MINORITY RIGHTS National identity
'Sleep in peace now,
the battle's o'er'
Britain’s largest national minority, the Scots, have made
‘glorious defeat’ a way of life. John Forsythe explains.
WHEN Charles Haughey became Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish Republic a few years ago, a bright-as-a-button BBC interviewer asked him for his earliest political memory, Haughey’s succinct reply: ‘Oliver Cromwell’. It was a response both incomprehensible and ridiculous to most people in England, unable to imagine any alternative views of history, of government or of relationships between themselves - a dominant majority - and minority nations or groups. Those who can conceive of alternatives are branded as sentimental, unrealistic, anachronistic or even dangerous.
My own early political memories include being stood up, at eight years old, in front of my classmates in a Scottish primary school until I could correct the mistake I’d made reading aloud. I couldn’t see the mistake. After an hour the teacher revealed that my heinous error had been to pronounce the word ‘poor’ as it is spelt rather than as ‘pore’. That taught me several lessons. One was that the language my family spoke at home - the agricultural northeast of Scotland - was wrong, Not good enough. I looked at them with different eyes after that. It also taught me that my teacher, with the best of intentions for my future, wanted me to speak ‘properly’, the English way.
Another salutary school experience occurred three years later during a spell in an ‘English’ school run by the British forces in West Germany. The teacher of our Friday afternoon music class decided we’d sing ‘The Campbells are Comin’ - As I was a Scot (how could I - Jock. Scotty. Haggis etc - forget?) she instructed me to read through the words for the benefit of my classmates. When I’d finished, she proceeded to read them through again, but this time ‘correctly’. That taught me that English authority always knows best, even on subjects about which it knows nothing,
There’s a lifetime of similar incident, But it only transformed into anger when I discovered my own, like Haughey’s, ‘earliest political memory’ - Scotland’s Highland Clearances. I’d become an adult, gained an ‘A’ pass in higher history at school, but had never heard of the dispossession of an entire community of their homes, work and culture in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only then did I realize just how much of the ‘Scottish’ history I’d learned in a Scottish school had really been English history geographically located in Scotland. Like my classmates, I could reel off my list of kings and queens and battles - replete with romantic and sentimental associations - but was not encouraged to wonder at the remarkable way in which everything led inexorably to the inevitable and ideal situation of today.
Bonnie Prince Charlie was ‘romantic but doomed’, despite having the best songs. The Highland clans were ‘wild, primitive and warlike’ but their social system, based on foundations other than private property, was ‘anachronistic’, thus doomed. Bannockburn was great in the 14th Century but Scottish independence in the 18th Century was ‘unrealistic’, The 1707 Act of Union was ‘inevitable’ - The case that English capitalism needed to eliminate a rival was not put.
I was not alone in Scotland in 1973 in finding the Scottish 7:84 Theatre Company’s celidh play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil a cathartic theatrical experience, The play related the Highland Clearances to the conversion of much of Scotland into a playground for the huntin’, shootin, fishin’ aristocracy in the 19th Century and finally to the recent manifestation of Scotland as an oil province, Foreign oil companies aren’t the first to exploit the mineral and human wealth of Scotland in the name of bringing prosperity and progress, while expropriating the profits elsewhere.
Oh yes, it can be a stimulating experience being a member of a minority, a perpetual voyage of discovery. But on the bottom line - here, today - what does it matter? You can’t undo history. It’s absurd to nurture two hundred year-old grievances. And, irritating though it is to listen on national radio to traffic conditions in London when you’re stuck behind a piece of an oil platform travelling at two miles an hour on a single carriageway road to Invergordon, it doesn’t hurt anything more than your patience, does it? And, sad though it is to see the Scots language disappearing, you can’t programme microcomputers in anything other than English.
Why complain? Why not? The panorama of Scottish schizophrenia unfolds before you. There is a colonising mind, but also a colonised one, in which a desire for outrageous self-assertion intertwines with a pathological desire for a clearly established order in all things.
For the former, look no further than the impertinent saga of Scottish football. (Sport has always been a permitted channel for minority excellence. Apart from the fact that it is astonishing that a team from a nation of five million people should ever reach the World Cup finals, once there we actually expect to win, But we Scots seem programmed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In West Germany in 1974 we were the only undefeated side - and yet failed to go beyond the first phase of competition. In Argentina in 1978 a Scottish squad racked by scandal, disgrace and disaster again failed to make the second phase but did have the ‘moral’ success of scoring the goal voted best of the tournament. And in Spain last year two Scotland defenders inexplicably collided, giving the Soviet Union the goal that confirmed our elimination again. It was another case of ‘Glorious Defeat’ - a standing headline in all Scottish newspapers and an epithet that has tumbled down the centuries. History, more to our relief than dismay, had once again proven to be consistent.
How pathetic it is that expressions of national identity are confined to achievement on the sports fields, But we can do worse than that. We derive a perverse pride from having the highest suicide rate, more alcoholism, worse teeth and greater incidence of heart disease than almost any other country in the industrialised world. We’re not enraged but relieved when Glasgow turns out to be the most deprived city in the EEC, lagging behind Naples.
But the colonised mentality reached its highest expression in the late 1970s when we fumbled an opportunity only rarely given to a minority to readjust the basis of its relations with a dominant majority. Having derived no little vicarious pride that in 1707 Scotland voted, through its parliament, to unite with England and thus become a minority in Great Britain, we were presented with the opportunity to vote ourselves apart again in the 1979 Referendum.
Scottish and Welsh devolution had cropped up on the Westminster agenda not least because nationalism was threatening to disrupt the two-party House of Commons system. In Scotland support for the Scottish National Party was based largely on disgruntlement born of over 250 years of being patronised from south of the River Tweed. But it never grew into a broadly based, popular demand for self-determination, aiming to reverse the ‘British’ economic policies which had benefitted southeast England at the expense of all the peripheral areas of the country.
Even the discovery of North Sea oil, which could have made Scotland one of the richest small nations in the world, never raised more passion than, for example, a TV announcer describing the Scot Alan Wells as an ‘English’ runner. A campaign by the Scottish National Party asking whether we’d rather be Rich Scottish or Poor British failed not only on grounds of bad taste, but also because it threatened to give us the responsibility to control our own destiny. The doubts set in. Not surprising after centuries of being told we’re uncivilised, undisciplined, troublesome, can’t speak properly and do best as natives of a vast open air tourist attraction.
So when the great day dawned on which a minority was going to have the chance to vote itself more power over its own fate, they could just have transferred the headlines from the sports section to the political pages:
‘Glorious Defeat’ - Colonised schizophrenia was perfectly reflected. A third of the voters polled in favour of a demonstration of self assertion; a third voted for continuation of the established, weel kent, safe and orderly way of doing things. And a third didn’t turn up to vote at all, Like an elderly, threadbare lion, we sat by the door of our cage, brooding on the strength of our youth, hating our imprisonment but terrified to leave.
John Forsyth is a journalist working for the BBC in London
Worth reading on... MINORITIES
Minority Rights Group Reports. Series of 59 carefully researched reports on minorities and their problems. Covers minorities such as Bahais in Iran, French-speaking Canadians, Australian Aborigines, American Indians, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Palestinians in Lebanon, Canadian Indians, Amerindians in South America and Eritreans. Available from Minority Rights Group (MRG), 36 Craven Street, London WC2N 5NG.
World Minorities 3 Vols. Edited by Georgina Ashworth and published by MRG, London. Short articles on over 100 minorities.
Minorities. A Teacher’s Resource Book for the Multi-ethnic Curriculum, by David W Hicks, Heinemann, 1981. Stimulating collection of articles, not just for classroom use but for general reader. Has excellent annotated bibliography.
Native Peoples, News 20-page quarterly newspaper giving world-wide coverage of latest developments in land rights and other native peoples’ struggles. Available from NPN, 2l8LiverpoolRoad, London NJ JLE. Take out a yearly subscription for £3 (UK) or $9.75 (other countries).
Loading the Law by Alan Little and Diana Robbins, 1981. Carefully documented study.of transmitted deprivation, ethnic minorities and Affirmative Action. Available from Commission for Racial Equality, Elliott House, 10-12 Allington Street, London. Many other publications on Britain’s ethnic minorities also available from this address.
Finding a Voice by Amrit Wilson, Virago, London, 1978. The experiences of Asian women in Britain recorded in their own words. A brilliant book about people whose lives are much commented on but rarely understood.
Race and Class excellent quarterly journalpublishedby thelnstitute of Race Relations, 247-9 Pentonville Road, London NJ 9NG. Covers race and Third World liberation issues through in-depth studies.