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Showing posts with label The Isles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Isles. Show all posts

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Eejits out in force today–Herald Letters and Starkey

I mentioned in my last blog that among the most ridiculous suggestions by unionists as they tramped their sour grapes after the May election results –still advanced by a few eejits - was that the SNP didn’t have a mandate, despite the landslide vote, because of the turnout. Right on cue, we have in Herald Letters today one FG Hay from Largs, whose favourite word seems to be gullibility. And there’s a bit more name-calling, in best unionist speak from two others.

But they’re more than balanced out by the Rev. Archie Black, who offers some calm facts about the Union, the UK, independence and Europe.

Dr. David Starkey, the British Empire personified as spluttering indignation, was accused by some academics of politicising a debate on the teaching of history in schools. The Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, Richard Evans suggested that Starkey and his enthusiastic fan Michael Gove were “advocating myth and memory rote learning … to feed children self-congratulatory narrow myths of history”.

Starkey also appears to believe that most of Britain is “mono-culture” and a lot of it, especially where he comes from, is “absolutely and unmitigatingly white”.

I can’t imagine you living anywhere else, Dr. Starkey, given your views. It’s a pity Niall Ferguson has gone back to America in the huff, and can’t help, but take heart – you still have Andrew Roberts

A valuable mind-cleanser after listening to Starkey, Roberts or Ferguson is always Norman Davies, historian and author of The Isles, and fortuitously his new book Vanished Kingdoms arrived today with a satisfying thud.

A quote from the early pages already says a great deal – I’m just getting into it now …

“ … the British risk falling into a state of self-delusion which tells them that their condition is still as fine, that their institutions are above compare, that their country is somehow eternal. The English, in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the United Kingdom began in 1922 and will probably continue; they are less aware of complex identities than are the Welsh, the Scots or the Irish. Hence, if the end does come, it will come as a surprise.”

But not to Dr. Starkey or Michael Gove – that’s what prompts them to ever greater flights of rhetoric. Rule Britannia – while you can …

Sunday, 31 July 2011

British and all that - The Prospect of Whitby and popular song

Pete Wishart’s remarks on Britishness were an example of something that is rare in Scottish politics - a controversial statement of a party-independent political view, or the floating of an idea, depending on how you viewed it. As I said yesterday in my piece on MSPs’ tweeting styles -

The political opinion tweet is regrettably as rare as hen’s teeth from MSPs, who seem to wish to demonstrate as much bland conformity as Blair’s Babes (male or female).

And of course, Pete Wishart’s statement was much more upfront and public than a mere ephemeral tweet. I did, for an ignoble moment, wonder if Pete was actually floating an idea on behalf of the Party, testing the water so to speak, with the First Minister and his team waiting anxiously for the public reaction, but I dismissed this quickly - I don’t think that’s his style at all.

My own initial reaction to the idea was shock, and bafflement, having recently spent more than a little time attacking the unionist argument that Britishness was one of the things the Scottish people would lose -and regret losing - after independence. I hoped that I was not alone in feeling that I could not lose my sense of Britishness, since I had never had one, having spent most of my life feeling that I was a Glaswegian, a member of the international brotherhood of man, and a Scot, more or less in that order.

But since my second reaction is usually more reliable than my first, and because I actually enjoy having my ideas challenged, Pete’s idea sent me hame again - tae think again …

Having read Andrew Davies’ monumental history, The Isles, twice -  1707 and a' that ...  - and now well into my third reading of it, the idea of the British Isles -or Britain - as a geographical entity as distinct from a political concept is well established in my head. I have lived on its main land mass all my life. Had this given me a sense of being British, a kind of locational identity?

I revisited the idea of identity derived from place, clearly a powerful force for many people, and also a happy memory from my consulting days. I had been running a week-long residential course in London, and the participants decided we should have a night out at The Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping, arguably the most famous pub in London - named after a ship - dating from 1543, when it was a hangout for dockside smugglers and sundry criminal types. The huge bar, with its flagged stone floor, its pewter bar top resting on barrels, was packed to the rafters, with an indescribably vibrant atmosphere, and very soon a sing-song erupted spontaneously.

At first, it was mainly the old music hall songs which, in 1990, were still part of the consciousness of the population, sung in pubs and at parties - My Old Man said Follow the Van, Daisy, Daisy, Uncle Tom Cobleigh, Pack up Your Troubles, Three German Officers crossed the Rhine - parlez vous, Pack Up Your Troubles - the wonderful, vigorous, melodic popular songs from early in that century. They gave me a warm feeling - they reminded me of my National Service, of the NAAFI, of my mother’s parents round a piano, of my mother, of a generation beginning to disappear over the horizon then, and now almost totally gone.

But they were all indisputably and deeply English, albeit part of a common heritage, especially that of war and military comradeship. And I had another heritage of popular song - the auld Scots sangs and the Scottish popular theatre songs of Harry Lauder, Will Fyffe.

But then a voice emerged during a brief lull in the singing, a light tenor voice, heart-stopping in its purity. The singer was invisible in the throng - the song was Danny Boy - the Londonderry Air, a song claimed by two factions for partisan reasons, but truly international in its simple beauty. The crowd listened silently, with that kind of respect given  such moments by a boisterous crowd, sentimental and maudlin in the main, but with a core of true feeling. When the singer stopped, there was a great roar of approval, glasses were smashed on the floor (apparently an acceptable tradition at The Prospect of Whitby - when I left, the bar floor was carpeted with glass).

Then the old Yorkshire question rang out - “Wheear 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee, ah saw thee?”, instantly recognised, instantly responded to by the crowd - “On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at”. When it finished the new pattern was set - local songs, regional songs, national songs. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, I belong to Glasgow, If you’re Irish, Come into the Parlour rang out, initially by the protagonist group, but soon taken up by the mass. Waltzing Matilda was struck up by an Earl’s Court contingent, but that was a temporary bridge to more competitive and simultaneous repeats of Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at, Keep yer feet still, Geordie, hinny and I belong to Glasgow. Men of Harlech erupted, in all its powerful martial force.

Annie Laurie settled the crowd back into joint singing, one Scot attempted My Ain Folk, but it misjudged the mood: few recognised it, and it ended ignominiously with a stentorian voice cutting across it with Land of Hope and Glory, attracting enthusiastic support from most, but not all. Rule Britannia petered out - a bell was rung and time was called from the bar.

Was this an example of ‘Britishness’ in operation? Not to me, but perhaps to some. Is it replicated today in the The Prospect of Whitby? I suspect not - maybe a recent visitor to the pub can enlighten me. I would guess it has been replaced by a shared pop culture with no national or regional base

If it still exists, would any of it be lost by Scotland’s independence?

Very little, if any - after all, on that night in 1990, there were people from the Republic of Ireland present, from Australia, from America, from African countries and God knows how many more former British colonies. Yorkshire folk feel themselves to be a uniquely independent breed, as do the people of the North East of England. The city boys like me, from Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle and London probably still draw more of their identity from their urban culture than the national or UK version. The drinker whose attempt to sing The Red Flag was quickly aborted probably still feels an internationalist - and Scotland’s independence, when it come, will not make any real impact on those identities.

But it will make a huge, overwhelmingly positive impact on Scottish identity - and we’ll still love our neighbours on these Isles and sing most of their songs - but draw the line at “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Brittania” .

If that’s what Pete Wishart’s remarks on Britishness meant I’m with him - and thanks for making me think, Pete!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

An antidote to the ‘Britishness’ nonsense talked in the Newsnight special

Rory Stewart OBE, Tory MP (born in Hong Kong, raised in Malaysia, education Dragon school, Eton and Balliol college, Oxford - Deputy Governor in two Iraq provinces for the armed US/UK Coalition that illegally invaded  Iraq. He served briefly in the Black Watch. His family originates from Crieff in Perthshire).

Asked if the break-up of the Union, compared by Paxman to a marriage, matters -

I think it matters very deeply, I think we’ll miss it terribly. It is something it is very easy to imagine you can tear apart, by I think like any relationship - any intertwined thing - once it’s gone, we’ll miss it and we will never forgive the government that tore it apart.”

This is emotional nonsense, with highly coloured, pejorative terms, delivered by a privileged product of the British Establishment, colonialism and Empire. He believes what he says - why wouldn’t he, with that background? He talks of the voluntary ending of a 300 year-old political treaty by democratic means and negotiation as a tearing apart, and the we he refers to, although he the thinks of it as the people of the UK , is in fact his own tiny, powerful, privileged class.

That class will miss the Union - you’d better believe they will!  They owe all they have to it - it has delivered for them, while marginalising, impoverishing and killing the rest of us in large numbers, especially the Scots.

And never forget, that historically, that class has always included Scots who were willing, indeed enthusiastic agents of British imperialism and the betrayal of the economic and social interests of their own people. And they’re still around …

Asked pointedly by Paxman what ‘we’ would lose, he replies

I think it’s a mistake to think we would lose economics (sic) - you can make economic arguments, you can make political arguments - you lose an idea: an idea of union, an idea of what was great about Britain - of England, of Scotland. And those are things that all of us feel.”

In the turgid emotional and now stagnant pool that is the unionist mind Britain, instead of being a geographical term for an archipelago - a group of islands - is conflated with a political entity, one that didn’t exist when the union with Scotland - a political and economic union - took place. He’s right - Great Britain is an idea, and its time is ending. If it’s any comfort to the Rory’s of this world, the Union of the Crowns - a much older pragmatic idea - looks set to continue.

Joan McAlpine, talking hard sense, leavened with humanity as usual, attempts to reassure those about to cry in their warm ale over the impending ‘loss’. Peter Davies, an English Democrat would like to return to the status quo ante, i.e. reverse the devolution process, rightly pointing out the self-serving political motives of Labour in using it to consolidate their Scottish hegemony (it didnae work, Tony!) but he is a realist, albeit a disgruntled one, about where we now are, and wants out.

Prompted by Joan McAlpine’s analysis of the real reason for devolution, Rory Stewart reluctantly concedes that “probably, in the end, it reflected the desires of the Scottish people. I think it would have been dangerous to fight it forever. But I think at the same time, Scotland and England can be independent … and Scotland is more independent in the Union than out of it.”

He goes on, however, that it is “reckless and unnecessary …” He is interrupted at this point by Paxman saying that it can be done. Rory acknowledges that it would not be a cataclysm, but “a crying shame …”

Faced with the English Democrat asking why the English are being discriminated against in the devolution settlements - as they are, in my view - he patronisingly tells his countryman (in Rory’s English persona) that he is “falling into the trap that the Scottish nationalists are setting - they are trying to make you feel that you are being discriminated against” to which he receives the robust rejoinder from Peter Davies “We are!”.

“Everything that they are doing is designed to try to make you feel resentful - you don’t need to …” This is half-Scot Rory talking about a large number of his countrymen and the elected Government of Scotland. Peter Davies rejoins that he is not resentful, but old Etonian Rory is in full patrician mode now.

You can be confident and proud of being British.”

Peter Davies, an Englishman, is more practical, and rejects the patronising tone. “I want what they’ve got - that’s not resentful.”

Gaun yersel, Peter, I say, endorsing his feeling that he is being discriminated against, because he is. Tam Dalziel said so, and since I am now from West Lothian, I support that other product of empire and privilege, the Laird of the Binns. At this point, Joan McAlpine made more relevant, hard economic and legal points, but Paxman prefers to stay with the emotion and the discrimination issue.

He questions the audience - do they feel discriminated against? He raises the nonsensical proposition that the English should be allowed a voice in the referendum, which some of the audience do. Could the English force the Scots to stay, even if they wanted to leave? This leaves the unfortunate audience member being prompted by Paxman looking confused, as well he might be, and asking that the question be repeated.

But Paxman gets little comfort - good old, English common-sense is prevailing. One of them recognises that some Scots actually may have more reservations about independence than the English.

Paxman seeks for Scots to answer his question, but yet again gets a robust answer from an Englishman, that it is a matter for Scots, not for them. Paxman then finds a straight-talking Scot, who says that all that will happen is that the English will lose a few more Labour MPs, and is sanguine about Scots continuing to get on well with the English, since they do so under “the pseudo independence we’ve got now.”

But Rory will have none of it - we are “in danger of turning friends into competitors, and opening up rivalries and crises of identity that none of us need or want.” He remains oblivious to the fact that this exists only in his mind and the minds of his narrow privileged class, not among the ordinary people, who recognise that the UK and the Union are not operating in their interests, but in the interests of Rory’s class - the British Establishment.

The Scottish audience member who spoke earlier points out gently to Rory, and cites former British empire members Canada, Australia and Ireland, where contacts, family ties and social relationships and economic ties are just fine.

Rory ignores this courteously stated point, and falls back on his Dad in Crieff, who is proud to be Scottish and British, and claims, with no evidence, that this represents more people in Scotland than the audience member represents, a discourteous, impertinent and unsupported statement.

I have little to say about the last few minutes of the discussion - it’s all there in the clip for those who want to analyse it.

I leave the last word on the UK and the Union to the distinguished historian, Norman Davies, on pages 870 and 871 of his magisterial work The Isles. I have selected quotes that seem highly relevant to me.


(1) The United Kingdom is not, and never has been, a nation-state.


By the terms of its inception in 1707, The United Kingdom has been prevented from developing either the federal or the unitary structures which have elsewhere fostered homogeneity.


It is essentially a dynastic conglomerate, which could never equalise the functions of its four constituent parts, and which, as a result, could never fully harmonise the identities of the national communities within its borders. The UK, for example, has no one established Church. (It has two of them.) It has no unified legal system, no centralised education system, no common cultural policy, no common history - none of the institutional foundations, in other words, on which nations states are built.


Like all ruling elites who wanted their citizens to form a coherent national community and to identify themselves with the interests of the state, the British establishment deliberately confused the concepts of citizenship and nationality. Indeed, in British usage, citizenship actually came to be called ‘nationality’, whilst citizens - or rather subjects - were called ‘nationals’. This linguistic manoeuvre did much to create the false impression that everyone who carried a British passport was automatically identified with the same national group.