A Historical Grasp

... Nope, no sign here...

Neil Oliver in his new series, The Quest for the Positive Case for the Union.

I am – or rather, I was – a fan of Neil Oliver’s. I went to a lecture on Scottish History he hosted in Pitlochry, and generally enjoyed Coast and A History of Scotland, the latter being a nice bit of pop-history with only a few serious errors. Most of the time, I’m happy to divorce someone I admire from their politics – being a fan of turn-of-the-20th-Century pulp literature it’s a necessity – but when it comes to individuals living in the here and now, it becomes much more difficult, especially in these times.

Neil Oliver has spoken rather guardedly about Scottish Independence before, such as in this interview with The Scotsman from February 2012:

“There are very strong feelings. You stop one person and they are strongly in favour of Scottish independence and you talk to the next person and they are strongly in favour of the Union continuing as it has done for the last 300 years.

“It would be the biggest constitutional decision facing Britain certainly in the last 300 years, since the parliaments were brought together as one.

“I think everyone should be absolutely aware of how big a deal it is,” the historian said. “Heaven forbid that anyone, or any part of the nation, should sleepwalk into a decision.

“It is hoped that through history – not just of Scotland, but a history of the whole of the British Isles – that people have to understand how the status quo came about in order to make a proper decision about what, if anything should happen in the future.

“You certainly would not want people making knee-jerk reactions based on something that happened last year, or five years ago, or ten years ago.

“You have to see the big picture. The story of the people of the British Isles has been unfolding for hundreds and thousands of years.

“The more historical grasp you have, then the better and able you are to make an informed decision on the best interests of everyone living here.

And that is a very insightful, nuanced way of looking at it. It is not inherently pro-independence or pro-union, and it treats the decision with the gravity it deserves. I cannot see anyone possibly finding fault with what he said, and in fact I think I would say exactly the same things. It’s just a shame that I have a feeling Oliver’s understanding of how the status quo came about is likely to lead to an entirely different conclusion from my own, at least going by his latest interview with The Herald (original here):

“The analogy I would make is that we have been married to the UK for a long time and now we are basically saying: ‘I feel like a change. I’m not necessarily going to move out of the house but I want my own bit of the house. I would like to continue to share the bank account. I want a share of the pension. I just don’t love you the way I used to.’

“We’ve put that out there. So, no matter what happens as a result of the referendum, whether Scots vote to stay in the Union or not, it’s already out there. If a wife had said to her husband: ‘I’m thinking about leaving you, I’ll tell you in six months time.’ Then six months down the line said: ‘I think I’ll stay with you.’ The relationship is never going to be the same again.

“I’m proud of Britain. I find this kind of internecine squabbling puts my teeth on edge. I would rather that it would just go away – or that it had never happened.”

Some people might be surprised to hear him air these views given he is seen as so quintessentially Scottish, I muse. “I’m a proud Scot,” he interjects. “It doesn’t have anything to do with that. I like the status quo. Alex Salmond? The whole thing makes me think of the television series Citizen Smith with Robert Lindsay.

“Citizen Smith was a young Marxist. It was always ‘freedom for Tooting’. It was the Tooting Popular Front he represented and he wanted wholesale revolution. He would steal tanks and drive them to Downing Street. Ultimately he was living a relatively comfortable lower middle-class life and wanted to rebel. You’d think: ‘What is the revolution about? What is so bad? It’s not as if you are coming out of the slums or an oppressed, downtrodden society.'”

Every time I read the words of someone I admire speaking words I consider to be abject nonsense, I feel a churning sensation in the pit of my stomach. Bewilderment? Frustration? Disappointment?

Disappoint Am I, Son.

NOTE: May or may not be Neil Oliver’s father.

We’ll take it point-by-point.

The analogy I would make is that we have been married to the UK for a long time…

If we must go with the flawed and vaguely insulting marriage analogy, then wouldn’t the UK itself be the marriage between Scotland and England? Scotland can’t be “married to the UK” any more than England can.

… and now we are basically saying: ‘I feel like a change. I’m not necessarily going to move out of the house but I want my own bit of the house. I would like to continue to share the bank account. I want a share of the pension. I just don’t love you the way I used to.’

“We’ve put that out there. So, no matter what happens as a result of the referendum, whether Scots vote to stay in the Union or not, it’s already out there. If a wife had said to her husband: ‘I’m thinking about leaving you, I’ll tell you in six months time.’ Then six months down the line said: ‘I think I’ll stay with you.’ The relationship is never going to be the same again.

Neil, as a historian you must surely be aware that the Scottish Home Rule movement has been striving in its modern form for over a century, while desire for greater Scottish autonomy over Scottish affairs have persisted for even longer. Accordingly, this analogy of a spouse “feeling like a change,” wanting “their own bit of the house,” while sharing the “bank account” and pension is something people in Scotland have wanted for a long time – and they’ve been denied it for a long time. So to torture the marriage analogy a bit more, this is like the spouse saying they want their own bit of the house for the past hundred years, and only being granted the cupboard under the stairs 14 years ago.

Of course, if we really wanted to push the marriage analogy, we could say that we were forcibly impoverished by our future spouse through brutal and underhanded methods after many attempts to force us into a shotgun wedding before eventually being given no option but to marry the same person who had so cruelly treated us, but then, I really dislike the marriage analogy anyway, so I’m not going to bother pressing that further.

I’m proud of Britain.

Britain is the island. The UK is the political construct. I know this, you know this, and I’m certain Neil Oliver knows this, but it’s irritating all the same to conflate Britain with the UK.

I find this kind of internecine squabbling puts my teeth on edge. I would rather that it would just go away – or that it had never happened.

This is where I went from simply disagreeing with Mr. Oliver to feeling outright disgust. This “internecine squabbling” is the result of decades of struggle for the people of Scotland to finally have their voices heard without being tied to tribal party politics. Were the Friends of the People, whose struggle for social reform saw them tried for sedition, engaging in “internecine squabbling”? Was the Radical War, where 60,000 workers acted and demanded equality and social reform, “internecine squabbling”? Was the Red Clydeside, where we saw the foundations of the UK-wide Labour movement brutally suppressed, “internecine squabbling”? Was the Scottish Covenant, where 2 MILLION Scots signed a petition for Home Rule, “internecine squabbling”? Describing a desire for political change as “squabbling” is bad enough, but “internecine?” There’s only one side which was ever destructive in those conflicts, and only one side deported or executed those accused of “sedition” – or sent tanks into George Square.

Tanks at the Trongate L_tcm4-568204

There are some people who would’ve preferred that the Friends of the People, the Radical War, the Red Clydeside, and the Scottish Covenant “never happened,” too, Neil.

I never thought I’d hear a man who claims to be a historian saying that he wished an event – which he himself described as “the biggest constitutional decision facing Britain certainly in the last 300 years” – would just “go away” or “had never happened.” My God, Neil, why would you choose to live in a world where such a monumental event never happened?

Some people might be surprised to hear him air these views given he is seen as so quintessentially Scottish, I muse. “I’m a proud Scot,”

At the risk of being deemed extreme, I cannot help but call into question the practise of openly stating one’s pride in their country. If you’re proud of your nationality, why on earth would you have to say so? The only times I’ve heard “I’m a proud…” being used are when someone’s nationality or patriotism is being actively challenged, and have something to lose if that pride is undermined. How many US citizens were forced to prove that they were “Proud Americans” in the McCarthy era, or even nowadays in the wake of Snowden’s revelations? North Koreans live every day as Proud North Koreans for fear of government disapproval. How often has “pride” in your nation been used as a substitute for blind – or professed – allegiance to its government?

It isn’t as if I myself haven’t been challenged on my pride as a Scot before* – where do you think the “No True Scotsman” adage comes from in the first place – because Scottish pride is constantly under attack, either for being “false” (where tartan, haggis, whisky and other Scottish icons are denigrated as being “invented” by Sir Walter Scott) or for being dangerous (hence the constant tiresome comparison of Scottish Nationalism to turn-of-the-20th-Century German Nationalism). The Scots have been belittled, ridiculed, and dismissed for centuries – and most heartbreakingly of all, it is other Scots who have been most complicit in this cultural denigration.

A historian should know better.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with that. I like the status quo.”

Actually I don't really care for them, more of a Saxon guy.

I like the Status Quo too, Neil, but I don’t see how they have anything to do with…

Then you’re in the decided minority, Neil: the vast majority of Scots want more powers for the Scottish Parliament, and every major party outside of UKIP is offering vague promises of more control over Scottish affairs. And even those who don’t support the Scottish Parliament argue for change, though in their case it’s removal of powers, if not the parliament itself. Whether they actually deliver, or even if their “promises” offer any more power at all, is beside the point: the clear message is that very few people actually favour the status quo – and more importantly, that the status quo will end regardless of the referendum result.

“Alex Salmond? The whole thing makes me think of the television series Citizen Smith with Robert Lindsay.

“Citizen Smith was a young Marxist. It was always ‘freedom for Tooting’. It was the Tooting Popular Front he represented and he wanted wholesale revolution. He would steal tanks and drive them to Downing Street. Ultimately he was living a relatively comfortable lower middle-class life and wanted to rebel. You’d think: ‘What is the revolution about? What is so bad? It’s not as if you are coming out of the slums or an oppressed, downtrodden society.'”

“What’s the revolution about,” Neil? What’s the revolution about? I’ll tell you what it’s about. It’s about 1 in 5 Scottish children living in poverty, with 10,000 more at risk of being pushed into destitution. It’s about the Red Cross delivering parcels to Britain for the first time since the Second World War. It’s about welfare reforms being so ruinous that they’ve stopped counting the dead after rulings so frequently overturned that appeals were scrapped. It’s about UN experts concluding that the Coalition’s housing reforms are in breach of human rights. Why in God’s name should we wait until we fall under what you deem to be an “oppressed, downtrodden society” before demanding change? What are the parameters for such a society? What counts as “oppression”? Who gets to decide?

Of course, given that this “status quo” has seen the number of foodbanks rising tenfold while the number of resident billionaires has now surpassed three digits, the nation now becoming the 3rd most unequal country in the developed world, with the lowest pensions in the EU, the highest child poverty levels in the EU, and a whole litany of league-topping shames, it’s hard for anyone to actually justify it. And indeed, when questioned on that, even Neil couldn’t answer:

So much for discourse.

Still, after all that nonsense, I can’t help but come back to Neil’s original, reasonable comments. Because even after that verbal diarrhoea sprayed on the pages of The Herald, those thoughts rings true:

“It is hoped that through history – not just of Scotland, but a history of the whole of the British Isles – that people have to understand how the status quo came about in order to make a proper decision about what, if anything should happen in the future.

“You certainly would not want people making knee-jerk reactions based on something that happened last year, or five years ago, or ten years ago.

“You have to see the big picture. The story of the people of the British Isles has been unfolding for hundreds and thousands of years.

“The more historical grasp you have, then the better and able you are to make an informed decision on the best interests of everyone living here.

It is indeed those historical considerations which led me to my conclusion. The story of the peoples – that’s peoples, plural, Neil – of the British Isles is written in blood. The status quo, as it is today, was wrought by conquest and invasion: what was once a patchwork of dozens of kingdoms started to shrink, and shrink, and shrink, until eventually a few – then eventually only two – remained.

When I think of how the Union came about, I think of how the English parliament decided not to consult the Scots with the Act of Settlement 1701; how the supposed “King of Scots” betrayed his own people with the Alien Act of 1705; of why the Darien Scheme failed as much due to the treacherous actions of the English as to the bad luck and ill judgement of the Scottish entrepreneurs; of how the supposed representatives of the Scottish people were quite literally bought; of how Act of Union itself could not truly be called the will of the Scottish people when martial law had to be called to quell the riots in the streets throughout the country; of how a crowd of students fighting for liberty & justice were deemed traitors and executed for sedition; I think of Thomas Muir of Huntershill, John Baird, Andrew Hardie, John Maclean, Robert Graham, John McCormick -how their struggles were silenced or ignored by Westminster & the elite.

The Scottish people have called for change within the union before, and their calls went unheeded for far too long. Be it Radical, Red, Convenanter, Federalist, or Devolutionist, the United Kingdom establishment would only concede power to the Scots when the alternative – independence – reared its head. Nothing has changed in 300 years. The United Kingdom fought every single one of the independence movements throughout the Empire, using the exact same language, persuasions and threats as they are now – as they have been for decades.

That’s my “historical grasp.” What’s yours?

JMaclean1

*I don’t drink alcohol, I can’t be bothered with football, I’m generous with what money I have, I’m not ginger or red-headed, I’ve never so much as seen a Fried Mars Bar, I love my vegetables, and my general relationship with the English as a people is of warm camaraderie. Every single one of those statements has, at some point in my travels, elicited surprise from non-Scots. And even if it’s all in good-natured fun and not intended as an actual objection to me being a “True Scot,” even if you don’t actually care about whether some stranger considers you a “Real Scot,” this sort of passive challenge of what a Scot “should” be can take its toll on your sense of identity. You’d think being able to play the bagpipes, owning and wearing a kilt, and relishing haggis would be enough for most people…
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10 thoughts on “A Historical Grasp

  1. Cactus says:

    Fantabulous article! That Neil Oliver’s got a fricking cheek to insult Scotland’s natural aspirations, must be something to do with his initials.

    Welcome back Al.

    • alharron says:

      Thanks Cactus. I guess I was sufficiently moved when I read him describing this incredible opportunity as “internecine squabbling.” I don’t care if you’re a Yes voter or a No voter, this referendum is wanted by the people, and it’s the first time in 300 years the Scottish people were even consulted – you do NOT denigrate it.

  2. Excellent post. I can relate to so much of what you have written regarding Neil Oliver. I felt similar disappointment towards Simon Schama and to a less extent Dan Snow. Unfortunately the reality is that many very intelligent and well meaning people are totally ignorant about the issues surrounding Scottish independence. For a historian however, Oliver really should have a better understanding of our history, not some romantic, airbrushed and over-extended metaphor about a ‘marriage’. Geez, some marriage…

    • alharron says:

      I was never a big Schama fan, but Snow also disappointed me greatly. As the old Harlan Ellison adage goes: “you do not have the right to an opinion: you have the right to an informed opinion.” I respect Oliver’s, Schama’s and Snow’s historical opinions because they’re informed. I can’t respect their opinions on the referendum since they quite clearly are not.

  3. chicmac says:

    Great article.

    Would add:
    Being a unionist is sometimes more about liking the Status Quid Pro Quo.

    Anyone who genuinely wants as little change to the things which effect most people most of the time in Scotland (there is no Status Quo on offer) would be far better served voting Yes.

    Free tuition fees, free prescriptions, free bus passes for the elderly, free home care for the elderly, compensation for bedroom tax, nationalised health care, membership of the EU, membership of the ECHR are all set to go if we vote No and stay with the rUK.

    Things likely to come if we vote no, conscription into the armed services, detention without trial, deportation of anyone anywhere, final appeal in law only through UK Supreme Court incurring prohibitively expensive legal expenses, reform of electoral system in Scotland – no more SNP governments, more cuts, no more Barnett consequentials of London/SE projects, more foodbanks, more enforced labour, more bankers bonuses, more ridicule of Scotland and Scots on ‘UK’ media, renewal of Trident including painting of a large bullseye on the landscape and an arrow pointing to it labelled ‘этот путь’ and perhaps even a Tory/UKIP coalition (probably meaning no more Scottish Parliament).

    • alharron says:

      Absolutely spot on, Chic: one of the greatest falsehoods around the referendum is the idea that a No vote is a vote for The Status Quo. It’s unfortunate England, Wales & Northern Ireland don’t also have the opportunity to vote for or against the status quo, and are at the mercy of the UK government unless they act, and act now.

  4. K1 says:

    Great deconstruction and rebuttal of his approach and conclusions, thoroughly good read too.
    The link to the original herald article is returning an error, can you fix it Taranaich? Thanks.

  5. It’s the lure of London it takes over and permeates their soul. Neil is no different from Flipper and the rest of the Scots troughers. The question is how they will react when Scotland votes yes.

    • alharron says:

      Hopefully they, and other No voters, will help to make this work. In the event of a Yes vote, everyone will need to do their utmost to ensure a smooth transition: nothing will be served to anyone otherwise.

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