Scotland’s Debates: Why We Need to Change the Culture of Denial
The Scotsman, December 2nd 2009
Two alternative ways of understanding Scotland have come to the fore of late. One sees independence versus a reformed union representing Scotland and the politics of constitutional change. The other seen in the BBC Scotland TV series ‘A History of Scotland’ is about understanding our past, where we came from, what made us and who we are now to aid us better shape our future.
Both are not without difficulties. The constitutional debate on both sides, independence versus the union, remains silent on what kind of Scotland it aspires to and in particular how to address our economic and social problems. ‘A History of Scotland’ was slammed by a whole generation of eminent historians and offered a simplistic one-dimensional narrative shaped by the need for celebrity and superficiality.
It is no accident that these two debates are happening at the same time for they are deeply intertwined: how we think about our past and future. The independence debate has been shaped by a nationalism which has of late emphasised the positive potential of a self-governing nation. It is unionism – whether Labour or Tory (and particularly Labour) – which has begun to dwell on the culture of gripe and grievance, emphasising that Scotland is ‘too poor’ or subsidised to make it on its own.
Then on St. Andrews Day we were treated to ‘Scotland’s History: The Debate’ on prime time TV on Monday shunting Graham Norton into cyberspace. This programme magnified many of the shortcomings of the series and did not mention beyond a single passing reference the problems and criticisms it has encountered.
The discussion sometimes dwelt on the banal and simplistic and Neil Oliver, presenter of the series, bereft of a script gave the impression of being pensive and nervous as if he half-expected his arch critic and historian Tom Devine to pop out of the wings with a claymore!
There was merit in parts of the discussion. Oliver was genuinely funny on the transformative power of the kilt and comparing it to having ‘Clark Kent like Superhero qualities’ which have an element of caricature and not taking it completely seriously.
Joan McAlpine was the most thoughtful, asking questions about areas which the series skimmed over. Brian Cox brought his rich cultural life. Bizarrely the contribution which shaped the debate most was that of ‘comedian’ Susan Morrison who dragged some of the discussion down to the pub anecdote.
Angry and nippy, talking about tartan she complained that her ‘Lowlander identity had been denied’ to which chair Sally Magnusson had to tell her to calm down. Why do I not find it surprising that Morrison asked us ‘to celebrate the union’ and turn our backs on independence?
The discussion gave new life to many of the old stereotypes such as the supposed ‘dual identity’ of the Scots. Here we got one of the oldest myths about Scotland: Highland/Lowland, Catholic/Protestant, Scots/British, we are just too divided to know ourselves and make up our own minds about what we want.
The series reinforced the idea that Scotland pre-union was an ‘oatmeal kingdom’, a place of bogs, bad weather and bigotry. This view stresses that Scotland came alive because of union and that the undoubted success of Enlightenment Scots was based on their denial of Scotland and embracing of ‘North Britain’.
This is just poor history and Richard Oram of Stirling University, the last historian involved in the series, pointed this out. Scotland pre-union had a church, legal system, education and civil society, all of which were preserved in the Treaties of Union.
One of the wider problems of the series, as a process and end product, was its inability to acknowledge different opinions and perspectives. This taps into a wider cultural issue we Scots have which we desperately need to face up to.
Two recent examples are worth reflecting upon. Last week in response to my column in ‘The Scotsman’ talking about the racist behaviour of Rangers fans to some of their fellow supporters who happen to be Asian, several fans got in touch with me.
They had an absolute complete sense of disbelief and said such a thing would not happen or could not happen, or that I had just made it up. Or words to the effect of why are you not looking at Celtic and look at what they have done in the past.
It is fascinating that such views were expressed in an articulate, intelligent way with no personal venom towards myself. I think that such an erudite, thoughtful mindset of denial, of not being ignorant, but choosing to be blinkered, is much worse and serious than just being an uninformed bigot.
Then on St. Andrews Day I did a talk to a group of Edinburgh middle class influencers about the SNP. What I asked them at the outset was what did they think of the Nationalists? The answers from such a polite, dinner table group were pointed.
The SNP were ‘nutters’, ‘negative’ and ‘unquious’, Alex Salmond ‘a political bastard’ and ‘slimy’. One said she detested ‘the new SNP’ even more than ‘the old SNP’; ‘the new SNP’ were ‘positive and shiny’, whereas ‘the old SNP’ were ‘narky’ and you knew where you stood.
This is a group of people with some power and influence, part of the once mighty Labour establishment, and they were incapable of having a shred of self-reflection on the narrowness of their views. A common lament was to say ‘I am apolitical’ and then lay into the SNP and not give them credit for a single thing.
These are two powerful mindsets in Scotland, both shaped by prejudice and constructing a fictional version of the ‘enemy’ to validate your views. Both are rooted in a refusal to take responsibility and a sense of denial and loss, that the old Scotland which gave them certainty and a sense of anchor is slowly passing away.
With both groups the power they once had is slowly being loosened from their grip, one group once having been the dominant religious culture, while the other was the political establishment for years.
What this tells is that for all the talk of a Scotland of ‘dual identities’ which some of us have criticised, daring to dream of multiple identities and numerous Scotlands, to people such as the above groups there is only one legitimate Scotland: the one they are in.
We really do need a cultural shift here and to grow up and become more mature and comfortable with respecting different points of view and having more of an ease with opposing opinions.
‘A History of Scotland’ missed the opportunity to make a start to this process. Well done to the BBC for trying, but can we have a proper history now?