30 July 2014

Yeah even unto the Middle Ages

I’ve always been interested in confidence, partly by dint of pure narcissism. When it comes to self-assertion, I’ve long felt like two souls in the same body, the one self-possessed, the other possessed by irrational, inadequate self-doubt. I will thoughtlessly take on challenges which would make many folk shiver and choke. I can stand up, noteless and half prepared in thronging rooms full of people, and put in a brisk oratorical turn. Somehow, perhaps sometimes misguidedly, I’m sure that I’ll put in a decent performance and that somewhere in my skull, relevant thoughts clatter about and will dutifully assemble themselves into something coherent at the indicated moment. 

If you and I met, or in company, I can be brisk, cheerful, inquisitive, intimate – but if the spirit of confidence deserts me, I find myself prey to irrational hindrances, unlyrical, stoppered, odd – even, or perhaps particularly, about small, unconscious acts and ordinary things. It is exhausting to be useless, and generally pointless. The source of one's inadequacies are rarely as formidable as they seem, when your mind spins off into gyroscopic anxiety. Over time, with a growing sense of myself, this doubleness has receded, but across my short life, this Jekyll and Hyde attitude to confidence has both tested and tended to confuse those around me: teachers, colleagues, friends. I find it confusing too. 

Folk often seem to assume that confidence is a zero-sum sort of calculation: either you are graced with it, or you are bereft: bumptious or a trembler. That’s not my experience. Teaching undergraduates in tutorials and seminars also opens a window into self-assertion's fickle ways. I've known students who you'd need a crowbar or a picklock to coax into speaking during the session, but who explode into vivacious little creatures as soon as the class breaks and the tutor's not-terrifically baleful eye leaves them.

A little flicker crosses the face of others - the cue that they've got something to say - but an encouraging prod is required if the thought, however cogent, is to be expressed. The heedless confidence of others outstrips their capacity. Being alive to this psychological dimension of the encounter is one of the unexpected, rewarding but challenging, parts of teaching.  This work has persuaded me, more than ever, that confidence isn't just a matter of personal psychology - it is structural. We build it up or leave it to atrophy in families and institutions. 

Yesterday, Alex Massie tacked this post over at the Spectator, asking "Who cares if English commentators like or respect Scotland?" Confidence is at the essence of the piece, but Alex's argument is multi-pronged. Surely being desperately concerned about the good opinion of others isn't really an expression of confidence, but actually craven and a bit needy? Isn't it outsourcing your self-esteem to other folk, making your happiness and equanimity contingent on their good or bad conceits of you? But Alex doesn't stop there, taking a swipe at what he perceives as a tendency amongst Yes advocates to regard:

"... anyone voting No this September lacks confidence in Scotland. A No voter, you see, bears the mark of the Scottish cringe and if that’s not obviously or prominently displayed on his napper it surely scars his conscience."

I wonder though if Alex isn't at risk of conflating a few issues. I agree that seeking externally for approval is no expression of confidence, but the opposite. On the other hand, while I don't think voting No is necessarily an expression of lack of confidence, and some Scots doubtless feel perfectly chipper and self-assertive within the UK, I sit with the folk Massie criticises: for most folk, the decision to vote No won't a vindication of healthy, pith-helmeted British imperiousness, but an expression of lack confidence. As Massie rightly contends, you meet plenty of Scots who would would scratch their head at the idea that Scottishness is a wooden leg within the United Kingdom.

The theme of this Saturday's session of David Greig's All Back to Bowie's #indyref Fringe discussion is Tactful Cactus – Is There a Scottish Establishment? Having passed through private schooling in Glasgow, Edinburgh law school and Oxford, I'm familiar with the mindset of the folk Alex is referring to and to a significant extent participate in it.  These institutions generated and continue to generate folk, unawed and at home in cloistered corridors. You can still imagine many of these unselfconscious bluffers donning rifles and linen suits and setting sail to rule some luckless corner of the British imperial map. Such are the wages of privilege.

Visiting the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, and then wander around the New Town, has a similar effect. I'm always struck by the continuity of feel. The faces of the periwigged worthies of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries easily transposed onto the bustling suits and polished shoes of today. Watching Edinburgh's bourgeois tribes clip confidently through the neo-classical architecture, I'm always reminded of the scene from Chris Mullin's Very British Coup, where the ancient establishment functionary explains to the socialist Prime Minister why the security services have conspired against his government. As Harry Perkins says, these are "people who remain quiet, behind the scenes, generation after generation, yeah even unto the middle ages."

Doctors, judges, bankers, Faculty men, Scotland Office mandarins, these well-heeled, black-coated gentlemen did and continue to do the British state some service. The pacts struck by the Ghost of Henry Dundas still commands allegiances. The High Court of Justiciary which convicted and transported Thomas Muir for sedition still sits, in some important sense. For most Scots, this is a bewildering world apart, but having encountered it, one cannot but be struck by its robust sense of self, and its unselfconscious confidence in the exercise of power. Quietly, behind the scenes, yeah even unto the middle ages.

The SNP have adopted the mantra that Scotland can, should and must be independent. For my money, the Yes campaign has made good headway with the idea that we should be independent, but we're still struggling to persuade people that we can. In bridging that gap, confidence matters. If we fail, the Yes campaign must bear the weight of blame. But for the overwhelming majority of folk, unsteeped in what can sometimes seem like the uncritical hive mind of the Scottish establishment, I struggle to believe that a No vote would represent a happy, dauntless vindication of Scotland's place in Britain. If this referendum has revealed one thing, it is that Scots allegiance to the British state is - perhaps disturbingly - provisional.


  1. Talking about 'confidence' in the case of voting usually strikes me as fairly windy rhetoric designed to encourage voters to put aside their entirely rational fears about an uncertain future. I recognize your portrait of those currently exercising power in Scotland. But an analogous sense of confidence in their own abilities to analyse and solve is also found in many 'progressive' nationalists.

    For those of use destined to sit outwith the circles of power in any future Scotland whatever its relationship to r-UK, I'm not sure why 'confidence' is the issue here, particularly if that's understood as self-confidence. Perhaps there has been a decline in trust in the current establishment throughout Europe. I'm not at all sure why that should be mirrored by a rise in confidence in a future, different establishment yet to be precisely delineated. (But I'm sure that such dimly glimpsed figures will also be supremely sure of their own droit du seigneur.) Frankly, however I finally vote, I shall do so with a rabbit's foot firmly in hand.

    But then I'm fairly cynical about human (particularly political) perfectibility.

    1. Thanks Lazarus for this especially -

      'Perhaps there has been a decline in trust in the current establishment throughout Europe. I'm not at all sure why that should be mirrored by a rise in confidence in a future, different establishment yet to be precisely delineated. '

      Very true I think. the argument used to be about converting southern Europeans into northern Europeans but it turns out the opposite process has been going on, certainly in terms of regard for, and trust in, the centre.

      Thanks LPW lots to think about there. Damn, I feel quite gloomy now.

    2. Thanks for the comments, both. Am feeling my way with this question (though I'm pretty sure that a rabbit's foot is a suspect expression of paganistic fetish worship ;-)). There is a tendency - a temptation even - to think with the famous vision of the state we find on the cover of Hobbes' Leviathan, and to psychologise the state from the bottom up. Your point vis-a-vis the confident and self-asserted Yes types is a good one, Lazarus, which chimes with a sentence I edited out of this piece. What I was going (and perhaps ought to) have said is that I find that my former school comrades' confidence leads them to the conclusion that independence is unnecessary, pointless: they're conscious of no wound which self-governance might balm. I, by contrast, bend that confidence into an alternative shape: self-government, and assurance that we could and should do it, have always seemed to me self-evident (though I'm concious that the case for them is not, and nothing is ever so simple). Two sides of the same coin. Ascherson also has some interesting things to say about the gap separating the enthusiastic vanguard of constitutional change (in 1979, 1997 and now) from the wider, less engaged, less enthusiastic, more thrawn great body of the people. That's worth thinking about too.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head early on: "I will thoughtlessly take on challenges which would make many folk shiver and choke."

    Derek Bateman addressed this typical aspect of the Scottish psyche back in November in The FIF: http://derekbateman.co.uk/2013/11/18/the-fif/

    I can recognise it in myself and I dare say, alone in the booth with a pencil, many undecided voters will havethat conversation with themselves that ends in "Fuck it, let's go for it!"

    1. Anecdotally, I'm sure this is true - the question of its extent remains open to be seen. I know of a few examples in 2011, where usually Labour voting folk were so hacked off with the calibre of the campaign, they finally, against all their history, voted for the Nat. (Another of my family's acquaintance got as far as putting the X in the Nationalist box, but heard the ghost of her departed father in her ear, and ended up spoiling her ballot).

  3. It's "yea, even unto the Middle Ages" not "yeah".