We speak with different accents and listen to other voices

By Alistair Livingston

Following the highly successful RIC Dumfries and Galloway event in Wigtown with Lesley Riddoch and Andy Wightman on 3 October 2013, we received an e-mail which included the following comments:

I enjoyed the event in Wigtown tonight, which I was covering on a freelance basis for the local press.
One criticism: I wish you’d found a Scot to chair it. I was fortunate enough to be born & brought up in Glasgow, where we’re all pretty gallus & sure of our identity. But for the past 30 years, I’ve lived in rural Scotland. I’ve noticed that in each rural village I’ve lived in, there was a common phenomenon. At…just about any public meeting the greatest proportion of floor-time was taken by people who were English. Entirely the fault of Scots who’ve been willing to sit back and let others take charge, I freely admit… I have a theory that this is a major contributory cause of much of the inferiority complex & lack of confidence which Scots undoubtedly have, and which was highlighted in tonight’s debate…I’d add I’m in no way anti-English. I just feel that in raising our country’s self-esteem (as we urgently need to do), it’d be nice to redress the imbalance that has been building over recent decades (indeed, ever since it became easy to buy a very nice house in Scotland by selling a very mediocre house in the London area)…

Only a few days earlier, Catherine Bennett writing in the Observer about the independence referendum had this to say :

It’s no surprise that 2014 is the year the SNP has chosen for the independence referendum,” the Scottish poet Professor Kathleen Jamie wrote in the New Statesman after visiting [Bannockburn]. She is one of 10 Scottish poets invited to contribute inscriptions for a monument at Bannockburn, “exploring the significance of the Bannockburn battlefield to people today”. “In some fantasy,” Jamie said, “they perhaps imagine the ‘independence’ debate is akin to that gory feudal battle, which happened somewhere between a bog and a housing scheme, under the A91”.
Except it is, surely, fairly surprising that the SNP should have, by its choice of date, actually encouraged those naturally sympathetic to Scottish self-determination, among whom I’d include myself, to understand a yes vote as primarily a statement of bellicose, English-phobic nationalism. It’s as if the coming referendum on the EU had been carefully scheduled for the anniversary of Waterloo, in 2015, to be preceded by a whole year’s celebration of beer and wellingtons, roast beef and Shakespeare…[Observer 22 October 2013]

If we accept our freelance journalist’s modest proposal, there is a danger that such a policy would lead to an ‘English Voices Excluded from Independence Debate’ news story – thus confirming Catherine Bennett’s belief that a Yes vote would be ‘a statement of bellicose English-phobic nationalism’.

In his book ‘Stones Voices’ [2002], journalist Neal Ascherson explores the origins of the ‘inferiority complex & lack of confidence which Scots undoubtedly have’. Reflecting on the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendum campaigns, Ascherson noted that for Scots ‘The invitation to ‘participate’, especially to offer critical comment in public, touches a nerve of anxiety.’ For Ascherson, this ‘self-doubt’ is not a problem caused by more self-confident English voices drowning out hesitant Scots voices in public debates. Rather it is the result of ‘a persistent trauma’ which followed the wholesale uprooting of Scottish society via industrialisation and urbanisation.

The key to understanding Scottish modern history is to grasp the sheer, force, violence and immensity of social change in the two centuries after 1760. No country in Europe underwent a social and physical mutation so fast and so complete. Tidal waves of transformation swept over the country, Lowland and Highland, drowning the way of life of hundreds of thousands of families and obliterating not only traditional societies but the very appearance of the landscape itself. Only England underwent change on a comparable scale. But in England the industrial and especially the agrarian revolutions- the annihilation of the peasantry and the flow of population to the new industrial cities- were a more gradual process. The unique feature of the Scottish experience is its pace. [Neal Ascherson ‘Stones Voices’ 2002, page 80]

If Ascherson is right, as I suspect he is, then the problem of urban and rural Scots lacking self-confidence goes a bit deeper than an ‘imbalance that has been building over recent decades… since it became easy to buy a very nice house in Scotland by selling a very mediocre house in the London area.’

Finally, the 2011 census shows that 459 000 (9%) of people living in Scotland were born in England. This figure includes my three children who were born in east London where I lived for 18 years Despite our residual ‘estuary English’ accents, we will all be voting Yes in 2014. But while my children may be firmly determined to vote Yes, to achieve Independence it will also be necessary to persuade a majority of the remaining 458 997 English born Scots to vote yes as well. To do so it is vital that the Yes campaign in general and the Radical Independence Campaign in particular welcome rather than reject the contribution of English voices (alongside Scotland’s many other accents and languages) to debates on Scotland’s future.

See also: Matt Baker’s post on this blog addressing accent-related divisions or discrimination, Scottish Citizen: any Accent


One thought on “We speak with different accents and listen to other voices

  1. Nice one Alistair!

    In addressing the comment that prompted this post lets be crystal clear and call it what it is – it is racist. Had the the comment been rewritten as ‘One criticism, I wish you had found a white person to chair it’ then this would have actually been a criminal matter.

    I am proud to call myself a Scottish Citizen and will take a Scottish Passport when one is offered after the referendum – I speak with an accent that most people in Scotland would identify as ‘english’ – (though many of my friends down South call it a scottish accent). I will not go into the ethnic origin of the blood in my veins or the circumstances of my birth – like many people’s they are complex and my ‘ethnicity’ is not straightforward – I will not go into it because I consider it irrelevant to the current debate.

    I want to live in a forward-looking and modern democracy that is made up of people from the four corners of the globe….people who are all joined by the same contract with the country that they choose to call home…. and have committed themselves to making the best it can possibly be. That contract is called citizenship – it is based solely upon an agreement between a self-governing state and an individual – in it the individual agrees to abide by the rules and customs of the state.

    Until we get over this crap and accept that you do not need to speak a certain way to be part of our country then we are rightly condemned to marginalisation and being second-rate. Are we so scared of growing up and taking our place at the big table of the world that we have cling together like a gang in the corridor – a gang of people who self-identify by speech pattern. Then, what happens when the big party is over, and the wee gang is left in the corridor – a few more questions get asked and a few more people are excluded – eventually there are just two people left arguing about who is a ‘real scot’.

    Scots claim that hospitality is a traditional part of the culture here – maybe this is the hour when that is properly put to the test and and we ask ourselves if that hospitality is really just a cowardly expression of difference or whether we really mean it and are prepared to welcome people to stay – as well as just to visit.

    A confident forward-looking place is built on immigration and being a place that people want to come and be part of – if we are serious about claiming a better future – we had better start being ready for others to want to join us.

    As for the question of addressing our country’s lack of self-esteem – what I took from Lesley and Andy’s talks was that the key thing was to ‘just start getting on with it’ – that is, stop wondering why things are difficult – but just do them anyway. I very much like Andy Wightman’s concept of subversive democracy – by which you get better democracy by getting on and doing the things local govt are supposed to be doing…but do them better and so jolt them into action themselves. I wonder if there could be a similar option of a Subversive Nation-Building – wherein we just start accepting everyone who wants to be part of this as a Scot – irrespective of colour, creed, accent, place of birth.

    Lets just get on with it – and prove the racists wrong

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