Friday, January 17, 2014

Alex Massie, and primary school debating points

I overlooked Alex Massie's defence of Chris Deerin's widely-ridiculed "independence supporters are all kilted bum-barers" article from the other day -

"That's not the only piece of nationalist sophistry we must endure hearing repeated time and time again. There is the notion that Scotland will remain British even after independence because, gosh, British is simply a geographical description. Alex Salmond, who should know better, and plenty of nationalist bloggers (who don’t) endlessly repeat this as though it were something other than a primary school level debating point."

Now, as I made a point vaguely similar to that (but not the same) in a post on Tuesday, I suppose it's conceivable that I'm one of the nationalist bloggers lucky enough to be absolved by Alex of blame on the grounds that we're not as clever as the leader of the political party we support (which is, after all, entirely as it should be). Regrettably, though, I don't feel able to return the compliment, because Alex is more than intelligent enough to know full well that he's vastly over-simplifying Mr Salmond's position, which he helpfully links to in the form of quotes in a Telegraph article. The First Minister is indeed quoted as referring to Britain as a geographical entity, but the specific comparison he makes is with Scandinavia - which, like Britain, is a cultural and historical entity as well as a geographical one. Unlike Britain, it is composed of independent countries which used to be politically united. The citizens of those independent countries undoubtedly regard themselves as having a multi-national Scandinavian or Nordic identity in addition to their own national identity. Long before joining Schengen, they had (and continue to have) a passport union and the closest of political ties through the Nordic Council, and yet nobody is seriously suggesting a return to a single state. Now, that comparison is just a wee bit more problematical for the unionist case than "simple geography", isn't it? No wonder Alex is tiresomely pretending that he hasn't heard or understood it.

Incidentally, the fact that Britain is (among many other things) a geographical entity that cannot be dissolved by political change is indeed one that can be easily grasped by primary school children. What, then, are we supposed to make of the apparent inability of Chris Deerin and others to grasp it? That is, to state what ought to be blindingly obvious, the whole point we've been making since the Deerin article appeared.

"But by that rational (sic) the citizens of the Irish Republic are also British since they inhabit part of the British isles. In my experience this label is one the Irish reject even though, for sure, they are plainly a part of a shared historical, cultural and political entity that reaches east-west as well as north-south."

Come off it. Ireland (excluding the north) has indeed repudiated its Britishness, in a way that an independent Scotland would never do. "The British Isles" is a far, far more contentious geographical term than Great Britain, and Ireland is not and never has been considered a part of the latter. But what else did Ireland do upon becoming independent? It abolished the monarchy and left the Commonwealth. If you follow Alex's logic, the fact that Ireland felt unable to retain those trappings of Britishness makes it unthinkable that any other former British territory would act any differently - and yet the retention of the Queen as Head of State in no fewer than sixteen independent countries tells a rather different story. The fact that fifty-three independent countries are members of the Commonwealth, and that Ireland sticks out like a sort thumb as one of the very few former British territories that are not, demolishes the entire comparison. What was that you were saying about sophistry and primary school level debating points, Alex?

"Deerin’s article was, as you would expect, sneered at and mocked by many of the usual suspects. Lacking any sense of Britishness themselves..."

So Alex has added mind-reading to his many talents? Given that countless SNP members have explicitly stated that they do indeed have a secondary British identity, Alex is essentially accusing them of lying. Is he quite so cynical about the endless "I'm a proud Scot but..." protestations from the anti-independence campaign? It appears not, but the more interesting question is why.

"This is hooey. Or, actually, Tartan Cute Hoorism. It is the idea that independence answers all problems at no cost whatsoever. You can be British and still think the British state as we know it should be consigned to the scrapheap and this won’t change the way you think about yourself or your country at all. It’s a good line but it’s not one, I think, many nationalists really believe. Not in the deepest recesses of their hearts, not really."

Which harks back to the earlier point. Does Alex think that Norwegians are lying when they say that they feel Scandinavian in spite of no longer being part of a single state with their neighbours? Or does he merely think that they don't really believe it "in the deepest recesses of their hearts"? If so, I suspect that more than a few people across the water might find that presumption rather offensive.

"Granted, Scotland and Ireland are, though alike, also different."


"But that’s the point too. There is no Caledonian grievance to which the *only* acceptable solution is independence."

Trident on the Clyde? Participation in London's illegal wars? Or is this the Hothersall fantasy world where London Labour suddenly reverses thirty-one years of right-wing drift in its own policies, and then wins every general election for the next half-century, thus rendering the cause of independence redundant?

OK, Alex, if it makes you happier I'll agree that independence isn't the only acceptable solution to these problems. It is, however, the only remotely feasible solution.


  1. " Ireland (excluding the north) has indeed repudiated its Britishness, in a way that an independent Scotland would never do."

    Oh I'm not so sure about that. If Independence is achieved I think Scotland will drift slowly well away from rUK (really England) because Scots are fundamentally different from the English no matter that Massie et al try to pretend otherwise.
    This Scottish/British thing is a big red herring used by the BritNats to kid themselves that being British matters. It doesn't. Every English person I know thinks he is English just like I think I'm Scottish. Being British is merely a geographical description and means no more to me than being European.

  2. James, even if your first point proves to be true, that isn't strictly speaking the same thing as repudiating our Britishness in the Irish sense. By and large, people in the Republic of Ireland don't even regard themselves as being geographically part of "the British Isles".

    "Every English person I know thinks he is English just like I think I'm Scottish."

    True, but then again many English people don't really make any distinction between England and Britain, so it's not an exact comparison.