Talking To Power… Tok’n Tae Powur… A’ Bruidhinn ri Cumhachd

Connel Oban Roadsign Sept 08On the power struggles that lie beneath our recent language debates – and the concepts that help us reveal them, from Joe Crawford

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.

Comments (15)

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  1. Graeme Purves says:

    There is no question mark hanging over the legitimacy of Scots as a language. It has a strong written and oral heritage and is recognised as a language internationally. That a few ignoramuses in the media are uncomfortable with the fact is neither here nor there.

  2. Alastair McIntosh says:

    This is a brilliantly lucid article, a fine example of the kind of applied social science that needs to be taught and debated so that the various segments of Scottish society can understand themselves better, and then weigh that understanding against their own deepest values. However, there is one area of the article that doesn’t quite go far enough, namely the following passage:

    “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.”

    This fails to grasp the strong Unionism apparent in many native Hebridean islanders. To grasp that, at least 2 further factors need to be brought in to consideration.

    1. The depth to which the Hebrides were actually colonised from the late 16th century onwards, and how for the sake of getting a life that process creates its own norms (Freire). The scholarship adequately to support this is only now coming of age, for example, the recent tome by Aonghas MacCoinnich, “Plantation and Civility in the North Atlantic World: The Case of the Northern Hebrides, 1570-1639”, Brill, Leiden, 2015, £130 (ouch!). Well, that’ll stop the plebs from reading it, but you can get some good snatches on Google Books for free if you don’t have easy good library access. Mind to remember that “plantation” was the colonisers’, or “adventurers'”, polite word for naked colonisation, with Commission of Fire & Sword granted where needed.

    2. The depth to which that colonisation was not only “internal” (Hechter) to the British Isles, but it was “inner” in the sense of being psychospiritual. The Protestant faith was planted as a highly explicit hearts and minds strategy of the British state, with missionary zeal and Royal resources (e.g. the Royal Bounty missionary fund, after the 1715 Jacobite rising). This is not to say that Protestant religion was not without keen virtues of which many of our forbears we’re thankful, and remain so; but it is to say that spiritual power was hijacked by the state, and leaves the loyalties of many islanders divided and even, confused. How else can you be both a frequenter of Covenantor’s inns and a Jacobite at the same time?!

    I have explored point 2 in my book, Island Spirituality (Islands Book Trust, Kershader, 2013). As it is now almost out of print, the Trust have allowed me to place a pdf free on the web, available along with related rare resources from: http://www.alastairmcintosh.com/islandspirituality.htm

    1. Joe Crawford says:

      Thank you Alastair, I agree with your points entirely. Limitations of space and the need to present the argument in very ‘general’ terms means missing out on the nuance. I look forward to reading Island Spirituality.

  3. Scott Hames says:

    This is a really interesting analysis, but its framing assumptions strike me as a bit reductive — namely, that the ‘real reason’ someone values the established ’legitimate’ order (in any sphere) is because it serves their own status and power. (I’m cynical but not that cynical.) By this view any lack of enthusiasm for exciting ’transformation’ is down to reactionary selfishness; it would seem to follow that those with the least power and status will always favour plucky attempts at sweeping change, for the same reason that the smug and comfortable will cravenly protect the status quo.

    This logic has its appeal but I don’t think political history bears it out. If it did, there could never be a ‘revolution from above’, to say nothing of the ‘bourgeois’ revolutions that made the modern world. More to the point, it’s a model which seems to evacuate any space for individual views or convictions on what should be ‘legitimate’ — our politics are wholly determined for us by our self-interest, which is itself a function of the prevailing differentials of power. I think this is a particularly unhelpful way of framing the politics of independence/unionism, leaving no space for persuasion, dialogue, or sincere/’disinterested’ attachments to a particular constitutional position. Lots of people voted against what they understood their interests to be.

    Anyway, I think applying this model to the language question tends to flatter those of us (including me) who support Scots and independence:

    “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.”

    Let me guess who the good guys are here… Not sure about this opposition between plucky supporters of an emergent, authentically Scottish culture versus lackeys of ruling authority and the-way-things-are, seemingly symbolised by the English language.

    As so often, it’s the place of English itself that gets mangled in these syllogisms. Isn’t English a legitimate Scottish language? And in the Scottish context, should it really be associated with ‘imperialist Britain’?

    1. Pavel Iosad says:

      Another quite reductive assumption here (that Scott himself addressed in a previous Bella piece) is that supporting Scots it Gaelic is mostly driven by a desire for an authentic Scottishness. This is neither necessary (how much of absolutely authentic Scottish culture is Anglophone?) nor sufficient: language rights, if you take that position, can just as easily be framed as universal, individual rights, not tied to the cultural community.

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        Thus, Pavel, the importance of holding language rights withing a wider understanding of the cultural matrix, and while coming to understand linguistic influence on thought patterns, not falling into linguistic determinism.

    2. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Good points there, Scott. It’s still a very good, clear and thought provoking article, but you widen out the reflection.

    3. Graeme Purves says:

      Neither Scots nor Gaelic require any academic blethers to legitimate or validate them. I value Scots because all four of my grandparents spoke it (in its Borders, Aberdeenshire and Fife variants) and I have been familiar with its registers and expressive potential from my early childhood. I learned as soon as I arrived at primary school that the language they spoke wasn’t English.

  4. Clive P L Young says:

    “Tok’n Tae Powur”?
    Whit?
    Er, ye dae ken Scots haes guid dictionaries. Online an apps an aw.
    Naebodie haes tae mak up their ain spellins nooadays 😉

    1. Joe Crawford says:

      I understand what you are saying Clive, and it proves my point about the ‘power’ to consecrate and to relegate language. I’m a working class Glaswegian. I say huv, not hae, and I’ve never said ‘ken’ in my entire life. I love reading Burns aloud, but the language in Scots dictionaries isn’t the language I speak. Tom Leonard, James Kelman and Jeff Torrington speak my language. The text below is a good example of phonetic vernacular Glaswegian (which like Burns, should be read aloud):

      this is thi
      six a clock
      news thi
      man said n
      thi reason
      a talk wia
      BBC accent
      iz coz yi
      widny wahnt
      mi ti talk
      aboot thi
      trooth wia
      voice lik
      wanna yoo
      scruff. if
      a toktaboot
      thi trooth
      lik wanna yoo
      scruff yi
      widny thingk
      it wuz troo.
      jist wanna yoo
      scruff tokn.
      thirza right
      way ti spell
      ana right way
      to tok it. this
      is me tokn yir
      right way a
      spellin. this
      is ma trooth.
      yooz doant no
      thi trooth
      yirsellz cawz
      yi canny talk
      right. this is
      the six a clock
      nyooz. belt up.

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      Spot on, Clive!

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        And spot on Joe!

        1. Jim says:

          This laissez faire approach to writing Scots, based on the sound-to-letter correspondences of Standard English, emphasizing fun, entertainment and creativity may seem superficially liberating. However, it ultimately marginalises Scots because folk will notice how that contrasts with the acquisition of literacy in Standard English where the emphasis is on writing fluently and legibly with accurate spelling and punctuation. Literacy in Standard English as the primary medium of serious inter-community communication will still be seen as more important and of greater utility thus maintaining its higher status.

          This enthusiasm for Scots seems to be more a rejection of the current ideology behind Standard English rather than a mass endorsement and adoption of Scots as a ubiquitous alternative to it.

  5. Finlay Macleoid says:

    Am I really reading this article from a Scottish view or a British Empire standpoint?

    There may have been a Scottish cultural renaissance in the 1920s, as you say but that had little to do with the Gaelic language or its culture.
    What Gaelic culture has suffered from is Appropriation and not Cultural renaissance in the 1920’s.

    These are two different situations with little, indeed very little to compare.

  6. Redgauntlet says:

    Good article, Joe, really important somebody cuts through the MSM crap and elucidates the underlying reasons for so much hostility to Scots and Gaelic. Slainte.

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