So, a couple of days ago, Tracey Ullman did a wee sketch featuring Nicola Sturgeon & Mhairi Black kidnapping beloved victim J.K. Rowling in an attempt to blackmail her into supporting not just Scottish Independence, but “Scottish Supremacy.” It’s yet another sketch that portrays an SNP leader as a maniacal Bond villain, a surprisingly popular meme amongst certain commentators.
You might think I’d be shocked, appalled, disgusted and outraged by this, as indeed I have something of a hair-trigger for this sort of thing.
On the contrary, I believe this to be hilarious. A fantastic work of satire, brilliantly biting, ruthlessly incisive, an absolutely merciless evisceration of its targets… it’s just that Nicola Sturgeon, Mhairi Black, the SNP, and the Scottish Independence movement aren’t the targets at all.
Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.
– Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books
The best satire – or, rather, the only good satire – is built on a foundation of truth. That’s what makes it impactful and meaningful. And in this sketch’s case, there is a very solid foundation there. But it isn’t a foundation based on remotely reasonable or accurate criticism of its supposed subjects: indeed, it is so cartoonish and outlandish that I couldn’t help but laugh heartily at this ludicrous pastiche of reality. The foundation is rather more subtle, for it is a very accurate parody of the British Nationalist mindset.
I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility. After all, Ms Ullman has nothing but praise for the First Minister in her interview with the Radio Times:
“I like her a lot and respect her steeliness. I have heard that male politicians find her attractive to be around. On researching her I realised, without the blonde hair, she looks very Spanish. I would love her to meet Trump and play golf with him and whup his ass. [My co-writer] Jeremy Dyson imagined her as a Bond villain — we filmed for two days in Chislehurst Caves, it was freezing and I was wearing pink, four-inch high heels. But I felt very powerful, and the crew were very much under my command. I think she will like it — she seems to have a good sense of humour.”
Yet if Ms Ullman’s impression was grounded in fondness and respect, why are British Nationalists so gleeful about the sketch?
Consider: Nicola Sturgeon, the democratically elected First Minister of Scotland with a greater popular mandate than any First Minister since the reconvening of Parliament, is depicted as a mad tin-pot dictator; Scottish Independence is confused with “Scottish Supremacy,” as is typical for British Nationalists who cannot understand the difference between being a normal country and being an empire; Scottish cliches are employed as weapons of ridicule against the idea of Scottish nationhood. How many Steve Bell cartoons, Newzoids sketches, Quentin Letts burlesques, or MSPaint-crafted memes have you seen that make points such as these? Yet from the way British Nationalists go on, you’d think this would be the first time anyone has dared to mock the One-Party-State.
But perhaps the most telling moment is this exchange:
“Nicola”: For too long we Scots have been denied any real power in government!
“Mhairi”: Apart from the two Prime Ministers, two Chancellors of the Exchequer, one Secretary of State for Justice, one Lord Chancellor, one Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, and two Secretaries of State for Work & Pensions in the last twenty years alone, eh Nicola?
Ooft. You got us there. That completely and utterly refutes our argument, doesn’t it? I mean, forget all that nonsense about the people of Scotland being best placed to decide on issues that affect Scotland. Never mind that every single amendment to the Scotland Bill was overruled by English, Welsh, & Northern Irish MPs against the vast majority of Scottish MPs, to name but one of literally hundreds of examples. No, put any thoughts of basic democracy out of your heads – a couple of Scots managed to make it big in the UK Establishment! Doesn’t that completely alleviate the democratic deficit, just like Barack Obama ended racism and Margaret Thatcher shattered the glass ceiling forever when they were elected to the highest positions in the land? It isn’t as if noting individual successes is spectacularly missing the point or anything, is it?
As arguments against the Scottish democratic deficit, this meme is one of the stranger ones. Did Gordon Brown somehow stop English MPs from outvoting Scottish ones on Scottish issues? Did Iain Duncan Smith unfairly benefit Scottish pensioners? Did Alistair Darling make spending decisions that were to Scotland’s benefit against the consent of English parliamentarians? It doesn’t help that their own argument falls down when you remember several of those posts were held by the same individuals. All in all, “Mhairi” mentions 2 PMs, 2 Chancellors, 1 Justice Sec, 1 Lord Chancellor, 1 Trade Sec, and 2 Pensions Secs. That adds up to 9. Only, it’s not 9 different individuals, is it?
SECRETARY OF STATE FOR JUSTICE
Michael Gove (2015-2016)
Michael Gove (2015-2016)
SECRETARY OF STATE FOR TRADE & INDUSTRY
Alistair Darling (2006-2007)
So in reality, that’s 5 individuals across 9 different Offices of State. Isn’t it interesting how it sounds like a lot more people when you forget to point out that only 2 of the 9 offices were held by someone that didn’t hold one of the other positions?
But it’s worse than that, because it isn’t even accurate: there have been 2 Scottish Secretaries of State for Justice, 2 Scottish Lord Chancellors, and 3 Scottish Secretaries of State for Work & Pensions in the last 20 years, assuming we’re considering January 1997 as the cutoff date. Not only that, but one of the three individuals they seemed to forget is also a double-dipper:
So even if you boost the number of Scots in Great Offices of State from 9 to 13, that still means you’re talking about 8 people. Whoever wrote this into the script can’t even get their strawmen right.
Yet this strawman has deep roots. I recall Lord Sumption’s Denning Society Lecture from 2013:
… But it is undoubtedly true that in proportion to their numbers the Scots played a much larger part in the imperial operations of the British state than any other nation within the British Isles, and their activities as settlers contributed to the enrichment of their home country in a way that was not as true of the Irish or even the English.
In much the same way, the Scots have played a remarkably prominent role in the government of the United Kingdom itself. For much of the eighteenth century the Scottish Parliamentary block at Westminster produced few leaders, but succeeded in selling its support to the Parliamentary managers of the Crown in return for a disproportionately large share of its patronage and influence. The eighteenth century system of political patronage disappeared after the Reform Bill of 1832, but Scotland continued to have a weight in the government of the United Kingdom out of all proportion to its share of the British population. Of the thirty two prime ministers who have held office since the 1850s, no less than eleven have been of Scottish ancestry and two more have sat for Scottish constituencies.
Out of all proportion to its share of the British population. This is the nub of the problem: the refusal to acknowledge that Scots are not a “portion” of a pan-British population, but they are the population of one of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, and indeed, the population of one of the two signatories of the Treaty of Union itself. To insist that Scots be treated as 8%, rather than 50% of the two signatories of the Treaty of Union, or at the very least the 25% of the four nations of the United Kingdom, is where the Phoney Union asserts itself.
The fact that some find it inconceivable Scotland should consider itself on an equal footing with England shows how deep this goes. Yet Malta has the exact same number of votes in the UN and Council of Europe as Germany does, despite the vast differences in population. This is because countries aren’t defined by population size – they’re defined by community. British nationalists either refuse to understand that, or simply refuse to consider Scotland to be a country at all.
As Swift suggests, when one beholds satire, one tends to see everything except themselves. And going by the joyous reaction of British Nationalists, it seems little has changed in over three hundred years.