Scotland at the Crossroads
It was a welcome antidote to the political farce of this week to join a gathering of researchers at an event organised by the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh on Wednesday. Together, and in many languages, we reflected on the challenges faced by Scotland in the light of recent political events in the European context, taking in questions of citizenship, migration, heritage, identity and belonging.
A panel discussion reflected on the impact of Brexit on Scotland. The conversation swiftly moved from a consideration of the impact on our universities and institutions to the uncertainty and chaos that has affected our friends and colleagues, neighbourhoods and communities. We heard stories of anxiety over the fear of displacement and uncertainties about legal status. As one participant commented, the depth of care and emotional connection in the room was tangible – a stark contrast to mainstream media discourse where European Scots and other migrants are reduced to ‘bargaining chips’ instead of valued citizens with a right to be different and an equal right to belong.
Such moments are often a catalyst for reflection. I was struck by the fact that my own claims to identity have never really been challenged: the way I look and sound are not perceived as incongruent with the place I live. I have a Gaelic name, I grew up in a Scots speaking area, I use Scottish-English as my first language. I feel very much like a northern European. It does not escape me that this is an enormously privileged experience, and gives me a degree of security and a grounding that I do not take for granted. For others present in the room, such claims to identity have not always been so problem-free. When I asked a friend – who has lived for many years in Scotland – if she would claim a Scottish identity, the most she could emotionally commit to was to say ‘I am here.’
People, cultures and languages have always and are always moving and shifting, yet so many contemporary anxieties would seem to emerge from a need to see these as fixed. It would seem, then, that questions of culture are more important than ever. Whose stories are told, whose are foregrounded, whose are forgotten and who decides?
In the hostile environment of Brexit Britain, the reality is that second or third-generation immigrants – who are already legal citizens – are being denied symbolic access to national belonging by a native majority. This paranoid obsession with national identity might be read a mask for a far deeper sense of alienation. As Erich Fromm argued in his work on the sociology of fascism in 1947,
‘When people experience great uncertainty, the result is anxieties that nurture a fear of freedom that manifests itself in irrational and emotional impulses for escape. In this case, it is an escape to the imaginary ideas of the national past.’
This rings chillingly true in contemporary Britain of 2019. The frightening thing is that the toxic forces unleashed by Brexit won’t just go back in the box. Increasing xenophobia and racism, bitter scapegoating and the rise in hate crimes are societal problems that will likely take generations to mend.
It is not just the UK that is broken. Our global economic system is also broken. The crisis of Brexit is a microcosm of widespread shifts both across the globe and within the very idea of the ‘nation state’ itself, with democracies vulnerable to and undermined by opaque networks of tax havenry, dark money and big data. In many ways, the rise of right-wing populism and the retreat into entrenched ethnicities can be read as a response to the shifting effects and flows of global capital. While globalisation has had its positive effects in terms of global communications and elevating great numbers out of poverty, it has also brought with it devastating social, political and ecological effects, leaving many people disempowered and perpetuating the coloniality of power. It is also the cause of climate breakdown and environmental destruction, which will in turn cause more mass migration of people as their countries and their homes become uninhabitable. This is our future. These challenges envelop and entangle us all, but at the same time are so vast it is impossible for us to grasp their complexities and full scale of their effects.
One question raised this week was to question why the majority response to Brexit in Scotland has been so different to that south of the Border. With the nativist populism of the far right in the UK and elsewhere, is there any substance to an alleged cultural distinctiveness of Scotland from England?
Despite its marginal position on the northern edges of Europe, it could be argued that one version of Scotland has always been more ‘European’ in terms of character, outlook and its claims to a shared heritage. This Scotland has Celtic connections through the Gàidhealtachd with Ireland, France and Galicia; Nordic connections across the Northern Isles, strong historical links with Poland and the Auld Alliance with France. Conversely, Great Britain has been far more concerned with Empire, triumphant superiority and its imperial ideology of conquest. Of course, there are multiple Scotlands and multiple Britains and multiple ideologies within these categories, and it is very difficult to untangle Scotland from its role in the UK’s colonial legacy. In many ways, Brexit has brought what was in the dark into the light, which may yet provide an opportunity to confront and process our difficult heritages and histories.
When it comes to current government policy, there is a huge difference between Scotland and and England. An example of this is the SNP’s use of the term ‘New Scots,’ a deliberate move away from the use of ‘Scottish’ as an ethnic category and an attempt to integrate diverse communities into the idea of a welcoming, inclusive nation. Some may say that this narrative serves the government’s agenda of asserting political difference at a time of constitutional uncertainty. It is certainly a means to affirm a shared European outlook in contrast to the Euroscepticism and anglo-centrism of the UK government. The question is whether the policy in Scotland reflects and prefigures attitudes and realities on the ground.
This narrative of an inclusive, welcoming Scotland is not without its cultural precedents. It draws heavily on an ideological heritage and what is known as the ‘egalitarian myth’ – perhaps most commonly expressed in the ubiquitous phrase ‘We’re All Jock Tamson’s Bairns.’ This myth has its roots in the notion of the ‘democratic intellect’ of Scottish education, which was distinct from England’s; and in continental political thought, particularly the ideals of the French Revolution, given poetic expression in the poetry of Robert Burns. It is present in the radical cultural politics of Hamish Henderson and his ‘Freedom Come All Ye,’ adopted by the counter-cultural protest Peace movement and the anti-Polaris campaign of the 1960s. The idea also lies behind the belief that the Scottish working classes have an instinct for radical international socialism and solidarity across borders, a story powerfully told in Felipe Bustos Sierra’s recent film ‘Nae Pasaran’.
‘Myth’ here does not refer to something which is manifestly false. Like heritage, myths draw selectively from the past, a process that involves selective inclusion and exclusion. In this case, the historical veracity of this myth is perhaps less interesting than the uses to which it has been put, both politically and creatively, drawing on an imaginary past and an an equally imagined future. These are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from, are often more revealing of present than the past, and provide the grist and imagination for shaping powerful forces for change.
While I welcome the SNP’s vision of an inclusive multicultural European nation as opposed to the horror show down south, there is still something about the ‘one Scotland’ narrative that makes me feel slightly uneasy. On reflection, this might be because my understanding of my identity as a European Scot is inherently plural and dynamic. As a student of Scottish literature, I admired the many writers who, rather than identifying a uniquely singular Scottish experience, expressed universal conditions through diverse Scottish realities and subjectivities. From Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Violet Jacob to George Mackay Brown, the diversity in the creative expression of the Scots language and all its rich dialectical variations is a creative form of resistance to the centralising powers of homogenisation. What do we risk losing in this project of forging one Scotland out of many Scotlands? Rather than folding the multicultural many into the one, can we find ways to hold and celebrate our many differences in intercultural dialogue?
Scotland is at a crossroads. But in many ways, we are all always at the crossroads, always in the process of becoming. We must embrace our unfinishedness. To understand that we are always unfinished gives us hope that things can change.
I am no fan of the EU and its neoliberal bureaucratic institutions, but I believe very much in in the idea of Europe. We must strengthen our connections with our European friends and neighbours, building networks of resilience to face the challenges of the future together. We cannot take for granted the kind of inclusive welcoming independent northern European Scotland we desire. We will have to work for it and build it together. There is much work to be done.