Is there a connection between Tibet and Scotland in their respective fights for self-determination? 

Four years ago, whilst in Nepal, I got talking with a really friendly barman.

A Painting of Marpa the Translator, Tibetan Buddhist scholar, in Holy Island, Firth of Clyde

It turned out he was from a family of refugees who were forced to flee Tibet and were now living in Kathmandu. Once he found out I was Scottish, he came out with:

“Scotland is just like Tibet!”

As somebody who is definitely not a rampant nationalist, I quickly insisted that we definitely were not oppressed by the English!  Scotland has freedom of speech, individual equality and freedom of choice, the NHS, free education –  life is pretty easy and the comparison between both countries was, in my eyes, simply not fair.

However, he insisted having watched Braveheart and studied Scottish history that I was wrong.  He told me how:

“Both countries are windy, wet, rugged and have a cold, barren landscape…  Both countries have been historically constructed as feudal backwaters that were in need of modernity… In turn they have been robbed of independence, supressed and denied both cultural and religious freedom.”

Braveheart, he claimed, has inspired many Tibetans because it told the story of how Scotland bravely fought for its independence against its strong and powerful neighbour.

My conversations with this man made me change the way I perceived Scottish independence. With the impending 2014 referendum, his thoughts resonate now more than ever.

Undoubtedly, Braveheart is historically inaccurate. However, that doesn’t mean Scotland’s fight for independence didn’t happen, or that it wasn’t supressed with horrific brutality.

Following the deeply unpopular Act of Union around three centuries later, Jacobite leaders were declared traitors, executed and many key rebel soldiers were shipped to the colonies to indentured servitude. The Dress Act , the Act of Proscription and the Heritable Jurisdiction act, all of 1746, led to all aspects of Highland culture being banned including Scottish Gaelic and the wearing of tartan. The Episcopalian Church was also heavily supressed.  They transformed the traditional clan system, destroying the social practices of Highland Scotland, coercing or forcing former clan chiefs into becoming landlords.  This sparked the Highland Clearances whereby much of the Highlands suffered forced displacement which consisted of brutal evictions and mass exodus to cities and further afield to England, Canada, America and Australia in order to make way for sheep farming.

In contrast, following 50 years of Chinese control in Tibet, coercion through force is still practiced.  Chinese policy in Tibet has been a combination of “developmentalism,” and coercion via the iron fist, harshly and violently suppressing any struggle for independence. The Dalai Lama accuses China of actively killing 1.2 million Tibetans (which China denies) citing the destruction of Tibetan monasteries as one example of the active suppression of Tibetan identity.

Whilst it would be inappropriate to draw direct similarities between the current situations in Tibet and Scotland, both nations’ cultures have been the subject of horrific brutality in the name of modernity and expansion at one period in time.

Scotland’s desire for independence, whether you are for or against, has been long lasting and is deeply imbedded. 600 years after the first War of Scottish Independence a sizeable percentage of Scots believe it is their right to stand up against a culturally and politically one-sided union.

Devolution has settled some of this nationalist anger. For example, Scots are sheltered from the £9,000 a year tuition fees introduced in England. Much of the Braveheart magic within Scottish politics is waning with the current debate on Scottish nationalism often centring more on economics, oil and future aspirations.

In lieu of the economics of independence, both Beijing and Westminster take a paternalistic attitude to Tibet and Scotland respectively, insisting they will be economically better off under central government control, that they couldn’t afford to sustain themselves or “develop” on their own. Are we really that much of an economic backwater or that stupid that we can’t cope without London? I certainly hope not!

This summer it is very unlikely that we will see the brutal oppression of protests for Scottish independence in the lead up to 2012 London Olympics, as was seen in Tibet in the summer of 2008. Instead we are more likely to see an increase in SNP propaganda attempting to convince the Scottish people of the economic and political incentives for independence. With support for “freedom” teetering at just under the 50% mark, our “struggle” for independence seems to make a mockery of the struggles in Tibet. Should we really be offered independence when it isn’t supported by such a large majority of the population?  Do we deserve independence after such a long period of time and when we are clearly no longer “oppressed” by Westminster?

By contrast, perhaps some time in the distant future Tibet will be offered a referendum – by which time their culture may be more supressed and resistance completely crushed. The population may become apathetic, lose confidence in themselves as a sovereign state. Perhaps they will believe they are incapable of functioning on the world stage without China, as appears to have happened in Scotland. This would be incredibly sad.

With the future of the Union at stake and with the results of the referendum unpredictable, nations such as Tibet will look to Scotland in anticipation. What is certain is that the results of the referendum in 2014 could have a far more profound implications beyond our shores.


Sarah Story

Image Credit- Mistvan