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Alasdair Gray and the Settlers

Over the last couple of week, Alasdair Gray’s essay Settlers and Colonists, to be published in a forthcoming book on Scottish independence edited by Scott Hames, has been described as an anti-English, racist text by what I presume to be Unionists who in most cases have not even bothered to read the entire essay in the first place.

While the essay in itself does include a number of problematic passages, it is not the perceived stab at Englishmen that I question when reading it – Gray makes it clear that his essay draws on personal experiences, so to treat it as an academic defence of anti-Englishness and a biased support of independence is thus preposterous – but rather its waffled use of post-colonial terminology, and its failure to consider class alongside Gray’s use of the terms Settler/Colonist to describe two types of incomers to Scotland. In fact, what has been most frequently stated as proofs of Gray’s anti-Englishness by journalists and laymen alike is indeed nothing but a couple of plain-spoken facts, presented without a detailed analysis of the same attached to them, presumably left out to avoid writing too long an essay.

It is true that Scottish culture – if Scottish culture is static and cannot change – was left out of the Glasgow Capital of Culture year in that it failed to acknowledge the city’s actual history and instead focused on deleting an in many ways stereotypical and false picture of Glasgow as a city characterised by violence and run over by rabid lefties.

It is true that many Scots ‘regard[…] Scotland from a London perspective’, and to point this out as Gray does throughout the essay, or to question it does not constitute an act of bigotry in itself.

In other words, this essay is not the product of an anti-English mind because it in a more or less factual way questions the appointment to a job of someone. Gray is merely pointing out that a now dead English producer at BBC Glasgow with no interest in Scotland had been sent there from London to take charge of the broadcasting, as an effect of fear of losing control over Scotland’s media during the first referendum discussions in 1979. The essay is also not anti-English because it tells its readers that the director of Creative Scotland is English and has confessed to having no understanding of Scottish culture. Rather, what does make these statements when considered as part of the essay as a whole somewhat problematic is instead their failure to discuss whether it is indeed the incomer status of these people and their Englishness as anchored in a non-commitment to a Scottish reality on a long term basis, or if it is their educational and societal background, regardless of birthplace, that lead to them to being appointed to these positions in the first place.

Indeed, most critics of Gray’s essay take offence to what can be seen as a snarky remark that followed aforementioned facts; ‘Ain’t Scotland lucky?’ On it’s own, it is a loaded comment, but what everyone so far has failed to comment on is the fact that Gray did expect a certain backlash and gave a preemptive answer to the same in his essay;

If you feel these former remarks are full of anti-English prejudice, remember that these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people.

If his defence is any good is questionable. In short, Gray is not so much expressing signs of anti-Englishness in his response, as he is using it to give a voice to a national disbelief in Scottish agency. What Gray is doing here, however, is feeding into a discourse where some Scots writers for a long time have seen themselves as members of a colonised state, which at the same time ‘only became one nation through resistance to continually renewed efforts by the southern government to subdue them’. During the 20th and 21st century, Scottish writers and the Scottish public alike have spent a considerable time dealing with what by Stephanie Lehner has been described as ‘a cultural paralysis and political trauma.’ As such Scots see themselves as the sons and daughters of, to quote Tom Nairn, ‘a political castration’, so repressed by the English that they have abandoned hope of themselves. Yet, at the same time Gray acknowledges the fact that the Union is the product of ‘a severe economic depression, [in which] the main owners of Scotland were paid to become a tenth part of England’s parliament’, thereby undermining the entire idea that Scotland was colonised in the first place.

The truth is that Scotland within its own borders cannot be classified as either a colonised victim or a coloniser, to try to characterise it as either betrays a misunderstanding of historical facts, or an over-simplification of the same. Gray does neither, but at the same time his presentation of Scotland’s involvement in the British Empire – ‘For over two and a half centuries colonists and settlers from Scotland – and Ireland – helped the London government to establish and administer a British Empire’ – is border-line romantic and far too simplistic, and paired with an equally simplistic description of the terms settler and colonist, it opens up his essay for criticism that takes away from the actual point with the essay, i.e. that ‘only one question should be asked by that referendum: Do we who live in Scotland want an independent government?’.

But to get to said point, which is one I wholly agree with – anyone resident in Scotland, regardless of their birthplace, should be allowed to decide whether or not they want to be living in a state that is separated from the United Kingdom – he expects the reader to force themselves through a whole lot of historical inaccuracies and anecdotal waffle.

Gray opens his essay with the following sentences;

‘A Scottish wordsmith said, ‘Outgoers and incomers made, make every land’. Yes. Both kinds can be divided into Settlers or Colonists’.

He goes on to claim that a colonist is an invader, set on returning to his homeland, whereas a settler is an invader that chooses to stay in the place they’ve invaded. This in itself is inaccurate in that a settler still forms a part of a colonial oppression of an indigenous group of people – he will always remain a colonist – thus making the division flawed, but it is also highly problematic to be talking about Settlers and Colonists in a Scottish context, as it devalues actual indigenous decolonial discourses elsewhere, where the terminology surrounding settlers and colonists has an actual role to play. Settlers are people who have unlawfully taken over another nation’s lands against their will, or entered into treaties they may or may not adhere to as is more often the case. Today, Settler and Colonists are thus terms that are almost exclusively used when discussing indigenous decolonisation, a discourse that Scottish writers love to pay lip-service to, but in which they as Scots don’t have an actual role as oppressed Others to play.

Calling the English settlers or colonists in Scotland is redundant, seeing as contemporary Scottishness is a concept that was forged out of a homogenising tartanised romanticism as presented by Sir Walter Scott in the first place anyway. To then use state borders and with it a form of land-based jus sanguinis to define Scottishness, without acknowledging the vast differences that still exists between different parts of the country, as well as the close cross-border relationship between northern England and Scotland in stark contrast to the political relationship between Holirood and Westminster is simplistic and obscures the actual message Gray is trying to deliver.

Truth be told, as much as I co-sign the conclusion drawn at the end of the essay, it is the first sections of Gray’s essay, which draws heavily upon a traditional Braveheart rhetoric undermined by its own understanding of the ridiculousness of the same, that truly has me questioning the arguments laid forward in his essay. The point he is trying to make is valid and agreeable, the route he takes to get their, however, is both alienating and arrogant.

Gray states that

Colonists and settlers may start with the same homeland and some loyalty to it, a loyalty dependent on support the homeland gives them. The difference between these two sorts of invader becomes obvious when they have subdued the local natives by exterminating many of them, as in Australia, driving them away, as in North America, enslaving them as in South America, or (more rarely) giving some of them equal rights, as may be the case in New Zealand.

The first sentence is only valid if we agree with the practice of making a distinction between colonists and settlers, which I don’t, and the second part of this paragraph is a complete and utter mess for a variety of reasons. Gray’s understanding of British colonial oppression around the world betrays a Western mind spiced up with White Guilt. On one hand, Gray points out the flaws of the colonial machine and seemingly criticises them by listing different colonial crimes carried out by the British, but to not acknowledge the fact that the genocide of indigenous populations was practice across the board, and to buy in to the myth of the now gone Native in North America ensures that contemporary media can continue to ignore the existence of contemporary indigenous peoples and is in essence as problematic as not acknowledging it at all.

But it is the suggestion that the British Empire somehow offered equal rights to the indigenous people of New Zealand that really forces me to collect my raised left eyebrow from the roof whence it has now emigrated. Gray is correct in claiming that New Zealand is unique in the sense that the British set out to sign a treaty with the Maori before the actual large-scale immigration from the British Empire began, and in 1837 Lord Glenelg, the Colonial Secretary at the time stated that the Maori were civilised people to his surprise. Worth noting is that Lord Glenelg was a Scot, the son of an evangelical who rose to the ranks of Chairman of the British East India Company, and the grandson of a Gaelic-speaking soldier who fought against the British in the Battle of Culloden, thus throwing all presupposed ideas of a Scottish victim status on its head.

‘The [Maori] are not Savages living by the Chase, but Tribes who have apportioned the country between them, having fixed Abodes, with an acknowledged Property in the Soil, and with some rude approaches to a regular System of internal Government’.

This statement, which is interesting in itself in that it draws upon the Lockean assumption that only non-savages could own land which had been used to strip Native American and Australian indigenous nations of their rights, lead in turn to the signing of the Waitangi Treaty. Without it being specifically stated in the essay, I assume a superficial understanding of this treaty is what makes Gray wrongfully claim that the Maori have equal rights as the settlers in Aotearoa. The reality, however, is another, in that the treaty reads differently in Maori and English. Moreover it was not signed with the heads of all individual iwi in Aotearoa and over the years, the New Zealand Settler government has used Lord Glenelg’s quote above to argue that the signatories lacked a true understanding of nationhood and sovereignty and that the Treaty as such lacks binding force in law, cf. the Prendergast judgement, thereby stripping the Maori of the equal rights Gray claim they may have with their Settlers.

In the subsequent paragraph, Gray continues his waffled explanation of the terms Settler and Colonist by claiming that the USA has firmly left their Settler status behind.

‘The USA has made all such imperialism a thing of the past. It does not exploit foreign lands by planting settlers in them, as Britain did in Canada and Australia, or sending in their own governors and civil servants, as Britain did in Kenya and India.’ 

Once again, this is wrong. The colonisation of Native American land is far from a thing of the past, and while the government has entered into negotiations with tribes as sovereign nations within the States, the fact is that all of America continues to constitute colonised, settled land, and that the government has imposed a number of laws to restrict indigenous sovereignty to be properly exercised. To suggest something like this in order to argue for Scottish independence is silly and something I thought we’d be spared in the Independence debate.

But the essentialism of Gray’s essay doesn’t stop at appropriating a decolonial discourse. One of the many problematic parts of his essay focuses on non-Scots who have become ‘more effectively Scottish than most born natives’. This can be read in two ways; on one hand it is a challenge of what indeed constitutes Scottishness, but framed by the Settler/Colonist discourse employed by Gray, it sadly becomes an essentialist blood-and-soil argument that even Gray must have realised would make him the victim of criticism from Unionists who want nothing else than to paint all independence supporters as racist, bigoted right-wing nationalists.

What is Scottishness? Is it being born in Scotland, or is it to partake in whatever it is that constitutes a Scottish everyday life, regardless of one’s physical birthplace? Gray answers this question by saying that Scotland is for everyone, and I do believe he is trying to state that to be Scottish merely equals a commitment to Scotland, but once again the framework and arguments he uses to get to this point work against him.

Further on in his essay, Gray goes on to state that

Adventurous people in poor countries have often sought a better life in richer ones, even when not driven from their homelands by famine, as in nineteenth-century Ireland, or by greedy landlords in the Scottish Highlands

He does make it very clear to the reader that colonialism and settler movements between England and Scotland have been inherent in Scottishness for centuries, referring to, among others, James I of England and Tony Blair, but in virtually the same breath as he states that these people have prospered in England, he goes on to lament the apparent draining of resourceful people from Scotland.

I believe this is one of the key faults with Gray’s argument; in appropriating indigenous decolonial terminology, thereby alienating people who would otherwise agree with his actual point – Scotland is for everyone who wants to live there – and attaching English colonialism in Scotland with negativity while not questioning if the same cannot then be said about Scots in high positions in England, he opens himself up for attack by the people who believe that the Union must stay. I am pro-independence, but I believe it is dishonest to the cause to use sentimentalism fuelled by essentialism, intentional or not, to support Scottish independence.

Gray could have spent hundred words on writing that he wants Scotland’s future to be decided by those who choose to live and settle here, he could have drawn upon Bauman and referred to tourists and vagabonds if he felt the need to appropriate an academic discourse, he could have said that Scotland is for everyone who is willing to think of the country as their home, seeing as this seemingly is his point – instead he chose to waste 3300 words on hiding his own very valid points.


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