Reclaiming the “F” Word

The London-based media, including (bizarrely) the BBC, have characterised the early stages of the Independence debate as having more to do with “Braveheart” than hard-nosed realities.  They could not be more out of touch with what is really going on in Scotland.

Image by Bothar is licenced under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Image by Bothar is licenced under CC-BY-SA-3.0

In the 1995 Oscar-winning movie “Braveheart”, Mel Gibson’s William Wallace famously roars “FREEDOM!” at the top of his lungs while being stabbed in the Smithfield meat market.  So to speak.  Earlier in the film, he rallies the troops before the Battle of Stirling (Bridge) with the oft-repeated line:

they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!”  Mel Gibson, 1995.

Which of course is reminiscent of our revered:

It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”  The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320.

There are of course, an abundance of fine quotations available on the subject of Freedom, many in the context of movements for national independence and civic emancipation.  A quick online search returns stirring phrases of thinkers from the Golden Age of Greek philosophy, through the Scottish and French Enlightenment, to modern political leaders such as M.K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.  You take your pick, but one of my favourite Freedom quotations is:

If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom. Dwight D Eisenhower.

What is interesting about the current debate in Scotland, is not that it has been awash with such sentiment, but that, given our cultural attachment to totems like the Declaration of Arbroath, “Braveheart” and “Freedom!” have hardly been mentioned here at all.

Not so in the UK media, who seem to imagine that we are all running around the Highlands naked, daubed in woad, headbutting each other. One recent (24th February) example occurred on the BBC’s “Daily Politics” between Jo Coburn, and that expert of Scottish Constitutional affairs, London-based hairdresser Nicky Clarke. In discussing how (they imagined) George Osborne’s intervention on currency union would bring Scots back to reality with a bump, the following exchange occurred:

Nicky Clarke: “Gone will be the days of worrying about the romanticised, almost Braveheart versions of things.”

Jo Coburn: “Yes, which has certainly been talked about up until now.”

Where has this been talked about, exactly, pray tell? Have chattering London journos been having dinner parties where they sit around laughing at the sentimental old Scots, perhaps? It certainly has not been happening in Scotland, where the Independence debate is largely proceeding with an earnest and self-consciously responsible attitude I have never encountered in any democratic process in England. Perhaps Jo Coburn has been spending too much time with Andrew Neil, and he hasn’t been spending enough time in Scotland.

At the time of its release, “Braveheart” certainly did strike a chord with the Scottish people, but we have to cast our minds back to the political and cultural context of 1995 to understand why. Despite its well-discussed historical inaccuracies and shameless romanticism, the guts of the William Wallace story, about a lower-born noble leading a peasant army in a revolt against unpopular rule imposed from South of the Border, resonated with the political situation of the time. At the fag end (to end all fag ends) of the Major administration, Scotland had been without democratic government for 16 years, and had endured the poll tax and Ravenscraig, while our oil was removed to fund mass unemployment in England. Now we were rocking in the corner in despair while the self-indulgent, toxic right wing of the Tory party ripped itself to pieces over the Treaty of Maastricht. Oh, and did I mention Michael Forsyth? And Ian Lang? Nope? Malcolm Rifkind, anyone?

So how did we end up being so embarrassed by it all? One reason is that many of us have seen one too many drunken rugby fan roaring “Freedom!” before spewing in his Sporran and collapsing in the gutter. It also can’t have helped that in the end, Mr Gibson became more famous for reports of his drunken, racist, jew-hating and homophobic rants, than his cinema direction and acting.

Scots also learned a long time ago to hide their true nationalism under a bushel. Part of the reason for the failure of the SNP to breakthrough in the 1970s and 80s was their perception as a small-minded and inward-looking sect of people. I suspect the combination of national shame at our subjugation, and fear of accusation of anglophobia, have made many Scots wary of overt nationalism for a very long time. Oh, and then there was Butcher Cumberland.

But I think the real reasons for the flight from Braveheartism are more profound, and, frankly, more obvious.

Scotland is more democratic now than she has ever been in her history. More democratic, in fact, that any part of the UK has ever been. This happened because the Scots people responded to unpopular, unelected government, by forming a Constitutional Convention, and writing their own plan to take more control of their own affairs. They then worked to make it happen in reality, and, on balance, have liked the results. So we understand that we can get serious about politics, and benefit from the process, without resorting to out-group hatred or introspective nationalism. In fact, we like the idea that Scotland is the country of the people who live here, and don’t want to discourage anyone nice from staying.

The Walter Scott version of romanticised Scots history was only invented in 1822 as a peg to hang Scottish identity on, because we hadn’t had our own government for over 100 years when George IV came to visit. Now that Scots are growing accustomed to their home-grown version of democracy, the need for such nonsense has been replaced by a growing appreciation of open, democratic and pluralistic politics.

It also makes sense to us that English commentators don’t know how to take broad-based Scottish democracy seriously. They just don’t understand it, because it doesn’t exist in England.

It is still curious though, that we are having a debate about our national Freedom, and nobody wants to mention the “F” word. If sexually confident feminists can organise “slut walks”, if sections of the LGBT community want to reclaim “queer”, and if some young men of African descent freely address each other with the “N” word, then why can’t we Scots reclaim our “Freedom”?

Our modesty is admirable, but I think it would be a shame if we allowed our very respectable serious-mindedness to rob us of the most important word in the foundational document of our country. So, to return to the quotes mentioned earlier, I would like to finish by adding one of my own:

“Freedom is not a dirty word.”

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