BY EFFIE DEANS
With Labour closing the gap with the SNP to three points there is a real prospect of Scottish nationalism facing a God is dead moment. When Nietzsche wrote about the mortality of God, he was not of course suggesting that God had been alive and had then died. Rather he was saying that God had become a dead issue like believing in Zeus or Aphrodite. No one seriously could believe in Zeus, just as no one seriously could believe in Scottish independence. It was a dead issue.
If the SNP loses half of its seats or even more which must be a real possibility given that we don’t yet know what further revelations and scandals might occur in the next year, then it will be not merely time to dance on the grave of Scottish nationalism it will be time to reflect on its failure.
I would like to suggest the case of Mhairi’s accent. The fundamental flaw in the SNP’s argument is that Scottish nationalism does not have any real grounds for separation from the UK. It therefore has to manufacture fake grievances and speak with fake accents.
If we compare recent independence movements, there has always been a genuine difference as a foundation. Lithuanians spoke a different language to Russian. Many Catalans speak a different language to Spanish. Quebecois speak French the rest of Canada speaks English. Flanders speaks Dutch and some of its people want to leave the part that speaks French.
What does Scotland have by comparison? Nothing. Some people have or put on a Scottish accent that is thick enough to be incomprehensible to foreigners, but even they invariably write in English. A truly tiny number of Scots speak Gaelic fluently, but on the best calculation they amount to around 1% of the population. The number of native speakers who fluently speak Gaelic every day will be much less than that. But this means that Wales has a better case for independence than Scotland.
Lacking a separate language Scottish nationalism could rely only on a historical grievance that compared to other European countries looks ludicrous. Poland lost 17% of its population in World War II. The Germans destroyed Warsaw after the uprising in 1944 while the Red Army watched. The Polish officer class was murdered by the Red Army at Katyn and Poland was partitioned for more than a century between the Russian Empire, the German and the Austrian Empires. Yet there is less enmity between Poles and Germans today than between Scots and English. The hostility to Russians is at least historically justified.
The last battle between England and Scotland was in 1547 and the English army did not raze Edinburgh to the ground in 1944, instead we fought on the same side and have done for centuries. The French population never recovered from Verdun and France has been successfully invaded by Germans three times since 1870, but not one German today will be insulted in France because of being German. Scotland’s grievance in comparison looks petty. We voted Labour but got a Thatcher instead.
But it is precisely because of the sparsity of genuine reasons to leave the UK that we have Mhairi Black putting on a rough accent. It is why Paul Beresford a Conservative MP originally from New Zealand could not understand the SNP’s David Linden in the House of Commons. The ludicrousness of this is that Linden is not speaking a foreign language (Scots), but nor is he speaking English. He is instead speaking English so poorly that another native English speaker cannot understand him. Linden might as well be a Neanderthal communicating in grunts.
Scots is a genuinely different language to English. As a child I grew up speaking Aberdeenshire Scots (Doric). It was a language with a distinctive vocabulary and grammar. It is at least as different as Danish from Norwegian, perhaps more so. It is not really mutually intelligible with English nor indeed with Glaswegian, which is fundamentally English with a thick accent and a few dialect words.
But the Doric I spoke as a child is dying out. It has retreated to the area around Peterhead and Fraserburgh due to the influence of television and the oil industry bringing in large numbers of people from other parts of Scotland and from further afield.
Scots as a distinct language rather than as an accent with a few words has been declining for centuries. It is no longer spoken in the major cities and towns of Scotland. Most people who think they speak Scots don’t. If you disagree read Walter Scott or Robert Burns and tell me how many people, you have met who use the vocabulary they do.
What is left is Mhairi Black and David Linden choosing I think for political reasons to speak English in such a way that a non-native speaker who has learned standard English would find them incomprehensible. This is then supposed to mean that Scotland has its own language, and the grievance is that English people and New Zealanders can’t understand it.
But the Dutch don’t complaint that the Germans can’t understand Dutch. Black and Linden were really speaking a different language, there would be no grievance. The grievance turns out to be that people can’t understand them speak English badly.
Mhairi Black does not have her own language. She neither speaks Gaelic nor Scots. Swearing in the House of Commons and calling someone Hen makes her sound common, rough and uneducated, but the truly ludicrous thing is that I strongly suspect she could speak standard English if she wanted to. If she met a foreign delegate during Pride month she’d try to make herself understood.
But this is a genuine problem throughout Britain. Large numbers of people are unable to speak English. Everywhere I have gone in Europe I have met people who can speak both the local variety of their language and the standard variety. It would be considered grotesquely ignorant if someone could only speak Swiss German and not High German. I have met Germans who ask Bavarians to speak High German as they struggle to understand.
If you ever learn a foreign language, you will be very grateful that people can speak the standard variety as that is the language you will have learned and you will struggle with local variants. But in Britain bizarrely we don’t teach children to be able to speak both standard English and local variants, though we do teach them to write it. No one writes in Glaswegian, Brummie or Geordie.
But here we have the problem with Mhairi Black, David Linden and countless other Scottish nationalists. Lacking a real reason for separation, because the only difference between Scots and English people is an accent, they accentuate that accent to the point of parody, not because they are speaking a separate language, but because they are speaking English so badly that fellow native speakers cannot understand them.
This ably demonstrates the paucity of their argument. Someone who spoke French so badly that his fellow MPs could not understand him would be merely considered ignorant. To use speaking bad French as a justification for secession would be like using a lack of qualifications and ignorance as a justification for obtaining a job.
It is for this reason above all that the SNP is dead.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.