Scottish literature researcher at the University of Glasgow Christopher McMillan takes a historical look at the relationship between media/literature and Anglo-Scottish attitudes amid fears in Scotland of a rise in anti-Scottish sentiment in press reports
IN 1599, with one eye on the English throne, the Scottish monarch James VI optimistically speculated that in time the ‘inhabitants of every kingdom’ of the British Isles would ‘grow and weld all in one’. The turbulent history of Britain and its current political fragmentation suggest that James either underestimated or chose to ignore England’s historic antipathy towards the ‘Celtic’ countries and its unwillingness to view them as equals.
As an enthusiast of Anglo-Scottish discourse, it is fascinating to observe the response of England’s right-wing media to Scotland’s unwelcome intrusion into Westminster politics.
The referendum exposed the rotten core of the British state and prompted its media guardians The Telegraph and the Daily Mail, in particular, to dust-off old anti-Scottish themes to explain current events and put the tartan genie back in the bottle.
The bitterness and pettiness radiating from a section of the English media is visually reproduced in Cameron’s post-referendum promise to Scotland to reconsider English votes for English laws. While claiming to extend the hand of friendship, Cameron was extending the middle finger on the other.
Following Nigel Farage’s ill-advised pre-referendum outing to Edinburgh, a Ukip candidate tweeted his amazement that “50 Jocks could get out of bed that early”.
The ‘West Lothian question’ has its origins in English irritation at the number of Scots in prominent positions in London after 1603. One writer comments that ‘the court shall abound with them not as passengers but as cormorants’.
Sounding like an early version of Nigel Farage and his fixation with the ‘injustices’ of the Barnett Formula, the same writer remarks: “Shall we give entertainment to strangers before we have taken order for our brethren? The English are our family; shall we then give away their breaded, which is their freedoms and liberties, unto strangers? Make the Scots free of England, what will be the sequel?”
Following Nigel Farage’s ill-advised pre-referendum outing to Edinburgh, a Ukip candidate tweeted his amazement that “50 Jocks could get out of bed that early”, adding: “It’s not signing-on day is it or is the chemist open?”
Katie Hopkins’s description of the healthcare worker who contracted Ebola – and received treatment in Glasgow before being moved to London – as the ‘Glaswegian Ebola patient’, drew 12,000 complaints. Hopkins teased: “Not so independent when it matters most are we jocksville?” and later informed the ‘little sweaty jocks’ that sending ‘Ebola bombs in the form of sweaty Glaswegians just isn’t cricket’.
The expression ‘just isn’t cricket’ raises colonial issues, but mostly implies ‘you’re not being English enough’. Ridiculous as these comments are, to dismiss them would be as naive as Hopkins herself and would ignore the tradition of anti-Scottish sentiment it taps into.
In a Telegraph article entitled ‘The insecure Scots have turned in on themselves – and against us’ (click here to read it), Christopher Booker wondered why the Scots were “consumed with such bile towards the English”, and had become “petty, sour and envious”, while “their once-proud nation has become a sad provincial backwater”.
The strategy of the right-wing press, however, has been to label the Scots as delusional.
Regardless of the perception driven by England’s press, the Scots are not foaming at the mouth in nationalist fervour and at no point during the constitutional crisis have I heard any anti-English sentiment. Scottish ire is clearly focused on Westminster politics and the ‘British’ cultural establishment.
The strategy of the right-wing press, however, has been to label the Scots as delusional. In the Telegraph article ‘England must be resolute and save the Scots from self-destruction’ (click here to read it), Bruce Anderson evoked the ghost of David Hume and claimed that “neither he nor his Edinburgh nor that Enlightenment could have existed without the Union”.
Anderson viewed the Scots today as “on the side of Trainspotting Scotland, not Enlightenment Scotland”. England, he wrote, must “bring Scotland to its senses”. Anderson’s paternal attitude recalled Nicholas Bodrugan’s (1548) description of England as “the common parent to us all” and Scotland as England’s errant child: “Scottishmen,” Bodrugan exclaimed, “how long shall I bear your unnatural cruelties, how long will ye remain rebellious children?”
With the demise of Scottish Labour and the likelihood of the SNP gaining some measure of power in London, the discourse has taken a militaristic turn. In his Daily Mail article ‘The terrifying prospect of the Scots ruling England is now all too real’ (click here to read it), Max Hastings warned of the prospect of a Labour minority bolstered by Nicola Sturgeon ‘and her tartan army’.
This would be a disaster for “English people”, Hastings wrote, and “indeed for everybody with a head on their shoulders throughout the UK”. Hastings presented as apocalyptic the “bleak prospect of five million Scots determining the fate of almost 60 million people in the rest of the UK”, and bemoaned the possibility of Nicola Sturgeon becoming “kingmaker” for England besides “her own deluded followers”.
In his Daily Mail article ‘The terrifying prospect of the Scots ruling England is now all too real’, Max Hastings warned of the prospect of a Labour minority bolstered by Nicola Sturgeon ‘and her tartan army’.
Sturgeon and her followers are the subject of Anderson’s recent piece entitled ‘Never before has Scotland been quite this deluded’, which depicts the Scots as hysterics and denigrates Sturgeon following her passionate, compassionate and hugely successful performance during the leaders debate, a performance, Anderson claims, that will initiate another “constitutional crisis in ‘North Britain’.”
The allusion to ‘North Britain’ is intended to provoke and associates Anderson with the infamous scottophobe John Wilkes, whose mid-eighteenth century newspaper The North Britain was formed to ridicule and satirise Scots and Scotland.
Anderson’s assertion that “millions of Scots have been baying at the moon” recalled earlier English representations of the Scots as primitive, specifically Edward Ward’s (1699) description of the Scots as “ravenous wolves with two-hands that prey upon their neighbourhood”.
Christopher Booker remarked that “it is this unhappy people, once our admired and cherished fellow countrymen, who may next year play a crucial part in deciding how England is governed”. The insularity of Booker’s statement is breath-taking.
The Westminster establishment’s biggest fear is that a party from outside England will have democratically obtained influence within the British Parliamentary system. This fear has recently driven unionist’s to frame their argument in terms of invasion.
Paddy Ashdown claims that SNP MPs will be a “Scottish raiding party” in Westminster and compares the risk to the UK as comparable to the collapse of Yugoslavia, but stops short of comparing Salmond with Milosevic.
Paddy Ashdown claims that SNP MPs will be a “Scottish raiding party” in Westminster and compares the risk to the UK as comparable to the collapse of Yugoslavia.
The unionists’ victory in the referendum was of the Pyrrhic variety and the unwillingness of Scotland’s progressive movements to abandon their political aspirations has provoked a nasty and often chirpily xenophobic backlash from England’s right wing press.
The likelihood of the UK General Election returning a game-changing number of SNP MPs to Westminster has sent shivers down the spine of the British establishment and intensified long-established political and cultural antagonisms between England and Scotland.
The history of Anglo-Scottish discourse demonstrates that during such moments of national instability, England/Britain is prone to go on the attack.
Picture courtesy of Nick Page