After three years in the post, Neil Oliver’s decision to stand down as president of the National Trust for Scotland should be an occasion for sincere thanks.
The television historian should be congratulated for his contributions and shown gratitude for his service to protecting and promoting Scottish heritage. Passion and public-spiritedness, both of which Oliver displays in bucketfuls, ought to be appreciated.
Oliver’s work is not being appreciated, however. In fact, when he departs his role in September – a date at which Oliver says he intended to step down – he will do so under a cloud whipped up by a nationalist mob who have been trying to get him from the start.
Oliver is an outspoken Unionist, one of the few remaining in Scottish cultural life, and his political opponents resolved to tear him down for that fact alone.
The flimsy pretexts they have worked up are beyond risible. A pro-government fanzine objected to his criticism of Black Lives Matter, which amounted to admitting he was ‘anxious about the genuine motivation’ of the movement given how many of the protesters were wielding smartphones manufactured with materials derived from contemporary child slavery.
‘Is this about addressing racism and the existence of slavery in our world community, or is it an attempt by anarchists, communists, to eat into the built fabric of Britain and thereby bring down British society?’ he enquired.
His further offences included ‘liking’ a tweet praising an American sportswoman who chose not to ‘take a knee’ and tweeting about his ‘love’ for historian David Starkey before an interview in which Starkey said: ‘Slavery was not genocide otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or Britain.’
As Oliver has never claimed to be psychic, his crimes appear to be questioning an emergent political movement which seeks radical change and whose supporters do not always act within the bounds of the law. That is not inflammatory, it is a process to which all new ideas and factions are subjected in a liberal society. It is known as ‘debate’. Not only was there nothing untoward in Oliver’s comments, he voiced opinions that most Scots would consider entirely reasonable.
This unedifying spasm caps a long-running vendetta against him. When he was first announced as president by the NTS, some nationalists tore up their membership cards and signed petitions in protest at a Unionist being appointed. Oliver has plenty to say and finds the most forthright way in which to say it, as might be expected from someone who earns part of his living as a newspaper columnist.
What enrages nationalists is not his description of the threat of a second secession referendum as a ‘cancerous presence’ or his characterisation of Alex Salmond as ‘a big, round wrecking ball of a man, shaped only to do damage’, but his work as a historian. Oliver is not an academic – I couldn’t think of a stronger recommendation of his work – and fails to echo the ideological assumptions of many in this field.
Worst of all, he does not sing along to the lyrical rendering of Scottish history preferred by nationalists, in which Scotland is an enlightened, discovering nation held back by the Union yet untainted by its historical sins. Nationalists were especially affronted when Oliver’s research traced the origins of the Ku Klux Klan to a group of Scottish settlers. When your worldview is so deeply steeped in national victimhood, the cold splash of historical reality can be bracing.
Oliver’s appointment to the NTS triggered his political foes for a more atavistic reason: the Trust is Scottish and nationalists claim sole ownership of Scottishness and all its institutional expressions.
For proof, note that Oliver is far from the first to find himself on the nasty end of a cultural purge. When Surrey-born Vicky Featherstone stood down as director of the National Theatre of Scotland in 2012, she revealed her struggle with Anglophobia. She said rather than criticise her programming choices, ‘it was easier to say the reason my programming was wrong for Scotland was because I am English and therefore don’t understand how to programme for Scotland’.
Some of the Anglophobia directed at her was even more direct. The late Alasdair Gray penned an inflammatory essay in which he divided up English people who move to Scotland into ‘settlers or colonists’, arguing that the latter ‘look forward to a future back in England through promotion or by retirement’ and complaining that they were ‘invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people’. Among their number, he named Featherstone.
Yet Gray’s xenophobic mutterings were the subject of cultural and academic excuse-making. For Scotland’s nationalist establishment, anti-Englishness is a lesser form of prejudice.
Another English-born woman vilified by cultural nationalists is JK Rowling. On paper, the Harry Potter author’s story reads like an SNP advertising campaign: a woman born in Gloucestershire chooses Scotland as her home, writes the biggest-selling children’s book series, brings tourists flocking to Edinburgh from around the world, insists on paying the highest tax rates and gives away so much money to charity that she ceases to be a billionaire.
But Rowling is not a nationalist and gives money to pro-Union organisations such as Better Together and the Labour Party. For this she has been subjected to every contempt and calumny imaginable and you will struggle in vain to find many in the Scottish cultural establishment sticking up for a fellow creative. This is ‘civic nationalism’ in action: it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you support independence when you get here.
It is acceptable to talk about national origin in the Scottish arts world in a way that would be scandalous in England. Liz Lochhead complained in 2015 of ‘a shortage of Scottish people working in the National Theatre of Scotland’.
Lochhead offers an illuminating contrast with Oliver. While serving in the official role of makar, Lochhead agitated for a cultural boycott of Israel, campaigned for independence and even joined the SNP, a decision praised by Nicola Sturgeon at the time.
It’s acceptable to express strong views while holding a cultural post, just make sure you express the correct views. Or as Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop put it, artists ‘don’t have to be close to government, they just have to have a common understanding of what the country wants’.
Neil Oliver obviously lacks this common understanding but he is a better writer and historian for it. He will move on and make more contributions to our understanding of Scotland’s past, much to the chagrin of those still living in it. But the campaign against him will have a lasting impact. It has sent a message to other cultural bodies across Scotland: appoint a Unionist and you’ll be next.
Nationalists have either captured or cowed so many of Scotland’s great institutions but it is never enough. They demand exclusive custodianship of Scottish cultural life and will bully, howl, boycott and intimidate until they get it. They are waging a culture war – and they are winning.