31.01.13: Steve Bell on the wording of the Scottish independence referendum

 

In the first of a series of monthly columns published jointly by Bella Caledonia and National Collective, author Alan Bissett looks at what’s behind the creep of anti-Scottishness seeping into the pages of the English (and Scottish) media

It’s an accusation of which we’ve become weary in the independence movement: we hate the English.  Our aspirations to redistribute wealth, remove nuclear submarines from our waters, prevent involvement in foreign wars, and make Scotland a modern, healthy, fair democracy?  All motivated by pure anti-English bigotry.  So desperate are the opponents of – heaven forfend! – a country’s desire to make its own political decisions that they will pounce upon any reference towards ‘the English’ or ‘England’ that is not first prefaced with the words ‘Of course I love…’.  This is proof for them that, should Scotland vote yes to independence, anyone caught carrying a Dickens novel will be rounded up into a labour camp and force-fed porridge.

Late last year our greatest living artist, Alasdair Gray, ended up on a ritual media bonfire for not unreasonably asking why there are so few Scots running our national arts organisations.  Admittedly, Gray’s use of the term ‘colonists’ to describe English migrants who take top arts jobs in Scotland as a springboard to a bigger one elsewhere was contentious, but it was in the context of a thoughtful and lucid analysis about Scotland’s historical relationship to England.

The censorious reaction to the Gray affair was telling.  Vast acres of the Scottish and English media were given over to excoriating him for racism, bigotry and, of course, anti-Englishness.  Yet Damon Albarn wrote Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish and Parklife albums in the early Nineties with the expressed purpose of reversing America’s cultural influence over the UK.  Mike Smith of Food Records, Blur’s label, described the band’s ‘manifesto’ at the time as ‘We are proud to be British, so fuck America.’  Ten years later Pete Doherty sang that, ‘There are fewer more distressing sights / Than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap’.  Neither Albarn nor Doherty were called anti-American bigots.  Instead Albarn was deemed the vanguard of the new cultural moment, Britpop, and Doherty the voice of a lost Albion.  We can only wonder why Gray was not treated similarly.

Things reached a new low last week when The Guardian – a highly-respected, left-leaning journal admired by many in Scotland – ran a Steve Bell cartoon in which Alex Salmond poses before the slogan, ‘Do You Believe Scotland Should Go _____ Itself?  YES/NO’  The blank word, obscured by Salmond’s face, is clearly supposed to be ‘fuck’.  Despite what many wanted to believe (it was David Cameron’s opinion not Bell’s, it was just a joke, etc) The Guardian have confirmed the motivatons behind the cartoon: ‘It’s a commentary on Alex Salmond’s vision of an independent Scotland and reflects Bell’s view [that] it would be against Scotland’s interests.’

If I think it would be against your interests to break a failing relationship with me, would I succeed by telling you to ‘go fuck yourself’?  If I did, would you take it as a ‘joke’ or even a ‘commentary’?  You might, rather, take it as further proof about the state of our relationship.

We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we cannot laugh at ourselves or are beyond satire.  But this is satire so broad and so ugly that it sails across the line into offensiveness.  Why would The Guardian ‘satirise’ a country simply wanting to make its own decisions anyway?  The aims of the Scottish independence movement – social justice, protection of public services, opposition to Conservatism – are the same ones which The Guardian themselves espouse. Can we imagine a mainstream Scottish newspaper, or even a website such as this one, running a slogan which says, ‘England Should Go Fuck Itself’?  Can we imagine The Guardian saying such a thing about India, China or France? To paraphrase Ali G, then: ‘is it coz we is Scots?’

Similarly, how are we to interpret an ICM poll published in The Telegraph a year ago which compared Scottish and English attitudes towards independence. The Scottish percentage who want to break from the UK (40%) is roughly commensurate with the amount of Scots who believe they’d be better off by doing so (38%).  Only 23% of the 1734 English-based people surveyed, however, believe Scotland would be better off, despite 43% of them actually wanting Scottish independence.  We could say that the 20% disparity means they believe in democracy for Scotland, despite the consequences, until we spot the real reason: a hefty 61% of English respondants think that Scotland is ‘unjustifiably’ overfunded by London.  The results from the sample taken together, then, create this message: You are a burden, you’ll fail without us, and we want rid of you more than you want to stay with us.

In this context, the Steve Bell cartoon starts to make more sense.

These are the jibes of the spurned husband.  An entire audience of the BBC’s Question Time in Lancaster, for example laughed and applauded at the idea that England’s nuclear waste should be dumped in Scotland.  Even Stewart Lee, considered by many the thinking-person’s comedian, wrote last year in The Guardian that Alex Salmond is a ‘coward’ who ‘reminds me of the mayor of a small provincial town [with] ideas above his station.’  The piece was accompanied by a cartoon Salmond with red, demonic eyes.  While Salmond is, of course, open for criticism we should observe Lee’s likening of Scotland to a ‘provincial town’.  Shortly after Lee rhapsodies about much he ‘loves Scotland’ he regurgitates every cliché in the book – heroin, Jimmy Krankie, alcoholism, the Scottish diet – in order to prove it.  With friends like these, eh?

Media uproar: nil.  But why should we expect anything less when Salmond has already been compared by Unionist politicians and the media to Hitler, Mussolini, Milosevic, Stalin, Mugabe, Kim Jong-Il, Caligula, Nero and Ceausescu?  One would think Salmond responsible for the systematic murder and torturing of English people, instead of modestly proposing that political decisions about Scotland be made in Scotland.

Unionist Scots, who go out of their way to tell the electorate how ‘proud’ they are of Scotland, often exhibit a very strange form of pride indeed.  Ruth Davidson last year claimed, at the Tory conference in Birmingham, that 88% of Scots contribute nothing to the economy.  Johann Lamont, for her part, stated that ‘Scotland has a “something for nothing” culture’.  Even were it true, might Labour take some of the blame for this ‘culture’, since they controlled Scotland from 1997 to 2007?  No, the Scottish people themselves are, somehow, fundamentally flawed.  Labour’s Ian Davidson even made the outrageous assertion – in Parliament, no less – that Scots celebrate the Battle of Bannockburn because ‘hundreds of thousands of English people were murdered’.  We can imagine the reaction if, say, the SNP were to comment that the English celebrate the murder of Scots.  We can imagine the reaction were Alex Salmond to describe Cameron’s government as a ‘dictatorship’, as Anas Sarwar – again, in Parliament – described Scotland’s democratically-elected party.  Where were the censures, not least for non-parliamentary language?  There were none.  What did the media have to say?  Nothing.

Of course, opposition to independence and opposition to Scotland are not automatically the same thing (although they frequently are).  Neither is it possible to deny that nationalists are as capable of intemperate language as Unionists.  The reaction from Yes Scotland to this, however, has been one of disapproval and a plea for tolerance of their opponents’ views.  It would be decorous were the Better Together campaign to accept this gesture and promise similar regulation of their own.  Instead, irony-free, they posit the problem entirely with SNP supporters who ‘hurl abuse and denigrate anyone who disagrees with them’.  There goes the handshake.

Now, as it happens, I do love England.  I lived and worked in England for three years.  I visit there at least twice a year.  My ex-girlfriend, many of my cousins, and my god-daughter are all English.  Almost all of my favourite bands are English, as are many of my favourite writers and film-makers.  The intellectual and scientific achievements of the English are vast and to be admired, and the English working-class, in the main, especially in the North, feel more like kin to me than the Scottish elite.

I do love England.  What I do not love at all is the British state, and attacking it is not the same thing as attacking the English.

‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain’ is not a country, it is a construct, a backroom deal done in 1707 by the Scottish and English ruling class in their own interests and against the wishes of their people.  Britain is an imperialist machine which was designed to wage war and steal territory from other nations, and this is what it has done almost continuously, using military power, economics and, yes, torture.  The symbolic figureheads of British ‘democracy’, the monarchy and the House of Lords, exist to institutionalise privelige and perpetuate the class divide.  We can see this no more easily than in the current Tory/Lib Dem coalition (and will see it some more if we vote back in a Labour party who have also pledged to ‘ruthlessly’ cut public services).  The briefly-progressive Britain which defeated facism in World War II, then introduced the socialist policies of the NHS and the Welfare State – the Britain which was celebrated by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the Olympics – is in the dim and distant past.  The Britain we have to look forward to is one of permanent austerity, stunted democracy and the continued transferal of wealth from the poor to the rich.  Where Scotland figures in this no-one knows, since Westminster refuses to divulge its plan for Scotland post-2014, despite the Electoral Commission insisting that it do so.  This means they either have no plan for Scotland after the referendum (bad) or plan to punish us (worse).

These are just some of the many reasons why I wish for Scotland to be independent from the British state, not because I – or anyone else I know – ‘hates’ the English.  Scotland’s much-vaunted ‘anti-Englishness’, upon which our media love to report, simply does not stand up to statistical analysis anyway.  Murray Watson’s groundbreaking book, Being English In Scotland, reports that 8% of the Scottish population was born in England (as opposed to 1.5% of the English population who were born in Scotland).  All other immigrant groups together make up only 5% of the Scottish population, making the English by far the largest immigrant group in Scotland.  Given the presence of the English in Scotland increased by 84% in the second half of the 20th Century, one would have expected the usual rise in racial tensions that afflict most nations who experience the arrival of an ethnic group to such a degree.  Murray reports, however, that ‘evidence of anti-English violence [is] hard to find’.  94% of the sample of English people in Scotland that Murray interviewed said that ‘anti-Englishness was not a serious problem’.  We might contrast this with the unfortunate treatment of Irish immigrants in Scotland, despite the fact that, at its height, the presence of the Irish in Scotland never topped 7.2% of the population .  Murray concludes that, ‘Compared with other migrant groups in Scotland, the English [do] not suffer from violence, widespread abuse, serious harrassment or discrimination’.  This, remember, is despite the English being by far the largest immigrant group in Scotland.

Scottish independence is not about ridding ourselves of the English, not least because there so many English people integrated here anyway, with jobs, friends and families, and because Scotland and England will always be right next door to each other.  People from both nations will still be free to live in, work in and visit each other’s countries anytime they like.  The cultural, social and familial links will remain and, yes, we’ll still be able to watch Eastenders on the telly.  We’ll just no longer be governed by Westminster.  Despite what Steve Bell might think, it really is as simple as that.  So let’s turn the other cheek to the anti-Scottish jibes and just get on with the business of creating a better country.  If we want to be a mature democracy after 2014, let’s start our growing now.  Maybe Scotland and England will finally then be able to look each other in the eye as equals.