Scottish Nationalism - The Rancour of the Meek

by Fergus Downie (August 2015)


Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority. -- Schopenhauer

There has always been a bittersweet flavour to the adage that Scotland's greatest export is its people, for if it permits scots to hold on a little longer to a Carnegie or Baird, and seek vicarious pride in their transatlantic achievements, it also implies what is left is distinctly unimpressive, a sobering fact to which its bloated political class provides eloquent testimony. Most of the MSPs squatting in their grotesque modernist eyesore in Holyrood would barely have made the grade as English parish councilors, and since the start of this disastrous experiment in home rule they have adorned the parliament with all the solemn dignity of a banana republic. Anyone witnessing the Inaugural ceremony with members standing rapt to attention with lips quivering to a toe curling rendition of Auld Langs Syne might have heard hubris beating its wings, and it did not have to wait too long for its first post-colonial elephant – the parliament building – a Celtic-Spanish cocktail to blow budgets’ defying hoary old myths of Scottish prudence and coming in a cool 900% over budget. Not an auspicious start and eerily appropriate that the road to independence should have begun with an accounting error, but even when one is left reeling by the economic illiteracy of the nationalists it is the horrific spectacle of the MPs, with all their cramped secondary school eloquence which registers the ominous portents of doom. 

Consider if you will Natalie McGarry MP for Glasgow East’s musings on her swearing in to the mother of parliaments:

Today I made an affirmation, not a sworn oath. As a Republican I believe that no child should be born unequal, no one child should be subject to another. I think the act of swearing allegiance to a monarch is antiquated and reinforces inequality. However in order to represent my constituents in parliament, I made the affirmation. I will always stick up for my constituents where I can.

Daylight enters dreams fade. Even by the degraded standard of British political debate this is embarrassingly infantile stuff though to judge by subsequent forays into the inadequate sanitary provision in British cities (for those wishing to plumb these depths of her favoured hobbyhorse) this looks like a Ciceronian highpoint. Doubtless the appetite for tampon politics is soon sated but one still has to wonder what kind of society stoops to such choices - do nations get the MPs they deserve?

On the bien pensant organs of the metropolitan left, the question never gets asked, and the spectacle of Guardian journalists fawning in witless opinion pieces over the superior communitarian values of the Celtic periphery, even as the venal rent seeking of west coast politics screams the opposite conclusion, shows what happens when the left exchanges vulgar Marxism for sullen identity politics. Ever since John Rawls' Theory of Justice captured the imagination of progressive intellectuals it has been a staple of the left that individuals have a right to self-esteem, and however spurious the insight, its logic animates all the banalities of Canadian multiculturalism. For the likes of Charles Taylor and Will Kymlika, cultural identities being the indispensable prerequisite for individual flourishing need to be positively affirmed not merely tolerated and the associated 'politics of recognition' is shot through with all the vulgar conventional wisdom of therapy speak. In our postmodern climate there are few propositions more certain than that free speech is assaultive speech or that Scots suffer psychic wounds from a slighting of haggis and it is curious that in cultivating this narcissistic culture of victimhood anyone should assume the grievances would run dry. Pity, as Nietzsche acidly noted makes suffering contagious and the voiding of all moral content and judgement from this vision of national community simply highlights the crisis of values fuelling Europe's petty nationalisms.

As Ortega Gasset noted in that seminal indictment of mob obsessions, nationalism in its most profound expression is a spiritual ideal and it is no coincidence that Scotland’s descent into plagiarised ethnic costume has occurred at a time of near total secularisation. Braveheart fantasies aside it was the Protestant messianism of the sixteenth century which sowed the seeds of national identity and if Knox’s stark vision of men reborn in Christ made for some grim theology, it freed men from a narcissistic idolatry of the tribe and merged Scottish identity in a larger mission civilatrice. It is not a coincidence that John Knox, proselytiser of an elect Scottish nation was also the first unionist, and it is scarcely surprising that America loomed so prominently in the imagination of Scottish Presbyterians like John Witherspoon; being an American was an idea no less than was being a north Briton, and it is only in this residual life of the spirit that nations avoid sliding into ethnographic material.[1] Of the latter needless to say Scotland has become something of a storehouse; few nations can boast so many invented traditions, and its favoured motif of nationhood - the sartorially embellished Highlander speaks volumes about its declining aspirations. To point out the plagiarisms of the Highland myth in all its mock tartan idiocy[2] is beside the point - the real issue is why anyone would be attracted to it and just as the Scots, in happier times, created the modern world so today they are trailblazers of the postmodern. To the kitsch romantic sensibility of the 19th century Walter Scott's costumed melodramas offered up that most sumptuous of spectacles - the noble savage heroically defeated, and if for a reactionary tory-like Scott this was never intended as a diversion from the hard tasks of empire, the 21st century's cult of the victim has given this sentimentalisation of a marginal and primitive identity a new lease of life. Scots as unpolished martyrs and eternal victims make excellent walk on parts in this well-worn psychodrama, and to judge by the preening self-righteousness of the new Scottish bigotry they have learned their part well. The Irish mindful of the need for genealogically obsessed Americans to inhabit a dream world of pseudo-Celtic authenticity have occupied this niche market for some time, and we have the horrors of rain dancing and terrorist chic to thank for it. That Scots should flock so keenly to inhabit this mental wasteland tells its own story.

 

[1] The choice between atavistic self-absorption and the civilizing ambition was famously posed in Dostoyevsky’s Possessed by the pan-Slavist Shatov:

The Jews lived only to await the coming of the true God and left the world the true God. The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed the world their religion, that is, philosophy and art. Rome deified the people in the State, and bequeathed the idea of the State to the nations. France throughout her long history was only the incarnation and development of the Roman god, and if they have at last flung their Roman god into the abyss and plunged into atheism, which, for the time being, they call socialism, it is solely because socialism is, anyway, healthier than Roman Catholicism

If a great people does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and in it exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to raise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people

[2] The Ur foundation myth of tartan Scotland was laid by George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. George IV had for the delectation of his hosts, squeezed his fat arse into a kilt and tights and Scott further obliged this sartorial obsession with a pageant of fake Highland regalia (a supreme irony given he was a direct descendant of Butcher Cumberland). Not all observers were impressed by this collective hallucination – Thomas Macaulay expressing astonishment that a monarch should seek to ingratiate himself with the historic nation of Scotland by ‘disguising himself in what, before the union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten to be the dress of a thief’.

 

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The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.


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