5 May 2014

Yes Vulnerabilities

When I was a teenager, I went through a phase of being much-taken with Stoic philosophy. We'd been exposed to Plato's Republic in school, and largely overlooked Aristotle. The Stoics I chanced across by myself: aphorisms of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

One aspect of Stoic thought which particularly appealed to me was its emphasis on the power of ideas to shape our responses to life's inevitable troubles, travails and setbacks. It has become a mantra of contemporary cognitive behavioural therapy, but if you can change how you think about a problem, you are half way to enduring it well. 

I also found adolescent lessons there about being yourself. About the importance of not "staking your happiness on the souls of other men." That isn't to say that goodness, kindliness or the assessment of others are inevitably unimportant - but you shouldn't outsource your self-esteem to other people, making your happiness and equanimity contingent on their good or bad conceits of you. As a nation, the Scots could do with a good deal more of this sort of confidence, which finds its expression not in chippiness, but in generosity, empathy and open-mindedness born of a basic existential security.

I was reminded of this over the weekend, as the Sunday Herald splashed with its decision explicitly to back independence for Scotland. The editorial explaining this decision is an impeccable statement of the now-mainstream case for a Yes vote: self-government, responsibility, democracy, justice. The response from Yes bods was remarkable too. The news stands were stripped. Copies tucked away for posterity. Twitter was ababble with excitable, breathless (even, dare I say, pathetically grateful) responses to the Sunday newspaper's endorsement of independence. 

I don't mean that disrespectfully, but I do think that the enthusiasm of the response cannot be explained in terms of the likely impact of the paper's decision. A more familiar phenomenon in the public debate is independence supporters crowing about the melancholy death of the mainstream media.  How can we explain the sudden overflowing gratitude when a mainstream publishing outfit of the "dead tree press" gives independence-supporters the nod?  

"At last, we see our voices reflected in the mainstream press," a number of folk cheered. But hold up a wee moment. Why should this reflection matter? The obvious answer here is an instrumental one. The media helps set the political agenda. It is a key source of information for voters going into this poll. Sympathetic (or much more numerous unsympathetic) voices matter and have the potential to affect the result. Absolutely.  But only up to a point Lord Copper. And not, to my mind, sufficiently significantly to explain the intensity of the enthusiasm with met Alastair Gray's front page. 

As others have pointed out, the Sunday Herald has a relatively limited circulation in the country (around 24,000 copies), and has been perceived as more than characteristically Yes sympathetic for a while. That said, the paper clearly pitches for a liberal, bourgeois audience. We're talking more about the gender gap these days, but we know from recent polling that the Yes campaign also continues to struggle to make inroads and persuade middle class Scots of the virtues of independence. 

At the very least, the Sunday Herald splash may persuade persuadables who read it to give independence serious consideration.  In a campaign which may be decided on the narrowest of bases, the endorsement of a once crackpot constitutional scheme by an impeccably respectable organ of Scottish opinion is not to be sniffed at. Like the sturdy, sensible SNP government, it helps answer the once-dominant, now embattled, idea that independence is unthinkable, lending the campaign a sort of reputability.  But in terms of the overall result, which side the Sunday Herald supports is really of marginal significance. Instrumental arguments can't explain the glee.

It is tempting to look to broader psychological explanations. Glasgow SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter asked a perceptive question recently. Better Together supporters are acquiring the tendency of getting touchy if challenged, hurt if mocked, and anxious if their views are dismissed without being given earnest consideration. For most Scottish nationalists, this is a familiar phenomenon. Mhairi wondered if familiarity bred contempt.  I wonder too. Their own hides toughened by years (and for some, by decades) of less than convivial or constructive responses to their constitutional ambitions, Scottish Nationalists haven't exactly been primed to respond sympathetically to the sudden sensitivity of their opponents. I've blogged before about my own encounters of this kind, where sympathy for Scottish self-government is written-off as a self-evident absurdity. It puts your back up.

You can respond to these testing experiences in different ways. The first simply repudiates any concern for those judging you critically. You may not take me seriously, but I don't care. I take myself seriously enough for the pair of us, as I'm going to win. I don't give a fig what you will or nil. But that sort of emancipation from concerns about how others see you isn't so easily achieved.  There's a quotation which I think is sometimes attributed to Voltaire, that to be free, all we need do is to wish to be so. There's a bit of truth to that, but liberty can be elusive. And we can grow perversely attached, even to our chains. 

You feel a similar glow when Salmond or Sturgeon does particularly well on the UK stage. A winning interview, an ace appearance on BBC Question Time, a flattering write-up. When the First Minister leathers a UK political worthy, trounces Neil or Paxman, or treads the world stage without looking like an inarticulate, over-promoted city councillor, you feel a sort of glad twinge. Biff. That's one in the eye for you, London establishment. Our man (or woman) can hold her own amongst the best you've got to offer, no bother. It's often struck me that there is a certain dubious logic beneath this wriggle of pleasure. A lack of self-respect which feels, however residually, that you've not really made it till you've made it in London and that our own judgement about whether Salmond or Sturgeon are talented or smart isn't sufficient - they've got to impress the very folk we don't care for and express indifference about for us to feel properly proud. 

It is an odd, ambivalent phenomenon, but not perhaps a unique one. History has known many edgy, lifetime outsiders, who secretly long to don the ribban or the ermine, to be recognised as respectable by the very establishments which they rejected and railed against (and vice versa).  Intuitively, the impulse is to some extent understandable, but it remains somewhat strange. I'm not criticising anyone for it, but the psychology of the Scottish nationalist movement is much more ambivalent and vulnerable than the orthodox Yes story of  confidence, hope and optimism sometimes allows.  Perhaps it speaks to the relative immaturity of our political culture, and the fact that many of our ghosts still walk amongst us, unexorcised. 


  1. I know this is not the main thrust of your piece and I wouldn't dream of taking you to task regarding your infinitely superior grasp of stoicism, however, "...up to a point Lord Copper" does not really mean "up to a point".

    The sycophantic Mr Salter can't bring himself to say no to Lord Copper so instead of disagreeing or expressing alarm says, "Up to a point Lord Copper".

    For example, "That George Foulkes seems like a decent chap." - Up to a point Lord Copper ... or

    "Alistair Carmichael has got an exceedingly tight grasp of his brief." - Up to a point Lord Copper.

    "I fully expect Johann Lamont to be remembered as one of the finest politicians of her generation." - Up to a point Lord Copper.

    Brian Taylor also used the expression to mean "up to a point" so it may be that you and the much esteemed Mr Taylor are correct, however Waugh I think was implying something different.

    To quote one of the afore-mentioned world class writers. Toodle-oo-the-noo.

    1. Mike Russell is a great Education Secretary...uptpapointetc...

      Corroboration is a keystone of the Scottish justice system... uptoaetc...

      Yes Andrw, I have legal advice on EU entry...uptoaetc...

      We will use the UK£ if the vote is yes...uptoetc....

      We will be in Nato...uptoetc....

      Trident will be no more up...etc...

      Everything will be wonderful in the best of all possible worlds.... uptoapointdrpangloss...

    2. You live and learn! Apart from. Er. Braveheart's descent into experimental literary forms there. The E. E. Cummings of Largs.

  2. Perhaps it's worth distinguishing two strands here.

    1) Vulnerability as desirable. Pace the Stoics, it's by no means clear that an indifference to others' opinions is a desirable quality. No political position is so secure that (at least in the privacy of our own rooms) at least a little doubt is unreasonable. We seem to inhabit a public space where any sign of doubt or hesitation is seen as a weakness. Whether or not that is helpful in the public space, I'm pretty sure it's unhealthy as a general attitude. If that's right, then it's entirely reasonable to welcome the good opinion of others.

    2) The public struggle for support. In the public sphere, and particularly in the referendum debate, there is a struggle for people's votes and for those institutions which have a political or cultural weight. It's tricky to assess that weight but some individuals and institutions have it and others don't (or at least some have more than others). (I leave that analysis on a very superficial level simply because precisely how institutions such as the press mediate power between the state and the voter is enormously difficult to capture. (For my money, Hegel gets nearest.)) Given that varying weight, it's entirely reasonable to welcome support from a (fairly) weighty institution such as a Sunday newspaper. As you suggest, it's another question as to why the print press seems to possess cultural weight above its circulation. But while it does, and until (and if) that weight starts to diminish in line with any measurable reach, it's again not unreasonable simply as part of the game of capturing the commanding heights of the culture.

    I find the 'orthodox Yes story of confidence, hope and optimism' far more symptomatic of political immaturity than I would a more reflective narrative. I don't think that's a specifically Scottish problem, but a problem of UK (and indeed other nations') politics generally. What should correct it is the existence of a background political discussion not bound to particular political parties or campaigns. It's more in that area (eg think tanks, academia etc) that I think Scotland suffers from a weakness just now.

    1. "Jetsonists for Independence."

      You cantankerous old Thomist, you.

  3. Indeed.

    Cultural imperialism, Stockholm syndrome, 'daein whit yer telt', the poorer neighbour, victimhood narrative, chip on shooder grievance, the collective cringe, etc has a lot to answer for in our collective consciousness.

    I've always believed that you can only be made feel inferior if you give your consent.

    I found it odd in the GQ magazine interview that the First Minister should effectively say that you cannot promote the authenticity of Whisky to the Chinese from a nation of drunks. The implication could not be clearer if it was spelled out. (which effectively it was)

    If our own First Minister thinks that of us and is prepared to say so openly, what hope do we have?


  4. "It's often struck me that there is a certain dubious logic beneath this wriggle of pleasure. A lack of self-respect which feels, however residually, that you've not really made it till you've made it in London and that our own judgement about whether Salmond or Sturgeon are talented or smart isn't sufficient - they've got to impress the very folk we don't care for and express indifference about for us to feel properly proud. "

    This is a fairly common phenomena, though. See the need for a band to "break" America, or the way nobody is really a "big" actor until they've been in a Hollywood movie, even though they will likely have a multitude of far more impressive performances under their belt - Cillian Murphy, Daniel Brühl, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are four of my favourite actors from this generation, all with some tremendous small-budget performances under their belts, but that doesn't stop you feeling an element of satisfaction when they get recognized by Hollywood, even if the film they're in is a bit pants. Or how about the idea of the small-town boy going to the Big City? I know of folk who have gone to places like the US and Canada - they do mundane, low-paid jobs that would be considered fairly nondescript if they did them here, but because they're doing them over there, that's meant to be impressive.

    (As you can guess, I disagree...)

    It even happens with politics, hence why US politicians and commentators are treated with a strange kind of reverence, even when they're speaking utter pish. Look at that Nate Silver guy - we were meant to think this guy was a referendum expert just because he'd called a few US elections. He had absolutely no in-depth knowledge of Scottish politics, but that didn't matter because HE WAS AMERICAN, STOOPID! And what self-respecting blogger wouldn't jump at the chance of being in the mainstream media that they spend hours slagging off online?!

    Human beings are wired to seek approval, especially from people we've been brought up to give deference to (even if we no longer defer to them), or people who have no close connection to us. If your mum says you're looking handsome, you don't take any notice of it; if your friends say it, you assume they're probably just being nice; but if some random person says it, you think "well, it must be true then."

    It's particularly true on the internet - I remember on a music forum I used to frequent a lot, people would post pictures of themselves, blatantly looking for compliments. It's partly why Twitter is so appealing - there's an almost limitless capacity for getting approval from people, and the more "recognisable" they are, the better, hence why a retweet from the self-proclaimed future emperor of Scotland (Limmy) is basically seen as the ultimate sign of approval on Twitter (myself included, the terrible fanboy that I am.)

    Hmmm, can't help feeling I've gone of on a tangent somewhat...

    1. Tangents follow the invisible string between ideas: no shame in that. There's a prudential balance to be struck here, between the extremes. I can see in myself, a certain reluctance to take pride in my actual achievements, in what I take to be a rather Scottish way. Part of me would much rather this than the child-raising approach I've encountered in some of my American friends, instilling in their children a distortive, saccharine, positive and episodically delusional sense of self. If we could retain the humour and modest of self-deprecation, but be a little more audacious and self-assertive in other areas - I'd be happier. But I swither.

  5. Another interpretation is that folks see the Sunday Herald's stance as a sign that Independence is becoming the orthodoxy and that other institutions will turn that way in time. It's not so much a wish to be approved of by the Sunday Herald. It is more of a welcoming of a once-cherished institution back into the fold. I read the Herald as a boy and it was a wrench to give it up all those years ago. I feel like I'm getting an old friend back.

    1. John,

      I don't see these interpretations as being mutually-exclusive, as I tried to allude to in the piece. What you describe is certainly part of it - but my natural inquisitor's instinct wants to peel that back, to take a wee peek under the veil

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  7. To be an Independence supporter is to be a weirdo.

    To be an Independence supporter is to be a racist.

    To be an Independence supporter is to be a Nazi.

    To.be an Independence supporter is to be selfish and not an internationalist.

    To be an Independence supporter is to be a loner, no one else is like you.

    These are pretty much the depictions of YES supporters for decades. Despite the sensibilities of YES campaigners to be 'taken seriously' by those that loathe them but have respectability by virtue of being this establishment, those same depictions continue.

    Part of the success of the YES campaign has been normalisation. We're just people who know these depictions of us are lies, but the weirdo and loner one it's hard to know. Now we know we are not weird. We are not alone.

    That a paper, for whatever reason, declares for YES, is another part of letting people know that their attitude is normal. That they are part of something with a chance to succeed and do good things for Scotland.

    There are still plenty of papers, including the Herald, for NO Supporters to have their anti-Indy bile printed, so don't worry about that. They will find their baseless scares reflected, and can take comfort that most of the press supports the troughers and haters in their desire to remain part of this unequal state, where even the alleged left-wing party would be decried by its founders as a tool of the rich and powerful.

    But don't just look to YES for an effect. There is one anti-Indy tweeter I know who got waspish & bitter. Many more went silent.

    This is not a great event that settles the landscape of the Referendum, but it is a good one, and not one without any significance that one should rush to grab a bucket to pour cold water upon

  8. But the vulnerably question, or the cringe factor, is historically rather late on the scene. It is an expression of Scottish nationalism, not of Scottish culture. As you rightly say, it is an immaturity of political culture. It is usually completely absent, for example, from the work of nineteenth century Scots writers. Putting on my rosy Unionist spectacles, I cannot imagine James Hogg or Thomas Carlyle ever cringing about anything. And the need to impress the very folk you don't care for (tho I would never put it like that) often plunged Scots writers into a creative transport.

    I would not want the cringer to end up alienated from their own culture, particularly if the more cringeable bits are of greater value.

    1. Agreed, but there are clear reasons why 19th-century Scots rarely cringed. For most of the century the Scottish economy was booming (certainly for the middle classes, less so for some workers). Scotland was the second richest country in the world, after England. Many Scots were convinced that Presbyterianism was God's own religion.

      After 1918 the Scottish economy collapsed, though the seeds of collapse were arguably sown in the late 19th century when Scottish capitalists preferred to invest overseas rather than re-invest their profits at home. Alongside the Scottish Renaissance the 1920s and 1930s produced plenty of miserabilist literature. There was also a good deal of anti-Irish racism and sectarianism reflecting a crisis in Presbyterian confidence.

      Some things improved from the 1950s on but heavy industry continued to decline and the empire evaporated. The foundations of 19th-century self-belief disappeared forever. The cringe is in many ways unfortunate but it can be explained historically and - hopefully - corrected in the future

    2. David Hume died cringing, Boswell cringed like a gimp, Walter Scott wrote epics of the cringe, Hogg cringed beneath Wordworth, Carlyle said he was English, then even cringed at that, cringing Scottish historians abandoned Scotland altogether. Etc.

    3. I specifically referred to 19th century Scots. For what it's worth, some contemporaries (including Adam Smith) thought that Hume's death was exemplary. Boswell I happily grant you - a weirdly mixed-up character. But my main point is that it is anachronistic to expect 18th or 19th century Scots to hold 21st century ideas about national identity. Identities change over time and (if you'll forgive the jargon) so do meta-identities - the ways in which people understand identity.

      In the second half of the 18th century it was not irrational, or demonstrably unpatriotic, to hold a North British identity in the expectation that both Scotland and England would eventually be superseded by Britain. As we know with hindsight, history followed a different tack. For various reasons (the French Revolution, Romanticism, etc.) the North British project collapsed in the years around 1800. It was replaced by a unionist-nationalist project which tried to maintain a balance between distinct Scottish and British identities. Scott was one of the pioneers of this, and maybe the most influential. Scott certainly thought of himself as British, but also as a Scottish patriot. Like many after him, he thought (or at least hoped) that the two could be reconciled. Much the same is true of Carlyle (another odd figure I hesitate to defend), except that he called himself 'English' where we would now use 'British' - a usage that is now obsolete among Scots but was common enough at the time.

      From my standpoint in the 21st century I condemn imperialism, but it would be dishonest to deny that many, probably most, 19th-century Scots supported the empire and the 'British' identities that went with it. And, by and large, they did not cringe but gloried in it.

    4. Apologies - it's "vulnerability question" (now that's a valid sort of cringe).

      I do not wish to live through a resurgence of cultural nationalism. If cringing is the cost of that, then fine. Seriously, if there is a Yes in September, however brilliant the political changes, we all know that there's going to be decades of terrible art and writing in this country.

    5. I fear so too - Paul Bissett has set a benchmark of sorts with his dreadful 'Vote Britain' poem. Made me cringe!

    6. Dennis
      'some contemporaries (including Adam Smith) thought that Hume's death was exemplary. Boswell I happily grant you - a weirdly mixed-up character.'

      Hume's was indeed an exemplary death - Dr Johnson dismissed Boswell's shock at him persisting in infidelity by pointing out out he wasn't much interested in religion anyway.

      Re Boswell, his patriotic anger at two Highland solders being booed in London surely deserves more note from nationalists than it seems to get - the lowlander raising his hackles on behalf of Highlanders.

    7. @ tychy

      'I do not wish to live through a resurgence of cultural nationalism. If cringing is the cost of that, then fine. Seriously, if there is a Yes in September, however brilliant the political changes, we all know that there's going to be decades of terrible art and writing in this country.'

      For clarity, do you mean that, in the event of independence, for years after all Scottish art and writing will be terrible, or only some? If the latter, I'll happily agree: at the risk of sounding flip, bad art and writing are always with us. But if you mean the former, why?

      I'm old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s when Scottish art and writing were pretty dire. Some informed observers doubted whether Scottish art and literature existed at all. There has been an incredible flowering over the past 30 or 40 years, roughly coinciding with the debate over independence. No one would seriously claim that politics in general and nationalism in particular is the only cause of this, but I'm pretty sure that it has been one contributory factor.

      I'm all in favour of the golden mean. Both for individuals and nations it should be possible to find a happy balance between boastful supremacism and abject cringing. It is possible to take a decent modest pride in one's achievements, and those of one's family, school, town or nation, without thinking that this makes you better than others in any objective sense. Aristotle thought that all virtues constituted a golden mean and in some cases this is certainly plausible. Maybe some forms of nationalism can be construed as virtues in this Aristotelian sense?

    8. @ Dennis Smith

      Well, I'm not sure that the 1960s and 70s were pretty dire, considering that Norman MacCaig was writing then. I'm not sure that the consequent "incredible flowering" has produced anybody as momentous. For clarity, only some hopefully. I hope that we're not sailing into a cultural Dark Ages: decades of over-earnest poetry and creative community initiatives, all larded with state subsidy and completely abandoned by the public. Of course, it's been this way since the Devolution settlement, but following a Yes the tap will be turned on full, and we'll all be drenched with nationalistic cultural anguish.

      Nationalism is always a pollutant when it comes to culture.

    9. Some fine Scottish writers of the 50s/60s have just slipped into undeserved obscurity. James Campbell in the TLS last year discussed the short-story writer Fred Urquhart, who had a couple of collections published in the 50s and 60s. Campbell pointed out how highly rated Urquhart was in his day - Orwell for one regarded him as top flight (though he disapproved of Urquhart's homosexual themes).

    10. I suspect we'll just have to agree to disagree here. Judgements of quality are dangerously subjective (for the record, I agree in rating both MacCaig and Urquhart highly) and a list of names would be interminable.

      Just one thought to sign off. When I won a school prize in 1962 and thought I should try and find something by a living Scottish novelist, the best thing the shop could come up with was Eric Linklater's 'Poet's pub', a book published in 1929 and set in England. Now any decent bookshop (granted, there aren't many left) will have a wall-full of novels by living Scottish novelists. It's surely an improvement that Scots have the choice of reading novels set in their own country as well as in England, the USA and everywhere else.

  9. LPW

    'I'm not criticising anyone for it, but the psychology of the Scottish nationalist movement is much more ambivalent and vulnerable than the orthodox Yes story of confidence, hope and optimism sometimes allows. Perhaps it speaks to the relative immaturity of our political culture, and the fact that many of our ghosts still walk amongst us, unexorcised. '

    I think myself that is just one more aspect of Scottish exceptionalism that turns out to be more or less universal - you can find Russians, Americans, Albanians, Aussies, Argentinians - whoever or wherever - expressing similar ambiguities. I don't myself feel such angst is worth too much analysis.

    What is worth looking at is where the self-image conflicts with reality, and here I do think there are unacknowledged problems for both Yes and No camps. If you favour Yes you are also likely feel sympathetic twinges when reading what is actually demonstrable nonsense, for example on how we Scots are all Jock Tamson's Bairns (a more democratic in-our-genes sort of people than some unspeakable others) and if you favour No (as I do) there is a temptation to - for example - elide over the perfectly valid argument that more money should be spent where it is raised - If Texans and Bavarians are unfazed by this, why not Scottish unionists? And if the union has worked so well, why are the SNP in power (admittedly on a shameful 50% turnout but still)?

    Re the Sunday Herald it would be churlish not to congratulate my pro indy friends - largely a symbolic coup, but a coup nonetheless. I have to say I thought Alasdair's cover artwork was pretty banal. Why a thistle anyway? Why not the white rose of Scotland (not always - contra Hugh Mac - a hearbreaker)? Do we always have to play on a Tartan Army pitch?

  10. So Alan "Paul" Bissett is cringeworthy and Alasdair Gray is banal?

    You are Jeremy Paxman and I claim my five, worthless, Pounds Scots

    1. Well, Alasdair Gray is certainly not banal and I didn't say he is - but the Sunday Herald cover is trite. Even the masters nod.

      Oh but thank you for spotting me getting Mr Bissett's name wrong - I knew a Paul Bissett and his name jumped in there - apologies to Alan Bissett whose stuff I have never read. If it is all as bad as 'Vote Britain' I am happy to remain in ignorance of it.

      I suppose it is meant as a homage of sorts to 'Choose Life' from trainspotting but all it does is remind me (a) of how good Welsh is when on form, (b) how toxic nationalism is to art.

  11. Well, I felt the 'on the heather' speech in Trainspotting said it better, y'know:


    Which was and is our Stockholm Syndrome spelt out as clearly as you could wish.
    But having said that Alan Bisset's wee contribution made me laugh.

    If Scotland's intellectual establishment are going to produce shite then, we'll just need to find a new intellectual establishment. Burns - I am not particularily interested in literary history - perhaps informs the anti-Stockholm tendency rather well with:

    "Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
    Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
    Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
    He's but a coof for a' that"

    That whole poem wasn't written because there was insufficient subservience, it was written because there was too much.

    We should reflect on that.

    If there is anything worthwhile to come out of all of this it will be that some birkie's, ca'd a lord, will have been taken down a notch or three.