Anti-English sentiment does not seem as common as it did in the 1970s and the SNP deserves credit for its ‘civic nationalism’, a movement that includes members born in England and other parts of the world, but the party still needs to take care over rhetoric about ‘Westminster rule’, writes Murdo Fraser.
The recent death of Alasdair Gray was widely recognised as the loss of one of Scotland’s great literary talents. Amongst the many tributes paid to him was one from the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who described him as a “genius” and also “a decent, principled human being”.
Like many writers, Gray could be a controversial figure. His infamous “Settlers and Colonists” essay, written in 2012, was an attack on English arts administrators taking jobs in Scotland, in which he even named individuals such as Vicky Featherstone, formerly artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland. The criticism led to Gray toning down the controversial essay, in a new version written two years later.
In raising such concerns, Gray was following in a tradition of Nationalists over a longer period, among them the writer George Rosie who, in 1989, expressed concern about what he described as “the Englishing of Scotland”. Substitute any other national, or racial, group for the word “English” and it becomes quickly apparent just how offensive this claim is, particularly to the many English people who have happily settled in Scotland and built lives and careers here.
An exchange on social media last week reminded me of Uilleam Bell, a well-known Inverness character in my youth, who stood for Parliament twice under the banner “Fine Gael” although I am not aware that he had any connection with the Irish political party of the same name.
Bell, an architect, was a tall, broad man, always seen attired in full Highland garb. We would often see him striding along the country road outside my parents’ house, Gandalf-like with staff in hand.
Bullied to point of self-harm
Bell had an acquaintance, Granville Paterson, a man as small as Bell was large, and always similarly attired in kilt, jacket and bonnet. Granville, as everyone in town knew him, would hang around outside Inverness Castle and pose for pictures for tourists in exchange for drink money. He would give chase to local school kids who taunted him with shouts of “sheep-s*****”, an insult which in his case was not unjustified: he was well-known in the Inverness courts and had numerous convictions for both shoplifting and bestiality.
A report from the Inverness Courier of the time describes Bell as “well-known in Inverness for his anti-English views” and his political activities led to the police raiding his home. In October 1974 General Election, he achieved a total of 155 votes in the inverness constituency, which fell to 112 at his next attempt in 1979.
Explicit anti-English prejudice was more a feature of Scotland at that time than it is today. I can recall our neighbours, who had moved to Inverness from the South, and whose son was so badly bullied at school for his English accent that he threatened to self-harm in order to get away from it. If this still happens in Scottish schools, I don’t hear about it. It would be nice to think that we have become more civilised.
More recently than the 1970s, we had the nasty phenomenon that was the organisation “Settler Watch”, which was accused of racism against English people in Scotland. Two SNP activists had their membership of the party suspended for two years following their conviction at Kincardine and District Court on 9 September 1993 on charges associated with their membership of Settler Watch, which led to condemnation in the House of Commons. In time, other SNP members would be expelled for their association with the blatantly racist organisation.
To Sturgeon’s credit
It is to the credit of Alex Salmond, John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon that, under their leaderships, the SNP has actively distanced itself from the language deployed in the past against English people in Scotland, and taken action against the more extreme elements who could once be found in their ranks. They have all been clear that their party promotes ‘civic nationalism’, not anything connected with race or background. Indeed, today’s SNP boasts in its ranks both members and elected representatives born in England as in other parts of the world.
Having said that, individuals holding anti-English opinions do still exist on the fringes of the Nationalist movement, and social media has given such people a new platform on which to air their odious views. To those in this category, SNP rhetoric against ‘Westminster rule’ is a dog-whistle when the term is used as a cypher for London, or English, rule. There are certainly English people living in Scotland who have that perception.
We are starting on a New Year where already it looks like the political debate in Scotland will once more be dominated by the constitutional question. To me, this is deeply disappointing, as there is so much else we need to be turning our attention to: the state of the health service, how we can improve education and skills, and how we can build a more dynamic economy. The prospect of another 12 months stuck endlessly debating another independence referendum is not one which fills me with any enthusiasm.
But if we are to have a focus on constitutional issues again, it is more important than ever that we conduct that debate in the spirit of decency and respect, and in particular with a determination that anti-English sentiments have no place in today’s Scotland. I hope that this is a sentiment that Alasdair Gray would have happily agreed with.
Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife