James Kelman: The ‘Britain Is A Country’ Fallacy


The people of England and Wales who are indifferent to Scottish independence accept the core fact, that Scotland is a country distinct from their own. In their opinion it is up to Scottish people if they want to break from the Union. Good luck, or good riddance, if they do. Of those who are not indifferent some seek to deny Scotland ‘the right’ to independence, by denying that Scotland is a country.

This denial, that Scotland is a country, is an odd experience for those of us who happen to be Scottish. Our very existence is being called into question. We know we exist. If other people say we do not, what recourse do we have? What happens if the doubters say it to our face where we happen to be standing; in the middle of Oban, Stranraer, Stornoway, Thurso, Macduff, Lerwick, Dumfries, Lamlash, Stromness or Campbeltown?

We are being asked to show the doubters that we exist. How do we accomplish that? But we must. Those denials help us know ourselves. Each time we confront them our existence is revealed. In the process we gain an insight into prejudice and the nature of fascism. Certainly we come to grasp a little of the reality faced by people in Palestine, Kurdistan and far too many other peoples of the world, engaged not simply in a liberation process but in the struggle for survival; to avoid extinction.

Some who deny that Scotland is a country will accept no argument in favour of the proposition. It is hard to contend with this because it reveals immediately a depth of prejudice that cannot be countered in discourse. This applies to powerful individuals within the British establishment. They will not accept the arguments of the other side. There are different ways in which they manage that. The primary method is to not to listen. If they do not hear the arguments then they need not respond.

We see this with professional politicians. No matter the issue raised by the questioner they will reply with prepared statements of their own. Why do they not answer the question? Because they do not hear it. They are focused on their own contribution. They know what they are to say and will say it no matter what. They become so used to avoiding ‘the issue’ that they lose the ability to take part in ordinary dialogue. They cannot focus on another speaker. Their body language betrays them; flickering eye movements, footering with papers, shifting on their seats.

On television programmes dealing with politics the presenters reveal similar behaviour but in a less obvious way. They learn to study their subject as though hanging on every word, but are they? What if the subject ‘lets something drop’ but the presenter fails to pick up on it? The next question the interviewer asks bears no relation to the subject’ previous comment. The audience are left frustrated, knowing that the logical question was never asked, that a chance ‘was lost’, that the ‘real’ debate did not take place.

But the ‘real debate’ never will take place. The ‘real debate’ is suppressed. The mainstream media keep the lid on that, fulfilling its role on behalf of the State and establishment. In the past the ‘real debate’ occurred in pubs, clubs, meeting houses, reading rooms, community centres, art centres, common rooms and libraries. In recent times many of those places have closed down, or been closed down. Nowadays the ‘real debate’ is thought to happen online. Perhaps it does, but I doubt it. Ruling elites and other authorities might disagree. They prefer controlled meetings in private rooms, where doors may be closed, appliances switched off, and outsiders barred. There the ‘real debate’ takes place, and meaningful decisions taken.

Once the doubters are forced to listen to us, and hear our assertion that Scotland is indeed a country, we are met with a range of negativity that is striking. The higher the authority the greater the condescension; the deliberately ill-concealed amusement and blatant contempt from professional politicians, media journalists and broadcasters. These may be tactics employed and designed to reduce us to silence, to suppress authentic discourse. But they may be an authentic statement of their position. They genuinely do not accept that Scotland is a country.

Once we get beyond that, and we have to try, we return to the question of how we assert our existence.

The most thorough-going Scottish Unionist would hardly argue that Scotland is not a country, and I include the ruling elite and upper classes in that. Only someone who is not Scottish could make such a denial seriously.

Some British Unionists in the north of Ireland might deny that Scotland is a country. It does not help their own cause if Scotland is ‘proven’ to be a country. It is difficult to sustain an argument that the north of Ireland excludiung Donegal is a separate country from the rest of Ireland. As long as Britain is a country they can claim ‘Britishness’. They believe this essential in their perennial struggle to establish their own identity which appears structured on the right not to be Irish.

According to edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Britain is “the proper name of the whole island containing England, Wales, and Scotland, with their dependencies; more fully called Great Britain; now also used for the British Empire as a whole…” This was the revised and corrected entry for the 1956 edition. Although this edition has an entry on England there is none at all for ‘Wales’, ‘Scotland’ and ‘Ireland’. Let me repeat that: the Shorter OED has an entry on England but none whatsoever for ‘Wales’, ‘Scotland’ and ‘Ireland’. I have to bind us in inverted commas to indicate the problematic nature of our existence.

It is possible to be both British and Scottish? The difficulties arise when the grounds for this lurch into any field other than the geographical. We in Scotland became North Britons from 1707 onwards, following a deal between the British ruling elite. The only class of people in Britain who can justify validly their claims to Britishness are the ruling elite and their minions. Britishness is their possession. Some are content to accept that Scotland is a country. In this it is no different from any other country in the world. The ruling elite demand only their usual right, to plunder and steal whatever they can. But it helps their case that Britain is regarded as an entity stronger than a union. A ‘union’ implies the legitimacy and equality of other voices and the inalienable right of these other voices to be heard and taken seriously, as in a democratic process, God forbid.

It is much preferable for the ruling elite that Britain is seen as a kind of country, a sort of ‘greater country’. The State authorities do not deny that Scotland is a country. In this respect it stands alongside England and Wales. But they have come to believe, and put forward the notion, that one country may be ’embedded’ in another if the other is ‘greater’. As far as the State is concerned Scotland, England and Wales are countries but so too is Britain. And Britain is the sum of their parts. The ‘sum’ is always greater than its part. This applies here. Britain is a greater country than Scotland, England and Wales. Each of the three is ’embedded’ in Britain.

This acts to validate the continued possession of lands and properties plundered and stolen from various peoples in earlier times. It is no accident that in the same 1959 revised version of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary we find this entry on ‘Britain’: “More fully called Great Britain; now also used for the British Empire as a whole.”

Each of Britain’s three countries has its own cultural heritage. Within them are affinities and relationships, shared histories and future goals, common struggles, battles and wars. The north of Ireland, or Northern Ireland, is a separate issue. The legacy of an expansionist or imperial strategy modified over centuries is complicated for British ruling authority by the people’s claim for civil and human rights which also allows validity to the unionist claims of the descendants of the English and Scottish settlers who were despatched there as an aid to the preservation of the Stuart throne, the destruction of Gaeldom and the plundering of Ireland.

This is not to suggest that Scotland and Ireland might have formed a Celtic nation but for the machinations of 17th century British unionists. Nor do I wish to imply that the true identity of Scotland is Celtic. The Post-Reformation, Seventeenth Century political and theological politics of Scotland are too complex for myself to attempt to enter into here. Enough to say that Gaelic culture was strongly present in Scotland, but so too were others.

Many British Unionists (including Scotland people), accept that Scotland is a country but do not accept that cultural difference and distinctiveness are significant. They believe in a Scottish heritage but not that it amounts to more than a colourful history, and a host of curious emblematic and decorative artefacts, a few of which are marketable to an international client-base. British State authority propagates this perception. It has become the conventional perception, accepted by a goodly proportion of the Scottish diaspora. A large number of the descendants of Scottish emigrants, forced and otherwise, over a three hundred year period have an attachment to the country founded on sentimental foolishness. One that has been fostered, and foisted, by the British State and other business interests.

There is one right that the the ruling elite refuse to accept until their back is against the wall: that ‘the right’ to call their country a country ‘warrants’ a people to behave as though they live a country.

It is argued that some countries are ‘stronger’ than others. Those others are ‘weaker’ or ‘lesser’. This can pertain to the economic and political, but only if necessary. Culture is the primary factor. Culture includes heritage, tradition, language, art: anything at all that derives from the production and creativity of the people. It is accepted that cultural distinction exists between countries. The important factor is the value placed upon them.

The cultures of ‘lesser’ countries are presumed emblematic and decorative, singular to the point of peculiarity, even perversity. The cultures are themselves ‘lesser’. ‘Stronger’ countries have ‘stronger’ cultures. ‘Lesser’ cultures are provincial, parochial; lacking breadth and internationalism, utterly incapable of dealing with the modern world. For that a more mature and dynamic culture is demanded, one whose intellectual basis is utterly sound, capable of entering into the contemporary world. ‘Lesser’ cultures typically indicate former glories. Examples of ‘lesser’ cultural phenomena include Morris-dancing, caber-tossing, vernaculars, dialects and many obscure practices. ‘Lesser’ cultures may be embedded within ‘greater’ cultures.

The cultures of England, Wales, Scotland and the north of Ireland (excluding Donegal) are ’embedded’ within the wider British culture. The culture of Britain is the sum of these cultures and is ‘greater’.

Problems arise for State authority when the further stage in the process arrives. This is the attempt to determine the nature of British culture. In this context ‘British’ soon becomes ‘English’, and ‘Britishness’ ‘Englishness’. Once we examine ‘Englishness’ we discover only parts; regions and difference; old languages and old cultures; elements of old empires: class and hierarchy, power and subjection. Britain is not a country, it is the name used by the ruling elite and its structures of authority to describe itself.

(c) James Kelman (February 2013)

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