Monday, January 19, 2009

Scotland vs. England

I had missed Andrew O’Hagan’s article on The Age of Indifference in the Guardian last week, but found it through George Szirtes’s blog this morning.

Is it racist? Andrew O’Hagan writes:

The old wars show us what it was like to be a people willing to resist a vast encroaching power. It is not a posture that comes naturally to the English. Usually, the ordinary people of England only have one word to say to authority, and that word is "yes". Orwell would not be surprised to see such forces at work over the English, but he might be shocked to see the extent to which the English themselves lacked, as time went on, all political resolve to change it. The populist mode in England is silent paralysis. No to change.

In itself, that’s not a racist statement, simply a statement of belief in the paralysis of the English working class. The problem is that, at times, O’Hagan compares them unfavourably with their counterparts in Scotland and in other parts of Europe.

But my first experience of the English left me with the beginnings of a theory - that whereas the Scots and Irish were a people, a definite community, innately together and full of songs and speeches about ourselves, the English were something else: a riot of individualism with no real sense of common purpose and no collective volition as a tribe.

However, it seems to me that nearly all his references to “English” could be replaced with “British”. I see few differences in attitude and condition between one part of the UK and another. To take only two of O’Hagan’s examples: the unreflective hatred against the killers of James Bulger was shared in Scotland as much as anywhere else; many Scottish people I know were caught up in the Diana hype as much as anyone in England and some even travelled all the way to London simply to lay a wreath.

The anti-Thatcher lobby in Scotland from the 80s and 90s had impact because of a national perception that Scots were more community minded and less selfish than the English. Thatcher’s policies were seen as detrimental to ‘society’, which Margaret Thatcher once claimed no longer existed. These were policies with ‘English’ values, inimical to Scottish mentality. However, when studies were done, examining attitudes north and south of the border, no real differences were found. The perception was useful for political ends, but had no basis in reality.

I also suspect that the paralysis Andrew O’Hagan finds in today’s English working class is not at all exclusive either to the English or to the working class. Paralysis is found throughout our society in the UK. O’Hagan bemoans the passive acceptance of financial collapse over the last while (“As we have seen in the banking crisis, the English people call for sedation not sedition…”). However, no one anywhere has really protested about this. No demands have been made on the streets for people to be brought to account – neither by the Scottish working class, nor by the English middle class. The feelings of powerlessness go deeper than nationality and class. I don’t think it’s simple apathy or indifference either. More a sense that no one is going to listen, no matter what people say or do, a sense of lack of accountability among those who have been granted power to make decisions.

The allegation of xenophobia against England is compared to a “romantic nationalism” in Scotland, which “despite its many failings and fantasies, did manage to capture the essence of the common people.” I’ve no idea what reality Andrew O’Hagan is on about here. Racism is rife in Scotland as much as in England, and always has been. For example, it’s been recognised as a huge problem in Glasgow with its large population from the Indian subcontinent and measures have been taken to combat it. The large rise of immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries has currently unleashed a new wave of racism. I hear anti-Polish sentiment expressed openly all the time. Sometimes it ends up in violence. Articles that suggest Scotland has a more enlightened attitude to other countries are unhelpful and ridiculously complacent.

That said, O’Hagan does make some points that are worth reflecting on. Powerless, indifference and despair are realities in our country (by which I mean Britain as a whole) and need to be addressed. It’s just a shame that Andrew O’Hagan addressed them as if they were problems only for England to solve.

There has been a backlash to Andrew O’Hagan’s article in letters published over the weekend.

O’Hagan writes:

There was, and is, an English arrogance which resides in the view that they are naturally dominant within the British Isles.

Tim Lott replies:

But the English are naturally dominant - 84% of the British Isles is English, 8.5% Scots. It is Scottish arrogance that finds this simple - and neutral - fact so painful to acknowledge.

That rather misses the point, I think. The complaint is not the dominance, which is indeed self-evident. Arrogance does not have to follow from dominance any more than humility has to follow from oppression. I don’t think that the English are any more arrogant than the Scots. It’s a universal human trait and we are all guilty of it on occasion. But arrogance from a dominant power tends to leave a more bitter aftertaste than arrogance from a minority with little power. The usual palliatives may be trotted out on these occasions about how more has been spent on Scottish health, education etc than in England – how lucky we were! We should be thankful that other people took such decisions for us! – but those are just fuel for the fire.

In George Szirtes’s comments box, Shuggy writes on Hagan’s article:

There's everything - well not quite everything - that is wrong with Scottish nationalism right there. Doesn't it just reek of complacency?

Yes, it’s that nationalist desire to mythologize people, the idea that we don’t share the negative traits of our neighbours, that we are a less conservative, more inventive, and less indifferent society. That’s a complete illusion, handy only for political manoeuvring. In the drive towards devolution, it was useful to exploit the Scottish sense of being different, for obvious reasons, and the same strategy will be useful on the way to an independence referendum. But it’s an illusion. Not that there isn’t radicalism, inventiveness and passion among Scots, but we’re not alone in possessing such traits.

That said, I still believe that independence is the best way forward for Scotland. There’s something to be said for having the ability to make our own decisions and our own mistakes. That way, at least we can’t point the finger at anyone else, let alone other nations we mistakenly begin to regard as more arrogant, passive, or accident-prone than ourselves.


shug said...

I enjoyed the article but felt the same as you in that the points he made applied as much to the Scots as the English. I believe in Scottish independence as well but I felt O'Hagan fell into the old trap of attempting to define Scottishness simply as non-Englishness. We're always mocking the English for their feeble attempts to define their nationality- cricket, warm beer etc etc- but once you strike off 'we're not English' the Scottish list can be pretty difficult, too. You could argue that in recent times this sense of not being English is the single most important factor in fact and that our entire national identity is abstracted from another equally fatuous abstraction. Sounds about right. Specially after a pint.

Hazel said...

An interesting piece Rob. I'm reading Barack Obama's book and he made a point, though i can't find it now to quote exactly, that we have to go beyond our pride in being part of a particular race if all that does is give us reason to say why we are better or different to others. Our cultures may be different but not our humanity.

The points O'Hagan made about paralysis do not only apply to the English and Scottish but apply to most people throughout the world, past and present. In the same set of circumstances we generally behave the same and have the same mix of right and wrong.

I think Andrew O'Hagan should mix with more young people - he would see that although they do not organise themselves into unions and friendly societies as in the past, they are fired up about injustice and organise themselves in other ways through the web, BUT not just in England/Scotland or the country/race they consider their own, they want wider change, for the planet, for poverty and they have no national barriers.

I have been reading a young architect's project which she worked on during a 2 months stay in a township in South Africa. What Andrew describes as English paralysis is just as common there, that middle generation are caught up in materialism and entertainment under much worse circumstances.

My hope is with the younger generation, they are not as narrow in their thinking.

Background Artist said...

Rather than dredging up the hooligans and costa del aggro chaps, as the manifestation and proof of an imperial psychology (which does not confine itself to citizens from any one of the three countries and one province that make up the UK) - he should have focussed on the societal model of England, with the ideology of heriditary right at its living core and crown.

Until this changes, agenuine democracy of fairness and equality for all, regardless of race, religion and social background, (eho your parents are) is an impossibility.

I was reading about the do in Washington on Sunday, in which 500,000 people had gathered in sub-zero temperatures:

"For others, the mere existence of a crowd such as this, made up equally of white, black, old and young, drawn from as near as a few city blocks and as far away as Alaska, was a near miracle.

As the afternoon wore on, middle-aged and older whites and African-Americans who arrived at the event as strangers began to chat, a little self-consciously at first, but ended sharing snacks and handwarmers. They linked arms and posed for pictures.

The sense of barriers falling was infectious."

This is what could happen if the eight people in the one family who make up the Monarchy, did the democratic, decent thing, and stopped believing they have a birth right to a state subsidised lottery lifestyle, which costs the British state millions, and gives them a legal right to be known as King, Queen, Head of State and Defender of a Faith.

Like the smoking ban. Before all sorts or arguments were tossed in the ring, that somehow it would be a bad, gravely dangerous step, that some cultural core value would lead to the collapse of civilisation, and what happened was, it was actually a very positive step, on all fronts. It's the same with the Monarchy.

The logic of keeping a monarchy, is as wrong as that powering O'Hagan's rant.

Why should one very privileged family, receive state benifits to the tune of millions?

The UK goverment states its core prinicples as equality and fairness, regardless of race, religion or social background, unles your name is Windsor and then the rules do not apply.

Whay should a young man called William Windsor, get all the plum numbers just because of who is parents are?

My names Desmond, I'm a direct descendant of the Earls of Desmond, who got cheated out there Munster kingdom by Elizabeth Tudor's henchman, and am no different as a human being than Charles or Harry Slotter, so surely, I can be King of England Scotland, Wales and N Ireland?

It's all in the mind. Once we believe ourselves as being the equal of these people, there hold has gone.


There is a tramp, a proper one who spoke the keys to me unlocking the intracies behind the relationship of the Irish with the British.

*We love the English, we love the Irish, Scottish and Welsh, but hate the Briton preaching imperialism.*

And this idea, that imperialsm is a state of mind, when resident in the (united) Kingom, you cannot be aware of it as clearly as when in the (republic of) Ireland.

This is because of the history here. Unlike England, where being top dog is being a monarch and the show of it is open, public, brash, and not hidden, all outward display, parades, horse changes, jubilee parties etc -- in the republic of Ireland, history means that the important stuff, happened secretly. There was no outward display, all nod and wink between the natives, right beneath the noses of the coloniser. We only need look at the Michael Collins, organising a loands bond of a million pounds, collected in pennies and pounds from the one group, all knowing of it, and the castle authorites, not.

Because everything had to be done beneath the surface, it left a legacy of people here being more interested in what you're thinking, what's really going in in your head, than the outward display, of what you wear, how you sound, and all the codes for reading status in the (united) Kingdom - which anyone from there who comes here, immediately notices, do not apply.

People in a republic, are more interested in how you think, and if you display the imperial mindset, that Kings and Queens are who you believe right and proper, imitate, the idea of the monarchy being the natural.

England has a Queen, and she is the head of state, and so the reality, live living vibe of this, trickles down, however removed, subtle and unseen, and though O'Hagan was very brutal and clumsy and racist and unthinking, it may be because, it is a very difficult one to really nail successfully.

Like talking to Geroge Bush about torture, which of course, didn't happen. Like trying to talk about institutionalised unfairness in the UK, which of course having a Queen plays no part in any, of which gthere is absolutely none, of course, as how ridiculous, to think that just because one family is subsidised to the tune of millions and the centre of the state, they are any different from any other family on benifits, living in the Gorbals, Toxteth, Swansea or Newham.

Just because a handful of people at the very centre of things, politically and culturally, qualify through birth, to be Head of State and are born called His/Her Royal Highness, Lord, Sir Majesty Whoever - that this could effect the self esteem of 60 million untitled John and Sharon Smiths, who rather than rely on state benifits, work, and those who are on state benifts at rates a million times less, in far shoddier accomadation, is ridiculous isn't it?

I think this was his target, but the realtionship of the Gaels with those who buy into the Kings and Queens of England, raises so much passion, and plus O'Hagan is playing to type, probabaly in his mind, he had himself as he wrote this, as some brave commander at Culloden, and really if he had used it for fiction, could have escaped the racist charge.

Me, I am outwardly, working class English, and lived that life, but within, I am the King, because of Education, which is the most important thing the working classes can have, but O'Hagan has a point, many do not want it, happy to club round their Queen and sing of 1000 years of never being invaded. It#s a tricky tether to get right, I apologise if I haven't, thanks for the space to expand and extemporise it.

Colin Will said...

Douglas Dunn read from one of his poems in a new anthology by Scottish poets tonight (I'll blog about it tomorrow). Anyway, he prefaced his poem by saying that both Scots and English are dialects of what used to be known to philologists as 'Western Insular Teutonic'. Linguistically at least, we're two branches from the same stem. If we can be defined by language, as some suggest, then nationalism becomes one of the parameters that has shifted over the millennia, as P-Gaelic, Q-Gaelic, Pictish, Brittonic, Frisian, Anglish, Saxonic and Norman tongues took over or overlaid whatever it was that people spoke in these parts. I must now read the whole poem so I can see where Douglas takes it.

Alan Baker said...

So the English say 'yes' to authority? What about the Poll Tax riots, the 84-85 miners' strike, the Newbury by-pass protests etc., etc. And more recently, the massive protest in London about Gaza.

As for identity, I grew up on Tyneside, which linguistically and culturally, has more in common with lowland Scotland than the latter has with the Gaelic highlands and islands. The bagpipe and kilt culture has of course, been carefully fostered by the (English) monarchy.

Rob said...

I agree, Shug. Definition by what we are not is too easy a trap to fall into.

Hazel, I genuinely admire your optimism!

BA - yes, I'm also against a monrachy.

Alan - He does say that the English "usually" say yes to authority. Whether that's true or not, I don't think the Scots (or anyone else, for that matter) are any different.

As for the bagpipe and kilt, don't forget that tartan (long before it became manufactured kitch) was banned for many years by the English monarchy, along with Gaelic (and Scots was frowned on). The English monarchy (with help from Scottish collaborators admittedly) virtually wiped out much Scottish culture, and it's struggled to recover ever since.

Alan Baker said...


"Bagpipe and kilt culture" was a poor choice of words on my part - the "manufactured kitch" was what I meant.

The whole concept of a "nation" - Scotland, England or wherever - is indeed a "fatuous abstraction". Most nation-states are a complex of cultures, languages and races - including Scotland (rural/urban, Protestant/Catholic, Gaelic/Anglo-Saxon, Asian/white).

O'Hagan says the "English" are "a riot of individualism with no real sense of common purpose and no collective volition as a tribe". Sounds like a fine way to be to me.

Rob said...

Alan, yes, I was reading Neal Ascheron's 'Black Sea' at the end of last year. What struck me most was how recent our notions of nationalism are and how they kept messing things up. People who had lived peacefully for centuries suddenly found they wanted to kill each other.

Claire A said...

As a Scot with an English accent, I just wish this issue would die. Deliberately inflammatory articles in the press are only going to fuel a fire that became irrelevant and fairly shameful a long time ago. Break up the Union -- whatever. Just stop the bigotry on both sides.

Anonymous said...

O' Hagan is just another boring, self-rightous, self-declared "expert" waffling about his obsession, i.e. the English.
By the way, I still have the newspaper cuttings of my dad attending the 600th anniversary of the 1381 peasant's revolt.
An army of peasants from Kent and Essex marched on London. They did something no-one had done before or since - they captured the Tower of London.
The English say yes to authority? No they do not!

Rob said...

Claire, I also would like to see an end to bigotry of all kinds. But I'd rather have points-of-view aired and reflected on than swept under the carpet, left to fester.

Anon, I know the Peasants Revolt was significant, but 600+ years is a long time ago - your argument could be used by the opposition as much as by yourself. It's remembered partly because such events are so rare. However, they are rare everywhere, not just in England. I think most people habitually say yes to authority.