A guest post today from Craig Gallagher. Craig is a PhD Student in History at Boston College and a Graduate Fellow of the Clough Center for Constitutional Democracy. He studies early modern Scottish imperialism, such as it was, with a particular focus on the Darién project and how it fits into the wider narrative of Scots and Empire, on which he has blogged at Better Nation before.
The A-ha Paradigm
At Edinburgh University on Friday night, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Mike Russell MSP, gave the keynote lecture to the first British Scholar Society conference to be staged in Scotland, which was entitled “Scotland Transformed: Cricket, Passports and the resilience of the social union”. The central theme was Russell’s own diverse British background, having been born in England to a Scottish mother and a Welsh-English father, before marrying a Gael and learning the language over 30 years, which he presented as an eloquent and thoughtful example to refute accusations that Britishness is rigidly defined and, crucially, can be taken away without your consent.
By common consent amongst the academics assembled from 21 countries across the world, from as far afield as the USA and the UAE, Russell gave an absorbing speech entirely befitting the questions being asked at this conference, about post-imperial Britain and the possible reconfiguration of the Union of Parliaments, which contained very little partisanship and instead embraced the word “political” in its analytical, rather than subjective sense. Yet it was the Q&A that followed which proved most revealing to many in the audience.
Following on from a roundtable on Scottish Independence the previous evening for conference attendees – which had featured Alan Taylor of the Herald chairing a discussion between Professors John Curtice and Owen Dudley-Edwards, Dr. Catriona MacDonald and Joyce McMillian of the Scotsman – many of the American audience were moved to ask about the distinctive Scottish educational spirit Russell championed, as well as engage in a series of enquiries about identity and its relevance to the debate we’re having. One young Englishman currently studying in Arkansas asked, in a deeply considered manner, why as a unionist he should accept having to stand by and watch his United Kingdom dissolve without having a say. Yours truly pressed the Education Secretary on Scottish Studies and the Curriculum for Excellence, and how he responds to accusations of parochialism generally.
On both counts, Mike Russell was assured. In response to my question, (I’m paraphrasing) he stressed his belief that to be an internationalist, you have to first be a nationalist; to take your place on the world stage, you have to first know what place it is you are taking. On response to the Arkansas scholar, he countered with his assertion that identity is a malleable concept, that it cannot be taken from you any more by a state anymore than one can be imposed upon you. You are what you are. My American colleagues had some pretty thoughtful things to say about this argument – not least the fact that they can simultaneously be, say, a Tennessean and an American – but what struck me was their complete lack of suspicion in how they framed their questions. They were asking honestly, even sceptically, for Russell to justify his claims, but there was no hint of the inherit narrowed-eyes scorn that I think infects the discourse levelled at the SNP.
This has led me to offer a theory about Scottish unionism that I believe isn’t totally skewed by my own ardent nationalism, and instead has some empirical basis. Many unionists are driven by what I will term the “A-ha! Paradigm”. By this, I mean they are consistently, determinedly, obsessively looking for the inherent cravenness in the SNP’s push for independence that they believe must be there. They see Alex Salmond’s discussion of devo-max and think, “Aye, he just wants to have a fall-back option”. They see Mike Russell discuss the social union and think, “Aye, they’re just trying to make it seem like they’re not anti-English”. They see Alex Neil talk about a community-based campaign and think “Aye, but they’re funded by millionaires, so that’s all a smokescreen”.
Some examples of the “A-ha! Paradigm” include Ken MacIntosh’s insistence that Scottish Studies being added to the curriculum was an attempt by the SNP to brainwash schoolchildren, while Johann Lamont’s attacks on Salmond over Rupert Murdoch make it clear for all to see that she believes this was the secret to the SNP’s obviously-anomalous win in May last year. It betrays an attitude in unionist ranks that if they can just find a way to puncture the rhetoric of independence, they’ll reveal an empty shell underneath. The fact that this hasn’t really happened, despite recent bloviating on the SNP’s “lack of detail” on a post-independence Scotland, is illustrative only of these politicians – and political commentators – own craven assumptions about how government should be conducted.
Of course, this isn’t confined to unionists. Many nationalists – for example, Joan MacAlpine or James Kelly, in my opinion – also subscribe to this paradigm. Like most unionists, they present every tiny flaw in their opponents plans as somehow evident of a massive scam that is deceiving the Scottish people. But it’s definitely most prevalent in the Labour and Tory parties in Scotland, who seize on every little thing – from school dinners to the Dalai Lama – as the domino that, if toppled, will prove decisive. I mostly omit the Lib Dems because I see signs in Willie Rennie’s leadership that they’ve absorbed at least some of the lessons of 2011.
Mike Russell kiboshed a few of these on Friday, particular on the EU and on passports, questions asked by scholars from European nations, incidentally. But he made it clear his contempt for the constant, obsessive desire to find and expose the probably-there-if-we-shout-loudly-enough flaw in the independence argument. He instead insisted that it’s simply not credible to say independence wouldn’t work, that Scotland can’t do it, and that anyone who argues that should be treated derisively. I tend to agree, and would go further. There is no question that Scotland could be independent, and prosperously so. But there are questions as to whether it should, and definite flaws in some not-yet-fully-formed SNP positions on issues. Those should be fair game for critics, and treated as such. But it would be nice if such criticisms are devoid of the conspiratorial tenor of the “A-ha! Paradigm”.