By James Kelman
In an American journal I read a prominent English writer was described as ‘very British’. What can it mean to be ‘very British’? Could I be described in this way? Can my work be described as ‘very British’? No, not by people in Britain, or by those with a thorough knowledge of the situation. The controlling interest in ‘Britishness’ is ‘Englishness’. This ‘Englishness’ is perceived as Anglo-Saxon. It is more clearly an assertion of the values of upper class England, and their validity despite all and in defiance of all.
Power is a function of its privileged ruling elite. To be properly ‘British’ is to submit to English hierarchy and to recognize, affirm and assert the glory of its value system. This is achieved domestically on a daily basis within ‘British’ education and cultural institutions. Those who oppose this supremacist ideology are criticized for not being properly British, condemned as unpatriotic. Those Scottish, Welsh or Irish people who oppose this supremacist ideology are condemned as anti-English. The ‘British way’ is sold at home and abroad as a thing of beauty, a self-sufficient entity that comes complete with its own ethical system, sturdy and robust, guaranteed to outlast all others.
British people are led to believe that the Royal Family are admired, loved and glorified across the globe. Should another Solar System contain life upon any of its myriad planets its inhabitants will not only accede to the Christian church but also acknowledge the Head of the English Royal Family as Defender of the Faith, in competition with the Pope, standing next in line to God.
Writers like myself are guilty of being ‘too Scottish’; our ‘Scottishness’ is as an attack on ‘Britishness’ and acts as a disqualification. It is assumed that Scottish experience is homogenous whereas English experience offers a wide-ranging and worldly heterogeneity. Our work is attacked in pseudo literary tones for its perceived insularity. This also happens within Scotland; anglocentric Scottish critics condemn Scottish writers for their ‘lack of diversity’.
Being ‘too indigenous’ is the same as being ‘too working class’ and, predictably, the closer we move to the realm of class the clearer we find concerns of race and ethnicity. No one remembers that ‘Briton’ has something to do with Celticness. Being ‘too Scottish’ is seen as an assertion of a Celtic rather than Anglo–Saxon heritage. The marketability of certain individuals derives from the arousal of this racial stereotype. The proof of the English footballer David Beckham’s marketability is in his Anglo-Saxon ‘provenance’.
A colonial or imperial context helps clarify the argument. The key is class. ‘Scottishness’ equates to class and class equals conflict. Even within Scotland we can be criticized for this. The work of writers deemed ‘too Scottish’ shares a class background. Occasionally we are condemned for confining our fiction to the world of the urban working class. This suggests that for working class people cultural boundaries are fixed in place. Their world is an entirety of experience, culturally as well as economic. None can step beyond the limits of that world. It is a world barren of the finer things in life which are not only material but spiritual. Working class people cannot engage with art and philosophy. In their world there is no art and philosophy.
This elitism is straightforward and at the heart of the hostility but, as with racism, is seldom remarked upon within the establishment and mainstream media. It rarely occurs to critics that working class people might read ‘proper’ books or look at paintings as opposed to ‘pictures on the wall’. When it does occur to them it is treated as a phenomenon. They do not progress to the discovery that the life of one human being is as valid as another, that the life experience of one section of society is as diverse as another.
The bourgeoisie tend to go with the colonizers and the imperialists as a means of personal and group survival, and advancement. They quickly buy into the culture of the ruling elite. Indigenous languages and cultures are kept alive by those at the lower end of society. In India and much of Africa, as well as Australasia and North America, the voice of authority continues to be English. The lower order groups keep alive the local, the richness of the indigenous languages, the indigenous aesthetic, the culture – as best they can, not necessarily by choice or intention. Typically education is denied them, their languages and cultural markers proscribed, regarded as weapons. To use these language or cultural markers is seen as cultural vandalism or acts of terrorism, something the Kurdish people must contend with in order to survive.
Since the 18th century the cultural and linguistic movement of the Scottish bourgeoisie and ruling elite is total assimilation to Britishness where Englishness is the controlling interest. Scotland has its own languages too, and these are ‘living languages’, kept alive by people using them who, generally, are working class. Scottish literary artists have worked in these languages for centuries. Even where the writers are not themselves working class in origin the subject matter of the work is, as we see in some of the writings of Walter Scott or R.L. Stevenson.
Scotland also has its own philosophical, legal, religious, literary and educational traditions, and most of this too is marginalized. Scottish educators have to fight Scottish institutions to find a place for Scottish philosophy, literature and education itself. Many English people sympathize with their struggle but see the context to include the marginalized cultures and traditions of English counties like Yorkshire, Cornwall, Northumbria, Cumbria, Somerset and Lancashire. The difference is that Scotland is not an English county, it is a full British country. Many English people fail to grasp this point. Scotland will continue to be a British country whether or not we are governed from London, England. Great Britain is a geographical entity.
People are right to treat nationalism with caution. None more than Scottish people who favor self-determination. Any form of nationalism is dangerous, and should be treated with caution. I cannot accept nationalism and I am not a Scottish Nationalist. But once that is said, I favor a ‘yes or no’ decision on independence and I shall vote ‘yes’ to independence.
Countries should determine their own existence and Scotland is a country. The decision is not managerial. It belongs to the people of Scotland. We are the country. There are no countries on Mars. This is because there are no people on Mars. How we move ahead here in Scotland is a process that can happen only when the present chains are disassembled, and discarded, when the majority people seize the right, and burden, of self-determination.
The Scottish Nationalists have exposed its weakness here. Under their leadership once ‘independence’ is achieved they intend “to share Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State.” This is like the 17th Century when a tiny bunch of aristocrats ruled Scotland but shared kingship with England and Wales. The truth is the majority of Scottish people have never experienced self determination at any time in history. Injecting this anachronistic hierarchy into the proceedings is an absurd and backward step.
I am not a patriot. A ‘patriot’ is one who accepts national identity as grounds for a primary solidarity. It is patently absurd that the majority people should expect solidarity from the ruling elite and upper classes. In Scotland there is no justification for such a hope let alone expectation.
The British establishment left, right and centre are as one in their opposition to Scottish self-determination. This applies to the many Scottish politicians of the Tory Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal-Democrat Party who ‘cross the political divide’ to stand together in defense of the Union. It is useful to see this priority expressed so clearly. This type of united front is common in situations of war.
The Scottish Nationalists’ push to subject the majority people to a Royal Family pays homage to another tradition associated with ‘Scottish identity’: submission and servitude to the ruling elite. Manna for Empire builders and Colonialists. Dependency is at the root of this aspect of ‘Scottish identity’. There may be a ‘right’ of self-determination; on the other hand there may not. Even if there is such a right it need not be exercised. Siding with the imperialist is a better option: dogs brought to heel can be robbed of their bones.
Scottish people are encouraged by the establishment to take pride in their service to the Monarch, the Royal Family and all of its subjects. Scottish children are taught to glorify submission and servitude, embodied in the myth of “the Scottish soldier who wandered faraway and soldiered faraway” in the retention of British authority and the denial to the majority people both foreign and domestic, of the right of self-determination.
There are centuries of imperialist myth-making, misinformation and propaganda to disentangle. Clan allegiance has been strong in the highlands and islands of Scotland, as has religious difference throughout the country. This continued throughout the 17th and on through the 18th century until the Battle of Culloden in 1746 when the clan system and Jacobitism were effectively destroyed.
The British State has sought to deny the right to self-determination consistently over the past few hundred years in Africa, the Americas, Ireland, the Indian Sub-continent, South East Asia or Australasia. The State has used every argument it can to cling onto power and when necessary applied the requisite dirty tricks, and finally moved in the army to achieve their objective, at whatever cost, including the slaughter of innocents.
Unfortunately religious difference remains significant into the 21st Century. The Scottish Nationalists support for such an intrinsically British institution will appears as a sop not only to Unionist sympathizers but to ‘the Protestant vote’. This opens a nasty sore on the Scottish political and cultural scene. Traditionally, Protestants are anti-Republican Unionists who regard the King or Queen of England as Defender of the Faith. Roman Catholics are believed to favor Republicanism. In Scotland many people confuse ‘Republicanism’ ‘Roman Catholicism’ and ‘Irishness’. Some believe them to be one and the same thing. The subtext to their ‘pro-Unionist, anti-Republican’ stance is sectarian racism: anti-Catholic, anti-Irish. Others in Scotland will view the Nationalist retention of the British Monarchy in these terms.
The continuing debate in Britain is led by the establishment and mainstream media and focuses on whether or not independence is ‘good for Scotland’. This is a red herring. It is an argument from self-interest and therefore secondary. The economic consequences of self-determination are important but are not and cannot be the central issue. Experts and specialists debate on the deployment of capital resources; defense and foreign policy, business & industry; health and welfare issues, religions and secularism. Shall Scotland seek to enter NATO, the UN, the British Commonwealth, and the European Union? What will happen to ‘our’ soldiers and ‘our’ army-towns, ‘our’ battleships, warplanes, tanks and submarines. What effects will independence have upon our relationships with the USA, with England, Wales and Ireland, not to mention Spain, Italy, Israel, Turkey and all those other countries keeping the lid on their own governance issues.
How we progress as a people will depend on how we contend with those and other matters. A people cannot be asked to settle in advance of independence how they shall act in hypothetical situations. We are being asked to provide a priori evidence of our fitness to determine our own existence before the freedom to do so is allowed.
Imperialists and colonizers lay down the judgment that there is no ‘right’ of self-determination. But that judgment has no place in the 21st Century. The right to self-determination inheres in every adult human being and distinguishes us from animals, mammals, birds, fowls or fish. No one grants us this right. It is not allowed to us by a benign authority. People exercise the right. It can only be denied to us, as it is denied to the vast majority of the world’s population.
Ultimately there is only one issue: the right to self-determination. Underlying the ‘good for Scotland’ debate is the denial of that right.
We are talking about freedom. We exercise freedom. If freedom be denied us we seize it as our right. Neo-fascism is illustrated where the burden of proof is placed upon human beings to provide evidence of their humanity. Some fall into the trap of accepting the burden of proof. They seek to provide evidence to establish their own humanity. They can only fail. Humanity cannot be ‘granted’ or ‘allowed’ them. They already are human. Their humanity is being denied. No one gives us our freedom. We take it. If it is denied us we continue to take it. We have no choice. If it is taken from us and we allow it to be taken from us then we are colluding in our own subjection.
The Scottish Nationalists pay allegiance to the concept of ‘hereditary subjection’ (and spiritual degradation), as embodied in the Queen of the British Kingdoms and I find this repugnant. The question is of historical as well as contemporary relevance. People have fought and died for a political freedom inclusive of Republicanism. They would turn in their grave. No one has the right to represent the voice of the Scottish people in a matter of such gravity. It is a massive setback but not insurmountable. It is my belief that the Nationalists’ brand of independence should still be grasped. We can learn from the past. Sooner or later the right to self-determination will be exercised by the majority of people in my country. When I vote ‘yes’ to independence I shall be voting towards that end.
This article first appeared in NY Arts and the original can be viewed here.