Saturday 30 August 2014

The foundation of nationalism is division

The department where I work is probably more international than most workplaces, but still the majority of us were born in Scotland.  We tone down the Doric if it’s obvious that someone from overseas is struggling, but we also try to teach them a few words.  People get together over coffee or at the pub after work and talk flows freely. Aberdonians tend to me more reserved than Scots from places like Glasgow, but people from all over the world have found a pretty warm welcome in the department.  However, on occasion someone from elsewhere has asked me about some aspects of the Scottish character that they find a bit baffling.

There was a sweepstake back in June about the World Cup. I didn’t take part as I have no interest in nor understanding of the game, but I remember when the draw was made. Someone was pleased at getting Spain, someone else delighted to get Brazil, someone laughed when they got Iran. Finally someone drew England. I don’t want it she said. Some people commiserated with her. She continued to complain about her misfortune. She’d rather have had any team but England. When the games began to be played, people who normally have no interest in football began complaining about how the commentators kept making excuses about England’s performance. They kept saying England were unlucky. In every game not involving England they kept referring matters back to England.  They kept mentioning how England had once won the World Cup in 1966. Eventually I had a conversation with someone who had recently arrived from England who was finding all this rather upsetting and someone from Germany who thought it all rather strange. The German woman asked me, but haven’t the Scottish just celebrated a battle fought in 1314, don’t you sing a song about it at every football match. In Germany we also remember the previous times we won the World Cup. There was even a popular film about how we won in 1954. Do they hate us so much asked the English woman that they’d prefer to have Iran in the sweepstake? I said that real hatred against English people was thankfully very rare in Scotland. But that many Scots feel the need to define our Scottishness against something and that something is England. It’s rather like how if you meet a Canadian, they tend to emphasise in the first few minutes that they are not Americans.

On another social occasion people were discussing relations who lived elsewhere in the UK. Someone mentioned having a brother in Oxford, whose children had been born and brought up there. She emphasised however that the children were Scottish even though they did have English accents. Whenever they go abroad they also make it clear that they are Scottish as some continentals have a rather negative view about the English. I was asked about this later too. But that must mean that you think that Scotishness is something that can only be passed down from parents. Do you think that someone can only be a Scot if they were born and bred in Scotland? I answered that I didn’t think this to be the case, but that many Scots unthinkingly did think in this way. The odd thing is that I also have a Scottish colleague whose sister moved to France after university. Her children were born and bred there, but they are unquestionably French, feel French, talk French. And yet when someone is born and bred in England their Scottish parentage somehow trumps everything.

My colleagues from places other than Scotland sometimes ask me about the referendum.  They wonder if the person who didn’t want England in the sweepstake is a nationalist. They wonder if the person who emphasised that her nephews and nieces were not English would vote Yes. I said I hardly knew anyone in the department who would vote Yes and that these people would unquestionably vote No. They looked at me in confusion.  I tried to explain.

Nearly everyone who is from Scotland will on occasion say something unkind about the English. I remember as a child mocking a little English boy because he couldn’t speak the Doric.  Which of us can hand on heart say we have never done such a thing? This is probably something to do with human nature and is not limited to Scotland.  People in England often say unkind things about the French.  Lots of us say unkind things about Americans.  These things can of course be hurtful to the recipients. I’ve heard Scots say things about the English that they would never dream of saying about someone from Pakistan. Even however when this banter is mild it is the foundation of nationalism and the fuel that keeps it alive. It is peculiarly self-defeating for people who love Britain to think negatively about any part of it.

I remember in the Soviet Union no one thought that there was much difference between Ukrainians and Russians. Everyone spoke the same language, though Ukrainians also had their own language which was rather difficult for Russians to understand unless you had a little practice. The difference was similar to that between Doric and English. There was always a bit of banter. Russians sometimes called Ukrainians names based on the haircuts they had centuries ago, Ukrainians sometimes called Russians names based on the beards they used to wear. This banter was mild enough, though it sometimes got out of hand as it had done for centuries. The trouble with this sort of raillery is that it emphasised the differences between people who were fundamentally the same.  Go back a thousand years and you'll find no difference between a Ukrainian and a Russian, go back two thousand years and you'll find no difference between a Celt living in what's now England and a Celt living in what's now Scotland. But look what happened when Ukraine became independent. The Ukrainian language was encouraged, the Russian language discouraged, divisive interpretations of history and culture were developed always emphasising and trying to increase the difference between the neighbours.  The result as so often with nationalism is now obvious for all to see. What started as mild banter has ended in poverty, chaos, hatred and war.

Most independence supporters don’t hate the English, though some do. But they do want to emphasise the difference between Scots and those living in other parts of the UK.  They want to say we think this way. We have this culture. We are fundamentally different from those people south of the border. They would love it if we all spoke a language different from English. Perhaps after independence they would strive to make this dream come true.  Why do a significant number of Scots say I’m Scottish, not British if not because they can’t quite bear to have the Cross of St. George merged with the Cross of St. Andrew. They don’t want any red sullying the purity of the saltire; they can’t bear it if the Red arrows use red smoke.

To say I’m British is to say I’m a little bit English, a little bit Welsh, a little bit Northern Irish and a little bit Scottish. This should be the case wherever our parents came from. Britain is a welcoming place. It is hugely beneficial that people want to come and live here. Though there are challenges too. People from elsewhere tempted to vote for independence, should think twice, whatever promises may have been made to them. Nationalism at root is founded on difference.  It is not inclusive no matter what they may tell you. Many especially intellectual nationalists are indeed liberal civic nationalists. But this is not the fundament of their philosophy.

We are all equally guilty for the rise of nationalism in Scotland. I am guilty for mocking the little English boy. You are guilty for wanting anyone but England to win. Without this banter, nationalism would never have taken root in our country.  People who are British citizens, who don't think they are British, but rather only Scottish are clearly not founding their nationalism on something civic (citizenship), rather they are basing it on where they were born and who their parents are. This tragically is something only they can share.  No one else will ever be properly Scottish, no matter how long they have lived here.

There are signs that nationalism in Scotland is turning ugly. There is a win at all costs mentality that is dangerous to our democracy and much that we hold dear. I’ve seen what nationalism can do. It starts with banter and mild forms of prejudice. Don't let it go any further. If you love Britain don't think of our fellow citizens as the old enemy. Don't use unkind words about those we want to continue living with. Don't do the nationalists job for them.

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.