Scottish values

To those familiar with the dire diatribes which tend to be its favoured journalistic fare, the fact that the Scottish Review shuns direct feedback from readers requires no explanation. The people who write for this publication tend to be the sort of intellectual elitists who don’t take kindly to any suggestion that their analyses and opinions might be vulnerable to critical scrutiny.

So it is that I am responding here to an article in the online edition of Scottish Review dated 14 July 2016 by Andrew Hook under the title “The absurd idea that Scottish values are different”. I should state here that Andrew Hook is quite unknown to me and I offer no opinion on whether he falls into the category of “intellectual elitist” mentioned earlier. Those who read his piece may judge for themselves.

The title of the article alone is provocative enough. And I will deal with this in due course. But we must first address a few gobbets of nonsense. Skipping past what appears to be a rather long-winded and ultimately futile effort to establish some kind of credentials, we find Andrew Hook rehearsing the now commonplace assertion that the Leave vote in the recent EU referendum was, principally if not exclusively, a reflection of working-class discontent and disaffection. This contention is accepted uncritically in order to justify asking why this same discontent and disaffection wasn’t reflected in the vote in Scotland. A question for which Andrew Hook has a ready answer. As you may have anticipated, it’s all the fault of the SNP.

It seems that the SNP is guilty of a heinous crime. It appears that, using only the force of argument and against a counter-campaign advantaged by the full weight of the British establishment’s propaganda apparatus, the party has managed to persuade a large number of people in Scotland that the Westminster elite which controls all of Scotland’s budget and critical strands of policy, should be held responsible for the consequences of policies imposed on Scotland by a government which we decisively rejected at the ballot box.

Enter the first of Andrew Hook’s wee gang of straw men with the assertion that the SNP has argued that Scotland need only “escape from the clutches of Westminster and all will be well”. The reality of the independence case is, of course, considerably more nuanced than Mr Hook appears capable of appreciating. Those who see the wisdom of getting information about SNP policy from the party, rather than from the almost exclusively unionist British media, will be aware that the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status is regarded as merely the starting point for a project to build a better, fairer, more prosperous nation. It is not about a “magic” solution for all our problems. It is about taking to ourselves responsibility for addressing the problems which, by Andrew Hook’s own admission, are the legacy of 300 years of political union with England.

On to the next fallacy. The frankly idiotic failure to differentiate between the EU and the UK. The utterly facile notion that, because they are both called political unions, they must be equivalent. And that it therefore makes no sense to want to be part of one while not wanting to be part of the other. As inane as it is, this fallacy is regrettably common. I have dealt with it repeatedly. As have countless others. Yet still people cling to it, regardless of how foolish it makes them appear.

Leaving aside for the moment the matter of differences between the EU and the UK in terms of their respective structures, institutions, processes and procedures, there is a much more fundamental difference relating to the very nature and purpose of the two entities.

Whatever its failings as an organisation devised and administered by fallible human beings, the EU was conceived as a bold experiment in post-imperialist international association. In this regard, it has been an outstanding success. Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity under the auspices of the EU. Which is not say that the continent has been without its travails. But where, just this side of living memory, these travails would all but inevitably have descended into bloody conflict, they have instead been resolved peacefully – even if often clumsily and at the cost of compromises which have been uncomfortable for the various parties at one time or another.

The fact remains that the founding purposes and principles of the EU were entirely worthy. Not so the political union between Scotland and England. Rather than being an alternative to imperialism, it was born of it. The union was, from its inception, an arrangement by which the ruling elites of the time sought to secure their status. It’s sole purpose was to serve the interests of established power. The intention was that a smaller nation would be absorbed by a larger nation at whatever cost to the populations of either and whilst preserving or enhancing the condition of the privileged in both.

In short, the founding purposes and principles of the UK were anything but worthy. In today’s terms, they were indefensible.

It will be argued that, whatever the original nature of the union, it has “evolved”. But it will be argued with at least as much credibility that change has been merely superficial and no more than the minimum that was necessary in order to allow the same narrow interests to be served. The “Greater England” project morphed into the British state during the 19th century. But this was no more than a refining of the arrangements by which the old order and the old ways were preserved. Essentially, the union remains unchanged. However much constitutional tinkering may have gone on in recent decades, the British political establishment still regards Scotland as an appendage, coveted for its resources but despised for its obdurate refusal to conform to a standard British identity and thus be more easily managed.

But the constitutional tinkering has had an effect. It has had consequences that were not anticipated by those who saw devolution as a way to fend off growing discontent with the union. Which brings us to that provocative title above Andrew Hook’s article and the central argument of his ill-thought attack on the SNP and the independence movement.

What he has been leading up to is a refutation – actually more a bland dismissal – of the idea that “Scottish values are different”. The first question to ask is whether anybody has actually claimed that Scottish values are different, or whether Mr Hook is tilting at one of his own mind-farts. He refers to remarks made by another Scottish Review contributor named Bill Mitchell, but declines to provide a link to the source. But I don’t think it’s necessary to see these remarks in context in order to discern the speciousness of Andrew Hook’s response to them.

Bill Smith is quoted as saying,

The events of the last fortnight represent tangible evidence that our societies [Scotland and England] have different values.

Andrew Hook regards this as a “quite extraordinary assertion”. And it very well might be, if it was a claim of significant differences between the attitudes and values of individuals in Scotland as compared with individuals in England. But that is not what Bill Smith is saying. At least, not in the comment quoted. And if there was a quote that more explicitly stated such a view then we have to wonder why Andrew Hook chose the one he did instead. What Bill Smith refers to is societal values. Not individual values.

One of the favourite straw man arguments deployed by British nationalists is that the SNP and/or the wider independence movement (British nationalists generally seem incapable of making such distinctions. Are we seeing a pattern here?) are making a claim of moral/ethical superiority when they refer to Scotland having a distinctive political culture. But this is as false as any of the stuff peddled by hard-line unionists. There is absolutely no suggestion of superiority. There is no reason whatever to suppose that fundamental attitudes and values vary significantly across the UK – or even beyond. Andrew Hook fails to comprehend what is meant by terms such as societal values and political culture.

While there may be no measurable difference in attitudes and values at the level of the individual, the distinctive structures, institutions, processes and procedures in Scotland are such as to allow that these attitudes and values are better reflected in government than is the case in England. Hence, Scotland’s distinctive political culture and the clearer manifestation of those attitudes and values at a societal level.

The difference may be marginal. The amount by which Scotland’s systems of proportional representation etc. render policy-making more responsive to the people relative to England may be tiny. But a small change at a crucial point in a system can have profound effects at a holistic level. And the effect is cumulative due to the positive feedback loop that is created.

It is, frankly, ludicrous to dismiss the idea of Scotland having a distinctive political culture. The evidence for it is as overwhelming as the evidence that the Earth is round. Which may explain why people with a certain political agenda seek to misrepresent acknowledgement of this distinctiveness as a claim of superiority. And if Scotland’s political culture is comfortable with the EU while tending to reject the British state, it is both unjust and unreasonable to assume that this means there is something wrong with that political culture.

It is grossly insulting to the people of Scotland to assert that they have been somehow duped by the SNP into backing a Remain vote. The reality is that, by campaigning to remain within the EU, the SNP was following the mood of the nation, not manipulating it.

It’s not our “Scottish values” that are different, but our ability, as an electorate, to give effective political force to values which we share with people in general. That is something which any true democrat would celebrate. It is for Andrew Hook to explain why he finds it so offensive.

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6 thoughts on “Scottish values

  1. Keith Robinson

    A great piece Peter, insightful and comprehensively elaborated. I cannot help but wonder though why There is still the need for such elaboration? Since as early as 2013 much of what you say has been constantly written and rewritten. Yet, those who would oppose independence for Scotland insist in asking the same questions over and over again. This suggests to me there is a far deeper reason for many wanting to obstruct and hamper Scotland’s ambitions of self determination.

    Perhaps these myriad elephants in the room should start to be introduced as the real reasons thus forcing the unionists to deny and explain exactly what the be idiots are of remaining in the UK. They never seemed to offer a fully convincing reason in 2014 either.

    Those elephants can be named as – colonialism, asset stripping, cannon fodder, delusions of grandeur, a holiday retreat from the filth of London. Does the talk of England losing Scotland not signify the real relationship that exists here? The Westminster elites are convinced they ‘own’ Scotland and it is their birth right to do with her as they please. Plonking their weapons of mass destruction on her shores is just one example of this mindset.

    I admire your patience Peter. Refuting the rubbish that countless ‘no names’ will write about the nature of the relationship must at times be soul destroying.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if even one of these elephants named were given traction and caused these no names to spend some of their time refuting the underlying truth of the whole issue?

  2. Keith Robinson

    Sorry, at “be idiots” please replace with ” real reasons are for”.

    Note to self. Don’t compose a long comment on an iPad.

  3. David McCann

    I was a regular reader of Scottish Review and even became a ‘friend’. Despite Andrew Hook and others, many of the articles were thought provoking and well written, but then for one reason or another the magazine became very anti- independence around 2013.
    The end for me came when George Robertson became a regular contributor and the balance became particularly pro union in a superior sort of way. I sent off a couple of comments to editor Kenneth Roy to no avail, so a little sadly I unsubscribed , and have not missed it since

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