The Great Debate on freedom of choice was a tremendously liberating experience. It was the first time in anybody’s memory we had open speech, not merely narrow ‘free’ speech.
It must have come as a surprise to many Scots and English too that Scotland had been an independent nation for centuries, and is a wealthy country now despite the lies of its tormentors. And boy, did the enemies of liberty react badly. They’ve taken to calling a time of mass camaraderie, optimism and hope ‘divisive’. Somebody was putting ideas of freedom into the heads of the natives. So speaks the colonial.
It caused me to think about my state school education in the city that likes to call itself international, but votes for English hegemony. Looking back on what I was taught that had any relevance to the world outside Britain disinters what was kept from sight.
We got steeped in Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelly, and Byron, Dickens too, more Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. The absence of Scots poets was shocking: Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan, Norman McCaig, Sorley MacLean. Burns was evident. You could hardly hide a man the world quoted regularly. I remember readings of Tam O’Shanter presented as a ghost story. Nobody told me about Burn’s politics. Burns was presented in acceptable unionist form, a formulaic evening of bagpipes and haggis, toasts to the lassies, and then forgetting what he stood for the rest of the year.
I was from a poor home, like thousands of other underprivileged kids singled out for woodwork and metalwork, or maybe sorting parcels in the post office, or polishing boots in the army. I liked poetry and art and could read books without illustrations. I was marked down as ‘creative’, an occupation considered of little value to society. “The boy has imagination that should be curbed” ran a comment on my school report.
I can’t remember any classes discussing RL Stevenson’s novels. Like Jules Verne I’m sure familiarity of them issued from films, but I was taught about the works of the second-rate Thomas Hardy as if idealised English rural life was a dream shared by Scots. Later his novellas were dramatised for television, thatched cottages, woven baskets full of handpicked herbs, and white picket fences sold as an idyllic British life, but not hard grafting gardeners having a steamy affair with the lady of the manor.
The scathing critical satire of flawed Victorian heroes was never mentioned, no essays of Lytton Strachey taking apart Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale, and yet the Bloomsbury set was waved in our faces as a confluence of outstanding talents only the English could compose. Discussing the work of contemporary Scots poets meeting in a spit and sawdust pub was unthinkable. This, I should point out, from a school system that lined us in in twos in the playground each morning, and then marched to our first class to the stirring stiff upper lip theme from ‘The Dambusters’.
There was not a sausage about any of the great Irish writers, or any European author. The riches of Proust, Zola, Victor Hugo, and Sartre were yet to be discovered. I discovered them in bookshops, acquainted with American authors by adaptations of their novels for films. Wole Soyinka had no place in my school learning, nor the struggles of other African writers. I came to know the powerful anti-apartheid message of Athol Fugard by his plays.
Sassoon and Owen the war poets were chief among the standard bearers for England’s sacrifices. I read of the meeting between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in Edinburgh; two poets whose lives momentarily entwined in 1917 in Craiglockhart’s military hospital, there to convalesce. Both were celebrated this anniversary year in a series of special events in Edinburgh organised by none other than the Scottish Poetry Library, there being no Scots poets to include of any status of that vintage … apparently.
In my school days we didn’t read Blake, we sang Jerusalem in Friday service. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was an annual event almost as much as Burns night, but no one told me he was zonked on laudanum and probably opium when he wrote that narrative ballad.
What I learned of the outside world beyond the Saxon shores of street tea party England I got from television through the prism of the BBC. There was a British Commonwealth out there, happy carefree Jamaicans, and an Australia open to economic migrants.
No matter what was happening in the world it took second place to each and every Royal event commentated upon in reverential tones by Sir Richard Dimbleby, progenitor of a broadcasting dynasty. And in the cinema you were expected to remain standing when God Save the Queen was played and not make a bolt for the exit. It took a lot of courage to push your way out while others stood to attention.
What attention to the traditions of England’s literature does is remove resistance to British rule. George Orwell states in a letter how easy it is to suppress free thought in his England. He wrote that although England is “relatively free”, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. “English education instills that there are certain things it simply wouldn’t do to speak about.”
Control of our educational syllabus is only one method of containment and influence. Control of the media is another. Advertising slogans and images – Union Jacks replacing Saltires on Scottish produce – flashed at us over 3,000 times a day is a third. We must not only do as colonials do, we must think like them too.
The cry of protest when the SNP asked for greater teaching of Scottish history and literature in schools was a warning from a unionist mind set not to meddle in the source of their power. For those who know an independent country is a confident country knowledge of your own land and people severs ties to your oppressor. Shuttered windows to the world are opened wide.
Scotland’s quest for relevance isn’t a call for English-style isolationism but rather the recognition national liberation is the very core of internationalism. Continuation of the neo-colonial state is the negation of progress.
A free Scotland liberates our national wealth, resources, and the entire productive forces of Scotland; it takes us into the 21st century, the modern world, whereas the British establishment want us to remain locked in the 19th century, paralysed, an immobility that keeps Scotland at the service of the British state. This attitude is exemplified in the number of empire loyal MPs now appearing in a venue near you, popping out of the Gothic architecture yapping with pride of times past, and exploiting English xenophobia.
Whatever I was taught was taught in the name of British patriotism. I accept there existed exceptions to this intellectual imperialism, state schools of a higher standard, as I am sure readers taught in them will attest. But to my mind it’s important to be constantly alert to class ideological assumptions of what is good and what is bad behind choices and evaluations. Here we are in the 21st century and what do we have to look forward to that can be classed as Scottish-international? A rugby result? A football score?
The answer is two politicians, one a unionist in search of a personality, the other a nationalist with an abundance of personality. Labour’s former Scottish branch leader romps around in a television show called ‘I’m a Celebrity’ and true to form, the unionist cabal scream at ‘The Alex Salmond Show’ for daring to lift Scotland’s gaze from its navel.
The critics of free choice don’t have a problem with Kezia Dugdale, but they do with Salmond, the politician fighting for liberation. For the life of me I can’t think what has altered down these last decades. There are things we really shouldn’t speak of.