The Gruniad, Britishness and its One-Faced Janus…
For those who keep an eye on the London-based UK press, its collective reaction to this month’s Holyrood result has been rather queer, particularly in the comment section. Without making any claims to comprehensiveness, recent pieces have included Tim Lott, writing in the Independent, who snarls “Good riddance to this unequal Union…” Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail cries, more simply “Good riddance!” A dyspeptic David Mitchell wrote in the Gurnian “If Scotland does secede, I won’t be alone in mourning my country” and elsewhere in the same publication, Simon Hoggart argues that “Scottish independence is a win-win situation” while Simon Jenkins argues that “It is time for England’s first empire to get independence”. Stephen Moss, another Guardian contributor, begins his piece with the pious saw “I dislike nationalist politics” and continues in a similar vein. Madeleine Bunting strikes a different note, worrying that “If Scotland goes, all we’ll have left is the Englishness we so despise”. The piece is an interesting example of the micro-politics of “we” – with its implicit judgement that she is an English writer, writing for an English audience – with reference to a Scots they. As a political nationalist, I have nothing against such distinctions in general terms, although they take on an greater significance, when one reads them in the pages of a paper purporting to be addressed to every limb of the British body politick on equal terms.
Living down south as I do (in deepest Oxfordshire), I fend off bizarre misconceptions about Scottish Nationalism on a fairly regular basis. Since the election result, I’ve encountered a number of folk whose views are enumerated more substantially by Lott and the rest in their articles. Echoing certain historical accounts one can find of the Scots in the early years of the Union, our merry band is viewed as in it for all we can get, girning freebooters loading up carts with English lucre, tripping it off home, without the grace to be grateful – and even going as far as to impugn and insult the political settlement that has bestowed such riches upon us. My interlocutors and the Gurnian and Independent columns generally share this understanding – and confusion – about how to interpret what has got the Scots hopping. Their reaction is that of the self-consciously charitable man whose largesse is met with a kick from the beggar he thought to aid, who has the temerity to damn his eyes for a scoundrel – while keeping his coin.
Secondly, I’m willing to hazard a guess that many of the columnists and the educated, politically interested English folk I’ve been talking to are united in their subjective suspicion of “nationalism”. Neither group have any real Tom Nairn-inspired sense of Nationalism as Janus-faced, where the potentially reactionary content of the ideology is not repressed, but nor do negative manifestations negate the emancipatory potential of nationalisms. Reading and talking with folk entertaining such suspicions, I was struck the extent to which they were totally unaware of what Orwell might have called their “objective” British nationalism. While subjectively disavowing the same, piously disdaining nationalistic sentiment as the hunched proxy for racialised thinking, their whole political practice relies on the conflation of urbane, vaguely open-minded cosmopolitanism with the hodgepodge Dame Union. Internationalism’s rags and rouge are pressed into lurid service, hardly concealing the old girl’s nakedness, nevermind her shame. Ideologically, the muddle does a great deal of work – primarily negatively, as a means to deploy anti-nationalism skeptically to probe Scottish nationalists in general – while comfortably obscuring the implicit nationalism of their own position. Ironically, this version of Brit-Nattery earnestly insists that nationalism can only promise a blight of discord and division, while their own Union Jacks are no more than gossamer about their shoulders, worn lightly, and harmlessly. This at least has the benefit of being consistent – I don’t experience Britishness as a blight of discord and division, ergo, I’m not a nationalist for supporting Britain’s continued existence and opposing political alternatives. Put more simply, it is a case of “I’m not a nationalist, I’m just British.” Chocks away!
The definition of nationalism consistently deployed in this argument is hopelessly simple – but it presents few problems for those of us willing to concede Nairn’s nationalist Janus, without insisting that both of his faces necessary bear the same handsome, benign expression. Mitchell and others can only see the snarling phizog with its hard exclusionary gaze, saving a more encompassing and positive nationalism by way of a bit of verbal sophistry about good patriotism and bad nationalism. Bunting’s Guardian piece appears more comfortable with the language of nationalism than her colleague – and perhaps puts this conundrum most clearly. Bereft of Britishness – her ethnically encompassing, generous “good” nationalism – she fears being abandoned with Englishness, which she perceives as Janus’s racialising leer, “bad” nationalism. Few of the London-based commentators appear to credit the notion, never mind take seriously the proposition, that Scottish nationalism’s ruling political spirit is of the former rather than the latter character and can at least make the case that it is much more consciously committed to an inclusive civic nationalism than the often waif-like and lost account of contemporary Britishness.
“And, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain…”
Since the election, I have met a number of folk who do not make a habit of attending to political speeches, but who profoundly identified with the sentiments expressed very early on in Alex Salmond’s speech on being elected first minister. “Moved and proud“, one friend said he felt. I for one have never heard a British politician talking like this…
“When Donald Dewar addressed this parliament in 1999, he evoked Scotland’s diverse voices: “The speak of the Mearns. The shout of the welder above the din of the Clyde shipyard. The battle cries of Bruce and Wallace.” Now these voices of the past are joined in this chamber by the sound of 21st-century Scotland. The lyrical Italian of Marco Biagi. The formal Urdu of Humza Yousaf. The sacred Arabic of Hanzala Malik. We are proud to have those languages spoken here alongside English, Gaelic, Scots and Doric. This land is their land, from the sparkling sands of the islands to the glittering granite of its cities. It belongs to all who choose to call it home. That includes new Scots who have escaped persecution or conflict in Africa or the Middle East. It means Scots whose forebears fled famine in Ireland and elsewhere. That is who belongs here, but let us be clear also about what does not belong here. As the song tells us, for Scotland to flourish then “Let us be rid of those bigots and fools / Who will not let Scotland, live and let live.” Our new Scotland is built on the old custom of hospitality. We offer a hand that is open to all, whether they hail from England, Ireland, Pakistan or Poland. Modern Scotland is also built on equality.”