The Myth of ‘Divided Scotland’
Scottish Review, July 16th 2014
One of the most oft-repeated descriptions of Scotland at the moment in the heat of the independence referendum is the problem of ‘divided Scotland’.
A Yes victory will leave a ‘deeply divided Scotland’ claimed Better Together chief Blair McDougall (Better Together, June 8th 2014), while a pro-independence website declared in response, ‘A deeply divided Scotland will be the result of a No vote’ (Arc of Prosperity, June 9th 2014).
Much cited recent polling shows that 38% of Scots believe divisions will remain whatever the referendum outcome, while 36% disagreed. In the same poll, 21% of people have had a row with family or friends about the vote. This latter finding led ‘The Independent’ to declare, ‘The Scottish independence debate has become venomous and fraught … pulling some families apart’ (June 15th 2014).
No evidence was provided by the paper beyond the above poll, apart from the online abuse given to the writer J.K. Rowling, which then allowed Blair McDougall again to warn of such behaviour and its wider implications, stating, ‘it’s little surprise that Scots fear a divided nation’.
‘Divided Scotland’ – the independence referendum version draws on a rich strand of metaphors and fears – of the vote as ‘civil war without the guns’, of ‘two tribes’ in conflict, ‘the fog of war’ of Labour versus SNP, and the many ‘stairheid rammy’ debates which have been inflicted upon by the public by broadcasters.
All of the above have roots in a deeper set of historical narratives which are embedded in the Scottish imagination. It goes along the lines: Scotland is too divided to stand on its own feet, govern itself, or even have a mature, sensible debate about its future.
‘Divided Scotland’ has a number of tropes: Highland/Lowland, Catholic/Protestant, urban/rural, unionist/nationalist, head and heart, thought and feeling, the list could go on. This is either/or Scotland presenting an often sick, pathologised and divided character seen in the Caledonian Antisyzygy (meaning dueling polarities) and Jekyll and Hyde dual identity, and with it overtones of schizophrenia and inner torment.
Tom Nairn, inarguably the most original and penetrating writer and thinker on Scottish politics and society in the last forty years or more, has given weight to this invoking a ‘Jekyll and Hyde physiognomy of modern Scottishness’. In similar tones, commentator Iain Macwhirter described the early years of devolution as having a ‘Jekyll and Hyde Parliament’.
What this pathologising does is infantilise, diminish and demean how Scottish identity is seen and portrayed. There is a potent sense of backwardness, of being trapped by our history, tradition and myths, along with the whiff of inferiorism. This is a kind of negative Scots collective dream found in the phrase, ‘Wha’s like us, damn few and they’re a’ deid’.
This week has seen the publication of Eleanor Yule and David Manderson’s ‘The Glass Half-Full: Moving Beyond Scottish Miserablism’ in the ‘Open Scotland’ series of books (which I have commissioned). Yule and Manderson identify and critique the mindset of miserablism in our culture, and in particular, explore its rise as a genre in the worlds of film and literature.
They contend that this portrayal of Scotland rose to prominence due to the economic and social dislocations which began in the 1970s and reached a crescendo under Thatcherism. They describe the 1970s as ‘the heartland of miserablism’, and then chart its morphing in the 1980s into what can only be described today as an orthodoxy and defining single story.
Yule and Manderson believe this diminishes us collectively, reinforces caricature and stereotype, and demonises people who lost out in these periods of intense change. It tells a profoundly partial story of Scotland: urban, abut losers, damaged men and the women around them, and with a particular focus on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. This is a set of stories stuck in a timewarp, unable or unwilling to move on.
There is a cathartic power in Yule and Manderson’s analysis. Firstly, it recognises that what began as a culture of giving voice to dislocation, hurt and loss has become an industry, genre and ‘official story’. Second, it raises much wider questions about cultural power and creative imagination, and in areas such as film and TV where commissioning budgets and decisions are what matters, who are the arbiters and gatekeepers, and whose interests are they serving? What are the consequences of such a narrow inaccurate version of Scotland being cumulatively played back to us in some miserablist virtual loop? Why are other stories: of redemption, change, winning against the odds, hope, and even comedy and camp, less inclined to emerge?
Third, the act of naming is an act of understanding and then challenging it. By identifying cultural miserablism as a genre and form, this makes it much more likely and possible that it can be critiqued and different stories and genres emerge which are less partial and problematic.
The miserablist myth has been one of the most powerful accounts of Scotland in recent years. From Peter Mullan’s ‘NEDS’ to ‘Trainspotting’ and Lynne Ramsay’s ‘Ratcatcher’, a problematic account has played into pathologising Scotland, and telling and retelling like a stuck record the same partial story: of problem men and the women who are attracted to them and think they can ‘change’ or ‘reform’ them. It is a Scotland of the imagination without escape, presented as omnipotent and over-whelming.
Such an account is directly related to and feeds into the myths of ‘divided Scotland’. Scotland is no more divided or ill-at-ease with itself than any other comparable, stable and wealthy society; yet that is not the impression that is given by such perspectives: instead we are presented as unique in a negative, debilitating way, not able to overcome divisions, inner demons and our past.
Scotland needs a different way of portraying itself than the old cliché of ‘divided Scotland’. We are meant to believe that no one anymore believes in the mantra that ‘Scotland is too wee, weak and poor’ to govern itself, but the trope of ‘divided Scotland’ shows that this element of doubt and anxiety is still present in parts of our debate.
‘Divided Scotland’ needs to be put into the dustbin of our history. It has outlived its welcome and held us back for too long. Whatever the result of the referendum, one signal of change would be if politicians, public figures and media (and that mean’s you Blair McDougall along with countless others) need to stop going on about our ‘bitter divisions’.
It is time to stop giving succour to accounts of ourselves which contribute to problematising Scotland, citing ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ characteristics, or treating our nation as a sick character in need of medical treatment (see as an example Henry McLeish, Scotland: A Suitable Case for Treatment).
Let’s use this debate to define ways which bring us together, identifying what we share and have in common, and also look at acknowledging the liberating power of appropriate division, debate and disagreement. In this Scotland needs to find a new language which draws from the likes of poet Douglas Dunn when he described Scottishness as ‘a kaleidoscope’ – that is a much more rich, rewarding and pluralist interpretation of who we are and who we might become in an age of change and flux, than the voices who forever want to hark back to a dark, imagined past and the dangers of a divided land.
A different Scotland is out there; to aid it we have to challenge the increasingly threadbare caricatures which have had such power, and nurture a more humane and humble way of describing ourselves and our many cultures.