Recently we’ve heard vociferous objections to the attempts of some sections of the Scottish population to have the language they speak recognised as “legitimate”.
How do we make sense of this question mark hanging over the legitimacy of Scots as a language, or the relevance of Gaelic in contemporary society? To begin with, we should reassess some of the unchallenged assumptions which reside within orthodox thinking.
Political sociology provides a good lens through which to view this issue, particularly the work of French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu and English sociologist Mike Savage. The latter’s book Class in the 21st Century provides an insightful start for those wishing to gain a more theoretical understanding of the current controversies over language and legitimacy in Scotland.
Who wants and resists change?
So to understand the struggles between promoters of Scots and Gaelic and those who challenge the relevance of these languages, we need to understand the nature of change. What are the social reasons which underpin the tendency of some groups to want things to remain as they are, while other groups want to see change, and sometimes quite radical change?
The general rule is this: people who occupy advantageous social positions (those who believe themselves to have done well, who are in charge or have relative forms of power) are much less likely to want to transform the social structures of their world, than those who occupy less advantageous positions in relation to others.
Following on from Machiavelli’s work on political power, Blaise Pascal points out that those who hold power tend to promote themselves in a number of ways. The King’s courtier will say, “I have a great deal of power around here, but it’s really no big deal to me – it’s just that I’m the cleverest man in the King’s court”.
The truth of course is that power matters more to the courtier than anything else. He holds the position, not through intellectual merit, but through political expediency. Namely, he best serves the interests of the King.
This highlights the complete arbitrariness which all power must mask in order to be effectively exercised, as well as the extent to which the powerful disguise (through using euphemisms) the importance of “status”.
In our contemporary society, those who occupy what they believe to be advantageous positions will have a tendency to strongly resist any attempts to change the existing structures of the social world, lest their own status be put in jeopardy.
Those who occupy a less favourable position, one that has less recognition and therefore less status, will have a tendency to want to transform these structures. They have little to lose and much to gain.
So to understand the relationship between these competing classes, it is useful to think of power exercised as a distinct kind of struggle. This struggle is between certain groups who compete for the legitimate right to “make the world”, by holding the monopoly over the right to “name the world” (quoting Bourdieu). That is: they create the world through the power to say what the world is – and what should be done about it.
We usually think of our society as structured in terms of a “ruling class”, a “middle class” and a “working class”. But as Savage has shown, we should instead see it as a multiplicity of class fractions, each competing and forming alliances in order to further their own interests.
So for example, what we often believe to be struggles between the ruling classes and the workers are, in fact, little more than struggles between sections of the economic middle classes and sections of the cultural middle classes.
Varieties of “capital” in the indyref
A good way to think about this is to reflect upon the struggles between both groups over the ‘dominant’ issues of the Scottish independence referendum. Remember that Bourdieu defined “capital” as the accumulation of assets of many kinds – there can be social and cultural capital, as well as financial.
People endowed with economistic forms of capital – that is, people who prioritise measurables such as profit margins, market share, ratings, audience and viewer figures, readership numbers and such like – have a strong vested interest in promoting the economic viewpoint.
It is, after all, what gives them their legitimacy. Or in other words, it’s what gives their particular type of capital its effectiveness in relation to other types of capital. In short, it makes them important within their economistic circles.
The cultural classes, on the other hand, are more inclined to have a vested interest in promoting the cultural and moral dimensions of everyday life. It’s these which give them their recognition within the cultural circles they inhabit.
This split between economic and cultural capital was very evident in the Scottish referendum debate. The Unionist side, heavily backed by business and enterprise, almost exclusively campaigned on economic issues such as the pound, pensions, insurances, banks moving to England, oil revenues and supermarket prices.
Change can happen. But as Machiavelli points out, if we want to impose a challenge to legitimate power, we have only one choice, and that is to replace it with a system of governance which better represents our own cultural and moral perspective.
The independence side, which had an almost complete monopoly of the artistic and creative community in Scotland, campaigned almost exclusively around cultural and moral issues such as nuclear weapons, food banks, illegal wars, environmental issues, social justice, culture and the arts.
Although the two sides co-existed during the referendum, the predominance of economic arguments (and the relegation of cultural and moral aspects) is testimony to the domination of the economic over the cultural. This is particularly true when it comes to holding senior jobs within British state institutions, such as the media and the civil service.
In the indyref, this split resulted in the creation of alliances between, on the one hand, the managerial classes and economic elites, and on the other the cultural middle classes and the working classes. Statistically speaking (and as both Bourdieu and Savage have shown) the economic classes are more likely to have right-wing political affiliations while the cultural classes are much more likely to be on the liberal-left.
If we extend these arguments to encompass the plight of those promoting the Scots and Gaelic languages we can see the emergence of two distinctive camps, not unlike those which emerged during the independence referendum.
There are groups who clearly want to have their own Scottish culture and language recognised as legitimate. There are other groups who want to uphold and defend the ‘legitimate’ language and culture of an imperialist Britain.
So on the basis of the research carried out by both Bourdieu and Savage it can be said in general terms that, if you are in favour of promoting the Scots and Gaelic languages it is likely that you are in favour of an independent Scotland.
That is, you want to see the social structures ‘transformed’ from where they are now, into something which places greater importance on distinctly Scottish cultural issues. You are statistically more likely to want to have a Scottish News at Six as well as having more powers for the Scottish Parliament in the interim.
If, on the other hand, you dismiss the Scots and Gaelic languages as marginal and illegitimate, you are statistically more likely to have a vested interest in the structures of the social world remaining just as they are. There exists a variety of reasons for advocating for the status quo which include the maintenance of a combination of status, wealth and identity.
Those actively opposing a Scottish News at Six are, therefore, statistically more likely to fall within this group, as are those who oppose more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, those who promote the ‘Britishness’ of daily life will have an interest in the maintenance of ‘legitimate’ ‘official’ and ‘traditional’ British structures, for their own economic, cultural and symbolic purposes.
Deriding Scots and Gaelic: who benefits?
So, when strong opposition to the Scots and Gaelic languages is encountered, the simple question must be asked – what are the social reasons for the particular position held by this person or group? Who benefits from retaining the status quo around Scots and Gaelic? Who is at risk of losing their ‘status’ if the structures of society alter and change? These are the fundamental issues which arise from using political sociology.
Change can happen. But as Machiavelli points out, if we want to impose a challenge to legitimate power, we have only one choice, and that is to replace it with a system of governance which better represents our own cultural and moral perspective. Just as there was a Scottish cultural renaissance in the 1920s, a new age of Scottish culture can emerge in the 2020s.
Fortunately, a great deal of the work has already been done over the past decade, and Scotland has a renewed sense of identity which is both vibrant and culturally rich. This helps explain why those Scots who are clinging to legitimate authority are so afraid of the potential threats which such a renaissance will bring.
If we can understand the “reasons” which some groups offer up in order to justify their strong attachment to “legitimate” authority, we can also begin to undermine that authority. Scottish independence, of course, represents one such route.