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.
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.