Or, How to Decolonise Your Mind
In my opinion the seminal document of the first Independence debate was Alasdair Gray’s essay “Settlers and Colonialists“, a document equal in power to the government’s White Paper. It took careful aim at the Scottish arts establishment. His thesis was icicle sharp, straight to the jugular, in a nutshell: settlers enrich us, colonials supress us.
Gray’s ominous elegy to Scotland’s perpetually relegated drama and literature was never matched by what came afterwards. There was not an anti-English sentiment in the essay, but to close it down that’s how it was depicted, attacked savagely by unionists and their media machine despite Gray welcoming English who live and work here. He and us were made to feel guilt for using the term colonial.
Overnight colonial became a taboo word, not be uttered in polite media circles. People advised each other not to make the Great Debate one of ethnicity. After days of media generated controversy ‘settler’ and ‘colonial’ were dropped from debates, a small but highly significant victory for the oppressors of political and linguistic freedom.
The meaning of colonialism
By colonialism I mean a society stunted by a deeply implanted sense of degradation and inferiority. It is governed by a state that dominates and imposes.
What was the moronically repeated slogan, “Too small, too weak, and too poor” if not the manifestation of a colonial mentality that sees its satellite territories as inferior?
Brexit tells us neo-colonialism is alive and thriving – described by the SNP as a power grab by Westminster. Whatever is the outcome of negotiations to leave the European Union, Scotland is told it must take what it’s offered. The Union is not a pairing of equals.
I understood the process better when researching facts and material for a screenplay on the massacre of Glencoe, (1692) a dramatisation where the action switches back and forth between King William of Orange’s court, the Scottish Secretary of State’s office in Edinburgh, and the slopes of Glen Coe itself.
Clans chiefs and elders (clann means children) were educated in European universities. They were proficient in English, Latin, French and Italian, as well as their own native Gaelic, yet a mixed language filmed production was judged too problematic to communicate to a predominately English audience.
We are taught that to embrace foreign languages is a positive thing, to embrace our own is antediluvian. I was faced with the fatalistic logic of the unassailable dominance of English.
Colonialism by broadcaster
Put simply, the main objection to Glencoe was one of language. I have no evidence of the reverse ever having happened, that is, a Scottish broadcaster rejecting an English production because it did not take account of Scottish cultural idioms and traditions.
The quality of the project was considered of a high order, major actors attached. The reason for rejection was stark: the British Broadcasting Corporation promotes the culture and language of the colonial power.
Finding historical dialogue on record was imperative to give the screenplay veracity. I wanted key Scots characters to speak in their native tongue, subtitles added, but that meant employing non-star actors. That in turn lowered the commercial viability of sales. No such problem was encountered when we bought the German series “Das Boot.” But then, that was a story of plucky Brits beating the Hun.
As a solution, I evolved a heightened language that was universally acceptable, one to mollify BBC objections. The solution always came back to a version of 18th century English, a faux register quite obviously out of time with the events I was trying to depict.
Here is the irony – in most countries spoken and written language are the same. Not so in Scotland. To communicate beyond our border we must use the Queen’s English. We are happy to comply for we speak a version of it within our border. You could argue we speak lots of languages in Scotland, from the Islands and Highlands, across Aberdeenshire, through Glaswegian to Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders.
I became aware of the chasms of communication and values that separate English from Scots. In the words of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, for the first time I could see how the “materialist, the romantic, and the phenomenological were irreconcilable”.
My capital city
Edinburgh has the greatest proliferation of fee paying public, (US – private) schools in Scotland; no wonder it shamed the nation by voting against self-governance. But that’s the corrosive club that one had to join for advancement. I did not attend a privileged school. I soon discovered it left me at a disadvantage. So, by attention to bourgeois good manners and flattening my accent I learned how to gain access to polite society. By borrowing superficial bits of another’s culture I felt I had gained some self-esteem. That, of course, is exactly how colonialism works. You feel better emulating them.
I don’t see much difference today. I could weep; my home city, crucible of the Scottish Enlightenment is tragically, avowedly, regressively colonial in outlook.
A hallmark of imperial colonialism is the concentration of capital in one place. In our case it’s in the City of London and a smaller group of investment institutions and banks in Edinburgh. Well-heeled bourgeois Edinburgh votes against autonomy, but working class, deprived Glasgow votes universally for control over its nation’s destiny.
Our culture, our language, our resolve is everything. It conveys all our codes of ethics and values. And that’s what I want to concentrate on in this essay.
A shameful past
English colonialism is born out of its imperialist past, one it is determined to reignite. It was an imperialism some Scots took part in enthusiastically, but always as subalterns, that is, we were not part of the hegemonic English power structure.
We were employed to do a job, from policeman to ambassador, from captain of a slave ship to boss of a Ceylonese tea plantation, and often did it better than our masters.
In time we came to believe our inferiority was reality, to accept it as a natural state of affairs. We accepted the demotion or exclusion of our poetry and literature, our heritage, as a small price to pay for belonging to a Union we thought benign and all powerful.
Liberty from theft
After two world wars in which thousands of Scot died for the freedom of others, we started to question our relationship with England. Power and progress appeared all one way. No matter how we looked at it, something was wrong.
The ultimate effect of governance by another country is evaporation of a belief in our names, our language, and our culture. You can see it taking place now. Confidence shaken by the defeat of the 2014 Referendum, some question the goal of self-governance believing it remote, an infantile dream. We invite contempt, castigated because we are ‘divided’, squabbling among ourselves, ‘tribal’, the movement for independence ‘waning’.
Merely talking about it is allegedly ‘divisive’. That’s the propaganda of the bourgeois colonial. The notion changing minds over power structures is only a chat in a Morningside coffee shop – but don’t frighten the diners – is ludicrous. Somebody is sure to have their sensibilities outraged. No one said the struggle would be over by tea time.
Scorn and contempt are the tools of a corpus of state capitalists, faux academics, craven journalists, students keen on preferment, working class who believe in authoritarian rule, and weak-witted politicians thinking they are cleaning up the Internet.
What reason colonialism?
Colonialism exists to control a nation’s wealth and redistribute it to the victor. That’s why Scotland had barely seen a penny from our own oil in our own territory. We protest at the closure of our heavy industry but can do nothing to stop it. To attain those ends the dominant nation embarks on a sustained campaign to undervalue the subservient nation’s culture, its history, its wealth, its very language.
The ultimate sanction is warned we will be treated as foreigners should we ever exercise free will. Autonomous, we cannot be one of them. And yet, we never are, even when desperately impersonating ‘one of them’. (Lord Darling please be advised.) Believing in Britishness we become disassociated from our own environment.
That alienation is reinforced in the teaching of our history, (‘Braveheart’ is bunkum, the Duke of Wellington is a hero) geography, (Scotland is a wet and infertile region, England is bathed in sunshine) economy, (Scotland is a basket case, England is the bread basket of the UK) and our music, (it’s all bagpipes and sword dancing, Morris dancing is a fine heritage). I call that oppression.
One antidote is the Scottish Government asking for a degree of Scots literature and history to be taught in our schools. We can afford to dump any of JK Rowling’s derivative Harry Potter door stoppers for any of RL Stevenson’s novels, or for anything by Frederic Lindsay, or Margaret Oliphant, Irvine Welsh, or Ali Smith.
Surviving the onslaught
The obvious contradiction in this thesis is, I write in English, the only way I can communicate to the widest audience. But that’s no reason to subject Lallands Scots, the Doric, or Gaelic, or any of our dialects to extirpation by colonial domination.
The poet and co-founder of the nationalist movement, Hugh MacDiarmid, understood how the rot starts from the top. He saw that process at work and wanted to re-emphasise our separate identity. That’s why we have his masterpiece, “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle“. “I’ll hae nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur Extremes meet.” Had that epic poem been published on the Internet a colonial nonentity would pop up instantly to claim “No one speaks like that today!”
MacDiarmid’s analysis of the then Scots psyche is an intellectually challenging work, but also a work designed to draw attention to a neglected literary history.
In the same way a Cornishman is proud of his native language and traditions, so should a Scot be proud of his heritage. It is the language of a specific community with a specific history, a history based on specific values and ethics.
It is the way we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.
The first step to decolonising our minds, throwing off ‘the cringe’, is to take pride in our heritage and culture. The second step is to demand that it is given the respect and the promotion internationally that other cultures are given.
Let no one argue otherwise: the movement to reinstate self-governance is a unifying force. It is the language of honesty and equality. That’s what unnerves the colonial mind. It sees the subversive, it sees a challenge to conventional orthodoxy, the core of its power. The colonial offers a pretence that he frees us from poverty and ignorance. In reality he imposes both.
As political observers have noted, Scots have retained their identity over 300 years of alien rule, against all odds, it has to be said. But we are in the midst of a determined assault to wipe out differences once and for all time, and if we lose a second Referendum disillusionment in our worth is sure to follow. Renaming the Scottish Executive the Scottish Parliament was a deeply political move. There are forces that plan to rescind it.
We must keep a tight hold of the regenerative connection with our roots and reject the primacy of English culture. Suffocation lies in accepting England’s political agenda and its class system. England has ever right to protect its heritage, which it does with vigour, but it has no right to sing of its virtues as superior to all other nations.
The neo-colonial battle for the soul of Scotland is a struggle, no matter how much opposition to it is couched in genteel terms. It is a struggle of opposing forces. Give in to it and we accept the values of the victor. The democratic right to choose is lost.
Suspicious of liberation, the colonial mind will be just as cynical when it sees it in a novel, a play, a film, an essay, or as minor a thing as a tweet. We can see how brutal they can be. As cynics put it, get used to it; the colonial mentality will always want to control.
A Unionist is a colonial whether Scot, English, Welsh, or Northern Irish, whether wanting more powers for Scotland but not their protection, or voting for a Westminster party as a warped way of obtaining independence. We should call them what they are. They are not unifiers. They are pacifiers. They narrow the debate, they constrain urgency, they generalise a sense of fairness, exactly the modus operandi of the veteran colonial.
Reinstatement of Scotland’s self-governance is the basis of internationalism recognised by all nations as a human struggle for equality, justice, peace and progress. We seek full civil rights and ownership of the entire productive resources of our nation.
Argue over the detail all you will, but never lose sight of the essential goal.
Note: This essay follows on from the previous essay, ‘Colonialism is a Crime’.