There are two questions which, unlikely as it seems, go to the heart of Scottish nationalism today.
Question One: Is JK Rowling Scottish or English?
If your answer to our first question is “Scottish”, you are probably a civic nationalist. Your framework of belonging is inclusive and dependent on choice and geography rather than heritage.
If, however, your answer is “English”, you are more likely to be an ethnic nationalist. For someone to be Scottish in your worldview, they or their parents must have been born here.
At this point, the civic nationalists may leave us but for their ethnic counterparts I have a follow-up.
Question Two: As someone who lives in Scotland, can JK Rowling become Scottish while continuing her support for the Union and opposition to independence?
This is the kicker. If you can’t go along with this, chances are you’re not just an ethnic nationalist but a chauvinist. Before you will consider someone Scottish, you require either blood or loyalty.
Rowling identifies as Scottish but she understands that there are those who do not accept her as such.
We might call this the Quidditch Test. Former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit infamously questioned the loyalty of Britons of Asian origin, posing a challenge to them in an interview given in 1990: “A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the Cricket Test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”
The Harry Potter author last week found herself in a Twitter spat with the Herald columnist Iain Macwhirter. Rowling is a longstanding supporter of the Labour Party and a believer in the United Kingdom; Macwhirter has drawn fast to the SNP in recent years and shares its dream of an independent Scotland. The cause for their dispute was a column in which Macwhirter warned Scottish nationalism against the rise of nativist parties in Scandinavia. I thought Macwhirter’s column was excellent and said so, though I felt his view of the SNP’s relationship to Anglophobia charitable.
“Any trace of ethnic nationalism, and anti-English sentiment,” he wrote, “was expunged from the party in the 1970s.” On Twitter, Rowling queried the columnist’s categorical statement: “Quite a claim. How many English incomers were polled before the making of that confident assertion?”
The two parties flyted back and forth in that fine Scottish tradition and were inevitably joined by partisans, mostly on Macwhiter’s side. Because these were Nationalists, they declared that Rowling was not merely in error but had personally offended them, the SNP, Scotland, and all three seasons of Hamish Macbeth. They complained that she had called them racists, which she hadn’t, and Nazis, which she really hadn’t. Worst of all, she was rich and was therefore seeking to impose her will on good, honest, salt-of-the-Earth Scots. Mini Saltires will be flying at half-mast on car aerials for at least a week.
The Quidditch Test arises because a number of interjectors in the exchange objected to Rowling on first principles. She was not, they argued, Scottish. The responses startled me because it had never occurred to me that the celebrated novelist might be considered anything other than a Scot. I had always taken some pride in the world’s most successful author being Scottish and in our role in shaping the writer who has enchanted a generation of children with the charms of reading.
Those for whom Rowling is English by necessity of her birth in Yate, South Gloucestershire are in good company. For a person to be considered Scottish, a majority of Scots believe it is “fairly important” or “very important” that they were born in Scotland and almost three-quarters think their parents should have been born here. This is in line with attitudes in England and Wales. The fluid identities forged by our continuing constitutional journey find themselves in conflict with outmoded language and categories.
I think most SNP members would pass the Quidditch Test, if not on the first question certainly on the second. But those who would cannot ignore the presence of some within their number who wouldn’t. Instead of retreating into the comforts of victimhood, they should ask themselves why people as politically diverse as JK Rowling, Chris Deerin, and Hugo Rifkind have expressed unease about aspects of the SNP’s nationalism.
It can come as a shock to Nationalists when a writer criticises them or their political prescriptions. One of the most remarkable developments on the cultural scene of late has been the migration of many of Scotland’s creatives from conventionally social democratic parties and the odds and sods of the far-Left to the SNP. The very people charged with challenging power through art now swoon over the First Minister, her government, and its agenda. The SNP has not changed; it remains a pro-business, tough-on-crime party of the European centre-left. It is the artists who have changed. They have become writers, painters and singers in the national interest.
In 2008, The Times published its rankings of the fifty ”greatest British writers” of the post-war period. What is striking about the list, other than its dubious exclusion of Jeanette Winterson and Ian Rankin, is that almost one quarter of the authors was born outside Great Britain. There’s Doris Lessing (present-day Iran), JRR Tolkien (the Orange Free State, now South Africa), Melvyn Peake (China), Kazuo Ishiguro (Japan), and Isaiah Berlin (what is now Latvia). Iris Murdoch, who was born in Ireland, and CS Lewis, from pre-partition Belfast, are both on there too. Others — George Orwell, VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, JG Ballard, are Derek Walcott — are children of Britain’s faded Empire.
The list underscores how the reverberations of British imperialism judder on but it also tells us that British identity can be remarkably expansive. I cannot imagine a Scottish newspaper announcing that one in every four of Scotland’s greatest authors wasn’t born in Scotland. Alasdair Gray characterises English people who come to work in Scotland’s creative industries as either “settlers” or “colonists”. Contrary to his critics, though, Gray was not attacking English incomers so much as the enemy within: “Remember that these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people.”
As Sky News political editor Faisal Islam and BBC Scotland correspondents have found, this is not a prejudice confined to the elder statesman of Scottish letters. All nationalisms contain two components of blame: one for the outsider, who doesn’t belong to the tribe, and another for the “self-loathers”, whose lack of pride undermines the nation. Scotland is an inclusive country in this sense. People from abroad can come here and be abused for disagreeing with the SNP just as much as people born here.
The SNP is a victim of its own success. It has reaped historic gains from a post-referendum surge that brought it tens of thousands of new members and hundreds of thousands of new voters. Unfortunately, it now owns those people. Every nasty tweet from a Nationalist sympathiser with a “Team 56” twibbon is a communication from the SNP. The bigots within nationalism share symbols with the non-bigots and to their victims the distinction can be hard to establish.
It is not, however, simply a question of obscure cybernats. It is a matter of the language and tone some parts of the SNP continue to use.
Were someone to suggest that a strain of racism existed in the SNP, I would laugh heartily then probably get offended on their behalf. It is not that kind of nationalist party. This we can observe from its favourability towards immigration and the European Union and its many ethnic minority members. We need not even consult some of the more gushing panegyrics offered by court academics, whose championing of the SNP is happily funded by research grants from the wicked British state.
It is a party that exudes from its every pore a benign disregard for whether you come from Pakistan, Poland or Pollok. But what about Portsmouth? On that, I am less sure. Not the leadership, of course; Nicola Sturgeon is probably as beloved in Portsmouth as in Pollok, and given her recent form I wouldn’t write her off for the next Polish elections. Nor the bulk of the elected officials, a number of whom were born south of the border.
No, we are not talking about a faction within the SNP or the wider national movement but a dark impulse, harboured in hearts and given voice at indiscreet moments. Former leader Gordon Wilson called on his party to “strike at the southern cancer” while former deputy leader and ex-member Jim Fairlie noted research suggesting “native Scots” voted Yes in the referendum while those “born [in the] rest of UK” voted No, before asking: “Does open door immigration make sense?”.
When Alex Salmond indicted the Unionist parties as “a parcel of rogues”, he was not unaware of the preceding line of Burns’ verse: “We’re bought and sold for English gold.” Pete Wishart, the SNP’s Shadow Leader of the House, objected to Anna Soubry’s participation in Scottish Questions on the grounds she was “an English MP and Minister in BIS”.
There’s your trace. In size and significance, it is probably comparable to far-leftists in the Labour Party, homophobes in the Tory Party or anti-Semites in the Liberal Democrats. It is a trace but it is there.
Originally published on STV News.