Thursday, 31 July 2014

A tale of two governments

While the Westminster government continues to sell arms to the Israeli regime, another government 400 miles further north chose to go down a different route:

In addition to being the first Western government to explicitly condemn Israel's recent "collective punishment" of the people of Gaza, the Scottish government is actually putting its money where its mouth is and attempting to do something to alleviate the appalling suffering Gazans are currently experiencing. I know I bang the Scottish independence drum with some regularity on this blog, but situations like this throw into sharp relief the bizarreness of being represented on the world stage by two separate governments -- one that allows me to hold my head high and another that makes me want to simultaneously hang it in shame.

PS. Good piece in the New Statesman by Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade on why the UK must end its military support of Israel.

Monday, 28 July 2014

On nations and national identity

National identity is a concept that I find genuinely fascinating, not least because it's something I profess to not really understanding. I'm from Scotland, but I can't say I've ever really felt a profound sense of Scottishness, and even less so a sense of Britishness. If someone were to ask me my nationality, I'd probably hedge my bets and say something non-committal like "I'm from Scotland" as opposed to "I'm Scottish". I'm not sure why -- I feel neither a sense of shame nor one of pride at the thought of being considered Scottish. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that any nationality invariably comes with a whole lot of assumptions and prejudices associated with it. Idealistic though it may be, I'd rather people simply saw me as a person rather than a member of a particular identity defined purely by virtue of where I happened to be born.

I've never, and suspect I WOULD never, describe myself as British, though I should note that in that respect I'm far from unusual -- in the 2011 census, 62% of Scotland's population described their national identity as "Scottish only", compared to a mere 8% who chose "British only". (18% described themselves as both Scottish and British.) 8% is a remarkably low number by any stretch of the imagination, but doubly so when you consider that their passports tell a radically different story! (And gives rise to the conundrum of the Scotsman abroad: "Yeah, I know it says 'British' but actually...") Again, I'm not sure why. But I think a lot of that has to do with the feeling that, despite continually being told that we're part of a bigger whole, voices in UK politics and in the UK media always construct me, as a resident of Scotland, as some sort of "other".

These feelings were recently crystallised for me when watching the BBC's coverage of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Although their coverage is ostensibly aimed at an audience across the whole of the UK, I was immediately struck by the fact that the predominantly English presenters (bussed up to cover the Games at the expense of local talent) continually used pronouns like "they" and "them" when describing Scottish athletes and indeed the Scots in general, versus "us" and "we" when describing the successes of athletes competing for Team England. The Games as a whole have been quite revealing in terms of shining a light on the weird cognitive dissonance required in order to view yourself as both Scottish (or Welsh, or English, or Northern Irish) and British at the same time.

The bulk of this confusion, I've no doubt, stems from the fact that the UK, as a "country of countries" (or a "family of nations", as we often hear Better Together representatives describing it), is something of a basket case in the world. This gives rise to all sorts of confusion internationally, with many people assuming that "England", "Britain" and "UK" are interchangeable. Then again, it's not just people from far-flung corners of the globe who can be forgiven for not knowing any better: plenty of people who are actually from the UK are under the misconception that Britain and the UK are the same thing. They're not. (For the record, Great Britain is a chunk of land and is a geographical rather than a political entity. The UK is that chunk of land plus Northern Ireland and various smaller islands, including Anglesey, Arran, Scilly, Orkney, Shetland and a great many others.)

It's often said that people in the UK are comfortable with the notion of having multiple identities. You can be Glaswegian, Scottish and British all at once, and if you happen to have come from another country (or have parents or grandparents who came from another country), even better: it's just another layer added to the rich tapestry that makes up your identity. (I know one person, originally from down south, who describes herself as an English Scot, and in fact English Scots for Yes is a growing force within the broader Scottish independence movement.) But I suspect that, with regard to the Scottish/British debate, that's misrepresenting the situation somewhat. In Scotland, as noted above,only a quarter of the population consider themselves British at all, which strikes me as a fairly clear rejection of that particular part of our identity. (Even if it's quantifiably untrue -- we live on the island of Great Britain and are therefore British whether we like it or not, just as Nigel Farage and his cronies are Europeans whether THEY like it or not.)

In England, this is less true. Speaking as an outside observer, I get the sense that, for a great many English people, "English" and "British" are in fact almost interchangeable. You hear and see it all the time, from reports on the 6 o'clock news about "the NHS" and "the education secretary" when in fact what they really mean are "the NHS in England" and "the English education secretary", to members of the English swimming team at the Commonwealth Games competing with Union Jacks on their swimming caps rather than the St. George's Cross. I don't believe any of these are examples of people trying to make overt political statements or trying to assert some sort of cultural superiority: it's simply a natural by-product of being the biggest constituent nation with the loudest voice. As the country with the largest population and land mass in the UK, not to mention the main seat of power in the form of the London Parliament and the originator of most of the media we consume, England is the dominant culture of the UK. Turn on the TV and radio and what you'll hear more often than not are English voices telling English stories representing English values. I'm not suggesting that these voices are in any way illegitimate, or that they should be stricken from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish airwaves, but it does lead to a strange feeling that you are a foreigner in your native country when you constantly hear the place where you live spoken about as if it is some strange, faraway land.

The Commonwealth Games' opening ceremony was very much Scotland as seen through the eyes of an outsider: Nessie, Irn Bru, people prancing around in kilts, dancing Tunnock's tea cakes, and the "plastic Jock" himself, John Barrowman, putting on his best "Scaddish" accent in his role as master of ceremonies. For an outsider with a passing fondness for Scottish culture, it probably seemed mildly quaint. Speaking as someone who actually lives here, it was cringe-inducing: a budget Brigadoon version of a country that has at no point in its history been more alive with nuanced political debate and aspirations to forge a new society. It felt very much like "Back inside your box, Jock," and it comes as no surprise that much of the Twittersphere, particularly on the pro-independence side, erupted in righteous indignation at what was perceived as the denigration of an entire country, reducing it to a series of tired stereotypes and clichés. All that was missing were the "See You Jimmy" hats and an appearance from Rod Stewart. Oh, wait.

But at the same time, the independence debate has awakened a very pronounced desire to keep hold of Scotland in many of the same people who view it as a faraway land where people talk funny and dance strange jigs. I remember shortly after the SNP won their landslide victory in 2011 and it became clear that a referendum on independence would be held, David Mitchell (he of Mitchell and Webb fame) wrote an incredibly shrill piece in the Guardian decrying the very idea of it. Scotland should stay part of the UK, it seemed, purely because he liked the idea of having it there, and because his sense of "Britishness" would somehow be diminished if a part of it was no longer under the thumb of a government it never voted for. I've always found that mindset to be completely incomprehensible (and it certainly diminished Mitchell considerably in my eyes -- that and various sneering comments he has since made about Scottish independence on the likes of 10 O'CLOCK LIVE). We hear the same refrain often from the unionists: voting Yes would be bad because our friends and relatives south of the border (and in Wales and Northern Ireland, but no-one ever seems to mention them) would become... FOREIGN. Dun dun dun!!! (To which the inevitable response, though rarely articulated, must surely be "What have you got against foreigners?")

The bizarre sense of ownership and entitlement that many of these pro-union pundits exhibit has more than a vague whiff of the imperialistic about it and suggests a deep-rooted sense of insecurity about oneself. As James Kelly put it in his excellent blog, Scot Goes Pop:
I must say that in my view, a national identity that is so fragile that it depends on 'keeping hold' of others is a frighteningly immature identity, and one that for the sake of its own adherents needs to evolve as a matter of some urgency. Look at it this way - in the unlikely event that the ultimate 'unionist' fantasy ever came true and Shetland decided to become independent, how many of us would feel that our Scottish identity had been diminished as a result? Very few, I would guess, because Scottish identity is not rooted in the possessive mindset of imperialism. And how many of us would feel that Shetland was even one iota more 'foreign' when we visited? Almost none.
Many independence supporters have remarked that speakers for the No campaign often preface their comments by stressing their Scottishness and sense of national pride, to the extent that "proud Scot" has become a sarcastic nickname that is attached to anyone on the unionist side who talks the country down (e.g. Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown or any of the array of media pundits who are wheeled out with their doom and gloom projections on a daily basis). I don't think I've ever heard a Yes campaigner describe themselves as a proud Scot. You could argue that that's because many would assume that, in campaigning for Scottish independence, one's national pride is self-evident. I disagree. I'm campaigning for a Yes vote and am not, nor have I ever been, a "proud Scot". I think that national pride is a fundamentally nonsensical sentiment, and one for which I have little time. I'm not proud to be Scottish; I just happen to have been born in Scotland, live in Scotland and ultimately want the best for Scotland, as indeed I want the best for England, for France, for Mozambique, for Gaza, for the world. I want to end this rather rambling and incoherent post on a quote from a recent article posted on Wee Ginger Dug which I found very powerful, and tallies with my own feelings on the matter:
I'm not proud to be Scottish any more than I am proud to be left handed, or proud to be gay, or proud to be Glaswegian. I just am all those things and I act accordingly. The Proud Scots TM of the No campaign miss the identity point. When you are secure and confident in your identity your identity does not define you - you define your identity. And you define it by your deeds and your choices and how you live your life. Scottishness is what we make it, not what we are told it has to be. Identity is a living thing, not a faded photo of an ancestor in tartan. So let's live Scottishness, not commemorate or celebrate it in a stone age grave.
Amen to that. Let's leave the dancing Tunnock's tea cakes to the "proud Scots" while the rest of us work towards building a better society.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The news where you are

Anyone who lives north of the Watford Gap will be familiar with the BBC's 6 o'clock news programme and its inability to see events through anything other than the prism of the London metropolitan elite, followed by what is invariably introduced as "the news where you are" -- separate national news programmes produced for the constituent nations of the UK, or regional programmes for the various different parts of England. In my experience, these are -- on the whole -- parochial, narrow-minded and ultimately rather depressing to watch. I find this especially true of Reporting Scotland, with its "murder, football and kittens" menu of stories.

The relationship between the "main" 6 o'clock show and "the news where you are" is brilliantly satirised in this short piece by novelist James Robertson:

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Campbell's Cans

I've always been quite partial to Neve Campbell as an actor. She's an appealing screen presence and made the rather silly SCREAM movies (particularly the second, third and fourth entries -- the first was a fairly decent film in its own right) more watchable than they would otherwise have been. She seems to have largely disappeared from our screens since then, which is a real shame.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Politicians on fire

...and no, I'm not calling for the immolation of our elected representatives, though some readers might be sorely tempted. No, I thought I'd share a couple of videos of genuinely decent political figures resoundly schooling their smug, heartless opponents. First, Labour MP Glenda Jackson (one of the few good ones left) takes on the odious Iain Duncan Smith over the misery inflicted on hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people by his Department of Work and Pensions:

Next up, former SSP leader Tommy Sheridan (and, it seems, the entire audience) lays into smirking Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie at a recent independence debate: