Politics

A Thought for the Day the Scottish Parliament Votes for a New Independence Referendum

(Below this piece is a response from Bob Tait, in which he recounts being called a "rootless cosmpolitan" by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid.)

Recently, listening to Radio Four’s ‘Thought for the Day’, a programme that is intended for a moment of religiously-inspired reflection in the morning news cycle, I heard the Reverend Giles Fraser denouncing “rootless cosmopolitans’.I was surprised and horrified as to me this phrase connotes ‘Jews’. It has a history - the ideological separation of non-ethnic Germans from the rest of the population by the Nazi regime.

Fraser went on to discuss a book by David Goodhart which separates a group of elite “anywheres’ - people who move around - unfavourably with ‘somewheres’, people who belong, who don’t move away from their birthplaces. “Listening to Thought for the Day. Jesus!” I tweeted. “Yes, St Paul got about a bit too,” a friend replied. Of course Jesus of Nazareth famously got a somewhat frosty reception in his home town. St Paul, one of the founders of the Christian religion to which Frazer claims to adhere, travelled around the ancient world sending letters back. Presumably he was one of the dubious “anywheres”.

There was a large feature article about this same book in the FT, refuted eloquently on the letters page later by Tobias Flessenkemper, writing from the European Institute in NIce. He wrote that the Brexit/Trump backlash was not prompted, as Goodhart claims, “by an excess of equality under the law but rather by the destruction of the very foundations of modern democracy: access to equal life chances and a better distribution of wealth. The risks for democracy were the results of laissez-faire capitalism and uncontrolled market forces rather than of a liberal legal and social order.”

The Brexit government in the UK and its supporters are similar to the Trumpists in the US in that they conjure a notion of a dangerous “elite’ - of which they claim they are not really part, as rulers who in contrast, are of the people: ‘somewheres’. This conjured well-heeled elite which travels around the world, availing itself of rights like freedom of movement, is to blame for the ills of globalisation, sipping like bees at nectar which belongs to others.

 A hatred of intellectuals is common to right-wing governments and their friends. But this anywhere/ somewhere dichotomy goes further. It implies that people who live in one place are in some insidious way better and more deserving of rights than migrants. So British-born citizens should get jobs before Polish residents. British-born citizens’ children are entitled to child benefit, but an Eastern European woman who works in a care home and pays her taxes should not get it if her children are in Warsaw. But an “ex-pat” English person living in Spain should get their pension.

The day I heard this poisonous Thought for the Day, I met an old friend. She spoke of her horror at hearing Theresa May announce “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’ “I may have lived all my life in Scotland,” my friend said. “But I am a citizen of the world.”

She went on to add that her parents, who fought in the Second World War, would have been appalled to see right-wing Tory MPs going through the lobbies of Westminster humming the Dambusters march as they voted for Brexit. In her view, this London government is intent also on demolishing the post war social contract. “My parents came back from the Second World War determined to pass on a better world to their children. And they did.”

Winston Churchill said, of course, “I look forward to a United States of Europe”. So he may have been more in tune with Tory grandee Kenneth Clarke - the only Tory MP to vote against the bill to trigger Article 50 - than the current Conservative government.

Theresa May’s remarks about training more British doctors so that there will be less need to hire “foreign” ones; the Tory conference talk of “shaming” companies who hire “foreign”workers, the reneging on a commitment to admit unaccompanied child refugees, and more, seem to contain elements of blood and soil nationalism that I find deeply repellant and would describe as crypto-fascist.

The Scottish National Party has its own history of flirtation with these kinds of ideas, and they are still represented by individuals within the party membership, but under the leadership of Alex Salmond it turned its back on ethnic nationalism many years ago. My father, the journalist Arnold Kemp gave a lecture on Scots adoption of what he called “elective nationalism” in 1990.

The SNP, in their vote on the call for a new independence referendum are also ably supported by the Scottish Greens, whose leader Patrick Harvie spoke eloquently in the debate on this at Holyrood last week.

Scotland, like Ireland, has a history of emigration and there are, I read recently a million Scots resident abroad, a contrast to the 160,000 or so EU nationals resident in Scotland. Most Scottish families probably have members who have made their lives in other countries.  Scotland is an outward-looking country. And it is one that needs more immigration. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the day after the Brexit vote last year made her first statement one which supported the rights of EU residents in Scotland, assuring them that they remain welcome and their contribution is valued. This was in stark contrast with the attitude of May’s government in Westminster.

Of course, there are many people in England who are appalled and dismayed by the mood music of the moment, who understand its implications and are revolted by them. But there are many too, who are in sympathy with it, people like the Rev Fraser. Hearing his broadcast reminded me of this. In the modern era it is very easy to live in a Twitter bubble, reading only things that you agree with. Hearing the opprobrious term "rootless cosmopolitans" being used with scorn on Radio Four, the voice of the home counties, left me more sure than ever that Scotland and England are on increasingly divergent paths.

I write this on the day that Holyrood is expected to vote to trigger Article 30, a call for a new independence referendum. I very much hope that this will be the first step on a path that will allow Scotland to retain its membership of the European Union, to respect and protect the rights and freedoms that we value.

FOOTNOTE:  After submitting this to the digital magazine Sceptical Scot, I received some interesting responses, including this from Bob Tait, who recalls being called a "rootless cosmopolitan" by Hugh MacDiarmid, something which Bob regarded as a badge of honour.

Jackie is right to nail this all too poisonous and malign way of distinguishing between “true native people” and the “rootless” others or using other words to that effect. Not having read David Goodhart’s book, but having read other things he’s written, I wonder if this can really be what he meant. Part of the problem is that it is all too easy for people to pick up that takeaway message if their confirmation bias so inclines them and even if the original analysis and intentions were quite different. The best available antidote to this simplistic message, so far as I know, is the three-volume work by Spanish-American sociologist Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. But there are three volumes of it for good reason – the complexities of social and cultural networks, communities and indeed loyalties in our time. And of course the fact that it is in three hefty volumes tells against its effectiveness as an antidote in an information age so dominated by flickers and twitters. Jackie’s blog reminds me of the game “Whack-A-Mole”. However often you whop the mole (or in this case, something much less cuddly and inoffensive) when it pops its head up, up it pops up again somewhere else. No moles were harmed in making this comparison, and the only thing to do is keep on whopping. And hoping.

Once upon a time I was accused, along with Edwin Morgan, of being a “rootless cosmopolitan”. This was in a pamphlet – a fatwah, in effect – written by Hugh MacDiarmid. Luckily it did neither of us any real harm, we chuckled merrily about it at the time, and reflected that this was rich coming from a proponent of the communist international (whose adherents were, of course, excoriated as rootless cosmopolitans by fascists and others of the far right). The reason for MacDiarmid’s diatribe? Eddie and I took many of our literary-cultural cues from sources furth of the domain of echt Scottish literature: as did MacD, of course, but he disapproved of our sources. I happily treated the accusation as a badge of honour. Still do.        

Bob Tait