Vive la différence!
The French saying has been taken into the English language as an expression of approval, ‘especially between the sexes’ as the Oxford Dictionaries coyly put it. And for me at least that approval spills over into many other areas of life, not least a joy at the diversity in places and people.
But there is a darker side to difference – its promotion, exaggeration and even creation for political purpose. Because once you do that you can justify the nationalist’s next step, separation.
This is what nationalists (generically) do and what many – not all – Scottish independence campaigners have done. You don’t have to look hard to find examples.
- A simplification of history to fit the story of national aggrandisement. So all the complexities of, for example, Bannockburn and 1707 are reduced to an ‘Us vs Them’ narrative. The politesse of civic nationalism doesn’t permit the overt flaunting of the identity of ‘Them’ but it’s clear to everyone – it was (and still is) the English.
- The adjustment of the school curriculum to fit the nationalist narrative with both literature and history focussing more on specifically Scottish authors and subjects. The Scottish education system has always been different from that of the rest of the UK. But it is only the SNP government that has sought to rebalance those pre-eminently cultural subjects. Honest SNP supporters might find it curious that Aberdeen-educated Michael Gove sought to do the same thing for British/English literature and history in English schools, and for not dis-similar reasons.
- The demand, stilled meantime during the rush and tumble of the independence referendum campaign, for a separate early evening Scottish BBC news programme, the so-called ‘Scottish Six.’ It’s not as if there isn’t Scottish TV news already – on the BBC alone a half-hour after the early evening UK and international news and a slot after the late evening bulletin. But of course, separating Scottish viewers further from what’s going on ‘down there’ would continue the long-held nationalist aim of focussing people away from the UK and what we have in common. In the absence of that separation, the nationalist media pot is kept bubbling through constant complaint about the MSM (mainstream) and ‘London’ media, and the detection of bias in everything from a presenter’s slip of the tongue to the colour of smoke emitted by the Red Arrows aerial display team.
- The promotion of the idea that Scottish national politics are different from and cleaner than ‘Westminster’ politics, Westminster of course being a none too-subtle surrogate for ‘English.’ They are different in two respects. First, the electoral system, which the SNP could legitimately claim was designed by UK Labour to ensure there was never a nationalist majority at Holyrood (‘epic fail’ as the kids say). Second, and less fundamentally, the semi-circular shape of the single chamber designed in part to reduce the confrontational nature of party politics. If you think that’s worked, check out First Minister’s Questions every Thursday when parliament is sitting. It’s no less abrasive and unproductive than PMQs in the House of Commons. And there’s the rub. Holyrood politics are no different in most ways from those of Westminster, or any democratic parliament. Nationalists point to the personal failures of individual MPs but the same failures are also found amongst the ranks of MSPs, as incidentally, are the same personal strengths.
- Finally, there is the assiduous cultivation of the belief that Scotland is a more progressive and equal society than England, an updating of the old saw that ‘We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns.’ It’s true that there are sometimes differences, but they are often exaggerated. I found that in my other blog when I examined the claim that the majority of Scottish people want rid of Trident. My evidence was drawn from the excellent, and authoritative, British and Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys. Time and again you can look through these regular tests of public opinion and find that the Scots, English and Welsh are actually not so different in most of their beliefs. And many forget that for much of the twentieth century the Scottish electorate was much more small ‘c’ conservative than it is at the moment.
In all this, and there is more, Scottish nationalists lack one weapon to promote difference and create separation. We share a common tongue with the rest of these islands and with many other countries – the anarchic, diverse and vibrant English language. Even the SNP haven’t proposed that Lallands or Gaelic be made the mandatory first language of education, a weapon they probably wish they had when they look enviously and with new-found enthusiasm at Catalonia and its separatist government.
As the French probably don’t say, Vive la différence, mais vive la différence avec unité!