Citizens of somewhere

Michael Henderson delves into two different radio programmes with identity at the centre

On Radio

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

We hear so much these days about identity, and the conversation is framed in narrow terms designed to keep others out. Shrill voices proclaim membership of religious, ethnic, political, sexual and sporting tribes, as though it comes with a blessing from Zeus. Such identities exist, nobody has ever denied that, but they should never be so important that they silence other considerations.

Predictably overlooked is the most natural loyalty, which binds individual to country. Without a sense of national identity, as Vaughan Williams said, there is nothing for the wider loyalties to build on. Yet the modern liberal mind (perhaps not so modern, as readers of Orwell will recall) considers nationhood an embarrassment, at least when it applies to the English.

Scott’s promotion of the Royal visit and his nostalgic, romantic view of Scotland, helped buttress the Union

The Scots, the same folk tell us, are different. North of the border you will find an altogether different “progressive nationalism”. Of course! You can see it in the cherubic features of Nicola Sturgeon, whose generosity of spirit offers perpetual delight. Who wouldn’t want to live in her dream kingdom?

There is nothing new about national mythologies. All nations create them, however fast and loose they play with the truth. Scotland is a good place to start because the idea of “Scottishness”, as perceived in the world beyond, was largely the work of Sir Walter Scott, whose novels entranced European readers in the nineteenth century. Modern Scots may despise that legacy, but they cannot overlook it. Scotland, in the eyes of many, remains Scott-land.

Allan Little, one of those literate reporters the BBC used to value highly, investigated the phenomenon for Radio 4, in Great Scott, which marked the 250th anniversary of the author’s birth. To Andrew O’Hagan, the modern Scottish novelist, Scott was “a relic”. Sir Tom Devine, the celebrated historian, was kinder: “All nations are impregnated with myth.” There was such a thing as “the invention of tradition”, he said, and Scott did more than anybody to invent the Scottish tradition.

“Sham bards of a sham nation,” Edwin Muir called Scott and those who emerged from beneath his kilt — the most visible symbol of this historical deceit. You can trace the fib directly to “the king’s jaunt” of 1822, when George IV got togged up to greet his subjects in North Britain, a celebration choreographed by Scott with the kind of folk-infused spirit that Mikhail Fokine later brought to the Ballets Russes.

Tartan! Highlanders! Border ballads! “The delicious delusion from the Celtic mist,” as Scott said, in a search for the epic made famous (or infamous) by that gigantic fraud, Ossian. Doomed Jacobites! Gothic piles! Heroic failure! All aspects, as O’Hagan grumbled, of “pantomimic Scotland”. He has a point. Those who remember the White Heather Club, and Andy Stewart bringing in the New Year with lusty songs and a sword dance, should need no persuading.

As Devine pointed out, there was a serious issue at hand. Scott’s promotion of the Royal visit and his nostalgic, romantic view of Scotland, helped buttress the Union, the well-spring of the “Scottish Enlightenment”. Before 1707, Scotland was essentially a wild land. Afterwards it became, through formal association with its southern neighbour, a modern nation, and Edinburgh blossomed into one of the world’s great cities.

In recent years he has been one of the few voices on the left to try to understand why people in places like the six towns think as they do

Little handled the subject skilfully, and introduced a wide range of voices. Surprisingly we did not hear from Allan Massie, Borderer, man of letters and author of The Ragged Lion, an excellent novel about Scott. Neither, mercifully, did we hear from the frothing Nationalist journalist who once referred to “the evil of English banality, and the banality of English evil”. We end up with the history we want, said Rosemary Hill. It may be seen on a thousand shortbread tins.

Identity lay at the heart of Citizens of Somewhere, also on Radio 4, when John Harris visited Stoke-on-Trent, where 70 per cent of voters supported Brexit. Harris, unlike most of his comrades on the Guardian, does not sneer at them. In recent years he has been one of the few voices on the left to try to understand why people in places like the six towns think as they do.

Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, Longton, Fenton and Stoke are friendly places, as Harris found out. People spoke warmly of their birthplace, though it was clear they were upset by the “voyeurism” of those who popped in during the European referendum for anthropological reasons. Deb McAndrew, of the local Claybody Theatre Company, was particularly impressive when she spoke about the “ghost” of the faded glory of the Potteries. “How do you honour the loss felt by the older generation without burdening the young?”

It’s a good question, which may be asked of people in towns all over the United Kingdom, where there is a sharp if not clearly articulated ancestral sense. No matter what you may have heard, we are all citizens of somewhere.

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