The birth and early life of a nationalist factoid

The birth and early life of a nationalist factoid

by Gordon Barclay
article from Saturday 19, July, 2014

A NEW 'truth' emerged in the 'Scottish Region'  Mail on Sunday of 24 March 2013, that 'London planned to abandon Scotland if Hitler invaded our shores' (Marc Horne). The story was picked up and elaborated in a print-only edition of the Daily Express (Rod Mills) apparently the next day, under the headline, 'Secret plan to let [the] Nazis take Scotland' claiming that 'Scotland would have been abandoned to the Germans in the event of a Second World War invasion, according to new research'. None of this is true, not in any way. It's a 'factoid' – 'an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact'. [Oxford English Dictionary] The problem is that this 'fact' has since been used frequently to justify a 'Yes' vote in the referendum, by re-writing history and, in some cases, pandering to anti-English sentiment, and it's been attached to my name, as the person who did the research. 

The invention of the 'factoid'

In April 2013 I published a book on the archaeology and history of the defence of Scotland against German invasion in the summer of 1940: If Hitler Comes. Preparing for invasion: Scotland 1940 (Birlinn). I didn't become aware until a few weeks after it was published that just before publication my research had been misrepresented in the two newspaper articles quoted above. Oddly, the Sunday Mail article seems not to have been picked up widely by internet bloggers; it was certainly difficult to find online, owing to the Mail's archiving practices, but the Daily Express print piece, however, was scanned and re-posted by a few blogs, most of which had a pro-independence standpoint, and has been the source quoted most often when the factoid appears.

My book was published on 10 April 2013 and I received my own pre-publication copies on 25 March.  My publisher had sent out a straightforward press release (containing nothing that could have prompted the factoid) and some preview copies of the book in mid- to late March. I have no idea what sources Mr Horne and Mr Mills were working from. Both, however, named me as being responsible for this research that proved that '…Sir Edmond Ironside, the man Churchill chose to mastermind Britain's defences, believed Scotland would have to be sacrificed in the event of an invasion' (Horne) or that 'Scotland would have been abandoned to the Germans in the event of a Second World War invasion, according to new research' (Mills). 

Horne's article is the more misleading, as he does not include information from my book that might undermine the article's bold statements. Mills' article is more confused, as, after repeating the main assertions of Horne's piece, enough information is provided, probably from my book, to cast doubt on the headline and the initial blunt statements. This is rarely picked up on, however. There were other subtle differences between the articles: for example, Mills wrote that Scotland was to be abandoned 'by military commanders in London', Horne only 'by London'.

Scotland was in fact relatively heavily defended in 1940, within the constraints of Army manpower, transport and equipment shortages after Dunkirk, and the defences were strengthened throughout the summer and autumn of 1940. Ironside's concerns were about his reserves; he did not want to be fooled into sending men north to reinforce the Scottish garrison to meet a German diversionary attack from Norway, away from where the main invasion was expected, in the east and south of England. Scotland, like every other part of the UK, was going to have to manage with the garrison already there, and to expect no reinforcements. 

The Daily Express story was re-posted first on 25 March by the Facebook page for 'YES to an independent Scotland' and then, on seven further blogs over the next few days. The 'YES' Facebook page re-posted the Daily Express article under the text, 'Scotland would have been abandoned to the Germans in the event of second world war invasion according to new research. Military commandeers in London were prepared to ignore "screams from Scotland" in order to give England "Total Priority". — with better together'. 507 people 'liked' this and the post was 'shared' 999 times, but the various posts under the headline were a mixture of reasonable assessment of the strategic constraints on Ironside (pictured), one or two 'Better Together' accusations of this being pretty low-grade propaganda, and these posts (in all quotations my interventions are in square brackets; I have not corrected spelling):

  • The "British" are responsible for more genocide than ANYONE, its a shame that history is written by the victors;  
  • [The factoid is] fairly relevant when this is apparently the heart and sole for the British nationalist jingoistic campaign...Claims of victory over the Germans in WW2 is pretty much the only 'positive' argument they have... and there is a gaping hole in it, we were going to be sacrificed in the event of invasion, take that as you will; 
  • Scotland was, is, and always shall be viewed as an expendable asset by the South;
  • Keeping things current means you stop looking at how english goverments shafted us in the past, I strongly believe its wise therefore to remember the past to stop them shafting us in the future, and that is by voting independance;
  • the truth behind the Union.

The second re-post was on 'Secret Scotland', a very useful, informative, non-political site about all sorts of forgotten and hidden places in Scotland, and comment on the post (which was put up for information only) was limited, 'How very strange that a little bit of anti-English propaganda appears as Scotland wants independence'. I was accused, on the assumption that the article reflected my book, of being 'bonkers'. 

A site for WW2 re-enacters posted an image of the Daily Express article under the text, 'No doubt along with the other little countys of England like wales and N. Ireland where to'. A largely sensible discussion followed, although I was accused (understandably but unfairly) of writing 'bollocks' to sell my book. The discussion descended into at first moderately good-natured 'sledging' by Scots about the English and vice versa, and then, regrettably, something nastier (on both sides). 

The 'Rev' Stuart Campbell's 'Wings over Scotland' site reproduced an image of the Daily Express article with the words, 'Remember how Unionists endlessly cite World War 2 as the definitive example of great British "togetherness"? Turns out they might be over-egging that one a bit'. It prompted a varied response, some of it sensible consideration on Ironside's options, but others using it to prove that a 'Yes' vote in the referendum was the right choice. One post, from someone who had anti-invasion defences actually built on his land and who mentioned that I had met his wife while I was doing my research, somehow managed to use the large scale of the defences to justify the question, 'When will the zombies in Scotland waken up & realise that their wee country has been getting shafted these past 800 years?' I do not understand the logic of this.

'Scotlandshire' a self-consciously wacky site which 'contains news items which are often ridiculous, generally fictitious […etc etc]' had a sub-head, 'UKOK head Alastair Darling has accused historian Gordon Barclay of "deliberately publishing research that showed the UK didn't give a shit about Scotlandshire."'. Hilarious no doubt, but the factoid gets another leg up, as it's taken as fact. 

The factoid emerged briefly on the forum for the Greenock Morton Football Club, in the subsection, perhaps appropriately, called 'General Nonsense' (27 March 11.40am) when someone was complaining about the 'humorous' representation of Alex Salmond as a Nazi, 'Ironic considering the recent Daily Express story about how Scotland was to be abandoned to the Nazis if Germany had invaded during WW2, and our soldiers used to defend England'. The use of 'our soldiers […] to defend England' is the first locally-crafted elaboration of the original factoid to emerge; there were of course English soldiers in Scotland, and vice versa, in 1940. 

This sort of factoid elaboration seems to reflect a mental process, that if 'x' is true, then I can increase its impact by adding 'y', which must have been a consequence of 'x'. Thus, if Scotland was to be abandoned, all Scottish soldiers would surely have been in England, so it's legitimate for it to be added to the original statement. 

The final showing of the 'factoid' in its initial phase was as the inspiration of a fairly nasty poem, 'Abandoned', on the Tartantights blog. These are the highlights of the introduction to the poem:

A poem which illustrates the contempt of the so-called greatest Briton [Churchill] for the people of Scotland a people he would willingly have abandoned to the Nazis to make sure England had priority in any invasion of Britain [This outrageous attitude to so-called union of equals shows to me how Scotland is perceived by the British establishment [We are viewed as expendable it really is that simple. 

This is the first occurrence of the locally-crafted elaboration I have termed 'sneering reference to Churchill'. It was possible for me to leave what I hope was a polite note on the Tartantights site, pointing out that the truth was other than had been stated.  The owner of the blog did not respond, and the poem is still there, even though the 'facts' inspiring it have been discredited. 

It lives! The factoid since March 2013

In the year or so since it was invented the factoid has begun to develop, transforming from a 'fact based on research by Gordon Barclay' to a 'truth without need for reference'. The examples quoted below include those with a reference to source, and those without.

Its first appearance after its birth in March 2013 was in an exchange about Nigel Farage, in May 2013 on this Facebook page, in which the page's owner wrote (highlights only, uncorrected): 

Its not anti English racism, its the fact your country took an unrightful rule over Scotland. Killed our people. Then in the second world war England planned to abandon Scotland to the nazis. Yous lied [oil [new laws in Scotland first, and as soon as we show nation pride we are apparently racists [] thatcher [] Long story short, your country fucked over the country I love, so I really don't f***ing like you [my emphasis and asterisks]

The comments below this post were unedifying, from both sides of the argument.

On 18 July 2013 the Facebook page of 'Socialists for an Independent Scotland', in response to a post about Northern Ireland, included, a post, 'recent book published claims that Churchill would have abandoned Scotland to the Nazi's if we had been invaded in WW2 to protect England''. One response, 25 minutes later, affirmed that it was 'True. All true', on what basis, I do not know. 

The factoid made its second appearance on the 'Yes to an independent Scotland' Facebook page on 31 October 2013, with the Daily Express cutting prominently displayed, under the covering text: 

Often you will hear from British Nationalists that military might and the successful defence of Britain during WWII are amongst the strongest arguments to maintain London rule (especially at this time of year). However, it came to light earlier this year that not only was this not the case, it seemed Scotland was to be used as a sacrificial bargaining chip in the event of a successful German invasion. Please share this widely once again.  

The use of Scotland as 'sacrificial bargaining chip' is a locally-crafted elaboration by the poster. The post was 'liked' by 166 people and 'shared' by 133 others. The subsequent comments on the 'YES to an independent Scotland' site included a fair number that said the story was rubbish (one memorably stating, 'Its a pointless article about a shite historians shite opinion published in a shite newspaper' – I disagree with one part of that). But a significant number of 'So nothing new then' responses seemed to be from people whose viewpoint the factoid had presumably confirmed. 

On 16 February 2014, on the 'Just the Talk' site in a wide-ranging discussion on the referendum the factoid appeared as, 'Anyway, WWII isn't exactly the best example of why Scotland should continue to allow the UK to run its defence: "Scotland would have been abandoned to the Germans in the event of a Second World War invasion, according to new research. Military commanders in London were prepared to ignore "screams from Scotland" in order to give England "total priority"'. 

I was surprised to find the factoid in a topic on 'Cable Forum; your number one cable resource' (as in Cable TV) about 'Will Scotland leave the UK?'. In response to a plea that a nationalist poster 'Jimi' provide some 'actual information', Jimi responded (23 April 2014) with a re-post of the Daily Express article with covering text, 'Actual info, you mean like this article from the Daily Express, maybe one day you'll wake up and see the bigger picture, but I seriously doubt it tbh. Neighbours, aye right'. The few responses were dismissive, or considered sensibly the strategic limitations faced by Ironside. I had the opportunity to post a correction'Jimi' did not respond.

On 15 April 2014 the factoid reappeared in a further post on the 'Wings over Scotland' site, in response to an article on post-independence defence policy. 'Arbroath 1320' wrote (15 April 2014, 5.52pm) 'However, if we were to [b]ring our minds back to circa 1944 [??] then we would find the M.O.D. making plans to ABANDON Scotland to Hitler and his Nazis if they invaded Scotland. I kid you not'. He then referenced and quoted the Express piece, 'Military commanders in London were prepared to ignore "screams from Scotland" in order to give England "total priority". He [me presumably] discovered that Field Marshall Sir Edmund Ironside, the man Churchill chose to mastermind Britain's defences, believed Scotland would have to be sacrificed to a Nazi invasion'. He concludes, 'So in defence speak, only the M.O.D. are permitted to separate Scotland from rUK'. 

The factoid appeared a month later in an infographic in the May 2014 issue of 'AyeMag, the Yes Clydesdale newsletter' in which it was stated 'Even dear leader Churchill planned to abandon Scotland to the Nazis if they invaded..'. A 'truth' unsupported by reference, and interestingly another 'sneering reference to Churchill' elaboration.

On 15 June 2014, and marking the factoid's development into a fully-fledged 'truth', the factoid appeared in a formal article on a website, rather than as a quick re-post and comment. This was a piece about the Union by Hamish Scott on the 'Newsnet' website. The factoid appeared as 'It has also recently been revealed through declassified documents that, had Scotland been invaded by Nazi forces in the Second World War, Scotland would have been abandoned militarily by the British'.  Any subtlety of argument that might have been detected in the newspaper articles has gone, but emphasis is given to the source being 'declassified documents' (a usage first coined by Horne), the implication apparently being that this 'truth' had been hidden until I found it – the War Diaries used in my research were opened up more than 20 years ago. At least my name didn't appear in a quote from the newspaper.  

The Daily Express cutting was re-posted on the Twitter page of 'Love Glasgow' on 28 June 2014, without comment, but attracting (to 14 July) eight further posts, including, 'It doesn't surprise me though''Nothing ever changes that's why the nukes are on the Clyde. Scottish people are expendable'; and 'Sadly true'.

The day after I had submitted the first draft of this paper for publication the factoid emerged again, on the Wings over Scotland site, on 16 July (6.26pm), as a comment on a post about celebrities supporting a 'No' vote, 'Notice the veterans with signs saying: we fought together. Did anyone tell them that Churchill had drawn up plans to abandon Scotland to the nazis if they had invaded Scotland first?' Interestingly, another post in which Churchill, rather than general Ironside, was the villain. I posted a comment setting out the facts at 8.36am on the following day. I have commented and await the results with interest.


Let us remind ourselves what the factoid implies: in the summer of 1940, at the darkest hour in Britain's fight for survival, and facing the disappearance of liberal democracy in Europe, England was going to sacrifice Scotland to the murdering, racist, lunatics then running Germany, to save itself. It's a serious accusation, a gross insult; one that you would expect only to be made once you were sure of your facts and used carefully, not, as has happened, casually and repeatedly. 

Over a few days in late March 2013 the factoid was created by a journalist whose sources are unknown and about whose intentions I will not speculate, picked up by a second newspaper, and then shaped into a weapon to be used in debate by a series of bloggers apparently representing a particular subset of the 'Yes' campaign – those who believe that their case is strengthened by 'proving' that important parts of our shared history with England are wrong. From being about a decision made by General Ironside (Leith born) it has become the decision of Churchill, of the 'English' or a series of proxies for England/the English, about which the posters have 'issues' -, the 'south', the 'Union', 'London', 'military commanders in London', the 'British'; the 'Ministry of Defence'. And the inference that is to be drawn is clearly that 'the English were going to rat on us in 1940'. One or two posters on blogs have asked the people using the factoid why this might be relevant over 70 years later; the answer they often receive is a variant on, 'that's how "they" have always treated "us"'. 

It was upsetting to have other people's prejudices 'proved' by what I was supposed to have written. My name now appears less frequently, unless the Daily Express cutting is re-posted. But the down-side of the factoid maturing from 'fact based on research by Gordon Barclay' to unreferenced 'truth' is that when the factoid is deployed in the future, and as it develops locally-crafted elaborations, it will be less easy to challenge. I can foresee a future in which an attempt to correct a posting of the factoid is met by an assertion that the factoid is nothing to do with the misrepresentation of my work but a proven truth, source unspecified.

The factoid has clearly entered the consciousness of people arguing from a particular perspective in the debate, and one cannot know how often it has been deployed in other discussions. I hope that anyone who might want to dredge this nonsense up again comes across this article - it might give them pause for thought. 


Dr Gordon Barclay is an archaeologist working actively on the archaeology and history of 20th-century defence in Scotland. He has also written on the effects of English and Scottish national identities on the writing of 'British' prehistory. He worked for Historic Scotland from 1977 to 1994, as Principal Inspector and latterly as Head of Policy.


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