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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