Saturday, 30 August 2014

The foundation of nationalism is division

The department where I work is probably more international than most workplaces, but still the majority of us were born in Scotland.  We tone down the Doric if it’s obvious that someone from overseas is struggling, but we also try to teach them a few words.  People get together over coffee or at the pub after work and talk flows freely. Aberdonians tend to me more reserved than Scots from places like Glasgow, but people from all over the world have found a pretty warm welcome in the department.  However, on occasion someone from elsewhere has asked me about some aspects of the Scottish character that they find a bit baffling.

There was a sweepstake back in June about the World Cup. I didn’t take part as I have no interest in nor understanding of the game, but I remember when the draw was made. Someone was pleased at getting Spain, someone else delighted to get Brazil, someone laughed when they got Iran. Finally someone drew England. I don’t want it she said. Some people commiserated with her. She continued to complain about her misfortune. She’d rather have had any team but England. When the games began to be played, people who normally have no interest in football began complaining about how the commentators kept making excuses about England’s performance. They kept saying England were unlucky. In every game not involving England they kept referring matters back to England.  They kept mentioning how England had once won the World Cup in 1966. Eventually I had a conversation with someone who had recently arrived from England who was finding all this rather upsetting and someone from Germany who thought it all rather strange. The German woman asked me, but haven’t the Scottish just celebrated a battle fought in 1314, don’t you sing a song about it at every football match. In Germany we also remember the previous times we won the World Cup. There was even a popular film about how we won in 1954. Do they hate us so much asked the English woman that they’d prefer to have Iran in the sweepstake? I said that real hatred against English people was thankfully very rare in Scotland. But that many Scots feel the need to define our Scottishness against something and that something is England. It’s rather like how if you meet a Canadian, they tend to emphasise in the first few minutes that they are not Americans.

On another social occasion people were discussing relations who lived elsewhere in the UK. Someone mentioned having a brother in Oxford, whose children had been born and brought up there. She emphasised however that the children were Scottish even though they did have English accents. Whenever they go abroad they also make it clear that they are Scottish as some continentals have a rather negative view about the English. I was asked about this later too. But that must mean that you think that Scotishness is something that can only be passed down from parents. Do you think that someone can only be a Scot if they were born and bred in Scotland? I answered that I didn’t think this to be the case, but that many Scots unthinkingly did think in this way. The odd thing is that I also have a Scottish colleague whose sister moved to France after university. Her children were born and bred there, but they are unquestionably French, feel French, talk French. And yet when someone is born and bred in England their Scottish parentage somehow trumps everything.

My colleagues from places other than Scotland sometimes ask me about the referendum.  They wonder if the person who didn’t want England in the sweepstake is a nationalist. They wonder if the person who emphasised that her nephews and nieces were not English would vote Yes. I said I hardly knew anyone in the department who would vote Yes and that these people would unquestionably vote No. They looked at me in confusion.  I tried to explain.

Nearly everyone who is from Scotland will on occasion say something unkind about the English. I remember as a child mocking a little English boy because he couldn’t speak the Doric.  Which of us can hand on heart say we have never done such a thing? This is probably something to do with human nature and is not limited to Scotland.  People in England often say unkind things about the French.  Lots of us say unkind things about Americans.  These things can of course be hurtful to the recipients. I’ve heard Scots say things about the English that they would never dream of saying about someone from Pakistan. Even however when this banter is mild it is the foundation of nationalism and the fuel that keeps it alive. It is peculiarly self-defeating for people who love Britain to think negatively about any part of it.

I remember in the Soviet Union no one thought that there was much difference between Ukrainians and Russians. Everyone spoke the same language, though Ukrainians also had their own language which was rather difficult for Russians to understand unless you had a little practice. The difference was similar to that between Doric and English. There was always a bit of banter. Russians sometimes called Ukrainians names based on the haircuts they had centuries ago, Ukrainians sometimes called Russians names based on the beards they used to wear. This banter was mild enough, though it sometimes got out of hand as it had done for centuries. The trouble with this sort of raillery is that it emphasised the differences between people who were fundamentally the same.  Go back a thousand years and you'll find no difference between a Ukrainian and a Russian, go back two thousand years and you'll find no difference between a Celt living in what's now England and a Celt living in what's now Scotland. But look what happened when Ukraine became independent. The Ukrainian language was encouraged, the Russian language discouraged, divisive interpretations of history and culture were developed always emphasising and trying to increase the difference between the neighbours.  The result as so often with nationalism is now obvious for all to see. What started as mild banter has ended in poverty, chaos, hatred and war.

Most independence supporters don’t hate the English, though some do. But they do want to emphasise the difference between Scots and those living in other parts of the UK.  They want to say we think this way. We have this culture. We are fundamentally different from those people south of the border. They would love it if we all spoke a language different from English. Perhaps after independence they would strive to make this dream come true.  Why do a significant number of Scots say I’m Scottish, not British if not because they can’t quite bear to have the Cross of St. George merged with the Cross of St. Andrew. They don’t want any red sullying the purity of the saltire; they can’t bear it if the Red arrows use red smoke.

To say I’m British is to say I’m a little bit English, a little bit Welsh, a little bit Northern Irish and a little bit Scottish. This should be the case wherever our parents came from. Britain is a welcoming place. It is hugely beneficial that people want to come and live here. Though there are challenges too. People from elsewhere tempted to vote for independence, should think twice, whatever promises may have been made to them. Nationalism at root is founded on difference.  It is not inclusive no matter what they may tell you. Many especially intellectual nationalists are indeed liberal civic nationalists. But this is not the fundament of their philosophy.

We are all equally guilty for the rise of nationalism in Scotland. I am guilty for mocking the little English boy. You are guilty for wanting anyone but England to win. Without this banter, nationalism would never have taken root in our country.  People who are British citizens, who don't think they are British, but rather only Scottish are clearly not founding their nationalism on something civic (citizenship), rather they are basing it on where they were born and who their parents are. This tragically is something only they can share.  No one else will ever be properly Scottish, no matter how long they have lived here.


There are signs that nationalism in Scotland is turning ugly. There is a win at all costs mentality that is dangerous to our democracy and much that we hold dear. I’ve seen what nationalism can do. It starts with banter and mild forms of prejudice. Don't let it go any further. If you love Britain don't think of our fellow citizens as the old enemy. Don't use unkind words about those we want to continue living with. Don't do the nationalists job for them.




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5 comments:

  1. The nub of your argument seems to be:

    "People who are British citizens, who don't think they are British, but rather only Scottish are clearly not founding their nationalism on something civic (citizenship), rather they are basing it on where they were born and who their parents are."

    I can't see the logic there though.

    I consider myself much more Scottish than British based on a number of reasons. Heritage, place of birth and my residence history all play a part. Equally important is my commitment to the future of Scotland as an independent country.

    But my reasons in no way prevent other people from having other reasons for feeling Scottish. Angus Robertson is no less Scottish than me for being born in London; Humza Yousaf is no less Scottish than me for not sharing my heritage; Rod Stewart no less for not having a Scottish accent; you are no less Scottish than me for not believing in independence.

    Equally I'm no less Scottish than someone who speaks Gaelic, has ginger hair or plays golf.

    My local SNP councillor is from Birmingham, but has as strong a commitment to Scotland's future as an independent country as I do. The movement you denigrate as being the same as nationalist movements in other countries is one I'm very proud of purely because we're NOT the same as those other movements.

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  2. This piece isn't really addressed to independence supporters, who I tend to think of as sincere if sometimes misguided, rather it is addressed to my own side who unthinkingly sometimes undermine the cause we are fighting for. It is they who I am trying to persuade, not the majority of liberal nationalists like yourself who are a credit to your cause.

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  3. My husband is US-born but was raised in Cornwall, and I honestly didn't think about this being a problem when I suggested that we move north of the border a short time after we married. Fifteen years down the line I am now acutely aware of the casual racism that has been levelled at him over the years. I think it is so embedded in our upbringing that it is invisible to many Scots, or if they are aware of it they laugh it off as banter. Thank you for cleaning out the dust from under the bed!

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    1. There are so many great things about Scotland, but sectarianism and so called banter against our neighbour are our worst character traits. If people casually think of a part of their country as the old enemy, if they say things about this part of the country that they would never dare say about another country, then naturally independence seems attractive, after all it would be a victory over the old enemy and send him homewards to think again. It's because we, all of us, have allowed this relatively mild, casual banter to continue, that we are in danger of losing our country, for otherwise we would unquestionably have the same identity as every other citizen of the UK, just as the French and Germans have the same identity even if they come from places that also once were independent like Burgundy and Saxony. If the UK breaks up we will all be equally guilty and we'll deserve the division we have caused.

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  4. I've read this piece a couple of times, and feel compelled to respond. Given the subject matter, I find your opening comment really surprising: 

    " We tone down the Doric if it’s obvious that someone from overseas is struggling."

    In that one sentence is revealed several prejudices, ones you are obviously unaware of (and these are the worst kind.) First that you are speaking Doric in the workplace when you know others cannot. Why not speak English so ALL your colleagues can understand. Do you only tone it down when you are aware others struggle? If they don't show obvious signs of struggling thats ok then, they can sit in ignorance of what you and your colleagues are saying and be excluded? 

    You seem to think it virtuous to 'tone it down', it's not. It's ignorant to speak Doric in the first place if you KNOW people working with you cannot understand. And ‘overseas’ - really? All non-Doric speakers are some kind of ‘foreigner’?

    In your piece you use the word 'nationalist' quite a bit to describe anyone who does not agree with the No argument. Supporters of independence are not necessarily nationalists. You are obviously aware that your use of that word is pejorative. Is this not exactly the same divisiveness you rail against in others? 

    You comment in the body of your piece that: 

    "Whenever they go abroad they also make it clear that they are Scottish as some continentals have a rather negative view about the English."

    You seem astonishingly unconcerned that "some continentals" (yes lump all European nationalities with their rich cultures, heritages and languages together) have "a negative view of the English", and make no attempt to analyse why that might be the case. None at all. I'll take your words that that IS the case, in your experience (it's certainly not mine). I find remarkable your complete lack of interest in analysing why there is this "negative view of the English", which you have observed. Instead you throw the comment in and use it as a way to make some crude and pejorative point about Scottish xenophobia and nationalism. 

    And you remarked: "I’ve heard Scots say things about the English that they would never dream of saying about someone from Pakistan. Even however when this banter is mild it is the foundation of nationalism and the fuel that keeps it alive."   No it is racist, bigoted and maybe homophobic, but not necessarily nationalist, and to conflate these is again to 'load' the N word with baggage it should NOT carry if you then intend to use the N to describe those whose voting preference you are opposed to. Do you not see that the very divisiveness you are trying to criticize in others is riven throughout your own comments?

    But I find your comments to 'Garve' the most remarkable:

    "This piece isn't really addressed to independence supporters, who I tend to think of as sincere if sometimes misguided, rather it is addressed to my own side who unthinkingly sometimes undermine the cause we are fighting for. It is they who I am trying to persuade, not the majority of liberal nationalists like yourself who are a credit to your cause. "

    As far as I can ascertain from that, you consider nationalists as "sincere", and liberal nationalists a "credit to [their] cause", and remarkably you reserve the bulk of your argument about the dangerously divisive nature of nationalism for your own supporters, whom you describe as "unthinking" and in fact "undermining our own cause." 

    And on that last comment (if your article is an accurate barometer of their sentiment) I would certainly have to agree with you.  You might be more accurate to re-title your piece 'The Foundation of Division is Nationalism' as that better reflects the thrust of your argument. 

    Best wishes for Thursday. We're all in it together whatever happens!

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