Don’t Be Intimidated

By Stephen Bowman

Even though there’s been plenty articles and blogs written in response to Westminster’s decision to play hard-ball over the currency this week, I still want to throw in my own tuppence – or perhaps more appropriately – bawbee’s worth. In some ways, this was always going to happen. The Spanish Government has long been surprised that the UK Government hasn’t been as assertive with Scotland as it has been with Catalonia, but this week has seen London act more like Madrid in dealing with its ‘separatists’. Not only have Gideon Osborne and his Labour and Liberal cronies ostensibly ruled out any currency union between rUK and an independent Scotland, but word comes from Westminster that they might not respect the outcome of the referendum in the event of a Yes vote.

Make no mistake, the British Establishment – as represented by the Osborne-Alexander-Balls alliance – has closed ranks and is now actively trying to bully, intimidate and ultimately halt what is both a movement for progressive social change and a people’s right to self-determination. Like much about the independence referendum, it has little to do with the relationship between England and Scotland and everything to do with the relationship between the London elite and those of us on the ‘periphery’– in terms of both class and nationality – who want to do things differently. And so the facade of British democracy, along with a positive case for the Union, continues to crumble.

One of the assumptions behind Westminster’s intervention this week is that London has the stronger hand in secession negotiations following a Yes vote. In response to any suggestions that Scotland will refuse to take on a share of UK debt because of Westminster’s refusal to enter a currency union, we are told that the UK might block Scotland’s EU membership or even refuse to respect the outcome of the referendum. But it’s really important to remember that Scotland is under no obligation to take any of the debt and that there is absolutely no reason why we can’t use the pound without a currency union. This much was recognised by a leading academic in an article this week in the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, it’s likely that Brussels would look very unfavourably on any moves by London to stop Scotland joining the EU, whatever Jose Manuel Barrosso might say (and whatever he does say is directed primarily at Catalonia, not Scotland). In any case, with England looking likely to vote to leave the EU, London’s stance on Scottish membership could be a moot point.

Scotland could also decide to become a little less than reasonable over the removal of the nuclear submarines on the Gare Loch. Whereas a Scottish Government might have given the rUK plenty of time to find a replacement base in England, in the event of needing to adopt a tough negotiating stance, Scotland could demand the immediate removal from Scottish waters of these weapons of mass destruction. This is an important bargaining chip.

Moreover, this is all notwithstanding the fact that a currency union is indeed in the rUK’s best interests and that such a union may well still happen anyway. It’s highly likely that Osborne was bluffing.

In any event, this isn’t 1979. What the London political bubble and much of England – public, politicians and press alike – often fail to understand is that today’s Scotland is stronger and more confident for having had a devolved Parliament since 1999 and, since 2007, a popular and assertive Scottish Government. For example, a recent poll revealed that Scots trust Holyrood considerably more than they do Westminster. In other words, Scots look to Edinburgh and not to London for political leadership. These are the reasons why we are where we are today. These are also the reasons why Westminster’s aggression will spectacularly backfire. This has already been seen in anecdotal evidence from Kaye Adams’ call-in radio show on BBC Scotland last week, which was apparently inundated by callers saying that Osborne’s intervention had persuaded them to support independence.

For much of the campaign so far Better Together has insulted Scotland, talked down its ability to self-govern and told outright lies. Now Westminster is trying to bully us. But know that they are doing so because they think Scotland is on the verge of voting Yes and because, ultimately, they know that Scotland is an economic asset and, as a result, a perfectly viable independent state. If we aren’t an asset, why are they going to so much trouble? They have indeed raised the stakes this week, but it’s because they’ve been backed into a corner by the success of Yes Scotland. However, by refusing a currency union and suggesting that they won’t respect the outcome of the referendum, they’ve got very few places left to go. What are they going to do now, occupy the country? That way madness lies.

This was the week that Westminster lost the plot and demonstrated once again the futility of efforts to reform the UK from within. Nor do these attempts to bully Scotland into voting No bode well for the future of the UK. If Westminster thinks that ‘Yes doesn’t mean Yes’, it may equally find that a No vote delivered under duress does not mean No. There is an appetite for change in Scotland, and independence will happen now or later. But let’s not let it come to that. It’s time to get out now.

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The Battle for Britishness

By Stephen Bowman

Last September I was interviewed on the radio by BBC Newcastle as part of a feature they were doing to mark the countdown to this year’s Scottish independence referendum. The one question that I wish I had answered differently was when they asked me whether I felt British. To my own surprise, I said yes. What I should really have said was, ‘yes, but…’

Even though I’m habitually somebody who refuses to identify myself as ‘White British’ on things like equal opportunities forms as a means of protesting against the Union and Scotland’s place within it, it occurred to me – having lived in England for over two years now – that it would be churlish not to accept that I do share some social and cultural affinities with the other residents of the British Isles, just as I do with my fellow Europeans. A man’s a man, and all that: my Scottish nationality isn’t threatened. That’s what I was trying to get at on the radio, but I’m not sure that that’s how it came across. Rather, by saying that I felt British, I implied a whole lot of other things, most of which I would argue are negative. For example, is Britishness not characterised by monarchism, empire, militarism (see David Cameron’s now infamous Olympic Park speech), neoliberalism, anti-immigrant UKIP, and institutionalised Protestantism? Perhaps not exclusively, but they are surely constituent parts of a dominant version of Britishness that seems to have changed little in the post-Second World War period, if not longer. To this version I don’t identify.

Britishness is also Anglo-centric, while perceptions of Englishness are themselves London-centric: not just in relation to government and the economy, but also culturally and politically. This is manifest partly in UKIP’s lack of success in Scotland compared to England, and by the fact that the political debate sparked by UKIP is interpreted as the most pressing issue in British politics. The Anglo-centrism of Britishness has also been commented on by the historian Colin Kidd, who has argued that this was partly a product of the eighteenth-century Scottish intellectuals who – in the years after 1707 – renamed Scotland as North Britain, and who identified with the founding myths of English, not Scottish, constitutional history. This has meant that a genuine pan-British identity was never established and that Britain, and versions of Britishness, have tended to be England, and versions of Englishness, writ large. Today, this is a Britishness and an Englishness that worries about foreign immigrants and the EU. It is also a Britishness that – across the political spectrum – is indifferent to, and ill-informed about, Scottish independence. This was evident this week in Owen Jones’s lazy article in The Independent, which articulated ostensibly legitimate leftist questions about the nature of nationalism (questions which now seem little more than excuses for not doing anything real to achieve progressive change), and which argued that, rather than pursuing independence, Scottish workers and political activists should stand in solidarity with their English colleagues. Of course they should, but it’s a strange sort of socialist internationalism that relies on the existence of a Union that is increasingly leaning to the right and which is on the verge of cutting itself out of the EU.

So what would a truly pan-British identity really look like? For one, it would recognise, and genuinely come to terms with, the regional and national nuances that exist in the British Isles. If Owen Jones had done this, his article would’ve reflected much more accurately the complexities of the independence debate, not least the roles played by groups like the Radical Independence Campaign, the SSP, the Commonweal project and Labour for Independence, and, indeed, the high-profile Labour converts to Yes, like Alex Mosson. In so doing, Jones would’ve understood that Scottish independence is increasingly regarded as the only realistic alternative to Westminster politics, including by Labour voters, and that it is not necessarily about nationalism. Within the Union, meanwhile, a pan-Britishness could also mean giving the same attention to the annual Scottish school exam results on the BBC News as is given to A-Levels and GCSEs, or by sports coverage that does not prioritise English football highlights over Scottish. But at present viewers in Scotland are fed an homogenous broadcasting output that ignores or misrepresents their own experience. Nor would an authentic Britishness allow for the ‘them and us’ rhetoric so shamefully demonstrated by Katie Hopkins and others during the debate on Scottish independence in an episode of Channel Five’s The Wright Stuff back in November. These things might seem mundane, but the importance of broadcasting was recognised by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, established by the Scottish Government in 2007.

A pan-British identity would also accept that the people of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester and Cardiff can identify with each other without reference to London, and without reference to the Union Flags adorning the Mall. In other words, Britishness need not have anything to do with Unionism. This would open doors rather than close them. Once Unionism is removed from Britishness, then the power of Westminster is diminished. When that happens, the peoples of these islands can look at what really connects them. Places like the North of England may indeed begin to look to Edinburgh for political and ideological synergies. Something of this was suggested by last year’s Borderlands report, compiled by academics at Northumbria and Durham universities. With Westminster’s privatisation of the NHS and its continuing assault on the welfare state, is it not socially democratic Scotland – united in its opposition to the bedroom tax and committed to free health care – that stands between neoliberal reform and these two positive legacies of Britishness?

So if it is accepted that Britishness need not be defined by Westminster politics, then all those jokey statements about the North of England joining an independent Scotland seem a little bit more realistic. That said, I have no doubt that people in Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland feel English and that there is no real appetite for secession. But that isn’t necessarily because of Britishness. After Scottish independence, there is the possibility of greater cross-border co-operation and solidarity based on mutual priorities. This doesn’t need to be done with reference to London, and could be all the more British for not doing so.

In a week that David Cameron made an appeal for Scotland to vote no based on his notion of a shared Britishness, perhaps it’s time to ask what it is that Britishness should really mean. Just as Scottishness has been defined and redefined across the course of the Union’s existence – to the point that it now seems synonymous with a progressive and enlightened political culture – then so can Britishness morph into something better. Britishness doesn’t need to mean monarchy, empire or UKIP. Nor does it have to have anything to do with Unionism. Indeed, Unionism has singularly failed to create an authentic and representative Britishness. It seems increasingly likely that the dominant, inauthentic and unrepresentative versions of Britishness – as outlined by people like David Cameron, but also, paradoxically, by British socialists like Owen Jones – will equally fail to sustain the Union. Instead, perhaps it’s time to see if a new, progressive and inclusive Britishness – stimulated by an empowered Scotland – can emerge from a process of international cooperation and solidarity between the independent peoples of these islands.

Know your place – Gaelic and Elements of the Left

By Angus MacLeod – Born in Inverness, Angus is a writer and PhD researcher in Gaelic literature at the University of Glasgow.

There is a pernicious view abroad amongst elements of the Scottish Left that Gaelic, its promotion and the promotion of equality for Gaels, are linked to essentialism, to blood-and-soil irrationality, in short to the politics of reaction. This was encapsulated a while ago in a blog post which appeared on the Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway blog, and was promoted on the RIC Facebook page, equating Network Rail’s Gaelic signage policy with mythologizing and racism. Or as George Galloway recently asked in reference to the language “What is this Alba? […] Most highlanders speak English. 99% of Scots are not highlanders. This madness is going too far”. A summary of his comments can be seen on a post at An Sionnach Fionn’s blog ‘Galloway to the Gaels: You are a nonpeople’. This is not to blame the Left in general for the efforts of a few, but it is necessary to confront this stream of thought and to show how redundant it really is. Likewise the Radical Independence Convention does great work, but that makes the idiotic contributions of a few even more regrettable.

On one level it is surprising that these views emerge at all – a language whose traditional areas are now characterised by depopulation and economic marginalisation under attack for being associated with the “romantic Right”. But Gaelic outside of these areas, so the story goes, is a language choice of the middle classes; Gaelic is the hobby of those independistas who got a bit too caught up with Braveheart and the petite-bourgeoisie who would like their kids to go to private schools but can’t afford the fees. And as the RIC Dumfries and Galloway article shows, it is the language of those who would like to see Scotland as a mono-ethnic independent nation state.

Gaelic itself uses the word Gael as a marker of linguistic ability, not of ethnicity, nor of heritage, nor place of birth. The mono-ethnic fallacy denies the fact that Gaels are perfectly aware that we are all immigrants. A Gaelic lullaby from Dunvegan reminded the MacLeods that their ancestors came from Scandinavia. MacDonalds and Campbells both claimed descent from mythological Irishmen; thus agreeing on something, and on it goes. Therefore when a Gael speaks of the Gaels, they are describing a linguistic community, with all that goes with it, as opposed to an exclusive ethnicity.

Much of the rhetoric deployed by the language’s accusers is based on an effort to split the language equality movement into a Scots camp and a Gaelic camp. But Gaelic’s increasing prominence strikes a blow against the unthinking monolingualism of much of Scottish society. Language learning is not a zero sum gain, as the efforts of Gaelic language activists opens doors for Scots language activists and visa versa. Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid knew this. The organisers of the International Languages of Scotland Conferences knew this. And modern activists know this too.

It’s a sign of this blow against a monolingual orthodoxy that folk are shoggled when they see Gaelic in an unexpected place: in the RIC blogpost it was Lockerbie train station. Getting people to think about language and its history should only be a good thing, if people would welcome minority languages rather than wishing for their speakers to literally know their place. In Gaeldom’s case, this place is generally rural areas in the Highlands and Islands, the further North and West the better, though best if you avoid Caithness.

Confronted with a minority language the folk in question suddenly fall back on the “Ah, but all my forebears and those of the surrounding community were Scots speakers, you see.” You can also insert Pictish, Brythonic or Norse too, if you please. This does of course bring us back to the question of “Who is it that’s linking language with blood and soil?” Of course such critics are rarely if ever Scots speakers or activists themselves; Scots is just their chosen tool to promote monolingualism outside of the literary realm. As I’ve highlighted, this divide and rule approach denies the role of Gaels and Scots-speakers in promoting each other’s languages — just look at the Tobar an Dualchais/ Kist o’ Riches project.

The Gaelic Act, which aims to afford Gaelic equality of esteem with English throughout Scotland, challenges the monolingualism of the newly emerging Scottish state, inherited from the British state, enforced by the education system after 1872. Gaels should not be confined to the Highlands and Islands nor to the cultural realm, and the logical consequence of this is that Gaelic becomes more visible outside of its traditional areas. There is a bizarre myth that Gaelic’s increasing prominence is solely due to the SNP government. Unfounded on reality, this ignores that the SNP have generally continued the approach of the Lib-Lab administration, endorsed by the Parliament as a whole. This myth stems more from the effort of social scientists, both academic and armchair, to characterise the Scottish Independence movement in the terms of a traditional nationalist movement, as opposed to looking at it in its unprecedented reality.

Amongst the metropolitan Left Gaelic is at best an irrelevance. What is the point in learning or using a language with 58,000 speakers when capitalism is destabilising the Middle East and destroying the environment. Life is too short. And yet the majority of the most endangered cultures are in those areas of the world which are the most exploited economically. Language activists from minorities work with one another, sharing best practice and sending their solidarity and support to their counterparts overseas. The economic processes which exploited the Gàidhealtachd, consolidated the power of the landowners and still sends its young people to the cities for work, housing and opportunity is the same process wreaking havoc elsewhere. If you want to get an understanding of the experience of those marginalised by economic exploitation, then a genuine engagement with an exploited culture close to home, is in terms of sheer practicality, a good place to start.

The role of Gaels in left-wing culture and the emergence of the home rule movement and Labour movement is also a reason for engaging with the language. In Sorley MacLean’s work you see the choices faced by socialists during the Spanish Civil War; the commitment to the fight against Fascism in World War II and his disillusionment with Stalinism after the Warsaw Uprising. MacLean’s views were by no means anomalous amongst later Gaelic writers. Another example is Duncan Livingstone who wrote a multilingual poem from a grieving widow’s perspective on the Sharpeville Massacre in Apartheid South Africa. Urban Gaels and their descendants were to be found at the heart of the radical movements in the major cities and their tradition of radicalism in rural areas remains an inspiration, to those who are aware of it.

Gaeldom is not without its own faults. Efforts to remain “apolitical”, as if that were possible, or to raise the language’s status, led to forelock-tugging recognition-chasing by Gaelic bodies in the past. Whilst this is regrettable it is a consequence of the marginalisation of the culture and the language. To criticise modern Gaelic promotion for that is like criticising the Gaelic language for the Highland regiments and ignoring the role of the state and private capital in exploiting Highland communities; or like criticising Gaelic culture for being parochial, because elements of it were appropriated, commoditised and utilised for the political goals of others.

And that brings us back to the Braveheart crowd, the fact that some self-styled Ultra-Nationalists occasionally attempt to associate themselves with the language, is certainly not the fault of the Gaelic language and its community. Whilst it would appear that some of this crowd see themselves as post-colonialists, they are certainly nowhere to be seen in Gaelic life in general, thankfully. For them the language is a feather for their oxygen-restricting bonnet, at best.

It was the Tory knight of the realm Hugh Trevor-Roper who asserted the inauthenticity of much of Gaelic culture, in the aftermath of the 1979 devolution referendum: ideas which have spread far outside of academic circles. The choice faced by the minority culture is often to strive for authenticity and be labelled parochial; or to remediate their traditions and be labelled inauthentic. That, surely, reveals some of the power relations at work between a majority and minority culture. Gaelic has made it into the 21st Century, despite the best efforts of its high-placed opponents. That in itself is a testimony to the long struggle of the Gaels against prejudice and inequality. Let us all celebrate it, along with Scots, and all of Scotland’s languages by engaging with them in whatever capacity we can and working together for a more equal future for Scotland’s linguistic communities.