Vulgar Tongues

NICOLA Sturgeon was the first politician to be sworn into the sixth session of Holyrood as the new parliament formally got under way, with affirmations and oaths taken in a record number of languages.

Returning and new members took an oath or affirmation following last week’s election in which the SNP was returned as the biggest party for the fourth consecutive term.

Many MSPs made their vows yesterday in second languages, including Urdu, Canadian French, Scots, Gaelic, Orcadian, Doric, Welsh, Arabic and Punjabi.

It is believed to be a record variety of languages used in the swearing-in ceremony to date with newly elected SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central Angus Roberston taking his in German. Fellow SNP MSP Karen Adam made her affirmation in British Sign Language – a first for the parliament.

– The National, 14th May 2021

As an outward-looking, internationalist nation, it is a sign of good faith and sincerity in those traditions for Members of the Scottish Parliament to take oaths & affirmations in languages that are important to them. Nominally speaking, it underscores Scotland’s place as a nation among nations throughout the world, where languages of those nations and our own are acknowledged and highlighted, threads in the fabric of our national tapestry.

In an ideal world, this would be wonderful, a cause for great celebration and much rejoicing. But Scotland is not independent, and the affirmation every MSP took yesterday was not one in the spirit of internationalism, nor of solidarity with the people of Scotland within and without its borders – it is an affirmation of obedience, supplication, and surrender.

Strictly speaking, MSPs can take an oath, or they can take an affirmation. The difference, according to the Scottish Parliament, is negligible, and ultimately irrelevant:

After being called by the Presiding Officer, they will proceed to the well of the Chamber where they will be asked whether they wish to take the oath or the affirmation. The choice is a personal one and the effect of both is the same.

The text of the oath-or-affirmation is largely identical save for a few words, as follows:

The oath states: “I (Member’s Name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her Heirs and Successors, according to Law. So help me God.” 

The affirmation states: “I (Member’s Name), do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her Heirs and Successors, according to Law.” 

Members will be handed a card with either the oath or the affirmation, according to their choice, and asked to repeat the words after the officiating Clerk. They may then repeat the oath or affirmation in a language other than English. 

If any member refuses to make this oath-or-affirmation, then there are consequences:

Any Member who refuses to take the oath or the affirmation will be unable to take part in any other proceedings of the Parliament and will not be paid any salary and allowances until he or she has done so. If any Member has not taken the oath or affirmation within two months of the day of their election they shall cease to be a Member of the Parliament (unless the Parliament agrees to extend this period).

So we have the grotesque spectacle of democratically elected members using the languages of Scotland and beyond, the tongues of our ancient land and the spoken words of lands near and far, to verbally prostrate themselves – and, by extension, the very languages which they rightly take such pride in – to a worn and outdated lie.

In almost any other nation, this would not be the case – because almost any other nation where such oaths-or-affirmations are taken is independent. We are being permitted the luxury of assigning ourselves to an imperialist mechanism in our own tongue: the pitiable facade of internationalism, like printing the word for “peace” in multiple languages on the shell of a warhead. And the United Kingdom has a cruel history with many of the languages of this ceremony.

I scarcely need to comment on the historic persecution of Scots (spoken by Jackie Dunbar, Alison Johnstone, Clare Adamson, & Emma Harper), Scottish Gaelic (spoken by Alasdair Allan, Kate Forbes, Ariane Burgess, Donald Cameron, Ruth Maguire, Emma Roddick, & Maree Todd), Doric (spoken by Richard Lochead, Kevin Stewart, & Gillian Martin), Orcadian (spoken by Neil Gray), and Welsh (spoken by Rachael Hamilton) by the British State. The idea that we’re supposed to be grateful to a system which actively punished those who dared to speak the languages of these isles for allowing our democratically elected members the option of affirming in them is patronising and insulting to me. I’d even argue the use of “a language other than English,” as opposed to Scottish Standard English, in itself marks the primacy of Standard English as the “default,” when other Anglophone countries like the United States and Australia enshrine their own national versions in their state legislature.

Let’s take Arabic, as spoken by Anas Sarwar, one of the most widely-used languages and the lingua franca (there’s a term loaded in history!) of the Arab world. As the language of one of the world’s historic empires, Arabic has been the language of science, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, and countless other spheres of learning, and its influence is seen to this very day. Alas, like all Imperial languages, it has also been misused as a tool for oppression and propaganda as much as for knowledge and enlightenment, as the Copts and Kurds would attest. Yet even this global tongue has been the victim of exploitation, as seen with the British Empire’s conquest of Arabic-speaking nations.

Canadian French, as spoken by Elena Whitman, is the principal language of a family of languages used in Canada, largely in the eastern lands of New France. New France was one of many swathes of land surrendered to the British Empire following France’s defeat in the Seven Years War in 1763. The French language was supplanted and suppressed by the new British overlords: the Francophone majority were economically disadvantaged and treated with prejudice by incoming wealthy Anglophones; existing French state legislature & schools were abolished; citizens were forced to swear fealty to the British Crown; the dominant Roman Catholic religion was refused recognition by the Crown authorities. To this day, the Quebec Independence Movement – which came so close to success thirty years ago – is founded in part on centuries of language discrimination. While I have zero doubts the Ms Whitman’s intentions in speaking French Canadian in the Scottish Parliament are nothing but noble and genuine, the history of the language in regards to the British Establishment means this particular oath has a deeply bitter aftertaste.

Punjabi, as spoken by Pam Gosal, and Urdu, as spoken by Humsa Yousaf & Kaukab Stewart, are intertwined in the language history of what was once the British Raj, and are too intricate to do full justice in the scope of this blog. In the age of the Raj, one of the methods of control the British exerted on the people of the subcontinent was the elevation of Urdu over Hindu as the “national” language of Colonial India; Punjabi, being closely linked with the Punjab region, was marginalised during and after British occupation. That Urdu became the national language of Pakistan while Punjabi is not acknowledged at a state or national level, even when the vast majority of Punjabi speakers live in Pakistan, hints at the layers and complexities involved.

Zimbabwean Shona, as spoken by Maggie Chapman, is of course the language of Zimbabwe – or, as it was known when Ms Chapman was born, Zimbabwe Rhodesia. What the British Empire did to the people of Zimbabwe almost doesn’t bear thinking about: the crime against their languages – as epitomised by the very name Rhodesia, which was rightly supplanted following independence – are still reverberating today, albeit in ways one might not expect.

Which leaves German, spoken by Angus Robertson, and British Sign Language, as signed by Karen Adam. BSL has a much longer history than one would think, and owes its survival to philanthropy and dogged determination against a society that treated the deaf with contempt. It was only in 2003 – the 21st century – that the UK Government finally recognised BSL as a language deserving equal consideration alongside any spoken or written tongue.

So yes, in a better Scotland, I would take great pride in seeing MSPs speak a multitude of languages in our Parliament, be they our own native tongues, or those beloved of New Scots and our Earthly family of nations. But not when they are used to pledge deference to the very antithesis of democracy.

Leaflets with the word ‘Yes’ written in different languages are displayed during a photocall with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and European citizens to celebrate European citizenship and Scotland’s continued EU membership with a Yes vote, during a photocall in Edinburgh, Scotland, on September 9, 2014, ahead of the referendum on Scotland’s independence. British Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition leader Ed Miliband said in a joint statement they would travel to Scotland on Wednesday as polls show those for and against independence evenly split ahead of next week’s referendum. AFP PHOTO / LESLEY MARTIN (Photo credit should read LESLEY MARTIN/AFP via Getty Images)

There were attempts to redress this, of course. The SNP First Minister historically included a pre-amble where they “pledges loyalty to the people of Scotland in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people”: the current First Minister carried on this tradition. Patrick Harvie also added that his “allegiance lies with the people of Scotland who elected this parliament and who are sovereign, and we look forward to the day when they can choose their own elected head of state.”

There is history in such statements. Back in 2003, the then-leader of the SNP, John Swinney, asserted “On behalf of my colleagues can I confirm the prime loyalty of the Scottish National Party is to the people of Scotland, in the constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people.” Then-convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party Tommy Sheridan stated “I and my party colleagues were elected on a clear and honest commitment to an independent Socialist Scotland, a Socialist republic, a Scotland of citizens not a Scotland of subjects: we will continue to fight for such a Scotland.” Then-Green leader Robin Harper said “On behalf of the Scottish Green Party I wish to affirm that our priority will be to serve the people of Scotland who are sovereign in this land.” The SSP’s Rosie Kane famously took the oath with “My oath is to the people” written on her raised palm. And Colin Fox was ejected from the swearing-in ceremony entirely for singing Burns’ “A Man’s A Man For A’ That,” while his colleagues in other parties swore, declared, and affirmed their “true allegiance” to a monarch. (Boy, I wish I could find video of that…)

But the sad, soul-destroying fact is it doesn’t matter how much you protest, how strongly you clench your Revolutionary Fist, how sternly you spit your mandated oath-or-affirmation through your teeth: the end result is the same. If you want to be a lawmaker in Scotland, you must swear, declare, and affirm your loyalty to a relic of feudalism built on the backs of the people, to a royal family who personally owns a quarter of the planet, who still affects policy and statecraft despite never once being elected to a position justifying it in a so-called “democracy.”

That applied when it was Alex Salmond as much as when it was Nicola Sturgeon, and how it will apply for as long as the Scottish Parliament remains supplicant to the UK Parliament. Every MSP, no matter their dreams, their desires, their destinations or their democratic ideals, must become a cog in the machine – the vast apparatus of the British State. Even if their goal is to change it from within, to remove Scotland from it, or to destroy it entirely, in order to break the machine, you must first become part of it. And only the strongest and stoutest of believers can fully resist the assimilation process of a centuries-old monstrosity which has consumed more nations and peoples than any other Empire in this planet’s history.

Which is why I’ll never be a politician in Scotland, so long as it it’s part of the UK. I know that, one way or another, that machine would destroy me.

And part of that destruction and assimilation is in the very words we speak.

Now the Heroes of Dawn sleep in mounds underground
Cuchulain forgotten – forgotten is Lugh,
Who shall sing to the wind, shed his tears to fill the sea
For the lost Gaelic valor?

4 thoughts on “Vulgar Tongues

  1. marconatrix says:

    Ta mee credjal dy vel shiu cairt dy liooar! 😉

  2. duncfmac says:

    Interesting as always. Tokenism abounds in Holyrood, in fact it is itself built on tokenism. My autistic son and many like him are nonverbal and their ‘voices’ are never heard or sought and this is very much reflected in the failed policies of the last decade.

  3. I agree. It is ludicrous and grotesque, and unjust, that MSPs are required to declare an allegiance in such terms.
    How about if one year, by joint agreement beforehand, they ALL refused to declare any allegiance other than to serve the people of Scotland?
    What then?

  4. Cactus says:

    Hi Al, just to say cheers for having me on here in the past, all the best for the now.

    ps that’s a cracking song by Cromagnon on your latest 🙂

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