The Sounds of Silence in Scotland
Sunday Mail, August 23rd 2015
Scotland is a land of tolerance and friendliness.
Glasgow is the friendly city, Scottish people chat to strangers, and we are, many think, more convivial than the English. Some believe this the product of tenement living.
There are moments which jar with this. There was the Section 28/Clause 2A battle on ‘promoting’ homosexuality in schools more than a decade ago. There was the revelation of the Catholic Church’s systemic covering up of child sexual abuse in its ranks, for which it apologised this week in the McLellan Commission.
There are many other fissures in our idea of who we are. One is, that like elsewhere, racism and xenophobia exists in Scotland. Hostility to asylum seekers and immigrants is only less potent in our country because of the numbers and visibility factor. Scotland is not that different from the rest of the UK – with 68% of the population wanting much tougher controls on immigration.
There is the English factor. There might not be a hard-edged anti-English prejudice in the country, but there is a low level, pervasive othering of England which defines a large part of what it is to be Scottish. So much of it is passed of as good humour, like the ‘Anyone But England’ sentiment of many football fans.
This breaks into the open all the time. This week the Makar and celebrated writer Liz Lochhead commented that it was a ‘great pity there’s a shortage of Scottish people working in the National Theatre of Scotland.’ She added just so people didn’t misinterpret that ‘I’ve nothing against any of the people that do work there.’
This is part of a bigger picture about our culture and sensitivity over its supposed fragility. Alasdair Gray did something more controversial a few years ago. He divided English incomers in the cultural sector into ‘colonists’ (bad) and ‘settlers’ (good) – the former making their career and life and adding to the country, the latter adding only to their CV and then leaving for better things.
Gray was, true to his character, being a provocateur, sitting back and enjoying the stramash, but was undoubtedly being consciously careless with his words to stir things up.
His intervention started a fascinating debate about the role of cultural bodies, the criterion for appointing people to senior posts, and what Scottishness is.
Some defended his language on the grounds that this was an important debate. Others felt uncomfortable even addressing the subject. Yet, surely it was possible to decry Gray’s words, but want to discuss this.
The commentator Bill Jamieson got near the essence of what this was about when he asked if people with power wanted to reduce Scottishness to a ’loft conversion’ of England, and instead stated that ‘a country is more an idea than a place’. This got to the core of whether big jobs were about transferable global skills, or particularly, in the arts and culture, needed knowledge and insight into our society.
In all of these episodes there has to be some recognition of language, prejudice and unintended meanings. What signals are we sending about who we are and aspire to be? Do we want to live in a land where some see everything that holds us back as external and not about us? If we do, we will present a not very attractive, friendly picture of ourselves.
Scotland has come a long way. We are a much more tolerant society than we used to be – across race, gender, sexuality and religion.
But here’s the thing. We have replaced one set of silences with another. It is assumed that the social liberalism of our age means that we are all tolerant now and no further discussion is required.
However, only forty years ago it was near-nigh impossible for a Catholic to get employment across large swathes of Scotland such as the law, media and many other professions. This has changed.
Yet, where are the explanations from those bodies today on how they have changed, learned and understood what discrimination cost in terms of lives blighted and opportunities denied? Where is the commitment and energy to making sure they aren’t doing it to other groups today? Sadly, it is nowhere.
Scotland it seems is a society which is comfortable with the sounds of silence. Once we were a closed society which didn’t talk about many things. Now we are an open society which thinks everything is different. Maybe we haven’t changed as much as we think?