Hysterical history

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?











35 comments on “Hysterical history

  1. smiling vulture says:

    Im amazed how the British Foreign Office is the first to encourage foreign countries to become Independent thru democracy,or armed struggle,yet when its closest neighbour a nation state opps for the democratic option its full of horror,fear,scare mongering.

  2. Juteman says:

    I watched both the episodes. The presenter, I think me mentioned he was Scottish, said the wars of independence were caused by nationalists. Eddie the 1st only wanted to rid Scotland of those pesky manuscriptnats, and stop them scribing abuse on every gospel in the land.

    • hektorsmum says:

      Edward of England was the ultimate Nationalist, he wanted every bodies country as well as his own. Hence his war in Wales, Ireland, France and of course him trying his level best to rid Scotland of the Scots.
      Rory, I am Scottish you know, was born abroad, to some diplomat.

  3. Talk about a scathing review! Brilliantly written🙂

  4. Reblogged this on An Sionnach Fionn and commented:
    A scathing review by Wee Ginger Dug of the latest damp squid from the anti-independence campaign by British Unionists in Scotland. Ouch!

  5. Erchie says:

    As Rory was born in Hong Kong doesn’t that make him Chinese? He even lived, as many Chinese do, in Malaysia

    Fair play to him, must be a hell of a struggle emigrating over here and learning the language and customs. I suppose if he wants to self-identify as Scottish then why the hell not, I am sure we are richer, culturally, for it.


  6. Dougie Brawls says:

    So I take you didn’t like the programme then Paul, I saw a trailer for it and thought..what a twat..never watched it..after reading this I’m glad I didn’t..this sorta shit brings out the worst in me..keep up the good work…xxx

  7. Sheila Rae says:

    You were more patient than I Wee Ginger yin. I switched off after 5 minutes of the first episode. I love history programmes but
    A) he irritated me with his proclaiming of being a Scot and of having been a Tory mp in England. Not to mention the marbles in his mouth.
    B) the propaganda was too in my face and insulting.
    Still it all helps the Yes cause

  8. I watched both programmes, downloaded from iPlayer as I refuse to pay for a TV licence. They were about what one would expect these days from the British Propaganda Corporation. As history programmes, they were definitely substandard. Does no-one at the BBC vet programmes like this for ridiculous statements such as the one that the border between Scotland and England is only a few miles north of Hadrian’s Wall? Apparently the only reason why the Scotland and England emerged from the Dark Ages as two separate countries is because of that wall. So now we know what the Romans did for us.

    Perhaps the most honest bit of these programmes is where anglicised (but still Scottish) Rory admits that most historians would disagree with him.

  9. JimW says:

    Those unionists who promote the idea of British one-ness are oblivious to the genetic story. In general the inhabitants of Scotland have as their closest genetic relatives the people of Wales, Ireland, Cornwall, Isle of Man, the Basques and other peoples of Celtic origin. In general the people of England have the Germans as their closest genetic relatives. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

    • hektorsmum says:

      Ooh don’t say that, Husband asked them why they didn’t support Germany in the World Cup, nearly brought on a set of multiple heart attacks, “Well”, he said, “your Saxons and where do you think Saxony is”..

  10. “any more than visiting Las Vegas makes you a vegan.” Love it.

  11. hektorsmum says:

    Didn’t watch it, just knew what was coming, as I had heard that Rory was going to join hands along the border, being Hadian’s Wall. I have come to the point where I think that Parents are being fleeced for that very expensive education at Eton, but then it was never about educatin, it is all about gaining friends who will look after you with influence.

  12. Rosemary Champion says:

    Can’t they grasp that there IS NO BRITISH NATION or nationality – Britain is a state, an administrative entity / nightmare – and it has no culture, language or identity. Only the nations that make up the state have these things. I feel a bit sorry for the English because they have lost their identity to being “British”. Being English has been portrayed as a bad thing – ooh, scary English Nats with flags of St George. The dissolution of the Treaty of Union would be the best thing that could hapen to England. It would allow the English to reclaim their history, culture and pride.

    • hektorsmum says:

      Hi Rosemary, I spent three days saying that to someone on the Independent after 2011. I might as well have spoken to a wall. He was obviously someone from the EDL who felt aggrieved at anyone and everyone but especially the Scots, and the Establishment who had done England down etc.

  13. JGedd says:

    You write the way many of us wish we could. When I saw this programme come up, I avoided it for the reasons others have given. I knew i was going to become exasperated but you were able to watch it and deliver the kind of rebuttal I couldn’t manage, especially with steam coming out of my ears. So well done Wee Dug. You did it for us again.

    Most people in the census said that they felt Scottish, not British and I was one of them. I had to think about that one at the time, to consider why that was going to be my answer and I realized that it was entirely to do with becoming separate because the British model being presented to us didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t feel comfortable with it because it seemed to represent so many aspects of a society I had come to dislike. Not the English people, but the model of capitalism run rampant and stamped all over with the British brand.

    So people like Rory are trying to pin down a phantom, the past. It’s an elusive phantom and a shape-shifter, capable of showing different aspects to different people. I don’t think that Rory understands what motivates those of us who want independence which is why he conjures up this threadbare wraith of ancestry to call us back.( Not even very effectively from what you describe.)
    It’s the future which beckons us, not the past.

    ( Anyway, didn’t the English only rediscover their Englishness in the reign of Edward III due to economic circumstances – caused by the Black Death? But that’s another argument….)

  14. Macart says:

    Great post Paul.

    Yeah, I heard about this fella’s hands across the border thingy. I’m afraid I couldn’t find the will to use the remote at all. The dug deserves an extra biscuit for making the heroic effort.😀

    It never ceases to amaze that these proud, proud Scots conflate changing politics and governance with the ‘cataclysmic’ break up of Britain’s social, historical and cultural links. The man is of course speaking utter guff. The day after independence becomes a reality my family and friends south of the border will still be my family and friends. I will still speak English (after a fashion), listen to radio two and four, watch some great British drama on the goggle box, David Attenborough will still be a hero of mine and history will still be history. As in, still right there behind us.

    ‘Course the man’s personal politics has nothing to do with it, he just wants to spread the lurve of his fellow islanders (or something).🙂

  15. jimnarlene says:

    “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.”
    Brilliant…..I’m Scottish don’t you know.

  16. […] 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 compul…  […]

  17. Ronald Henderson says:

    @Seamas O Sionnaigh. 6.28 am. I think you meant ‘damp squib’.

  18. Capella says:

    Brilliant! A perfect summation of that spurious nonsense from Rory the Scottish, did he mention if he was a historian?, leaping around the Middleland AKA Cumbria, land of the original Ash tree planted by the Vikings!
    But if he thinks Scotland should incorporate the North of England all the way to Hadrian’s Wall, then maybe that could be added to the long list of things to be negotiated along with Trident and our share of the defence budget. BTW did he mention the Normans?

  19. rab_the_doubter says:

    Great article, but I think the next time you are reviewing one of Rory the Torys progs a simple ‘load of bollox’ should comprehensively cover all the bases.

  20. Iain says:

    I’m sorry to have missed these programmes as I’m a big fan of wacky humour, and I know that the presenter is planning to get a gang of Union Jack waggling Morris dancers to cavort around on Hadrian’s Wall, which on Planet Proudscot apparently marks the border with England.

  21. Eilean says:

    I wish I was a techie and could provide a link. So if you want to watch it you will have to search on the iplayer. It was BBC2 Mon 14th 21:00. Presented by David Hayman. Clydebuilt: “The Ships that made the commonwealth”. (A series)

    The title initially put me off but I found it to be a pretty good program. Primarily focusing on the Confederate blockade runners which were fast paddle steamers built on the Clyde. It branched out and covered many topics including slavery and the effects on the cotton industry in and around Glasgow. Included New Lanark. Worth a watch.

    One wee bit did stick out though was a recorded comment from a Confederate official (Britannia was as usual waiving the rules) who while covertly visiting Glasgow negotiating the design and purchase of the ships. Wrote in his diary.

    “He was painfully struck by the number of paupers and intoxicated females in the streets. And some of our party saw for the first time in their lives. White women shoeless and shivering in scanty rags that scarcely conceal their nakedness with the thermometer at freezing point”

    This was in the 1860s during my Grandfathers lifetime (he worked in the cotton mills on the Clyde at Rutherglen) Oh the wonders of the empire.

  22. Are ye a Border terrier?

  23. “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?”

    And that’s his problem of course, he has none.

    Nationalist or (avowedly) not* what unites us is the simple belief that tomorrow can be better than today. NO’s message is that this is as good as it gets.

    *[To be complicit and instrumental in the creation of a sovereign nation is to commit THE cardinal act of nationalism.

    All who seed that genesis are by definition nationalists, regardless of protestations of some to the contrary.

    “… by their fruits ye shall know them” Matthew 7:16]

  24. Oh, informative and entertaining essay, by the way.

    “… Macedonian literary language [was] based on the usage of the region south of Skopje. ”

    Ah! I always suspected as much.😉

  25. James Morton says:

    People like Rory is that he suffers from “Old Unionist Blues” – Eyes looking backwards to the what was and incapable of seeing the world for what it is, let alone the future. Their parochial and twee image of Scotland as Kitsch corner, which is good for a tap every now and then, has been challenged. So what do they do? They go back to the misty past and then assert it was all a fiction and that we were British all along. That superior identity that transcends all other identities in that it is a non-nationalist national identity with no national baggage don’t you know. Except it isn’t really our identity, its really on loan and it would be very churlish to cast it aside.

    Their vision of Scotland is a confusing barrage of images: one part Brigadoon, one part benefits street, and no part of it actually a part of Britain. They don’t actually know how to frame an argument in defence of the union. Colin Kidd in his book “union and unionisms” said the success of the union was that it became so banal it was invisible. I suspect that was true, but I wouldn’t call it a success, I would say that it was the very thing that would kill it in the end.

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