Opinion

To talk about Scotland, don’t talk about Scotland

by | 13 May 2024

As a nation we sometimes seem unwilling to examine ourselves outside the framework of political slogans. That isn't healthy for our society or our democracy.

First published by Common Weal

Sometimes, to talk about Scotland we need to not talk about Scotland. That’s fine, up to a point. But if we can’t find a way to talk about ourselves openly, we will struggle to develop as a nation. Or at least that is my conclusion after a fascinating trip where I … didn’t really talk about Scotland.

Before I continue, let me set out my stall here. There are subjects on which I have a set, consistent view of the best outcome and I’m more than happy to go into combat to persuade people that my solution is the best solution. This article isn’t one of those. There are other subjects where I just want to have an open conversation about a subject I don’t believe ever reaches a final conclusion. This is one of those. I am certainly not looking for a fight.

The reason I open like this is that I am about to write about colonialism, a subject more likely than most to send people into their own opposing bunkers. And the reason I’m writing about colonialism is because the question of what Scotland is and what it may be next has been occupying my mind a lot. We need to talk more about ourselves, not something I always believe.

Anyway, back to my trip. I was invited to go to Sardinia by their independence movement. Their National Day was the weekend the coalition deal in government was falling apart so I missed much of that as I was taken tours and told about the history and spoke at their conference. It was really fascinating.

Sardinia has a long-standing independence movement. It doesn’t have an effective political form just now because of the laws of Italian politics (like France they punish regional political parties and give a weighted advantage to large, nationwide parties), but it is pretty strong culturally and the average Sardinian talks about ‘Rome’ the way the average Scottish indy supporter talks about Westminster.

I knew some Sardinian independence activists but you really can’t get a feel for a political environment without visiting, so I wanted to hear about Sardinia. Talking about Scotland was not my objective, but obviously my hosts had questions. I was there for five days, and it was the off-topic conversations that prompted this piece.

Sardinia (which I must admit I rather fell in love with) has been serially colonised. In fact it is easier to think in term of the two-to-three century period when it wasn’t colonised more than in terms of a period of colonisation. The Pisans, the Moors, the Catalans and the Savoys all took turns before Garibaldi does it in reverse – he is a Sardinian who uses the Kingdom of Sardinia as a launching-pad to conquer and so unify the rest of what is now Italy. Then there was fascism…

Again and again, everywhere you look in Sardinia you see how the contemporary nature of the island is shaped by its colonial past

But throughout this, Sardinia has a distinct culture, some distinctive institutions, its own language, very specific culinary traditions and so on. Which means it has, super-imposed on top of it, a whole range of other, symbolic cultures and politics. The never-mistakable flag is really a Catalan flag adapted from the St George’s Cross. It’s land ownership patterns are centralised and centrally controlled, often from outside the island (about 20 per cent of Sardinia is a Nato-aligned military testing base).

Its energy production is owned outside the island and is largely directed away from the island. Its economic profile is very clearly regional and extractive. It has had to open itself up to tourism more and more. Its language has been through long periods of being downplayed or outright suppressed. Even in urban Cagliari it is generally unfashionable to speak Sardinian.

But perhaps the thing that hit me the most was when one of my hosts took me on a tour. She is a tour guide and increasingly developed an awareness of the nature of Sardinia’s colonisation. Showing people that is what she does in her tours. And then she shows me Via Roma.

Any of you who have travelled in Italy will be familiar with ‘Via Roma’. They are everywhere. Most often they are the most important, most central road through any city – and none of them were called Via Roma. It may have happened at different times by different leaders, but the renaming of key artery routes in Italian cities, changing locally-specific place names that have existed for centuries into paeans to the ‘imperial capital’, are intentioned political, cultural and social engineering.

Again and again, everywhere you look in Sardinia you see how the contemporary nature of the island (which is big – its coastline is 2,000 kilometres long and has a population of 1.6 million people) is shaped by its colonial past.

But there is another important feature in this, which is that not all of those who have colonised Sardinia were despised by the people of Sardinia. In fact, both the era when the Kingdom of Pisa was in control and the era of Catalan rule are broadly seen as positive, not least because of what came before and after.

With Sardinia it is impossible to look without seeing colonisation, and it has made the island what is is, good and bad, celebrated or reviled. Once you are shown this (and it would be very easy to miss on a standard tourism trip where they just want to show you the beautiful churches and amazing landscape, or its flamingo population, the only permanent one in Europe), it becomes very difficult not to see it.

And throughout this I was talking about Scotland. Not a lot, not specifically all the time, but continuously. They asked the attitude to our language and I told them that for long periods of time, speaking Scots would get you belted in school and found in contempt of court. They asked me about contemporary culture and I told them we invest a lot of our culture spend on not-Scottish international festivals and ‘canon culture’ (opera in Scotland, ballet in Scotland).

There is something unhealthy about the way Scotland talks to and about itself just now

They asked me about road names and I told them about George IV Bridge, Union Street, Victoria Road. They asked me about rural depopulation and centralisation and I simply described modern Scotland to them. They asked about coopting Scottish identity into a military project and I explained the Scottish regiments.

So I’m just here arguing that Scotland is a colony, that we were colonised by the English? Isn’t that precisely the dogmatic point I was trying to avoid at the start? No, I’m saying that if you can find a nation state anywhere not shaped by past colonisation I’d be surprised.

Scotland (or parts of it) was colonised by Norwegian Vikings long before the English. Hell, our country’s name comes from a migrating Irish settler movement. England was completely colonised by the Normans, a group of half-Norwegian, half-French people who were half-French because they had previously colonised northern France. 

We’re all mongrels, and we all gain from talking about it. None of us have some kind of self-contained cultural identity not shaped by centuries of conflict. The question isn’t whether this happened or not but what it means for us now. 

Yes I’m saying Scotland has lots of echoes of colonisation, in many ways over many centuries. We are the product of our conflicts just as we are the product of our peace. And we are an incomplete product. We’re not done. Scotland isn’t even nearly over, isn’t even nearly a finished work. Like every people, every nation we are a ‘fixer-upper’, and we always will be.

But how do we fix the house if we can’t agree on a survey? If Scotland and its meaning have become so politicised, so polarised that we can’t talk about it other than as another round in a battle for political supremacy, as a single-issue constitutional debate, how do we evolve? I wrote recently about how Scotland’s artists are increasingly starved of their ability to reimagine who we Scots are and who we’ve been.

Yet where are we examining ourselves? How many Scottish Studies departments are there? How many students are engaged? Even more importantly, how many postgrads and researchers and academics? What is the output of this work? Where is the ‘cultural theory’ of Scotland being produced just now?

I mean, Aberdeen’s pitch for its Scottish Studies seems to be a historical review of languages, all designed so that it sets “Scottish culture in its historical context and you gain the skills that employers seek”. This doesn’t give me great comfort that Scotland’s soul is in safe hands in our corporate learning sector.

And it means that I felt like I talked more about this question of what Scotland is now by talking about Sardinia with a group of Sardinians than I have for a long time in Scotland with a group of Scots. Then again, the Sardinians told me they could talk more to me about this stuff with me than they could with many Sardinians.

There is something unhealthy about the way Scotland talks to and about itself just now. It isn’t helping anyone. I do not want to give up the space where competing ideas about Scotland’s future can clash, and I will evangelise for my hopes in those spaces. But would it not be wonderful if we also had space to talk among ourselves to learn more about ourselves? Without fighting?

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