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On socialism, nationalism and anti-English sentiment in Scotland (part 1)

BraveheartHow would you feel about being rich? As Scottish Finance secretary, John Swinney, says, Scotland would be the sixth richest country in the world, while the rest of the UK would be a mere 16th if they are lucky. So that is one up on the Southerners, who we have apparently been subsidising.

Even if this was true, how are so many people on the left lined up with such an appeal? The plan is that we take the resources, then leave the de-industrialised areas and dispossessed classes of the rest of the UK to cope with the uneven development of capitalism as best they can. How did we get into this state where an appeal which is so obviously divisive in terms of working class unity, is presented as progressive independence? I hear people on the left say we will set an example to the rest of the UK, but what example is it to the people in Durham or South Wales, except to dig for oil?

And there is another current feeding an intensely divisive nationalism which some do not wish to discuss. When I asked my students what the main driving force was, some replied, ‘Oh we just hate the English!’ Others rejected this, and it is true that many people in Scotland want nothing to do with anti-English racism. There are a million Scots in the South, we have relatives and friends there. But it would be quite false to say that anti-English attitudes no longer exist. Teachers tell me it is quite common for racist comments about the English to be made in the classroom, an attitude which presumably comes from parents. A 2006 government study of school children’s attitudes concluded:

Schoolchildren in Scotland show a “worrying hostility” towards English people and should be taught to curb their prejudice during anti-racism education, an Executive report has recommended.

The police here recently issued figures showing an increase in physical assaults which were racially based against English people. These figures were partially contested by the Nationalists with Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish Community Safety Minister was rather confusingly reported as saying:

Although there had been an increase in Anti-English incidents, over the last four years the average level has “remained consistent”.

Some incidents attracted a lot of attention, especially that of a disabled man being pulled from his car and attacked for having a Union Jack, and a young boy being punched in the street for having an England football shirt. The crucial point is that a rise in nationalist fervour is likely to intensify a divisive racism. I was in Scotland all through the Braveheart period and for some it was a grim time to be English, as recorded in this report:

Some interviewees suggested that any hardening and proliferation of anti- English attitudes was in large part attributable to the influence and success of films such as Braveheart and, to a much lesser extent, Rob Roy. The Braveheart ‘phenomenon’ was keenly felt by many of those we interviewed:

Braveheart was showing and as soon as the film was finished there were car horns honking and people were out on the streets and I thought ‘wow this is very scary’. And I’ve heard of people who were living in Falkirk who were English … driven out of the cinema and stuff by Scots consumed by this sort of crazy nationalistic spirit (male 38).

I’ve seen people with tears in their eyes after they’ve seen Braveheart, Scottish people with tears in the eyes, and the contempt they’ve had in their voice towards me being English (male 54).

The potential for division is obvious as such attitudes and the publicity they attract produce a response from the South and people start to speak in terms of ‘them’and ‘us’. In my recent focus groups there, I encountered a sense of puzzled betrayal as people made comments like ‘We know they hate us, but why do they hate us?’ This is important because I think it indicates a change. When I grew up in South London, there were jokes about kilts and accents certainly, and probably racist incidents but there was no folk narrative about Scots terrorists coming down and stealing cattle, no songs about the flower of England duffing up the Scots or any film like Braveheart.

I know there can examples of racist attitudes towards Scottish people in England, but generally there was not a cultural attitude in that direction. The stereotypes for the Scots were different – good education system, good legal, good whisky , reminiscent of Tony Hancock’s description in The Blood Donor: “Fine Doctors the Scots and Engineers, it’s the porridge you know”.

After all, we had built the empire with them, shoulder to shoulder; they were tough as well, the razor city, hard drinkers and hard fighters; as my mum told me, the enemy were terrified when they heard the bagpipes, a story told to her by my grandfather. The point is, they were on ‘our side’, as Barry Gibson writes, the Scots were ‘family’.  But as everyone knows, family break ups can be very bitter, especially if one side perceives the other as motivated by racism and greed.

Socialism in One Country

Of course, there are better motives on offer. Some on the left tell us that this is the opportunity to oppose neo-liberalism, to defend social democracy and help the poor and dispossessed of Scotland. Once Scotland is independent and we are free of the Westminster parliament, all this is apparently possible.

But neo-liberalism is not the Westminster parliament or the geographical expression which is the UK. It is the philosophy and practical application of Corporate Power in a global market based on profit and exchange. It is well served by a proliferation of small states who compete with each other to offer the most favourable terms for ‘business’. That is the rationale behind the commitment to lower corporation tax in the White Paper and why there is nothing on wealth taxes, nationalisation of land or even a guaranteed living wage.

At present the SNP will not even agree to put up the top rate of tax to 50p. And it does not help for the Radical Independence left to keep saying that they are not the SNP and it will all be magically different in the future. We have the politicians that people vote for, in Scotland just as in Westminster. The Holyrood parliament has always had the ability to put up income tax and could have done so to help the excluded people of the de-industrialised West. But the politicians know that there is no appetite amongst the rich , the middle classes or those in jobs for higher tax.

This is shown in other policies. The freezing of council tax, for example, is popular but is actually a subsidy for the middle classes and better off, while the decline in public services which results, has serious effects on those who depend on them with no alternative.

So the appetite for social democracy and the political will for radical social change is in many ways limited, here as elsewhere. This brings another question to the fore, which is: how different are the people in Scotland from those below Carlisle? There are some on the left who believe in a sort of Scottish Exceptionalism. Certainly, there are many excellent things here, the tradition of the red Clyde, the anti-racist groups, the strong activism, Gramnet, the help groups for refugees, the belief in a public sector and a cultural strand that favours collective action and community.

But much of this would apply to other areas which have had industry, strong unions and community action – the North East, for example, Teeside, Humberside, Durham, Yorkshire across to Liverpool and South Wales and more. London does represent an enormous accumulation of wealth but is also a centre of radical activity and politics. Wealth there is very unevenly divided, over half of its population rent their homes, so a rise in property values profits some and leads to the eviction of others.

The picture in Scotland is more mixed than the election results and our one Tory MP might suggest. There are very strong currents of right wing opinion here. In the last election, 412,855 voted Conservative, 465,471 voted Lib Dem, 491,386 voted SNP. So around 1.4 million voted for these while just over 1 million voted Labour. The dominance of Labour MPs ( with 41 of 59) has a lot to do with the electoral boundaries and system, rather than just political preference. Social attitudes here are very conservative on many issues.

On asylum, refugees and migration, 58% want fewer immigrants (amongst whom some include ‘the English’). The Oxford Migration Observatory also examined the preferred policies for Scotland on refugees if we became independent. Just 16% wanted more welcoming policies:

The most frequent choice was that policy should be less welcoming to refugees and asylum seekers (43%) than in the UK, while 29% preferred to stay the same as the UK and 16% would choose a more welcoming set of policies.

There is also terrible racism directed at Black and Asian people. An attack on a Black busker in Sauchihall Street, was recently filmed and shown on TV. The man had been in Glasgow for 15 years and made this comment (Sunday Mail 16.02.14):

It was the second or third day (after arriving). Someone said to me, ya fucking black bastard. I was a kid of 20 or so. Since then it has been like that every day.

Every day? In the Glasgow equivalent of Oxford St. For our recent book on refugees (Bad News for Refugees), we interviewed a community worker, in a focus group, who told us:

When asylum seekers came to Glasgow I felt I had got a promotion, I felt I was promoted even though I was born in Glasgow, from being racially beaten up, abused, marginalised for most of my life. When asylum seekers first came to Glasgow, I was now seen as Glaswegian. (There was a boy who said) ‘You’re alright now but I don’t like these new folk’. I had suddenly been promoted from the bottom rung to the next rung. He said ‘now’ because there was a new group of people who could be marginalised and to bully.

Then of course there is the vicious sectarianism, the religious divisions, the Orange marches, plus the other opiates of the masses and our less than brilliant record on the beating of children and domestic violence. Opinions and attitudes are mixed and divided, sometimes in the same people – in my focus groups, an anti-Tory, Labour voting nurse will also tell me about the ‘scum’ on the council estates and the guy up the road who is fiddling a disability vehicle.

There are many contradictions – strange to sit in a radical union meeting and hear an MSP, a trade union equalities officer on the need to fight for rights, who has just voted against gay marriage. Meanwhile the leader of the Tories who is gay gives an impassioned brilliant speech in favour. The truth is we are like a lot of other places, and we would do well to remember that when people speak of Scotland or the Scots as having a “will to socialism” or write that “social democracy is hard- wired into Scotland’s soul”.

We are not so special that we can effortlessly deliver socialism to the world. I have no interest in any nationalism and certainly not in the preservation of the UK Ltd. But the key questions are, how do we best organise the struggle for social change and what is the impact of creating new boundaries and divisions? How for example can we combat the uneven development of capitalism in this island and its disastrous impacts on the people of the north and west if we do not have representation in the Westminster parliament?

Certainly we should have grass roots action and popular movements, but the capacity to make laws and control the movement of resources is actually important. And there is no point in complaining that the Westminster parliament does not always represent our views. It is the one that brought in the bedroom tax and the poll tax, but also the same one that abolished slavery, promoted women’s and gay rights, brought in the NHS and nationalised large parts of British industry. Just after that most radical period, in 1955 a majority of the people in Scotland voted Conservative. Sometimes we advance and sometimes not. There are no short cuts, it is a very long political struggle.

If we believe that the UK Ltd is a particularly appalling concentration of corporate interests and financial capital which launches illegal wars, then that is all the more reason to be in there fighting for better policies. Without political representation, the possibilities for opposition are lessened. We can lose struggles as in Afghanistan and Iraq, but then sometimes an intervention is stopped as in Syria. What happens in a separated future, if without our 59 MPs, a war goes ahead – do we just look on from above Carlisle, feeling morally superior?

All this does not suggest to me that independence would open the way to a socialist Scotland, much as I would like one. The radical left, as we understand it, is not represented in the Scottish Parliament, even with proportional representation. But more crucially, the idea of a new socialist politics being born with a yes vote seems to me very unlikely, as a major consequence would be a surge in the worst elements of nationalism, above and below Carlisle and all the divisions which that brings — we would be divided by a new border and also within our own society.

(part two will appear tomorrow)

Greg Philo is research director of the Glasgow University Media Unit and Professor of Communications and Social Change at Glasgow University. His research interests have included media representations of industrial disputes and trade unionism, the Falklands War and Northern Ireland, and current research includes projects on political advertising, images of health and illness (including mental illness), migration and ‘race’.

Image credit: Braveheart, 20th Century Fox


  1. Mark1957 says:

    “Racism and greed” is not a bad way to put it.

    The idea that all of Scotland’s ills are caused by the English is one that might not be explicitly pushed by the SNP, but it is heavily implied.

    Taking North sea oil and walking away is not Socialism or an act of bravery.

    It is like a member of a lottery syndicate holding the winning ticket and deciding his greed is more important than their need…

  2. David Ellis says:

    `Taking North sea oil and walking away is not Socialism or an act of bravery.’

    No it’s what Westminster does. I’m sure the Scots will sell it at its correct value to whoever wants it.

    To describe the YES campaign as anti-English is desperate stuff. It is pro Self-Determination, anti-Westminster, anti having the piss taken out of you by a succession of UK governments, Labour or Tory, that do not give a flying fig about Scotland.

    That said I do worry that the Scottish left is burying itself in a popular front and a two stage lie that will not deliver socialism in Scotland or even independence. They need to press forward their own programme, drive the bourgeois elements out and turn the popular front into a united front to make sure that a vote for Scottish independence becomes a vote for Scottish socialism.

  3. James Martin says:

    It’s a funny thing the them and us question. I can honestly say that I have never (having lived all my life in England) come across anti-Scottish racism (particularly since the end of the annual football punch ups), and on the independence question I honestly don’t believe many people this side of the border give a stuff either way. In fact where I live in the NW you are very likely to hear anti-southerner and anti-London comments (not in a racist way of course, but definitely a them and us way), and also in my part of West Lancs some choice descriptions of those in East Lancs (IQ’s lower than their 6 fingers etc.), and that’s even before bringing Yorkshire into it. But Scotland? It never even comes up in conversation in my experience, which I guess may disappoint the Scottish nationalists a little 🙂

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