The Corporal Joneses of British nationalism

In the immortal words of Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army, they don’t like it up them. On Tuesday The National published my usual weekly article, one which had been inspired by the recent piece in The Scotsman listing ten things for Scotland to be ashamed by. Although it would be more accurate to say that I wrote it in reaction to The Scotsman piece rather than taking inspiration from it. The National piece has provoked a furious, indeed enraged, response from the SiU trolls who infest the comments section of that newspaper. And I must confess that provoking them was one of the main reasons for writing the piece in the first place.

However there was also a more serious purpose. As Scottish people we are used to opponents of independence claiming that as a nation we do not face up to the negative aspects of our history, culture, and society. Yes, of course we need to be truthful about the darker aspects of Scotland’s past. There is no shortage of them. Scotland’s working, middle and upper classes were enthusiastic supporters of Empire. They directly benefited from its sins and crimes – some classes far more than others. Scots were slavers. Scots were colonialists. Scots were exploiters and despoilers. All this is true.

However what is invariably missing from these Scotland the Bad narratives is any recognition that Scotland is not a nation which is entirely in control of the path it takes. Our path has been dictated by the British state. That lack of recognition in turn flows into a denial that Britishness, instead of Scottishness, could the root cause of some of Scotland’s ills. For British nationalism, all of Scotland’s ills are the product of Scottishness, and constitute proof that we must continue to rely upon the tender mercies of Westminster to save us from ourselves.

When we discuss Scotland’s role in the Empire, there is never any acknowledgement that the Empire was not an exercise in the aggrandisement of Scottishness. The British Empire was an enterpise which imposed Britishness upon a large part of the globe, and for much of the rest of the globe that Britishness was indistinguishable from Englishness. I’ve just finished reading a history of Latin America, written by an American scholar. He writes frequently about “England’s” role in the exploitation of Latin America. Scotland’s brief Darien adventure doesn’t rate a mention. Scots could and did participate in the Empire, but they did so only by denying or minimising their Scottishness, or by expressing it in “safe” ways as a spot of tartanry to give the British a bit of colourful pageantry. Scots could and did participate in colonialism, but they didn’t do so in order to spread a Scottish culture, identity, or values.

These Scotland the Bad stories expect us to own our sins, but they deny us ownership of our virtues and strengths. All that is good about Scotland is seen as a product of British rule. Our achievements are to be interpreted as proof that British rule gave us stability. Our inventiveness is to be seen as evidence of the bounty of Britishness. Our democratic values are to be regarded as a lesson that Britain has taught us.

This is part of the Cringe, a psychological cross to bear which is visited upon us by Britishness and is the product of an attempt to reconcile a Scottish identity which we are taught is subordinate and inferior with a British one which we are taught is superior. Our virtues belong to Britain, our sins are ours alone. More than that however, we are expected to take ownership of sins which were visited upon us by virtue of Scotland’s place as a subordinate part of the UK. The British state and Scotland’s place within it act to deform Scottish culture and identity, and then supporters of Britishness blame Scotland for it.

So for example it ought to be impossible to have any meaningful discussion about sectarianism in Scotland without mentioning its parasitic relationship with a British identity. Yet that is precisely what we are called upon to do by opponents of independence, time after time. Typically they react with fury to any suggestion that the phenomenon of sectarianism in Scotland might have any sort of connection to Britishness and the manner in which a British identity was internalised in Scotland, even as our streets are blocked by sectarian hate parades full of marchers waving British flags, singing about the Queen, celebrating the British army and its wars against those who rebelled against the British crown, and wearing that quintessential sartorial symbol of Britishness, the bowler hat.

This is because the hypocrites of the British nationalist establishment in Scotland like to pose as neutral arbiters, keeping apart the two warring Caledonian tribes, smug in their sense of superiority that sectarianism is yet more proof that Scotland requires the civilising mission of the British state. When you point out the intimate connection between sectarianism and a British identity in Scotland, you not only threaten this cosy assumption, you strike at the very heart of the British establishment in Scotland. No wonder that British nationalists respond to any such suggestion with anger and rage.

It is important that Scotland as a nation faces up to its past, that it learns from it so that we can go into the future informed and self-aware. That means facing up to and coming to terms with the role that Scottish people have played in the slave trade, in the exploitation and despoilation of Africa and India, of the genocide of native peoples, of the exploitation of working class people within Scotland and the dispossession of the rural peasantry. But it also means facing up to the truth that Scotland was not an entirely free actor, and our unique role as external coloniser and internal colonised. So if we want to be really honest with ourselves about our past, and about our futures, that also means the recognition that not all of Scotland’s ills are products of Scottish culture, a goodly proportion of them are creations of Britishness.

For those of us who support independence, we need to recognise that it’s not our job to collude in British delusions. For far too long, Britishness in Scotland has taken credit for all the good, and denied responsibility for the ills. Those British nationalists whose abiding myth is that they are not nationalist at all hide behind the facade of a fake and mythical unionism and tell themselves that pretending that this is a union gives them a free pass.

Honesty means that those in Scotland who espouse a British identity must confront and face up to the negative effects upon Scotland of British nationalism. But when you try and point those out to them, they react with fury, anger, and outrage. Apparently it’s only supporters of independence who have to confront difficult and painful truths. British nationalists in Scotland really don’t like a spot of their own medicine. It makes them panic just like Corporal Jones. Funny that.

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19 comments on “The Corporal Joneses of British nationalism

  1. Craig P says:

    One of my favourite stats was the survey a couple of years ago that demonstrated Scotland has roughly the same proportion of racists as England, but they were much more likely to vote for a unionist party than a Scottish nationalist one. Does anybody know the source of that, I’d be indebted to them?

    • Welsh Sion says:

      Not really what you’re looking for, perhaps, Craig P, but there’s a wealth of stats on different issues here. Perhaps you can root about a bit more the SG’s statistical service.

      (Otherwise, as usual, a profitable use of Dr Google might help. Good luck.)

      • Andy Anderson says:

        In Welsh history Sion there is much reference to the Lost Lands caused by the incomers from mainland Europe in the centuries after Rome left. I bet your modern thinkers would not want them back now.

        • Welsh Sion says:

          You mustn’t forget the ‘lost lands’ of the Ole North, Andy – lost to the Scots! 😉

          As you know also, we had for centuries proclaimed ourselves to be the ‘true British’ who spoke ‘the British language’ and would eventually push the Saeson back into the sea, regain our birth right and once again masters of our own destiny on the island of Britain ( < Prydain). I don't think Adam Price holds to a lot of this anymore. Realpolitik is more appropriate today!

  2. Alisdair says:

    Thank you for exposing a truth that I have long argued, it has needed said for decades. Thanks again and more power to your pen.

  3. Diane says:

    This is all quite interesting as anywhere I’ve ever been which has been a colony I’ve never been afraid to speak of it and apologise for Scotland’s role but, in the main, the people of these countries have always blamed England because they see England as being Britain and not Scotland. Yes we should learn from past mistakes by getting ourselves away from a country who still have the same mindset in the 21st century.

  4. steelewires says:

    Thanks for this. I’ll post it on FB.

  5. Craig Macinnes says:

    This is why I always correct those references to sectarianism as ‘Scotland’s Shame’ to what it really is – Britain’s Shame.

  6. CameronB Brodie says:

    Anti-Catholic sectarianism in Scotland is ultimately the articulation of cultural supremacy aimed at supporting Protestant control of political influence and access to economic wealth and development. Anti-Catholic sectarianism in Scotland is an articulation of British nationalist colonialism and part of the methodological creation of the British ‘nation’. Anti-Catholic sectarianism in Scotland is British nationalism on stilts.

    Eminent Scottish History Professor Tom Devine Attacks ‘Anti-Sectarianism Industry’ and Calls for Qualitative Research to Inform Policy

  7. ScotsCanuck says:

    quite simply nailed it, Paul …. really enjoyed reading your blog.

  8. orri says:

    The problem is that many, of those in NI can trace their roots back to Scotland. Their ancestors were exiled from Scotland for being too pig headed and extreme in their Protestantism. Which is saying something. Previous attempt at colonials suppression of Ireland failed simply because of the tendency of the colonists to go native. Not those boys.

    Having been ejected from Scotland and denying they’re Irish being British is all they have left as an identity. How many are celts may be up for debate but they certainly exhibit the pig headedness, or if you prefer determination, you’d expect.

  9. Brian Powell says:

    I did read that in part the Act of Union was to do away with wars and conflict between Scotland and England.
    The irony is that many hundreds of 1000s of Scots died in Britain’s(England’s) colonial wars. There were Scots who returned from colonial war to find their homes destroyed in the Clearances.
    In one Scottish regiment, sent as replacements to India, of the 1500, 700 died of disease in the first 6 months.
    Then there were the mass slaughters of WW1 and depopulation following the wars as thousands went to Canada, Aus, NZ to escape the depravation. Even in the 50s families leaving the poverty in Scotland with the £10 emigration tickets.
    Some academic must have done a study on the cringe. I read comments from people who have travelled the world and they say everybody complains but they have never seen the cringe such as happens in Scotland.
    Of course an olde population doesn’t help, the ‘young’ want an independent Scotland the older spent most of their time shitting their pants at the thought.
    One bit from a psychological standpoint is that people, apparently, choose a negative known over the unknown.
    But then one looks at Norway with its 96% vote for Ind in 1905, and I would assume they created their own certainty for a future unknown.
    It might be the infantilisation of those now older by decades of reliance on trade unions to map their choices, ‘protect’ them from decision making, along with a trust in Labour politicians who were believed to be looking out for the population (but in fact were colluding in fleecing Scotland).

  10. Cubby says:

    Another excellent article. It is sad how many people in Scotland still hold the view that the British empire was good for Scotland and for all the other countries colonised throughout the world. It is also sad that so many people in Scotland are afflicted by the Cringe but do not even realise it.

  11. aaron blue says:

    Well said, WGD, again. Whenever I come across a unionist, especially a virulently anti-Scottish one, I always make sure to call them a British nationalist. Over and over. Watching them turning purple with frustrated rage is always a joy.

  12. Janet says:

    Nailed it big time! Best in a long time! (And you are good!)

  13. Martin Edmunds says:

    Funnily enough I had just posted a comment on another on line forum, not an independence one, along the lines of what you say here.
    The religious divisions which originally drove sectarianism in Scotland have long since in my opinion ceased to be a real factor. The symbols and institutions unionists clung to as protectors of Protestantism are now to all intents and purposes the ’cause’ in themselves, not the protection of Protestantism. .

    Sectarianism is now all about protecting and loyalty to the institutions themselves IE the UK and the crown. If evidence of that was needed then folk need look no further than the attitude of ultra unionists who claim religion is a factor in their outlook like the Orange order for example. Their hatred of the SNP and the Scottish independence movement in general is absolute and yet there is utterly no evidence whatsoever that either the SNP or any other part of the independence movement is driven by religion of any sort, or that in the event of Scottish independence they would interfere in any way in the practice of any religion.

    The Elephant in the room when it comes to the subject of sectarianism driven by religion is obvious. How can the protectors of society in the form of politicians, the police and the justiciary, people whose job it is to catch and prosecute the bigots and to make the laws which enable prosecution, also swear allegiance ( which they all have to ) to an institution which at its very heart perpetuates and approves of anti Catholic.

    When you have a country where the position of head of state is closed to 10% or so of its population because of what religion they practice and that state of affairs is enshrined in its very laws how can that country in any way claim to be serious about combating sectarianism.

  14. Brilliant!

    One thought. I have always held the view tat the Act of Union was in fact the first move of the British Empire. Which means that the independence movement is now and always has been an assault on Empire. Hence the virulence and ferocity of reaction from Empire’s lackeys.

    Clearly now the British Empire is in its dying throes. Which means only that the vitriol will continue. I believe now that within the corridors of power, there is a certain accommodation being sought towards Scottish aspirations and that there are plenty there who recognise the inevitable march of history against Empire. Just as there was once with all the other former colonies, to one degree or another.

    More importantly though is the fact that precisely because of this asymmetrical relationship between Scottishness and being British, our greatest enemy right now is ourselves. This national inferiority complex runs very very deep. Any and all suggestions that we are dependent, slot into it and give them greater weight. Which is what makes the job of defending the empire at all costs that much easier for those who believe it is their duty – amongst whom lodge knuckledraggers and SiU trolls.

    I wish I knew how to “persuade” these people of the errors of their ways.

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