluent and deprived areas are glossed over by Swinney with good news of ‘steady, incremental gains in attainment across the broad general education… according to international experts’. In reality, Scottish schools have fallen down the PISA international rankings – and now score lower than English schools in key subjects. The Scottish government has also abandoned its Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, because the results were becoming embarrassing. According to Professor Lindsay Paterson, ‘Scottish education is now a data desert’. What you do not measure cannot be assessed and shown up for the failure that it is.
History in Scotland has become a political tool for the embedding of a particular kind of Scottish identity, an emphatically nationalist one. It is one where virtue is ascribed to Scots, who are portrayed as being morally superior to English people. You can hear it every time Nicola Sturgeon claims (unjustifiably) that her government has dealt better with Covid than the government in the UK. History is used by Scottish nationalists to present a picture of a victimised but plucky nation struggling for centuries against a larger ‘neighbour’, but in the end succeeding against the odds. It is what we used to call, in German history, ‘looking forward to a better past’.
An earlier version of this piece stated that the Scottish Qualifications Authority gave credit to pupils who wrote that Winston Churchill sent tanks and soldiers to suppress a demonstration in Glasgow. We are happy to acknowledge this is not the case, and that the marking scheme in question was not published by the SQA.