Scots' nationalist tilt

Recently, the English and Scottish soccer teams found themselves scheduled for a playoff to enter the European Championships. Fans jammed ticket hotlines. The seats were to be divided equally between supporters of the two teams - to ensure fairness and make certain crowds didn't mix (a recipe for violence). But when Scots living in England phoned a London ticket agency, they were told to phone the corresponding office in Glasgow. Accent, it seems, is an automatic signifier of team loyalty.

These days, the United Kingdom is big on ethnic segregation.

And in Scotland, devolution - the new semidetached political status granted by the UK government last May - has created a distinct mood change virtually overnight. A narrow and dangerous nationalism is taking hold.

Though Scottish pride has often been expressed as antipathy toward the "Auld Enemy" - England - nationalism has usually been rather tame, at least in contrast to the Irish variety. But, in the 1980s, Thatcherite economics hit Scotland hard, with unemployment higher than in most other regions. People felt cheated, especially because, at the same time, Scottish oil revenues flooded into the UK Treasury. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) made a great deal of headway by arguing that the cure to Scotland's economic woes was complete separation from England.

The Labour government under Prime Minister Tony Blair decided that the best way to head off the SNP was to grant devolution. In other words, Scotland would be given the status roughly equivalent to an American state; it would handle its own internal affairs but foreign policy, taxation, defense, etc., would remain the responsibility of Westminster. Last May, residents elected representatives to the first Scottish parliament in over 300 years. The SNP came a respectable second to the Labour Party, which now governs in coalition with the Liberals.

With devolution has come a dangerous insularity among the Scots. This is bizarre, because Scottish pride was previously based largely on the great achievements Scots have made outside their country - as explorers, industrialists, scientists. The country once prided itself on its cosmopolitan outlook. But that broad-minded acceptance of things foreign has narrowed.

Narrow nationalists demanded, and won, a concession whereby the BBC in Scotland substitutes a purely Scottish 20-minute segment in the nightly news program from London. In other words, while English viewers are watching an important story on, say, the peace talks in Ireland, viewers in Scotland will see that story suddenly interrupted by late-breaking news about the opening of a chicken processing plant outside Glasgow. Scotland's quality newspapers have transformed into the equivalent of a minor American daily. The first three pages are full of mundane local news, while the rest of Britain and the world is relegated inside.

On Oct. 25, Scottish parliamentarians made an official visit to St. Andrews, the oldest and most prestigious of Scotland's universities. Academics found themselves under enormous pressure to demonstrate the institution's ethnic purity. Politicians are distinctly annoyed by the high percentage of foreigners (i.e., English) in the student body. Leaving aside the fact that the university is obviously very good at attracting foreign capital (a strength the parliamentarians chose to ignore), isn't the cosmopolitan nature of a university usually a measure of its quality?

The new insularity has made bigotry respectable. Religious sectarianism is on the rise, given the obsession with defining the true Scot. Roman Catholics, because of their links to Rome and Dublin, are automatically suspect. Meanwhile, fringe nationalists peddle a Scottish version of "ethnic cleansing" by calling for the seizure of English-owned property and the forced repatriation of foreigners. Once ignored, they suddenly have a forum.

Recently, Billy Connolly, the former Glasgow shipyard worker who is now an internationally acclaimed actor, had the audacity to criticize the bigotry of post-devolution Scotland. He was condemned by nationalists, in particular for pursuing his fortune in Hollywood instead of in his native country. Meanwhile the SNP has transformed Sean Connery into a nationalist demigod, with some supporters suggesting he should be president of an independent Scotland. Unfortunately, the succor he can give the nationalist cause is limited by the fact that he prefers to live in sunnier climes such as Marbella, in Spain.

Clearly, logic is not a nationalist strength. It remains to be seen where the nationalist tide will flow. Perhaps, after their initial devolution euphoria, Scots will return to their senses.

But here is an important lesson. The Scots always argued that their nationalism was a far cry from the sort that has torn apart the former Yugoslavia. But a thin line separates nationalism from xenophobia.

Nationalists in Quebec might take heed. If the Scots can't manage to find a polite form of ethnic pride, who can?

*Gerard DeGroot, an American, is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews, in St. Andrews, Scotland.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.