2007 - 2021

Scotland, Class and Nation

10649928_10152475892183300_1020457689273687539_nAlistair Davidson on the hysteria of the Scottish establishment in the face of political uprising.

Too often, debates about class and Scottish nationhood are polarised. Either Scottish independence is a pan-class end-in-itself, a view that was associated with the old SNP centre and particularly traditionalists such as Winnie Ewing, or nationalism of any kind is a distraction from the task of fighting for social justice, a view common on the Labour left and amongst Yes voting but anti-nationalist leftists and liberals. This left-wing take on nationalism originates in World War 1, when the Socialist movement was split and overpowered as the working class of each country rallied to its own national banner, instead of going on strike to end the war as had been hoped.

But from Thomas Muir through Keir Hardie to the Scottish Socialist Party, there has always been a current on the Scottish left that supports nationalist aims. In the 1980s the ‘79 Group, a Socialist pressure group in the SNP whose members included Alex Salmond and Margo MacDonald, did sterling work convincing the SNP that furthering the aspirations of the Scottish people and especially the Scottish working class for a more progressive politics should be at the core of the case for independence.

The ‘79 Group was inspired by a split of voters along class line the 1979 referendum that mirrored that of the 2014 referendum: the working class voted Yes, a divided middle class voted No, and the upper class voted No as a block. The reasons for the split are simple, but rarely spelt out in plain language. The interests of Scotland’s wealthy are tightly bound to the edifice of the British state, to British institutions, to Britain’s empire (such as it is), to Britain’s patterns of land ownership. The social networks and private member’s clubs that offer access to power are centred on London.

The further down the social hierarchy you look, the weaker this interest is, and as a result it is Scotland’s poorest people who have the strongest attachment to Scotland as a nation. The working and middle classes are the most likely to speak Scots or broad Scots English, rather than “talking properly” like the upper-middle and upper class. Since the days of David Hume, Scots have taken elocution lessons in order to participate in the British imperial project.

Anglicisation is vital to climbing the class ladder in Scotland. We have surely all known someone with a “restaurant voice”. This worsens Scotland’s already sharp class divides. I was stunned, but sadly not surprised, when one businessman I canvassed told me that he feared the country being “Run by people from Coatbridge” – a deeply classist and probably anti-Catholic sentiment. Again and again, upper middle class Scots would tell us that they wanted the country to be run by “intelligent” or “educated” people.

No individual can or should be judged solely on their background, and indeed Scotland can be proud of its tradition of middle-class radicalism, but there remains a pattern: a large part of of the Scottish middle class fears the schemes. It fears paying for their dole, and sometimes it regards social renters as less than human. One teacher at my school in leafy Dunblane told me that “When you drive through Easterhouse, the people there, they’re like animals.” These views and disguised versions of these views are socially acceptable, though thankfully not universal, across the middle class professions.

Classism is hardly unique to Scotland, but it has a particular national character, where rejection of Scottish culture and language is often an elite trait. To Scotland’s reactionaries, the very Scottishness of the working class is one of the things that marks it as uneducated and unfit to rule, which only makes the recent upsurge all the more terrifying to them. Of late, Kenneth Roy is railing against mobs one week and complaining about the SNP populism of allowing anti-social behaviour on trains the next.

David Leask of the Herald described the BBC Bias demonstrations as fascistic”, on account of all the flags being waved. One widely-shared article worried that the SNP is Jacobin, and that RIC’s People’s Vow risks a rerun of the National Covenant. Journalists on Twitter regularly speculate that Nicola Sturgeon’s biggest challenge is reigning in the 65,000 new SNP members, the 45ers, who are assumed to be impatient fundamentalists.

The fear that mass participation will inevitably end in events akin to the Terror of the French Revolution, perpetrated by the Jacobins, is the foundation stone of modern conservatism. It was most famously articulated by Edmund Burke: “some popular general … shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself … The moment in which that event shall happen, the person who commands the army is master of your whole republic.” In one sense Burke was right, in that Napoleon rose to become Emperor – but he was also wrong, in that the French Republic remains radically more democratic and decentralised than Britain to this day.

It is this Burkean impulse that explains why even as Scottish democracy engages people on a massive scale, some activists are panicking about the danger of one-party rule. It is the curious relationship between nation and class in Scotland that explains why waving a Saltire creeping fascism to one person and a clear expression of popular sovereignty to another.

An alternative to Burke’s view is offered by famed American community organiser Saul Alinsky. In opposition to both conservatives and leftists who “lay claim to the precious quality of impartiality, of cold objectivity” he argued that a true radical is someone who is a “partisan of the people”, who will “identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.” 

Surely, this is the progressive position to take in the new Scotland. I have watched in amazement as the majority of the community campaign leaders I have met down the years, often working class mothers who became involved in politics through local anti-cuts fights, have flocked to first the Yes campaign and now the SNP. These are intelligent people and often experienced campaigners. On Facebook, every day, I see people of all backgrounds engaging in policy, economic and strategy debates, sharing analysis articles and petitions and encouraging each other to take action. The democracy movement is no-one’s fool.

The much-derided 45 are not “zoomers” as some journalists would have it, rather they understand something much supposedly informed comment misses – that nation and class are intertwined, that the nationalist struggle is about much more than flags, that the Scottish working class will always be held as inferior and excluded in the British system. They can see that their nation and their centre-left government are now locked in an existential fight with the British State.

Mass politics has become such a rarity that it is unnerving for the elite, who are used to politics as a polite gentleman’s club. In Scotland, mass politics waves the Saltire, because repression of Scottish identity and language is a central feature of class rule in Scotland. Mass politics is raucous, noisy, and angry. It plays by different rules to elite politics. These features allow it to reach beyond the ideological limits of neoliberalism. The return of mass politics warts and all should be welcomed by all progressives, as there is no real democracy without it.

Comments (48)

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  1. Geel says:

    Goals will only be fully achieved with full control.

    1. maxii kerr says:

      And that is why we must fight under one flag until we achieve those goals,or we might just snatch failure from the jaws of victory.

  2. thebunnyman says:

    excellent article

  3. bringiton says:

    Excellent article.
    Many of the Scottish middle classes have definitely bought into the Thatcher model of society and the culture of me first.
    Until Westminster austerity starts to bite them,they are unlikely to consider the need for any significant change in Scotland and will continue to reject the idea of Scots managing our own affairs.

    1. ronald alexander mcdonald says:

      You are spot on. Many I have spoken to are delusional. I get the impression they think the austerity cuts will only effect. those on benefits and not the whole economy etc.

    2. Joan Edington says:

      Bringiton. Another mass-branding of people. I don’t know how we are supposed to be united against Westminster when you tar everyone of a similar class with the same brush. The great thing about the referendum’s Yes voters was that they were a mixture of all sorts. I have had to put up with commenters slagging me off for being a pensioner, so voting No. Now I have you slagging me off for being middle-class, so not only voting No but being blind to the austerity all around us.
      I am middle-class, I was not responsible for my birth, and I am a pensioner of 64. I votes Yes, as I have done in each referendum, and have supported the SNP since I gained the vote at 19 years old. Austerity has not hit me too hard as yet, as you rightly say, but why that means I should not see what’s happening to people less fortunate I can’t understand. Please stop all this divisive stereotyping.

      1. gonzalo1 says:

        There are exceptions to every rule Joan and You are obviously one of them. I personally know a lot of what I would term as ‘I’m alright Jacks’ who voted No because they were doing alright.These people were lower middle class. Petit bourgeoisie (pseuds) I think is the expression.

      2. Alistair Davidson says:

        I – the piece’s author – am middle class, born and bred, though I have been very poor at times and lived in a one-bedroom council flat in Possil for four years. Many of Yes’s best activists are middle class.

        I was quite careful with my language, and am sorry that you felt indicted personally. This was definitely not my intention – to talk about trends and the structure of class in Scotland, not to single out individuals or get into a ridiculous ‘prolier than thou’ competition.

  4. Alistair Davidson says:

    Reblogged this on Alistair Davidson.

  5. Jim Ferguson says:

    A very interesting piece. I would have thought that Thomas Paine in the early 1790s, gave a fine riposte to Burke’s politics of fear . Indeed, I covered this point in my own book, ‘The Pine-Box-Jig Involves no Dancing’ earlier this year. http://jimfergusonpoet.co.uk/the-pine-box-jig/4586025889

  6. Les Wilson says:

    Very good article, a lot of truths said.

  7. Lochside says:

    Good riposte to bullshit about ‘Peronism’ and ‘Jacobinism’. Honestly, the shocked old ladies, mainly male, who come out as born again fearties and regret voting ‘YES’ make me puke.

    What they should fear is the real and actual forces of reaction: the Orange Order and Loyalist scum that showed up on our streets like vermin on the night of 19th Sept; the yellow press; the comprehensively one -sided BBC Propaganda machine working day and night; the Unionist vilification not only of AS and now NS, but of ‘YES’ supporters; Big Business and Unions hand in hand in attempts to cow our workforces; the whole British establishment colluding to destroy democracy and defend their interests in holding on to and exploiting our resources.

    The disjunction between the classes is typical in many countries, due to differing economic interests. But it is exacerbated in a colony such as Scotland. A buffer class of native Scots, first aristocratic, later educated upper middle class has held down the working class on behalf of the Empire.

    Interestingly, since Thatcher and Devolution, the English economy with its inflated housing market has allowed hundreds of thousand of English ‘white flighters’ to emigrate into Scotland and supplant many of the Indigenous rulers but with even more of a distance from the native Scots in terms of identity and language.
    The REF showed that over 70% of these people do not trust Scots to run their own country. How many of this population embrace the Scots language? and why should they, most regard Scotland as an extension of Mother England.

    The desire to join them is strong enough amongst a quarter of Scots who identify more British than Scots. Ironically, as this group has become more politicised and possibly entrenched in its identity, the opposite is happening in England. Because of black propaganda about Scottish dependency and UKIP’s rise, English identification increases year by year.

    Despite this, Scottish desire for Self Determination is not based on wanting to be ‘other’ to the English or anti them either. At rallies for YES all nationalities, including the English for YES, were there together as one, desiring not an exclusive Scotland, but the reverse: inclusive, just, socially equal. And by definition a real threat to the Established order, whatever its national origin or race, of bringing down the Privileged elites that imposed Austerity measures now being wrought upon this country by an external, remote unrepresentative parliament. Their lackeys are the frightened and aspiring middle class, embodying the self loathing cringe that plagues this country. Two months away from homelessness if made redundant, they fear and loathe the working class hordes of YES people now filling up the ranks of the SNP and SSP and Greens.

    Now the War has begun. we lost one battle, but we are strong and history is on our side. The old elites will always eventually succumb either through division or corruption. I think we are seeing both elements displayed in our enemy today.

    1. Calzo says:

      What is this native Scottish language you talk of? I’m Scottsih Born and bred, So are my parents and there parents before them. All of us only ever spoke English. Some folk speak scots, a few gaelic. Mostly just English though. I voted Yes. Not because I’m part of an oppressed indigenous species but because I thought self-determination was for the long term good of the country and because the politics of recent UK history has been shit.

      Comdemnation of ‘the 45’ is not condemnation of the yes movement or those activists who strive for a better, inclusive Scotland. It is aimed at a fairly sizeable portion of folk on social media who can fairly comfortably be described as ‘zoomers’. They tend to have nothing constructive to say and lack the ability to recognise nuanced arguments, preferring to continue living in the binary world of YES good NO bad even though that does nothing for the betterment of Scotland in a post No world…

    2. Darien says:

      Thank you for a succinct and accurate evaluation of why we are where we are. It wid be braw tae hear mair Scots tongues among oor meritocracy.

    3. turra loon says:

      Great reply. I agree entirely.

  8. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Lose your language lose your land. Think of the Aboriginal peoples of the world.

  9. Sandy Ritchie says:

    I would substitute British working class will always be held as inferior… I suggest that UKIP supporters are predominantly working class… Britain working classes are predominately socially conservative be it Scots English Welsh or Irish..

  10. Darien says:

    Exciting times – reclaiming our language, our land and the rest. And not before time. 80-minute patriots will just have to live with it.

  11. Ken MacColl says:

    An excellent thoughtful article.

    “Mass politics flies the Saltire” is undoubtedly true and helps to explain the almost visceral hatred of that symbol that is displayed in some” soi-disant” Scottish institutions like the local Council in the Scottish burgh of Stirling and the present administration in Argyll & Bute Council who reversed a previous policy of flying the national flag because of some perceived political agenda in the run up to the referendum and continue in this idiotic self denial to this day.

    1. Sandy Ritchie says:

      People who enjoy waving a flag don’t deserve to have one.. By

      1. turra loon says:


  12. mark says:

    I appreciate that an opinion piece shout be just that, but to form opinion on numerous unexplained assumptions detracts entirely from the conclusions drawn here.
    A potentially interesting article undermined from the outset.

    1. Hi Mark, Can you explain what you mean rather than just leave your assumptions unexplained?

    2. Darien says:

      “to form opinion on numerous unexplained assumptions ”

      Yes, one really needs proven facts to base opinion on, real facts just like Lord Darling o’ Merchiston’s promise of “best of both worlds”, “punching above our weight”, “pooling resources” etc etc etc. Or maybe Gordo’ the Great’s promise of “home rule” or “as close to federalism as yada yada yada”?

    3. Alistair Davidson says:

      Hi Mark, it would be great if you could outline which assumptions bothered you. I believe I can support those I’m aware of, though not in the confines of a single article of readable length. I’ll probably be writing something a bit more data-heavy in future, so any thoughts are very welcome.

  13. The little fat man sold the jerseys, now he’s going to get even fatter in London. There was no viable ‘YES’ choice.

    Guardian: Leveson criticises Salmond for offering to lobby on behalf of Murdoch http://v.gd/tFa1wr

    Salmond tugging the forelock to the Council on Foreign Relations, the centre of American global hegemony.


    1. Hi Eric, Do you think responding by being abusive about one man makes for a good reply?

      The Yes movement that this article is about is not about one man, it us about all of us. The No response is to try to focus on one man because there is no substantive response to a movement that is seeking social justice for all. You prove the point, although it gives me no pleasure to say so.

  14. Lawrence says:

    Excellent article, you`ve read my mind, organised my thought and expressed them in a way I`ve been trying to for some time. They have been trying to kill the language for decades and with it goes our identity. Sick to death of hearing that cockney/London accent all over the TV.

  15. Thanks Alistair,

    I have never understood how World War 1 made sense for anyone, but you write: “This left-wing take on nationalism originates in World War 1, when the Socialist movement was split and overpowered as the working class of each country rallied to its own national banner, instead of going on strike to end the war as had been hoped.”

    From what you say, WW1 did a powerful job ensuring that the elite prevailed by dividing everyone else along national lines. Suddenly the celebration/ commemoration/ validation of WW1 currently being pursued by the British state/ BBC/ UK Govt etc makes a lot more (unpleasant) sense.

    1. Darien says:

      “I have never understood how World War 1 made sense for anyone”

      It made perfect sense for:

      the press barons who got the ball rolling;
      the armaments suppliers, who sold the hardware
      the banks, who financed the hardware
      and the political/hereditary elites, who quelled civil unrest and their very real fear of revolution at home

      So little has changed!

      1. Hi Darien – Agreed!

        But, for me, there is something more than that in Alistair’s point:

        It’s not just that those who exploit exploited, but that WWI was also a way of turning those who resisted that exploitation against each other. What has changed is that – in pushing for self-determination – we have managed to resist that divisiveness by making social justice the test of which State we support.

  16. arthur thomson says:

    An excellent article. The assumptions you make are ok by me. The notion that anyone can make a truly objective analysis of the political situation is simply daft – there are too many variables. Your perspective fits with my life experience and is a source of inspiration to all of us who want a Scotland that is much more egalitarian. Fifty years ago, when I was a 17 year old canvassing for the SNP, my fifty year old uncle, who was a Labour Councillor, said to me: ‘I understand hoo ye feel son but it’s too late. We had oor chance and we didnae tak it.’ They sold out – and for what? Keep writing Aistair Davidson.

  17. Bothy Basher says:

    When I turn on the radio to a Scots programme I am always uneasy about just how many interviewees are non Scots or Anglicised Scots. On say, a programme about the countryside, the park rangers are often from England; likewise The Coastguard, university professors and so on. Of course the big landowners are totally Anglicised and are educated in English private schools.

    I wondered why Scots were not represented in their own country and once got this explanation. Public jobs must be advertised UK wide. As there is a UK ratio of about 10:1 of English to Scots, this explains the imbalance.

    Yet it is odd to find non Scots accents speaking on Scots issues. I welcome English people who want to come here, but this imbalance is bizarre.

    1. Darien says:

      “this imbalance is bizarre”

      Not so bizarre, see for example – http://www.scottishreview.net/AlfBaird61.shtml

      Some home rule and federal arrangements (e.g. Flanders) ensure through legislation the language of the nation/region concerned is and remains the official language used in education, in officialdom etc. Scots in all walks of life within Scotland should really be speaking Scots, not struggling with RP English. Gaelic seems to have more ‘protection’ than Scots, not that I am against Gaelic – I wish I could speak it as it sounds braw. But ongoing institutional arrangements (BBC, civil service, education, law etc) effectively suppress the Scots language, which is really discrimination/anglicisation, call it what you will. Scots language should form a major part of any Scotland Act. It is one of the key features that distinguishes us Scots as a nation – the lingo – ken whit a’ mean? Ben the huis? Gang uit? Efterskole even! Why do we ignore our own language, the one we speak in the streets, in the playgroonds, at the shops. Lets get it back. At skul we wir telt no tae speak brawd Scots, say aye or naw. That is discrimination. Use it or lose it, as they say.

      1. turra loon says:

        Weel said Cheel.

      2. Gordon says:

        The thing that gets me is that there are more folk with Scots accents (of various sorts) in Scotland than English, but in any vox pop programme testing the opinions of the Scots nation, the majority of the voices expressing these opinions are English. Furthermore, Scots presenters are now starting to pronounce Scots place names in an English fashion. I give you an example: Aviemore with the accent on the Avie. It’s almost as if the BBC is trying to erase and diminish Scots accents and dialects as if they are something to be ashamed of. They did this after the Clearances. Gaelic and highland dress, both in schools and in public, were proscribed. Yes, the Anglophone nations know fine how to make a proud nation ashamed to be one. They are still doing it.

      3. Bothy Basher says:

        In Scotland very few of us speak Scots. Most of us speak English with our respective accents. And you Darien, like me, write in English.

        You comment on ‘struggling’ with RP – but we don’t speak RP at all unless we are posh or a Scots landowner who was educated in England as most are.

        It’s too late for Scots; we need to speak a world language, and we do.

        Tom Leonard once spoke of the pleasure of ‘being in your own mouth’ – but in Scotland we may not know which mouth.

  18. Bothy Basher says:

    December 8, 2014 • 05:21
    Excellent article, you`ve read my mind, organised my thought and expressed them in a way I`ve been trying to for some time. They have been trying to kill the language for decades and with it goes our identity. Sick to death of hearing that cockney/London accent all over the TV.


    I get really pissed off with English dialect being so mainstream, but no Scot on TV reporting is allowed dialect.

    I refer to the hideous post vocalic ‘r’ as in Obamar, Chinar, Ebolar, lorr and order, sorring wood, (and most hideously) – Yoko Rono. Another is referring to the ground as the ‘floor’ .

    Sick of it…

  19. Morag says:

    “Reigning in”? Oh dear….

  20. Slagging of Coatbridge, how dare you. theexiledplumber.com is fae Coatbrig. Campaigning there during the referendum I have to say I met quite a few people who should be running the country. Although I would describe myself as left of centre, if you check out the “So your a secret Conservative” section of my website you’ll see even us Coatbridge people believe there is a role for the centre right in our P.R. parliament. Can’t believe their so opposed to Independence. It’s their only hope of getting any influence in the day to day running of our country. Post Independence polarisation could be a thing of the past.Pragmatism for the benefit of all.

    1. Bothy Basher says:

      Pragmatism for the benefit of all – and a spellchecker in every Tory home.

  21. turra loon says:

    Try walking down Keir Street in Bridge of Allan with an ‘I voted yes badge’. Glowers galore frae the Tweed Bunnets and the Blue Rinses. Ha Ha. Very enjoyable. I do it every day.

  22. Patrick says:

    I’m not going to get much sympathy for this observation, which is trivial besides the main argument, but something that I’ve often wondered about, and which is related to the points you make in your article, is the possibility of contemporary Scottish cultural expression that reflects the experience of the Scots middle class. In fiction, film, theatre, the more authentically Scottish a work is seen to be, the broader the accents of the protagonists, and the more working class they tend to be. This is reflected in a lot of very fine and successful work, but I wonder if it leaves a gap. The posher the principle characters, the more culturally ‘English’ they become, and the less that work is seen to be about the Scottish experience instead of a more generic UK or western context. Either that or middle class characters are set up in opposition to the main protagonists, often as villains, sometimes in a pantomime sense. And yet a lot of this work is written or performed by fairly middle class people, affecting a more ‘authentic’ Scottish voice, often unconvincingly. (Very lame and lowbrow example – the actress playing ‘BT lady’ in that party political broadcast.) It’s restricting. Spoiler alert: I’m fairly middle class, and don’t have a particularly broad accent.

  23. Reblogged this on Inside One Mind and commented:
    Interesting analysis.

  24. MVH says:

    Fantastic piece of writing. Best ever analysis I have seen of class and nation and language in Scotland. Brings together the threads of various twitter/indyblog debates beautifully. Inspiring to see something this decent coming out of the increasingy petty and bitter online wrangling of Jan ’16. Hope to see more like this soon.

    1. MVH says:

      Oooops just noticed the date. This was written before the snarkfest of Jan 2016. My bad. Still a great article 🙂

  25. C. G. Estabrook says:

    The reference to those who will “identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests” is in fact a quotation from that noted slave-owner & author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.

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