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. 

That thought moves us on to another – one of the striking features of much of this commentary is that it originates from publications which generally show almost no interest in Scotland at all. For my money, of the metropolitan press outfits, the Times and Telegraph generally are the best of a bad bunch. While the Guardian is consistently useless, it is in turn outclassed in mediocrity by the worldly Independent, which contrives almost never to mention the place. On Scotland and the animating forces of Scottish self-determination, each of these comment pieces miss their mark – leaving a sense of their failure to understand Scottish political life, missing its spirit, misconstruing its features – and failing to notice their failure. The authors tend to squash their data into arguably inappropriate frames of reference – most prominently the perennial Union squint, with its pale-green, woozy and distorting Westminster-glass spectacles. Equally significantly, you’ll notice that a great many of these articles are from writers emblematic of the economically comfortable metropolitan soft-left, by authors who conceive themselves as cosmopolitan, liberal and open-minded, writing in papers broadly sympathetic to the Labour Party in the UK context.
These is much in these articles that is vapid, insulting – and plenty to vex. They distil a very clear sense of feeling wounded – bee-stung and befuddled – not really understanding from whence the swarm descended, why it is picking on you, or what its pricks really signify. What does an independence referendum mean? What are the Scotch saying about us, by organising one? What is so wrong with us anyway? What do the ungrateful so-and-sos have to complain about? I am reminded of an old Billy Connolly joke about a Cardinal visiting his erstwhile Catholic primary school in Glasgow, where he is insulted by a grubby little boy. The great prince of the church regales the dirty-arsed tyke with a litany of his ambitions realised and honours hard won, ending “And you’re telling me to fuck off? You fuck off!” Connolly’s comic tale includes a number of pertinent parallels – the horrid wean was insultingly indifferent about the Cardinal’s laboriously secured trappings. He is insecure about his acquisitions. The gag partly relies on the piquancy of the Cardinal proving just as foul-mouthed as the wean who offends him, partly by the lout prodding an obviously sore spot for the pompous priest, prompting his bruised reply. The Holyrood election result, with its independence referendum implications, has clearly prodded a sore spot for soft-leftish parts of the London media. The interesting question, it seems to me, is why is this spot sore at all, and secondly, why this particular pain? There are a number of elements worth thinking about here. I intend to return to the presumptions about public spending dominating these articles in a subsequent piece, for reasons of brevity [sic] as much as anything else. For now, a few general thoughts of introduction about where these extraordinary series of articles come from.

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.”

Comments (12)

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  1. Alex Buchan says:

    I think it was Nairn who described 19th Cent English attitudes to the phenomena of the nationalist struggles of the time on the continent as being one of smug superiority. Nairn, if I remember correctly, attributed this to the anti-popular-will ideology that arose from and underpinned the British State’s peculiar pre-democratic form as a compact between mercantile and landed interests. As the British State has never been overthrown it shouldn’t surprise us that its ideology persists. This manifests in the left in England in distaste for nationalism which is given various justifications, but which is in reality just a variant of this predominant Anglo-Brit ideology identified by Nairn.

    My own experience in the past of conversations with labour supporting friends in London was of incomprehension on their part that anyone could see anything positive in the breakup of Czechoslovakia. So I think it would be wrong to think the present reaction is just about attitudes to Scotland, these longer term prejudices feed into the narrative the English have. It explains why they tend to see Scottish nationalism as something that right-minded Scots must surely reject, because they are unable to see the specificity of their own attitudes as being the product of the particular circumstances of the English experience. I think it is because the recent election results undermine this assumption of shared attitudes so radically that there is so much befuddlement and a sense of betrayal.

  2. Penderyn says:

    Good points, Scotland is a bit ignored by press in London but so are many areas.

    Just a small point but Scotland isnt Englands oldest colony, Wales/Cymru is definitely older even more than Eire and with possiblyCornwall/Kernow being older in 926 but vague as to whether England was united back then and as we know Cornwall has shrunk over those years 😉

    Even if you want to argue these points, lest we forget Henry VIII annexed Newfoundland overseas territory in 1583

    1. Penderyn says:

      sorry Henry VII

  3. Junius says:

    “Modern Scotland is also built on equality.”

    So that would be why English and Welsh Students get charged to attend Scottish universities – because we are welcome and ‘equal’.

    By the way, being such an arch Scottish national, why DO you live here then?

    1. JRTomlin says:

      Isn’t the solution to that to become Scottish residents. They want Scottish support while giving nothing back, hardly a reasonable form of “equity”.

      More of the usual English whinging.

    2. Sorry for the delay in replying on this, Junius.

      In answer to your question, I live down south at the moment for professional reasons and intend to hie me back north in a year or two.

  4. Helena says:

    As you say the so called UK heavies of the Newspaper world usually disregard Scotland and political matters Scottish. So it came with a great deal of distress when the election in May produced such a result. I encountered a great deal of nastiness but also a huge amount of interest on the comment section of the Independent. The one person though who had most to say was a Person from what I will have to call the English Nationalist side. No matter what I said to him he returned with some perceived insult, he was unhappy that nothing in England was called English, for example the F.A. I said I thought that was because they were all seen as English, but no he felt that Politicians were reducing England to regions. This seemed to be the way many saw this. Then there were those who would be happy to see the back of us, and I certainly was not going to argue, being happy to see the back of them.

    1. Helena,

      It is a queer phenomenon, but one I’ve occasionally encountered too. Despite the dominant power of the English within the United Kingdom – in terms of wealth, numbers, political dominance – sometimes one gets the impression that a section of aggrieved English folk, vexed by devolution’s imbalances (real or perceived) in both financial and broader terms, make Scots guilty of sustaining and perpetuating this imbalance, in which the word “English” is not uttered; Westminster policies with a narrow belt of implications are styled in British terms when in fact they only affect folk living in England – and so on. To be crystal clear, I’m not suggesting that Scots should feel “got at” or slighted by this phenomenon. I’m not interested in that line at all. It just strikes me as odd, from an English nationalist perspective, to project the deficiencies of that political project onto a political minority which realistically, can contribute rather minimally to the articulation of an alternative, positive and potentially emancipatory account of Englishness.

  5. An Duine Gruamach says:

    They never pay any attention to Scotland unless there’s an election on, so it’s inevitable that when they do cast their eyes north they miss the subtleties, undercurrents and complexities of the previous four years. It’d be like a football pundit only ever watching the World, and expecting to be taken seriously in his opinions without a scooby of what’s happened in the last four years’ worth of Champions’ Leagues, La Ligas, Serie As etc. Nothing they say will be anything more than vague and superficial.

    1. Frankly says:

      Nevertheless, it is possible for external observers who are not constantly tuned in to what is happening in Scotland to make quite a good fist of analyzing the recent Scottish general election and what it may portend, if one judges by the media in Spain, which, of course, have the Catalans and the Basques to concern themselves with.

      By the Spanish media I confess that I specifically mean the newspaper El País, which published a soundly informative article on May 15th entitled The Disunited Kingdom of Great Britain? (http://bit.ly/iYMQNo) It owes much of its readability to the fact that a large portion of it is given over to an interview with Professor David McCrone, co-director of the Institute of Governance in the School of Social and Political Science of the University of Edinburgh, who suggests in passing that the English press coverage is – how shall I put it? – simple-minded: “McCrone se ríe del simplismo con que se analiza desde Londres la cuestión escocesa. ‘La visión metropolitana tiende a tener dos puntos de vista: que Escocia nunca será independiente o que la independencia es inevitable. Creo que es mucho más complicado que eso.'”

      One tries to be fair-minded, but, frankly, the El País article is in my view much more worth reading than any of the English press coverage of the latest independentist surge, as, alas, their news media seem to me to be worth resorting to for really not much more than the purpose of seeing “the daily and hourly progress of madness and folly in England. The consummation of these qualities are the true ingredients for making a fine narrative in history, especially if followed by some signal and ruinous convulsion – as I hope will soon be the case with that pernicious people.” (David Hume, in a letter to his publisher in 1765: http://bit.ly/mJyUk7)

      I hasten to add that I mean the point of quoting Hume in this way here to be not so much that one shares his sentiments in full as that one fancies that one understands them, the prevalent early-21st-century English view of Scots reminding one more than somewhat of the 18th-century one, as seems somehow appropriate, I venture to suggest. When the anglo-union began there was very considerable and highly unpleasant anti-Scottish sentiment to be contended with, of course, as Hume attests. It is hardly surprising that the end of the present form of that arrangement, which, according to McCrone, is likely to be succeeded by confederation, a concept which England has never shown any very noticeable interest in and no doubt will not want, is being marked by something akin to the displays of hostile incomprehension and ostentatious distaste for all things north of Hadrian’s Wall which greeted Scots when they innocently crossed the anglo-Scottish border after the anglo-union was inaugurated to claim their rights as British citizens only to find that the English were just carrying on as before, as, on the whole, they still are, which is why their press comment on Scottish affairs is what it is and why things need to change.

      1. Fascinating stuff. Alas, my less than elementary Spanish isn’t up to reading yon El Pais article but it is interesting to hear about how the result has been articulated there. Oh. And I always appreciate a wee Humie quotation…

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