Bella agreed to a right to reply for David Torrance to Alan Bissett’s article ‘Ethnic Cleanse’.
It seems my use of the word ‘ethnic’ in the context of a column exploring the balance between civic and non-civic Nationalism in Scotland has caused controversy. I’m not going to pretend this wasn’t my intention; indeed a columnist’s role (without meaning to sound pompous) is to stir up debate. On this level my column in Monday’s Herald has succeeded.
My basic contention was that far from being wholly civic, as the SNP and broader Yes campaign repeatedly asserts, modern Scottish Nationalism also includes ethnic elements. My critics appear to assume this was a criticism, but as I argued towards the end of the column all Nationalisms – including the British variety – includes ethnic and civic elements.
Some accused me of conflating ‘ethic’ with ‘culture’, so it’s worth checking the definition of ‘ethnicity’ provided by the online Oxford Dictionaries. It is:
‘The fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.’
Now I would take a ‘common national’ tradition to include anything historical and ‘cultural’ to cover, well, anything cultural. Therefore in my column I gave lots of examples of historical and cultural motifs in the pro-independence campaign. As the above definition shows, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘culture’ cannot easily be separated as some have claimed.
And for those upset about my use of the word ‘ethnic’ I would refer them to the most recent Scottish census from 2011 (under the devolved control of the Scottish Government) which in one section invited respondents to choose their ‘ethnicity’, options including ‘Scottish’ and ‘other British’ (interestingly, there was no option that simply said ‘British’).
Therefore I was using terminology deployed by the Scottish Government itself, and did so to describe things as they are: the forthcoming ‘Homecoming’ event, which invites Americans with Scottish ancestry to return home, and also plans to mark the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, are both examples of ‘ethnic’ Nationalism. Similarly, in his recent Budget the Chancellor George Osborne announced plans to restore English cathedrals and mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, again examples of ethnic (English) Nationalism.
Some critics have implied I was arguing that the pro-independence movement was somehow racist or sectarian, but this conveniently ignored a paragraph near the start of my column which described the clear success of the SNP in attracting Catholic and Asian votes, while also mentioning the recent support of the Polish actor Tomek Borkowy. These developments I described as ‘undoubtedly positive’.
And it has been, but that doesn’t mean ethnic Nationalism has somehow completely disappeared. Again, I gave lots of examples of this in my column while also quoting academic research by Andrew Mycock (it’s worth reading his article here). One of his points I didn’t mention in my column was that while his 2012 survey found that many Scots shared a vision of Scotland as multicultural, diverse, inclusive and tolerant, a majority also believed place of birth (be it parental or personal origin) was important in terms of defining ‘Scottishness’, which as Mycock concluded ‘suggests ethnicity remains an important factor in how Scottish nationalism and nationhood are popularly understood’.
Although the column wasn’t actually about the writer Alan Bissett, the two paragraphs in which he is mentioned have also attracted lots of critical comment, not least from Alan himself. In the piece I said he had a ‘black and white view of history’ and belonged to ‘the “Scotland was colonised” wing of the Yes campaign’.
I stand by both statements. Weirdly, in his defence Alan invites me to read something he hasn’t yet finished writing (Jock: Scotland on Trial), but given I lack the ability to travel forward in time I have to rely on a lecture he gave in Ullapool a year or so ago at one of Gerry Hassan’s engaging Changin Scotland events. During this Alan unequivocally framed his survey of several centuries of Scottish history in terms of Scotland having been ‘colonised’ by England. For what it’s worth, also in attendance was a prominent Yes campaigner who told me, with considerable understatement, that Alan’s simplistic view of history was ‘unhelpful’.
Alan said some nice things about me so I’ll return the compliment: he’s engaging, intelligent and as I said in the piece, undoubtedly talented, but as an artist he has to live with criticism (as do I as a journalist), and all I did was briefly critique the excerpt of the play staged at the SNP conference (which, importantly, many of those criticising my column did not see). I bear him no ill will, indeed I included his ‘Vote Scotland’ YouTube video in a recent collection of ‘Great’ Scottish speeches that I edited.
The excerpt from The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant was billed as ‘satire’ but in that respect I thought it was pretty limited. Sure, it got a good reception in the hall, but it’s probably wise not to mistake the enthusiasm of an SNP conference (indeed any party conference) with the views of the wider electorate. And yes, the journalists present felt intimidated by delegates’ reaction to the line ‘we own the media’; I’ll happily admit to that, it was just a little ironic at the gathering of a party whose leadership isn’t noted for its criticism of, for example, Rupert Murdoch.
Alan also refers to my and others’ (who can speak for themselves) ‘rush to brand’ him ‘anti-English’, which if you read the column I did not do, although he’s certainly guilty – along with many others – of a similarly black-and-white view of ‘English’ politics. He also says it ‘should surprise no-one that all of them [his critics] are Unionists’ (a silly catch-all comment) while saying ‘I am their latest target’ is verging on paranoia. Bissett then makes references to the ‘right-wing consensus down South’ and an ‘increasingly brutal British state’, which rather underlines my point about his caricaturing of ‘down South’ (or Britain).
Wings Over Scotland has claimed I am part of a ‘vile’ and ‘co-ordinated’ attack on Alan, which is really the stuff of conspiracy theories. I wrote a column over the weekend (which I mentioned to no one in advance), to which others subsequently responded in print and online. Journalists have many talents, but ‘co-ordinated’ attacks aren’t generally among them. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to seeing an entire performance of Alan’s new play at the Edinburgh Fringe this August; I’m sure it’ll attract a lot of attention.