22 September 2013

Victim Fantasies

"Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help. I'm being oppressed!" 

Victim fantasies seem to have become a staple of UK political discourse lately. They find their fullest expression in the pessimistic nostalgia of Farage's political outfit, but the UK governing party are hardly immune to their lures. 

It isn't enough for Tories that their welfare reforms hollow out the lives of those they effect. They also want to experience the titillating sensation which accompanies setting an injustice right.  Understandably, they don't conceive of themselves as heartless villains prioritising the welfare of the rich "wealth creators" over the impoverished and disaffected. Oh no. They're the agents of justice, settling an old score, straightening the scroungers, the feckless, the spare-room-subsidised. For the plain people of England, I stab at thee.

What does it matter if the phantasms they strike at are straw? The sensation's the thing, and a sense of righteous vengeance against the unworthy is intoxicating.  The pleasures of victimhood are not exclusively domestic.  Bleating has international applications. The entropic force of the European Union schemes to fetter our enterprising spirits with needless bureaucracy. The European Court of Human Rights is waging "war on British justice". Puir us! How we suffer!  

This weekend we find a new charge added to the indictment: according to two different writers from different ends of the UK political spectrum, support for Scottish independence has "hatred" at its heart and the Yes case is "chauvinistic". Not content with actually winning the independence referendum on current polling, part of the pro-Union movement wish to win while cultivating the sense that they've been horribly wronged in the process. Victory is inadequate: they want to triumph as martyrs, without any of the actual sacrifices martyrdom usually requires.  

Tin-eared London-based commentary on Scotland is nothing new, but a new spirit seems to have taken hold of parts of the press recently, spanning both the left and right.  A few weeks by, the Spectator blogger Steerpike commemorated Flodden in his own way, with this pop at Alex Salmond, and this characterisation of the contemporary independence movement:

"The First Minister of Scotland is masterful at mixing anti-English rhetoric, rose-tinted recollections of Scottish history and no gloves politicking. When he does it right, it can be devastating. History is at the heart of his campaign for Scottish independence in the run up to the referendum, so I was surprised to see how quiet he is today over an important point in his nation’s heritage".

This diagnosis may surprise those of us paying passing attention to the Scots political scene. Anti-English rhetoric? A campaign festooned with Scottish history? From his perch in the eerie of the Tower of Flints, Steerpike clearly surveys a different campaign. Say what you will about Yes Scotland: their output is hardly the gusty stuff of ethnic politics, unrepentant tartanry, or the hooch-skirl of Sassenach-bashing. 

It is difficult to imagine the meek Blair Jenkins in plaid, dirked and targed.  Nicola Sturgeon would struggle to be cast as a latter-day Flora MacDonald, or nimble Salmond snipping Sir Henry de Bohun's napper in half like a wet melon. And Steerpike misses the really, rather more interesting point: contemporary Scottish nationalism is remarkably unhistorical in its animating gods. But why let empirical reality subvert a good-going sense of victimisation?

Today, employing bare innuendo, a thin gloss on the controversy around Alasdair Gray's comment on Scottish arts administration, and education policy, Andrew Gilligan argues that "some very unpleasant views have started to surface. For some prominent nationalists, the pandas might be all right – but other arrivals are much less welcome." Entertainingly, Gilligan also suggests that Salmond's criticisms of David Cameron have an ethnic whiff, arguing that the First Minister has "not been averse to national stereotyping at times, condemning Westminster cabinet ministers as "incompetent Lord Snootys".

Presumably English Tory MP, Nadine Dorries, was resorting to the same xenophobic logic when she styled the Prime Minister and his coterie "posh boys", and Labour MP Dennis Skinner also appeals to malevolent stereotypy, when he fires the occasional rhetorical rocket up George Osborne in the House of Commons.

As Tom Nairn observed long ago, "London government invents habitual class remedies to nationalist ailments". In this case, the Telegraph goes one better, transforming its pitiful whinge of "class war" into an ethnic slur, as if it was somehow objectionable to criticise the dominance of privilege in the United Kingdom. The goal of both rhetorical measures? Sleekitly to delegitimise critiques framed in this way. "You can't hold my massive wealth, superior advantages and control of power against me! You. Um. Xenophobe Luddite." And in a trice, we're back on the cross, tacked up with jelly-bean nails, able to feel tender, but without too much  any real suffering. Help, help, I'm being oppressed. 

Gilligan is given a helping hand by the Observer's Catherine Bennett.  For Catherine, the Yes campaign is "chauvinistic", an appeal to an "impoverished and resentful" corner of the UK, predicated mainly on "bellicose, English-phobic nationalism". After a masterful display of false sympathy, Bennett wields the dagger, suggesting that if support for Scottish independence isn't higher in England, this is because:

"... extreme, flag-waving chauvinism has been strongly discouraged in British schools for generations, with the postwar decline of nationalism only intensified by multicultural nerves. True, as we were reminded last week, members of the EDL have miraculously survived all such conditioning; equally, these extremists now risk being righteously snubbed in Mens' Socks.

This is classic stuff from the anti-nationalist multicultural British left, who sustain their crude characterisations of nationalism, usually by trying to distinguish their "patriotism" from deplorable nationalistic thinking. This is rarely plausible, and tends to entail a vacuous reference to Orwell's Notes of Nationalism, which ignores the eccentric way in which Orwell uses the term "nationalism" in that essay.  Bennett's piece duly obliges.

It is the same word. "Nationalism" has to mean the same thing, right? It's a credulous approach which would be rightly flayed if it appeared in an undergraduate essay.  But hey, this is journalism right? What does it matter if I make a vague resort to Orwell's deathless authority, just to slag off a band of Scotch politicians as incipient kryptoethnecists? By all means, let's be cavalier when we're throwing around outrageous allegations and asking idiotic questions about whether a Luxembourger can be venal, if your Frenchman is capable of benevolence, or even more absurdly, whether Scots or English folk are characteristically faultless souls. None of these arguments are features of the constitutional debate. And yet Bennett shoehorns them in, purporting only to find them. 

This strange argument is of interest, in part because nobody remotely in the know about what's going on in Scotland would mistake it for the reality. The projections of Bennett, Steerpike and Gilligan represent the Scottish nationalism they'd prefer to oppose, not the really-existing Scottish nationalism we see, day to day, in Holyrood or in the country.  Reality seems likely to have little purchase on these fantasies, but they doubtless have their psychological compensations.  The essential solidity of UK politics is reinforced. The lunatic Celtic fringe is handily discredited, and you can enjoy the smarting sensation which comes with a vague sense that you've been criticised, and you can't fathom why, or what you've done wrong.

This attitude should concern our UK federalist not-quite-fellow-travellers too. Seemingly unable to accept critiques of UK governance on their face, commentators like Gilligan and Bennett immediately leap to the conclusion that, all evidence despite, the independence movement is an atavistic, anglophobic political project. Scottish independence as it now stands is one answer to the political malaise in this country.

For self-appointed victims like Gilligan and Bennett, the pleasures of wallowing in invented ethnic slights enjoys priority over a fair-minded attempt to understand the current case for independence, its civic nationalist convictions, and the roots of its critique in the failure of Westminster government.  I do understand. Facing that second reality flies in the face of the mainstream UK political discourse. It moves beyond mere gripe. It dispenses with cantankerous trade gossip of the parliamentary lobby. It appeals to a different logic. Independence offers one practical solution to our predicament.  Not everyone will agree that independence represents the right solution to the problems of our governance and politics. I respect that.  

What I cannot abide, however, is the bleating of self-appointed babes in the wood. Far too many folk in the world suffer from the brutal, bloody consequences of hate, unemancipated from historical struggles, and finding their lives crushed between the rocks of racism and chauvenism, to allow ninnies like Gilligan and Bennett to cheapen their suffering, and unhurting, from a privileged, untroubled perch, to pilfer the mantles of martyrdom. 


  1. Brilliant post, couldn't have said it better.

  2. They remind me of the 'heart-rending' stories you get from time to time in the Daily Mail, the forlorn upper middle class wifie "I've had to forego the Aston, the Chablis and the Christian Dior just to be able to afford the school fees" type.

  3. I can think of two other places where there is a Lord Snooty reference. One is in the staunchly unionist D C Thomson papers and the other in the London centric magazine Private Eye, edited by Englishman, Ian Hyslop.

    1. *Half-Scotchman, Ian Hyslop, as I remember. Wasn't his father or grandfather some sort of grim dominie?

  4. Lord Snooty was Scottish. A kindly wee soul who played with the common boys despite his Eton collar and living in the castle....

  5. Then there's Jim Murphy's strange tweet from the poverty stricken ghetto of Newton Mearns -

    "East Renfrewshire food bank opened today will help alleviate some of the hidden poverty behind the doors of middle class homes."

  6. Like this?

    "The Baron permitted anger and grief to edge his voice, thinking: Let him wrong me in that! I could place myself on the throne while still beating my breast over how I'd been wronged"

    Baron Georgimir Foulkeskonen

  7. Thank you for that.
    I have read Gilligan and Bennet , earlier in the week I read Heffer.
    Unfortunately I also caught Distorting Scotland this evening and suffered the dribblings of the inane at the Labour party conference.
    It left an excellent ,optimistic and enthusiastic Saturday in tatters.
    I am utterly sickened by the MSM and left wondering if they are trying to goad the more "active " members of the Yes Scotland campaign into some violent activity enabling them to really play the "victim."

  8. Peaty starting to emit smoke with that one. Great stuff.

    I am only surprised that anyone bothered to read anything Bennett writes. Every week seems like a strain to make the wordcount.

    I do look forward to someone, anyone, being found campaigning for Yes, never mind actually part of Yes, and coming out with this mythical anti-English stuff. It would almost be a relief to be able to see it and deal with it.

    I had always thought any nationalist hatred was more strongly directed inwards at ourselves, expressed quietly in despair and self-loathing at our lack of power in the face of constitutional and parliamentary irrelevance in a Middle England-pleasing Westminster.

  9. Maybe I read the wrong blogs, access the wrong sites, but plenty of anti English stuff out there. The SSP have a particular way of rewriting history and bringing in the anti English stuff, and if you don't agree with them you are a Quisling.
    Must admit I will not vote as it calls upon me to legitimise either Holyrood or Westminster, both Parliaments are failing.

    1. To be crystal clear, I'm not arguing that you can't dig up the odd lunatic. Of course you can, as you doubtless could in any broad political movement. I'm not arguing that Scottish nationalism can't and does not have a problematic strand. Of course it does. Like all nationalisms, including British nationalism, Scottish nationalism admits its contemptible ethnic dimension. That is inevitable, which is profoundly different to saying that the chuavenistic form of nationalism is representative of the broader movement. In my experience, it just isn't, certainly isn't true of the current leadership of the SNP, and to allege so by dint of innuendo is just outrageous, ignorant, or both.

    2. Well up to a point LPW. I dunno about you but I've heard two shouts of 'Get back to England where you belong' from demonstrators and that's two shouts too many.

      Right-wing politics are hardly foreign to Scotland. Even in a era in which Tries are suppose to be extinct in Scotland, 412,000 of us voted Tory at the Westminster election, we have 15 pretty right-wing Tory MSPs, and Tories are in council coalitions all over Scotland.

      I once heard Swinney take a slap at 'Little Englanders' - or rather, 'Litt-ul Englan-durrssssss'. An annoying term to use anyway of course, as originally the expression meant the opposite of what Swinney takes it to mean ( though that shift in meaning is a lost battle alas).

      The point is left-wing English politicians use the term in the same way about their right-wing countryfolk, but the inner circle of hell will get even colder before we hear Swinney refer to - say - the anti-Catholic bigots in Scotland as 'Litt-ul Scotlan-durrssssss'.

    3. Edwin,

      It is one thing to say that a very broad movement has its supporters with dubious ideological commitments. It is quite another to argue that those dubious commitments are general and represent the mainstream opinions of the movement. In this piece, I was striking at the second allegation as demonstrably false. The first, I accept. Like every political and religious persuasion I can imagine, we've got our moronic and bigoted fellow-travellers. To borrow your example, certainly two shouts too many, but only two.