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We live in a topsy turvy world where black is white, where up is down, where inclusivity is castigated as racism and real racism is excused. Imagine that the BBC was filming a documentary following the work of a senior SNP politician, and that politician had been caught on camera calling the English “turds”. Would the BBC have acquiesced to a demand from the Scottish Government that the remark be expunged from the programme and not broadcast? Hell no.
The racist remark would have been the highlight, or rather lowlight, of the show. It would have spawned a spin away series of discussions and earnest panels of London based Scots intent on teaching us that anti-English bigotry forms the foundation of the Scottish identity itself, never mind it being central to the independence movement. There would be a series of newspaper articles from the Daisleys and Cochranes and Iain Martins of the press lecturing Scotland for its appalling racism and telling us that only the Union can protect us from such primitive atavism. SNP baddery would be in full and inglorious flight.
We would be told that it wasn’t just the minister who had sinned, but that the entire Scottish nation was at fault. The minister in question would be hounded, doorstepped, and compelled to issue an abject and grovelling apology before going into a disgraced retirement from public life, where he or she would be forced to subsist on a diet of milky tea and triangular cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, while watching reruns of a particular fitba match from 1966 on an infinite loop.
Meanwhile independence supporters would be falling over ourselves to distance our movement from the comments. I’d certainly be amongst them. We’d be joining in the criticisms and making it clear that such sentiments have no place in the Scotland that we seek to build. Because they don’t.
Compare and contrast with what happens when it’s a senior member of the Conservatives who airs a traditional English prejudice. When the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg was making her documentary following Boris Johnson’s embarrassment of a career as Foreign Secretary, the less than diplomatic diplomat was caught on camera calling the French “turds”. Then under pressure from the British Government the BBC pulled the sequence.
Anti-French racism runs long and deep in English culture. That doesn’t mean that all English people hate the French, far from it. It doesn’t mean that modern English identity was created in reaction to French domination, although there is certainly a historic legacy of Englishness as something distinct from and formed in opposition to the Norman French domination and conquest of that country.
Yet there has not been, and there will not be, any expectation that Boris Johnson’s racist comment about the French should require any deeper examination of racist attitudes in England towards the French and other Europeans and the role that this racism may have played in the creation of the mythology of Brexit. However it is certainly indisputable from any uninvolved observer – Fintan O’Toole springs to mind – that anti-European racism and English exceptionalism are fundamental to the resentments that led to Brexit, whereas anti-English racism in Scotland is marginal and is rejected by the vast majority of independence supporters.
Boris Johnson has a long history of casual racism. He’s made racist comments about black people, about the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea. He wrote an article saying that the only problem with colonialism is that Britain doesn’t rule the colonies any more. He wrote a racist poem about the Turkish president. He allowed the publication of a racist poem about Scottish people when he was editor of the Spectator, and he himself has written racist comments about Scots. When he was on an official visit to Myanmar and was visiting a Buddhist shrine in Mandalay, he attempted to recite Kipling’s poem, either unaware or uncaring that it expressed some deeply racist and offensive comments about his Burmese hosts. In fact, just about the only nations that Boris Johnson hasn’t been racist about at one time or another are Anglosaxon ones.
This racism is shrugged off by Boris Johnson’s supporters. It’s just Boris being Boris, they chuckle, telling it like it is. That’s because Boris Johnson voices those racist sentiments that they themselves possess, and he says them for them. It allows them to be racist by proxy, enjoying the pleasure of their prejudice without having to take responsibility for it. They seek an England which wraps itself in the comfort blanket of a past when the UK bestrode the world and gunboated its way over the objections of lesser breeds. That’s what Brexit represents to them. It’s a rejection, a return, a reaction. It’s why they are obsessed with WW2, the last time that England’s mythology saw it stand gloriously alone – if only because they forget the Free French, the Free Poles, and all the other Allies.
Scotland is a different country. Scotland looks to the future and not the past. The evidence of that lies in the yawning disdain that Scotland has for royal events, in the paltry crowd which came out in Edinburgh to witness the retropageantry of the Queen’s visit to Holyrood. There are more people on a double decker bus. No one cared about the Royal Company of Archers, the Falconer General Pursuivant, or the Flummery-in-Chief’s medal bedecked uniform.
Scotland’s independence movement is defined by a civic nationalism which welcomes Poles, Portuguese, and the English who enrich this country by doing it the honour of choosing to throw their lot in with it and becoming a part of its story. Scotland seeks connections, alliances, friendships, because we know that we are a small country and total isolation is neither possible nor desirable. Scotland’s independence movement has a realistic sense of itself and its place in the world in a way that proponents of Brexit can never have, because Brexit is fundamentally driven by exceptionalism and the fantasy of a total independence that in the modern world can only be enjoyed by a superpower.
England is no superpower but in their nationalist exceptionalism the Brextremists still dream of being one. That’s the disconnect of Brexit. The only way to bridge the vast chasm between Brexit’s imagining of England and the reality of a medium sized European country is to fill it with resentments and the casual racism of Boris Johnson. It cannot be that Brexit’s England cannot achieve its goal of domination and total freedom because England is not as powerful as they want it to be. It can only be because the French are turds, the Scots are beggars, and the Germans are arrogant.
Scottish independence is driven by a realistic assessment of Scotland’s place in the world, and that realistic assessment must also tell us that we cannot wake England’s Brextremists up from their dreaming. Any attempt to do so will only be rebuffed in anger and fuel their resentments. All that Scotland can do is to protect itself. That means independence within Europe, forming alliances and friendships with other countries which likewise have a realistic assessment of their place in the world. The Brexit dreaming of English nationalism will only lead to a living nightmare.
Tony Blair once described his politics as the third way but his lies and mendacity only led to widespread disenchantment with politics in the UK. Now British politics is to be defined by Boris Johnson’s racism and Brexit – the turd way. Scotland has a better and a more honourable choice. That choice is independence.