25 May 2011

The Gurnian, Britishness, and its one-faced Janus...

For those who keep an eye on the London-based UK press, its collective reaction to this month's Holyrood result has been rather queer, particularly in the comment section. Without making any claims to comprehensiveness, recent pieces have included Tim Lott, writing in the Independent, who snarls "Good riddance to this unequal Union..." Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail cries, more simply "Good riddance!"  A dyspeptic David Mitchell wrote in the Gurnian "If Scotland does secede, I won't be alone in mourning my country" and elsewhere in the same publication, Simon Hoggart argues that "Scottish independence is a win-win situation" while Simon Jenkins argues that "It is time for England's first empire to get independence".  Stephen Moss, another Guardian contributor, begins his piece with the pious saw "I dislike nationalist politics" and continues in a similar vein. Madeleine Bunting strikes a different note, worrying that "If Scotland goes, all we'll have left is the Englishness we so despise". The piece is an interesting example of the micro-politics of "we" - with its implicit judgement that she is an English writer, writing for an English audience - with reference to a Scots they.  As a political nationalist, I have nothing against such distinctions in general terms, although they take on an greater significance, when one reads them in the pages of a paper purporting to be addressed to every limb of the British body politick on equal terms. 

That thought moves us on to another - one of the striking features of much of this commentary is that it originates from publications which generally show almost no interest in Scotland at all. For my money, of the metropolitan press outfits, the Times and Telegraph generally are the best of a bad bunch. While the Guardian is consistently useless, it is in turn outclassed in mediocrity by the worldly Independent, which contrives almost never to mention the place. On Scotland and the animating forces of Scottish self-determination, each of these comment pieces miss their mark - leaving a sense of their failure to understand Scottish political life, missing its spirit, misconstruing its features - and failing to notice their failure. The authors tend to squash their data into arguably inappropriate frames of reference - most prominently the perennial Union squint, with its pale-green, woozy and distorting Westminster-glass spectacles. Equally significantly, you'll notice that a great many of these articles are from writers emblematic of the economically comfortable metropolitan soft-left, by authors who conceive themselves as cosmopolitan, liberal and open-minded, writing in papers broadly sympathetic to the Labour Party in the UK context. 

These is much in these articles that is vapid, insulting - and plenty to vex. They distil a very clear sense of feeling wounded - bee-stung and befuddled - not really understanding from whence the swarm descended, why it is picking on you, or what its pricks really signify. What does an independence referendum mean? What are the Scotch saying about us, by organising one? What is so wrong with us anyway? What do the ungrateful so-and-sos have to complain about? I am reminded of an old Billy Connolly joke about a Cardinal visiting his erstwhile Catholic primary school in Glasgow, where he is insulted by a grubby little boy. The great prince of the church regales the dirty-arsed tyke with a litany of his ambitions realised and honours hard won, ending "And you're telling me to fuck off? You fuck off!" Connolly's comic tale includes a number of pertinent parallels - the horrid wean was insultingly indifferent about the Cardinal's laboriously secured trappings. He is insecure about his acquisitions. The gag partly relies on the piquancy of the Cardinal proving just as foul-mouthed as the wean who offends him, partly by the lout prodding an obviously sore spot for the pompous priest, prompting his bruised reply. The Holyrood election result, with its independence referendum implications, has clearly prodded a sore spot for soft-leftish parts of the London media. The interesting question, it seems to me, is why is this spot sore at all, and secondly, why this particular pain? There are a number of elements worth thinking about here. I intend to return to the presumptions about public spending dominating these articles in a subsequent piece, for reasons of brevity [sic] as much as anything else. For now, a few general thoughts of introduction about where these extraordinary series of articles come from.

Living down south as I do (in deepest Oxfordshire), I fend off bizarre misconceptions about Scottish Nationalism on a fairly regular basis. Since the election result, I've encountered a number of folk whose views are enumerated more substantially by Lott and the rest in their articles. Echoing certain historical accounts one can find of the Scots in the early years of the Union, our merry band is viewed as in it for all we can get, girning freebooters loading up carts with English lucre, tripping it off home, without the grace to be grateful - and even going as far as to impugn and insult the political settlement that has bestowed such riches upon us. My interlocutors and the Gurnian and Independent columns generally share this understanding - and confusion - about how to interpret what has got the Scots hopping. Their reaction is that of the self-consciously charitable man whose largesse is met with a kick from the beggar he thought to aid, who has the temerity to damn his eyes for a scoundrel - while keeping his coin.

Secondly, I'm willing to hazard a guess that many of the columnists and the educated, politically interested English folk I've been talking to are united in their subjective suspicion of "nationalism". Neither group have any real Tom Nairn-inspired sense of Nationalism as Janus-faced, where the potentially reactionary content of the ideology is not repressed, but nor do negative manifestations negate the emancipatory potential of nationalisms. Reading and talking with folk entertaining such suspicions, I was struck the extent to which they were totally unaware of what Orwell might have called their "objective" British nationalism. While subjectively disavowing the same, piously disdaining nationalistic sentiment as the hunched proxy for racialised thinking, their whole political practice relies on the conflation of urbane, vaguely open-minded cosmopolitanism with the hodgepodge Dame Union. Internationalism's rags and rouge are pressed into lurid service, hardly concealing the old girl's nakedness, nevermind her shame. Ideologically, the muddle does a great deal of work - primarily negatively, as a means to deploy anti-nationalism skeptically to probe Scottish nationalists in general - while comfortably obscuring the implicit nationalism of their own position.  Ironically, this version of Brit-Nattery earnestly insists that nationalism can only promise a blight of discord and division, while their own Union Jacks are no more than gossamer about their shoulders, worn lightly, and harmlessly. This at least has the benefit of being consistent - I don't experience Britishness as a blight of discord and division, ergo, I'm not a nationalist for supporting Britain's continued existence and opposing political alternatives. Put more simply, it is a case of "I'm not a nationalist, I'm just British." Chocks away!  

The definition of nationalism consistently deployed in this argument is hopelessly simple - but it presents few problems for those of us willing to concede Nairn's nationalist Janus, without insisting that both of his faces necessary bear the same handsome, benign expression. Mitchell and others can only see the snarling phizog with its hard exclusionary gaze, saving a more encompassing and positive nationalism by way of a bit of verbal sophistry about good patriotism and bad nationalism.  Bunting's Guardian piece appears more comfortable with the language of nationalism than her colleague - and perhaps puts this conundrum most clearly. Bereft of Britishness - her ethnically encompassing, generous "good" nationalism - she fears being abandoned with Englishness, which she perceives as Janus's racialising leer, "bad" nationalism. Few of the London-based commentators appear to credit the notion, never mind take seriously the proposition, that Scottish nationalism's ruling political spirit is of the former rather than the latter character and can at least make the case that it is much more consciously committed to an inclusive civic nationalism than the often waif-like and lost account of contemporary Britishness.

"And, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp'd in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain..."

Since the election, I have met a number of folk who do not make a habit of attending to political speeches, but who profoundly identified with the sentiments expressed very early on in Alex Salmond's speech on being elected first minister. "Moved and proud", one friend said he felt. I for one have never heard a British politician talking like this...

“When Donald Dewar addressed this parliament in 1999, he evoked Scotland’s diverse voices: “The speak of the Mearns. The shout of the welder above the din of the Clyde shipyard. The battle cries of Bruce and Wallace.” Now these voices of the past are joined in this chamber by the sound of 21st-century Scotland. The lyrical Italian of Marco Biagi. The formal Urdu of Humza Yousaf. The sacred Arabic of Hanzala Malik. We are proud to have those languages spoken here alongside English, Gaelic, Scots and Doric. This land is their land, from the sparkling sands of the islands to the glittering granite of its cities. It belongs to all who choose to call it home. That includes new Scots who have escaped persecution or conflict in Africa or the Middle East. It means Scots whose forebears fled famine in Ireland and elsewhere. That is who belongs here, but let us be clear also about what does not belong here. As the song tells us, for Scotland to flourish then “Let us be rid of those bigots and fools / Who will not let Scotland, live and let live.” Our new Scotland is built on the old custom of hospitality. We offer a hand that is open to all, whether they hail from England, Ireland, Pakistan or Poland. Modern Scotland is also built on equality.”


  1. So what are you saying LPW? That various English ignoramuses are in favour of Scottish independence, therefore it must be a good thing?

    Ignoramuses, let it be said, who, if they expressed any other view, you would rail at their ignorance...

    Anyway, if you have to call Quentin Letts in evidence, the case is surely lost....

  2. And BTW, I think you are rather hard on David Mitchell (in the Observer, not the Grauniad) in calling him dyspeptic.

    His piece seems rather balanced to me, and regretful if by some malign chance his Scottish roots are sundered from his British person.

    Quite eloquent, actually and I agree with his sentiment.

  3. I read them all, Tim Lott, Quentin Letts, David Mitchell, Simon Hoggart, Simon Jenkins, Stephen Moss and Madeleine Bunting and what I get from them all is a sense of bewilderment, anger and sometimes both. For them all the northern province of their country is planning to leave and they can't understand why.

    There has been very little difference over the years for many in England between the concepts of Britain and England and both terms describe the same geographical and national identity boundaries for the bulk of those in England. Although the idea of Britain containing separate regions or rival regions is not a problem for these particular commentators the idea of Britain containing separate national identities is.

    Because they can't understand the idea of Scotland and England as nations within a political union Scottish independence is much worse than the idea of Scotland rejecting the UK and England with it, it's as if a unitary Britain is tearing itself apart in a low level civil war and that has a direct impact on their own national identity and the idea of where the geographic boundaries of their identities lie. They can't understand the idea of Scotland as a nation so they can't understand the motivation of those who want Scotland to be an independent state and their reaction is bewilderment and anger.

  4. The Westminster wonks do not understand what has happened either.

    The Caledonian Mercury have a piece from a Labour apparatchik who clearly has not a 'scooby' as to why they were stuffed.

    The usual Unionist apologists on the Scotsman blog are claiming labour have nothing to do, Salmond and the SNP will destroy themselves and everything will be back to normal.

    The process is clear - the Unionist politicals are going through the anger phase of mourning, the Unionist papers are in the denial phase - their problem is they have not moved on since 2007.

    The Scottish voters have and increasingly recognise the unbreathing corpse of 'Britishness' for what it is - deceased.

  5. David Mitchell was self-serving. How dare those Scots have ideas of their own?

    The whole gist of the various articles has been "the Scots belong in a box. From tome to time I will take them out and look at them, but otherwise, like any toy, should remain there, unchanging"

    Let me think. Hmm. No.

  6. LPW, quite right "I'm not a nationalist, I'm just British."

    I'm not a nationalist, but I am British because that's where I was born and what it says on my passport.... and it's ok by me, if not you...

    'though why you would presume to dictate to me my feelings and conclusions on the matter is a puzzle to me, if not you.

    Can you explain?

  7. A fine post pondering some interesting things. To see ourselves as others see us is important.

    I too lived and worked for a number of years. And well I remember many had an affection for Scotland but an indifference and a lack of understanding to the place.

    I also remember studying history and the writer HAL Fisher in his fine History of Europe discussing the Scottish Wars of Independence. Our great heroes, our Declaration of Arbroath he saw as a bad thing, an opportunity missed to bring union many centuries earlier.


    I also remember an English fellow student saying how proud he was to study in Scotland and how he supported the country at sports but after 4 years in Scotland he would now always shout for ever played against us. I understood then how our strutting nationalism can let us down.

    You are nailing it when you consider the ism of nationalism, I have to confess I am uncomfortable with it. Whether it be Scottish, English or British.

    The noble sentiments are good.

    What the wider philosophy is I don't know?

    I think the fact that papers like The Indy ignore Scotland is because we read our papers and watch our football. They have to sell their newspaper.

    I am interested in the writer who said that we loose something if Britain looses Scotland.

    It is my contention that the focussing on Scotland is too narrow and nationalism is not a good way.

    The natural state is The British state and it is important to emphasise the many more things that unite us (not least language and geography) than the comparatively fewer that separate us!


  8. Braveheart:

    "I'm not a nationalist, but I am British because that's where I was born and what it says on my passport"

    This statement represents the delusional, authoritarian and intellectually vacuous tendancies of British nationalism in a nut shell.

    I'm a social democrat and an internationalist. I see the rational case for Scottish sovereignty in an interdependent global community. It is not I, or independistas like me, who are clinging to the narrow nationalism of identity politics. That is firmly the domain of the so-called "unionists".

  9. GrassyKnollington26 May 2011 at 09:58

    "Ironically, this version of Brit-Nattery earnestly insists that nationalism can only promise a blight of discord and division, while their own Union Jacks are no more than gossamer about their shoulders, worn lightly, and harmlessly."

    Ah Lallands just love that, elegant, true and hilarious at the same time.

    I read these pieces at the time they were written as well and was struck by the feeling that they were more than a bit hurt by the idea of Scotland leaving especially when in their own minds they'd been far too generous with their taxes. ( Taxes we apparently don't pay at all and the oil money is of course a UK resource that they kindly take care of for us).

    The view I get from the many hundreds of commenters is that "canny", "slippery as an eel" Salmond and ourselves are quite simply out for all we can get of their money and so called nationalism is just a front for this escalating grasping.

    We don't want independence we just want even more of their money.

    How ghastly not to be able to see that standing up for Britain is nothing so vulgar as nationalism, but sheer common sense, the natural order in fact.

    Standing up for Scotland in a similar way is of course palpable nonsense and takes us directly into aggressive shortbread tin rattling territory which leaves "sensible people" exhausted.

  10. @anon " I see the rational case for Scottish sovereignty in an interdependent global community."

    What is it, then?

    I've been asking for years and I haven't had a coherent answer.

  11. "Standing up for Scotland in a similar way is of course palpable nonsense "

    What about standing up for Orkney then? Or Shetland? Or Bute for that matter? Bass rock....?

    If "standing up" for some geographical area is a all it's about, then we can all have our own little principalities...

    Shetland, Orkney, Dalriada, Pictland... they've all been "independent" in the past, and by your logic should all be "independent" now.

    Personally, I would like to stand up for Girvan.... Girvan Free in '93...

    If I've misunderstood in some way, I'm sure you'll point it out. Gently....


  12. GrassyKnollington26 May 2011 at 10:52

    Ah Braveheart, a true citizen of the world, untroubled by narrow and parochial concepts like nation states.

    I suspect the red white and blue gossamer about your shoulders is lighter than most.

    It must pain you to see somewhere like London presuming to speak for this insignificant little world island.

    When the headquarters of the one world government is created we'll look back and laugh at the pretensions of that insular city.

    You're right of course and frankly the next someone stands up, unless it's on behalf of the whole world, I'm going to have to ask them to kindly remain seated.

  13. I lived in London for quite a while and in my experience most people (in London certainly) have no axe to grind about Scottish independence and would wish us all the best. Remember a lot of people in London come from different backgrounds, for example Afro-Caribbean or from the sub-continent, so they understand the concept of independence perfectly well, it is part of their own cultural heritage and they don't have any issues about it.

    Whether there is anti-Scottish or anti-independence feeling outside the metropolitan area I don't know. Maybe there is a bit of bemusement but that is understandable because why would we expect people in England to have an in-depth knowledge of Scottish politics?

  14. GrassyKnollington26 May 2011 at 12:27

    Indy there you go again with your aggressive commenting style virtually implying people from London who disagree with independence are traitors.

    lol sorry couldn't resist. "Tonight Matthew, I shall be James from Better Nation."

  15. GK, you do Indy a disservice: she's one of the least aggressive nat bloggers, although not any more coherent in explaining her faith position.

    And you "suspect" wrongly: probably confusing your own position (everyone has to be a nat of some description) with the truth.

    The old Old Firm joke... two brainless hooligans on the day of the game... spot a lone fellow ... "What are you Jimmie, a Cathlic or a proddie?".

    "Actually, I'm a Muslim"

    !Aye but", reeturn our crafty fools "are you a protestant Muslim or a Catholic Muslim?"


  16. Obliged for all the comments, folks. I'll just pick up a few of your comments, questions or criticisms.


    Where to begin? Firstly, I would hope it is clear from the general tenor of this blog that I've no interest in dictating to anyone. Moreover, I think it should be reasonably plain that I wasn't contending that "English ignoramuses are in favour of Scottish independence, therefore it must be a good thing". This piece was an attempt at analysis, not a pro-independence polemic.

    I am not ruling out the possibility that there are people who are proper anti-nationalists (who reject the whole ideological frame of nations) who would, by unavoidable external fiat, be classified as British. However, that is rather different from folk who accept some sort of nation-based political vision, oppose Scottish statehood - and yet claim to abjure nationalisms of any stripe. I have no problem accepting the idea that the threads connecting identities and institutions and their powers are complex. However, my argument is that the folk whose pieces I've identified and those I've discussed this issue with are nationalists. They may explicitly disavow the nationalist contents (and implications) of their position, these subjective disavowals are generally unconvincing.


    Glad you found the piece interesting. As someone with a background in sociology, you cannot expect me to accept the idea that there is a "natural state", nevermind that it is Britain! For my part, one of the primary drivers of independence is about powers to determine our political future, not about reflecting delineated range of differences. It is about cultivating a distinct political sphere, rather than reflecting any idea of "organic" differences between peoples - a position I'd reject for similar sociological reasons. Scottish independence is not incompatible, or I'd suggest, even opposed to - the commonalities you identify.

    I've written before about how we record racial incident statistics. Some may be surprised to discover that the most common ethnic category of victims recorded is "White British". The possibility and extent of anti-English abuse in Scotland is something I want to see investigated. Perhaps I shall persecute Government Statisticians with requests for the broken down data.

    Indy, Peter, Doug,

    I do understand why London-based commentators have a limited interest in Scottish politics. To my mind, perhaps the most interesting aspect of all of these articles is the combined sense of hurt and confusion - and vitriolic reaction to the same - which unites many of them.

  17. All the world and its nook and crannies are BRITISH or ought to be unless one is METROPOLITAN FRENCH and they will be instinctively PARISIAN or post-Soviet MUSCOVITES if irredentist RUSSIAN or YANQUIS aspirational and in collective waiting for the pot of golden liberation that is the Green Card and all offering "'cosmopolitan' 'identity' papers" of different colo(u)rs and kinds only to be told to remove their their vulgar, snake-oil charms from polite, grown up, genuinely internationalist society from whence they would often stubbornly, casuistically and bloodily go leaving turmoil, murder, theft and rapine behind.

    Be thankful, Uninionistas and Contras, that the current "divorce proceedings" are so civilised and peaceful unlike, say, Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba et al. Or even India - that former lustrous jewel in your tattering imperial turban unravelling from over trotting out in the salons of pseudo-internationalist debauchery - your Gommorah trollope is well past her sell date and it is time to let her nobly rest.

  18. "Curious myths observed in Guardian reader responses on recent articles about Scotland.

    1. No person or organisation in Scotland pays any tax. All UK government income comes from English taxpayers.
    2. Article of faith - Scotland receives 'subsidies' When the reverse is true.
    3. All government expenditure in England comes from the English taxpayer and not all UK taxpayers ( there are none - see 1.)
    4. All government expenditure in Scotland is way above what Scots deserve and largesse of the English taxpayer. See 1.
    5. Magically, on independence a big share of UK debts will be allocated to the Scottish population - after all they created it all - and NONE of the shared assets will belong to Scotland. See 3.
    6. The 'Rump UK' will be fully entitled to strip Scotland off UK resources - after all only the English taxpayer paid for them- dontcha know. See 1.
    7. Scots are going to meekly acquiesce in being handed the dirty end of the stick in a divorce settlement ( alll debts and no assets) and England could and should 'get away with it' See 1.
    8. The Council of Europe, EU, UN, USA and other international bodies will acquiesce in whatever treatment the UK government chooses to dish out.
    9. Above all, only UK government is capable of running a country. Other 'chappies' are of very doubtful competence.
    So very revealing about the post-empire imperialist mindset.

    Courtesy of RolftheGanger on another Guardian thread a few days ago."