Independence isn’t just history.”
That was the message of leafleters outside Scottish cinema screenings in the 1990s as Wallace rode onto our screens ready to free the nation.
Today the Braveheart effect on Scottish politics may have worn off, with modern nationalism now being centred on economics, democracy and future aspirations. But with the referendum set to be held in 2014, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, just how closely the independence movement should run to historic sentiment is still a real issue of debate.
Recently, several sources including the Scottish Centre of Himalayan Research reported that Tibetan monks had been watching Braveheart, even between prayer times, presumably encouraged by the story of Scotland and its fight for independence from a much larger and much more powerful neighbour.
Perhaps it is the monks’ philosophy of all things being interconnected that has in some way influenced these developments – and that is something we should learn from. Independence movements around the world are bound together by a common goal; and in the new age of internet democracy that solidarity will have an even greater part to play.
These developments on the role of our history in Tibet are particularly interesting due to our own criticisms of the subject. Scotland’s story is a “Hollywood invention”, we are often told. It was “wildly romanticised”, or simply “didn’t happen”. Whilst we should ensure our knowledge of the subject is as factual as possible, it is fair to say that Scotland’s obsession with freedom is not a post-Braveheart phenomenon but a very real and long-lasting notion centred at the very heart of our culture. We wouldn’t dismiss India’s struggle for independence as fictional due to some inaccuracies in the 1982 film Ghandi. Films do not create these notions; they interpret them.
Recounting the history of Bruce and Wallace was in fact a common feature in the works of Robert Burns, almost 500 years after the Wars of Scottish Independence. His intention was not to simply reminisce on the past but to actively inspire the Scottish society of his own time to stand up for itself against a culturally and politically one-sided union. The Tibetans, it seems, are emulating such an idea.
For us, we can read the history books, we can watch the films, we can look at the current reality in Scotland and see fair treatment, freedom of speech, individual equality, and freedom of choice, and wonder how the country can possibly be considered “not free”. But there is a difference between individual freedom and collective freedom – the right a society has to democracy and self-governance. A nation’s people cannot be free unless they have both.
The answer to becoming a truly modern nation is not to forget our country’s history but to celebrate it and learn from it in a way that is inclusive and forgiving. There is a reason why the history of Scotland fascinates and resonates with people all around the world. It’s the story of the underdog; the simple idea that any society or any individual, regardless of precedence, can stand and be counted. The Tibetans understand why that message is universal, and so should we.