Cringing Language Cultural Change
One of the hallmarks of the referendum debate, as I’ve written before, is the tendency of those on the No side to try to delegitimise Yes arguments; either as whimsical childishness or a malevolent expression of Scotland’s long-standing antipathy to its Union benefactors. We’re either biting the hand that feeds or so far from being aware of “the issues that matter,” to have an opinion of any description. There’s no examination, no interaction and certainly no retort. Only slander.
This week we’ve seen more of the same, in a few different ways. JK Rowling’s donation of £1M was accompanied by a statement which is well worth reading-it’s a mix of the standard reasons I’ve heard from many people about why they’re minded, currently, to vote no (largely to do with risk, and a weariness about whether Scotland’s place in the world could continue without the UK), and also some bits of language which seem lifted straight from a Better Together press-pack: “If we leave, though, there will be no going back. This separation will not be quick and clean.”
I don’t begrudge JK Rowling her opinion, although it continues a streak of not-particularly-well-thought-through reasons I’ve heard from the No side, mostly centered, as I said above, on the idea of risk and existential angst. It’s one of often-ignored points in the debate, really-there is a risk. And we won’t be doing things in the same way the UK has: Rowling points out that RBS couldn’t have been bailed out by Scotland alone. That’s undoubtedly true, although it misses the larger issue that no country, anywhere, should be in a position of having to bail out an organisation like RBS. The security and prosperity we have in the UK is the result of centuries of colonialism, exporting misery and cultural despair the world over. While you can argue whether or not an Independent Scotland would really live up to the promise of restructuring its economy you can be absolutely sure that nobody at the UK’s political level has any intention of doing anything about it. The choice here isn’t between a pie-in-the-sky notion of progress and security, it’s between having a political entity which is capable of exercising change for its constituents and staying part of something which you can only conclude is a fiction, and a tenuous one at that.
The second change was in the rebranding of the No campaign. Better Together met its end, being replaced by “No Thanks.” Again, a change whose happening was mostly overlooked by the media, let alone its significance. Anyone seeing this morning’s Scotland on Sunday, and recalling the Church of Scotland’s talk of reconciliation will be familiar with this strain of discourse: even having a debate is too much to consider, it’s too much of a risk. Too painful to examine our own circumstance, and too jingoistic. “No Thanks,” reeks of the sort of sniveling, Dickensian response to poverty that the Union has made its domestic hallmark. We make do with what we have, and if by some trickery we end up having the opportunity to change things we are expected to demure modestly, with grace.
The cringe isn’t a uniquely Scottish phenomenon. Far from it. It’s a symptom of what Marxists call “Cultural Hegemony,” and scholars of colonialism will tell you, too, is the standard operating procedure of their subject matter. The reshaping of a cultural sphere to enable its constituents to be better, more efficiently exploited, is one of those great exports of colonialism-like the railways! Set up a bourgeois class to run the place, get some education and manage the warehouses, slave ships, plantations, then get the middle managers to aspire to be owners-that’s your petit bourgeoisie-and you’re already well on your way. Everyone gets to believe there’s promise in London, or Glasgow, and that you can make your fortune and be, well not just like them, because obviously you’re still a native, but a better native. And certainly better than those uncultured types who man the warehouse, or are slaves. You come to be ashamed of your own culture because it’s not what the money is looking for-it’s shameful, in part because it’s a reminder of just how far you are from ever being an integral, profit-sharing participant in this great game, but just as importantly because you know, every time you see an expression of experience from outside the colonialist agenda, that you’re ruthlessly involved in its suppression for not much gain-again, you’re never going to be on the inside. You’re making your pennies from their labour, but you’ll never make the pounds-that’s their job, their privilege.
It’s a tool of the No camp, absolutely, but it isn’t their invention. It’s the lazy continuation of fear, shame and embarrassment that allows them to tell people across Scotland that “the global expert on…” (name me a field where there’s just ONE global expert and I’ll be amazed-there’ll be at least 2 other people who think their work is fatally flawed and theirs in the same area is better) knows this about that, so you don’t have to think at all. “RBS couldn’t be bailed out by Scotland alone! That’s all you need to know-there’s so much danger out there, you can’t even know about it, in a way you’re fortunate being able to live your sheltered life, just leave the thinking to your elected officials, or the Vote No Borders campaign, or whoever.” Rowling didn’t call the independence movement ‘death-eaterish’, she used the term to describe lineage-driven understandings of who qualifies as Scottish enough to talk in the debate. She’d be right, of course, that would be awful, although I’ve not heard any such talk, personally (I don’t have facebook, and I don’t read the comments sections on websites, admittedly). It’s another case of people being shocked at something which doesn’t look like being much of the debate. What is ‘death-eaterish’ in my mind is telling people their children would have to queue like ‘foreigners’ to use a hospital in London. Or that if they leave your political Union you’ll stop them using their money.
It’s easy to suggest that the Yes campaign is aggressive, puritanical and ill-informed. Scottish characters are often the aggressive, ill-understood dimwits of the group, driven by anger and a charmingly misplaced sense of being looked down on by everyone else in the room. Of course, some of them work on estates-perhaps polishing the Laird’s silverware, burning heather, or just wearing tweed. So much of our cultural landscape in the Union is about denigrating the identity of its constituents (it isn’t just Scotland, either-the North of England, Wales and Ireland all have their own stereotypes to live out, too.) It’s passed off as just being a laugh, or not something anyone takes seriously, but they don’t have to anymore. It’s how we exist in this group. If we want to be something else, we’re going to have to leave. We won’t be the same, but would we want to be? The No campaign is counting on us choosing an isolated servitude we know rather than having the courage to make good on our vision. In 20 years I’d like to see depictions of Scotland in rUK media that look like the US take on Canada-“so what if their living standards and social fabric are vastly better? We’re bigger.”
The third side of all this really hasn’t much to do with Scotland at all. In Iraq, ISIS has overrun cities and towns, establishing if only cartographically the caliphate it wants to see extending from Lebanon’s mediterranean coast to the Zagros mountains of Iran. For the first time in over a hundred years, since the UK and France divided the remnants of the Ottoman empire into more manageable, colonisable states, those lines have been replaced by a new entity. It is unpalatable, and unstable, but its existence, however fleeting, is a reminder that colonialism’s boundaries are not as unassailable as we are led to believe. In our future we can be optimistic and build a better country, mindful of the real risks-slipping back into old patterns and continuing the cycle of colonialism and violence which has been the UK’s principle legacy.