Rory Stewart’s unionist propaganda thinly disguised as a BBC history documentary has provoked the ire of SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell, who has attacked the BBC for yet another of its exercises in compulsory Britishness. But we all know that’s the BBC’s bread and Scottish butter. He ought to have attacked the programme for being risible history, a melange of cherry picked factoids whipped up into the wrong conclusion by a Tory MP who kept reminding us that he is Scottish. He didn’t actually say he was a Proud Scot. But you know he wanted to.
Being interested in ancient history, I watched the first episode, expecting it to be propaganda seeing as how it was made by a Tory MP, but even propaganda can be done with art and a sense of style. Instead we got Rory, who wanted us to know he was Scottish, mugging his way through a series of interviews with ordinary folk and posh folk and the occasional nutter, mixed with the usual long shots of Great British Scenery. Rory, who’s actually Scottish, was telling the story of the “lost middleland”, the Uhu of the UK. Which seemed to be mostly Welsh, or Danish. But that bit was sort of glossed over.
His thesis, as far as I could tell, was that Scotland only wants independence because we’ve been seduced by a transient and tribal identity. That would be the Scottish one. Britishness encompasses all in Rory’s view, and everything else is a temporary aberration in the glorious march through history of a single British people. And he’s Scottish so he wouldn’t just make stuff like that up. But as history goes, it’s still bollocks. It’s Britishness which is the temporary aberration in the story. Rory chooses to confuse what anthropologists call a cultural province with a single national identity.
A cultural province is a region where neighbouring political, social, linguistic and ethnic groups share many aspects of their culture in common. Cultural provinces are not home to single national identities, quite the reverse. One of the best defined and distinctive cultural provinces in the anthropological and linguistic literature is that of the native peoples of the Pacific North West, the coastal area of Washington state in the USA, British Columbia, and the Alaskan Panhandle. The people of this region shared a distinctive art style and religion, they had similar economies, and many cultural practices in common. But it was also home to many different nations and languages – and just as many identities – which were shifting, kaleidoscopic and ever changing.
The islands of Britain and Ireland and their associated islands are a cultural province within Europe. And just like Pacific North West, this group of islands in North West Europe has always been home to diverse peoples, cultures, languages, and traditions and a shifting kaleidoscope of identities. It’s the ever changing and dynamic relationships between these groups which creates the cultural province. And whatever you care to call the cultural province they’ve created, it’s not the same as a modern British identity – however that’s defined. It can’t be called British, because it encompasses Ireland too.
Rory, did he tell you he was Scottish, was attempting the classic appeal of nationalism in the name of the British nationalism which is trying to persuade us it isn’t nationalism at all. Validation by appeal to an ancient past. My Britishness is older than your Scottishness, and therefore it’s more authentic. It’s a highly dubious argument for many reasons. Not the least of which is that a sense of Britishness is historically a very recent development. Its seeds were sown with the Union of Crowns in 1603, but it wasn’t until the Scottish bourgeoise enthusiastically adopted the English language and North Britishness in the 18th century that it really caught on, yet even then it was just a plug in. We kept using the Caledonian browser. In England it never caught on at all, British merely became a synonym for English.
The ancient Britons didn’t have any concept of themselves as Britons. Their allegience was to their tribe. However it is true that before the arrival of the Romans it’s likely that a single language was spoken throughout the island of Britain, and that language is known to linguists as Brittonic. The problem for Rory, who even has a Scottish name, is that Brittonic is merely a convenient term for those parts of a pan-European Celtic dialect chain that were spoken on the island of Britain.
Dialects forming a part of the same Celtic language complex were also found in Ireland, France, Germany, Spain… all the way across Europe into modern Turkey. Roman historians make it clear that Britons and Gauls understood one another without the need for translators, and some Celtic tribes had lands in both Britain and Gaul. Including tribes living in the supposed “Middleland” like the Parisi of Yorkshire, who also held lands around the city of Paris which was named after them.
So really it was a European identity then, not a British one. We spoke the same language as people in Paris. We’re really French, or possibly Belgian. Only that probably won’t go down so well with the more Eurosceptic party colleagues of Rory the Tory, who’s Scottish you know.
Not that the antiquity of a national identity is relevant anyway. The modern Macedonian national identity dates to the late 19th century and the early parts of the 20th. Previously the Macedonians had been considered Bulgarian. But in the 19th century as the Christian Orthodox Slavic speakers of the Balkans gained independence from Ottoman Turkey, the new Bulgarian literary language became established on the basis of the eastern dialect of the city of Tarnovo. Western dialect speakers found this too far removed from their own speech, and created their own Macedonian literary language based on the usage of the region south of Skopje. Macedonia then found itself a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the combination of a distinct literary dialect and the political history of the 20th century created a Macedonian national identity. It’s not any less valid just because it’s historically recent.
It’s really stupid arguing with people about their identity anyway. Because the thing about personal identity is that it’s personal, which means another individual is far more of an expert in their own identity than you can ever be. Otherwise you end up like a German lassie I met on holiday on my first foray into properly furren pairts, who when hearing I was from Scotland assured me: “I’m sure you’ll find you are in fact English.” And I was just as sure that she would find she was talking shite.
So Rory’s attempts were doomed to failure even before he began, even if he is Scottish, because this isn’t a debate about identity at all, never mind one about whose identity is the oldest. Although it is definitely the Scottish one. The Scottish national identity dates to – at the very latest – the Scottish Wars of Independence and arguably a lot earlier. So it predates a British national identity by a good few hundred years, just to rub it in and go nyah nyah nyah. Because if that’s how David Starkey and Rory the Tory, who’s Scottish you know, can do history then so can the rest of us.
Scotland exists as a nation, a nation with a distinctive political culture and national institutions. We already know what our identity is, and we don’t need to be told we’re victims of false consciousness by an Eton educated Tory. Because however Scottish he considers himself to be, he’s still doesn’t understand what this independence debate is all about. And you don’t even need to be Scottish to understand it Rory. You just need to live here and listen to what people are talking about.
It’s not even a debate about nationalism. Accepting the existence of a distinct polity known as Scotland and recognising it is a nation doesn’t make you a nationalist any more than visiting Las Vegas makes you a vegan. The debate is about what to do with Scotland’s distinctive political culture. It’s about achieving the means and methods of tackling the serious problems Scotland faces – land reform, Trident missiles, inequality, social exclusion, an ageing population. It’s about whether we trust in Westminster to use the resources of Scotland’s land and the talents and skills of her people to make a better future for Scotland and to tackle these problems – and its track record in that department does not inspire confidence – or whether we trust a Scottish Parliament with the full powers of the parliament of any normal nation. A parliament that’s beholden to the voters of Scotland and no one else.
It’s about the future Rory, not the past. If you hadn’t been too busy planning a torchlit human chain the length of Hadrian’s Wall you might have had a lightbulb moment and worked that out for yourself.
But ask a Unionist for a positive case for the Union, and the past is all you get. Independence offers a positive case for the future Rory, where’s yours?