Wednesday 27 September 2023

Is Dennis the Menace Scottish?


Where does Dennis the Menace come from? He was initially created by DC Thomson in Dundee. But later the character has appeared in animated films made in London. The UK Government advertised this with a picture of the animated version of Dennis saying it came from London. This was met with fury by various Scottish nationalists. One called it cultural appropriation.

But this is odd for a variety of reasons. Where does Winnie the Pooh come from? You could argue One Hundred Acre Wood, or wherever A.A. Milne was living or the place he based it on. You could argue that it was from London as it was first published by Methuen & Co. Ltd., but this would be a bit strange. We don’t normally think a book is from its place of publication or indeed from where it was written. This would have the unfortunate consequence of making lots of Scottish books English if they happened to be published by Penguin.

But let’s say we are thinking about an animated version of Winnie the Pooh produced by Disney in Hollywood. Would it be wrong to say that this version of the story came from somewhere in Los Angeles? No obviously not. It was animated there. The voices and the music would have been recorded there. Would anyone call a Disney Winnie the Pooh cultural appropriation? Well, if you did you would have to call the animated version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and almost every other animated Disney film cultural appropriation too.

Even to think of an animated version of Dennis the Menace being truly described as being from London as cultural appropriation shows the oddness of SNP ideas about what it is to be Scottish. Cultural appropriation is the idea that it is wrong for white people to adopt aspects of an ethnic minority culture or dress. Thus, some black people might criticise white people for wearing dreadlocks or trying to imitate reggae. But no one thinks that it is cultural appropriation for someone from the north of Germany to wear Bavarian national dress. They are from the same race.

Until quite recently there was the idea that only people who could trace their ancestry to a particular clan were entitled to wear a kilt with that pattern. But now no one objects to Humza Yousaf wearing a kilt. Students from many countries will wear kilts at their graduation. No one will object if someone from London learns to play the bagpipes and plays them dressed in full highland regalia every day in Trafalgar Square.

The idea that being Scottish is open to everyone from any country and every race and that every symbol and cultural aspect of Scotland is equally open to them becomes senseless if English people can be guilty of cultural appropriation. It looks then as if Scottish culture can be adopted by anyone except England.

But what is on view here displays the contradiction inherent in Scottish nationalism.

Dennis the Menace may have been created in Dundee, but he is not obviously from Dundee. DC Thomson produced comics like the Broons and Oor Wullie where the characters were obviously from Scotland, but it wanted a wider audience for most of its comic characters, who are not obviously from anywhere. If Dennis the Menace were from Dundee, he would speak like a Dundonian, but he doesn’t.

No one cares where Marvel comics were produced or argues that Superman and the Incredible Hulk are from New York because these comics were produced there. But Scottish nationalists are incredibly touchy and possessive about Scottishness while arguing that it is open to everyone.

What is it to be a Scot? The SNP thinks that anyone living in Scotland is a Scot. It isn’t necessary to be born in Scotland. It isn’t necessary to have any Scottish ancestors. It isn’t even necessary to speak English, Scots or Gaelic. It is perfectly possible for instance for a new Scot to live in Scotland and know nothing whatsoever about Scottish history, culture, language or indeed anything else.

If the SNP achieved independence it would like to increase immigration. Everyone who arrived in Scotland would be as Scottish as someone else who could trace his ancestry back to Bannockburn.

But the contradiction is this. Scottish nationalists are obsessed with the past and with Scottish culture. This is why they play bagpipes when they go on marches and why they wear Jacobite hats with white cockades and highland dress. It is also why they are obsessed with finding and emphasising anything that makes Scotland different from England. This includes a desperate search for a different language.

But the truth is that we don’t normally wear highland dress or play bagpipes. Almost all Scots speak English with an accent. Some of us sometimes add a few Scottish words. We are culturally almost identical to the other parts of the UK.

But why go to such extraordinary lengths to pretend that we are different if we are willing to accept people as equally Scottish just because they have recently arrived here. If what matters is that we wear kilts and play bagpipes and use words that are either Scottish or Gaelic, then how can this be reconciled with Scottishness applying equally to someone who speaks neither English, Scottish, nor Gaelic?

If being Scottish is merely being resident in a place called Scotland, then depending on where these new Scots originally came from, they could be culturally and linguistically very similar indeed to people living in England who came from the same place. But why separate people who are the same?

The Scottish nationalist argument depends both on there being a Scottish people that is a different people from those living in other parts of the UK and that being Scottish has nothing whatsoever to do with where you were born and where your parents came from. But it cannot be both.

But if there is no such thing as a Scottish people, then Scottish nationalism and its goal are senseless. If on the other hand there is such a thing as a Scottish people, then it must depend on who your parents and ancestors are.

Dennis the Menace is no more Scottish because he was produced in Dundee than Winston Smith is Scottish because Orwell wrote 1984 while living on Jura. Fictional characters don’t have a nationality. They are from nowhere. But the obsession with the supposed Scottishness of Dennis the Menace reveals that Scottish nationalists are obsessed with the origin or each person. Dennis the Menace can’t be from London, because his origin is Dundee. That is his ancestry.

That is also why people who cannot trace their ancestry to Bannockburn and who do not speak fluent Scots or Gaelic should be very careful voting for the SNP. Scottish nationalists may pretend that you are Scots just like they are, but they don’t quite think you are entitled to wear a kilt. It’s cultural appropriation.

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