We’re celebrating George Osborne’s visit to Scotland to threaten us (see Ian Bell’s response here) with a look at some of the spectacular distortions and confusions by the London commentariat on independence and what this means. Sometimes it’s just a reflection of a deep-level ignorance, sometimes it reflects wider attitudes of ‘ownership’ or a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between Scotland and England. You decide which is which and feel free to point us to other examples.
There’s a constant mantra that people ‘want a better debate’ on independence. I’m never entirely sure what they mean, and I’m not convinced they know themselves, but with certain contributions it’s pretty clear that the level of discourse if very poor indeed.
The truth is some very clever people can say some pretty stupid things. John Rentoul who runs his much-loved Banned List is one such.
Writing in the Independent on Sunday (‘David Cameron restocks his emotive arsenal’ ) the other week he wrote:
Salmond knows the dangers of defence policy to the case for independence, which is why he recently reversed the SNP’s promise that Scotland would leave Nato. The first time I thought he was unlikely to win his referendum was when BBC Newsround interviewed Scottish children last year and one boy, aged about nine, said he didn’t think Scotland should be an independent country “because we don’t have enough soldiers”.
The immense stupidity of that statement is astonishing from someone who holds a position as chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London. But it does strike a chord for Rentoul who knows about British soldiering being a vociferous apologist for Blair’s foreign policy disasters in Iraq.
Another example of heroic-scale dumbness include John Lloyd, a Fifer, no less, who should know better. The opening gambit of Lloyd’s recent piece on Our Kingdom (‘Scottish independence: not worth the trouble’) is a doozy:
Scotland’s independence is a British matter. The Union, which followed the vote in 1707 of the Scots parliament to dissolve into a new legislature created in London, is the basis of the United Kingdom. If Scotland leaves, following a ‘yes’ to independence in next year’s referendum on the issue, two new states will be created: Scotland, and the Rest of the UK (rUK), which as yet hasn’t thought of a name for itself. The Rest must have a voice on the terms under which their present nation-state is to be destroyed.
Except of course, it mustn’t and it won’t and all this is long ago decided. As someone commenting put it: “To write a whole piece on the current debate on an independent Scotland without even a passing reference to the primary case – that is the democratic case – indicates either complete ignorance or wilful disregard of the key issues.”
The rhetoric veers wildly from the inaccurate and insulting to the perverse, often including ridiculous sweeping generalisations, take this:
This kitsch stirs most Scots’ sentimentality, so much had it been part of the cultural environment of (especially) lower classes’ life. It’s an apparent irony that it – the swing and skirl of the Scots regiments, Jimmy Shand and his band, the drunken couthiness of Burns nights, the Sunday Post with the Broons and Oor Wullie, the great tradition of fun-poking and popular comics from the subtle Harry Lauder through the genial Jimmy Logan, the super-patriotic Andy Stewart, the chameleon Stanley Baxter, the unsurpassable Chick Murray to the brilliant (in his comic prime) Billy Connolly – should now be in retreat, and that popular culture, including popular comedy, is more like England’s than it has ever been, while Anglophobia is much more rife than it has ever been.
Perhaps on education, Lloyd is at his worst:
Education has long been thought, not least by Scots, to be much better in Scotland than in England: that probably is no longer true. The best schools by A level (in Scotland, often Advanced Higher) results are in England and Wales – though since Scotland’s education system is already separate from rUK, and its schools rated separately, absolutely accurate comparisons are difficult.
This can be loosely re-translated as “I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
The article is long and littered with errors, too many for me to correct laboriously. He ends with a flourish:
“Scots have done so much to fashion the UK into a force which can do some good: to retreat into insignificance when the challenges are so large is quite perverse.”
I said that sometimes these misunderstandings reflect cultural or historical ignorance, one can only assume that with Lloyd it is more about some kind of process of assimilation and cultural self-hatred. There are other kinds, this from Tom Gallagher, a professor at Bradford University’s department of peace studies and a writer on Scots nationalist issues, seems just plain ignorant of the sorts of debates that have been going on here.
He told a recent seminar in Oxford, “There is (in the Scots debate) no idealism of the kind which founded the United States or Israel; there has been nothing like the Philadelphia debates; the discussion in Scotland is long on entitlements: indeed, entitlements and victimhood are at its base, while freedom is narrowly defined as independence from England”.
This is lazy, cliched mildly offensive caricature. One for the Banned List maybe?