19 October 2015

J.K. Rowling and her heroic attack on the wicked cybernats


The problem with a cause is that, eventually, it corrupts the very things it professes to love. Take Scottish nationalism, for instance. On Sunday night, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister, tweeted a “note” to “my fellow independence supporters”. They should bear in mind that “People who disagree are not anti-Scottish. Does our cause no good to hurl abuse (and it’s wrong)”.

This was, by any reasonable standard, remarkable. Not because Sturgeon’s welcome – some might say, overdue – comments were incorrect but, rather, because she plainly felt a need to make them in the first place. What had caused her to react in this fashion?

A game of rugby.

Not just any game of rugby, admittedly, but an epic encounter between Scotland and Australia in the quarter-final of the World Cup. Like almost everyone else, Sturgeon was captivated by the drama of an intoxicating game in which Scotland, 16 point underdogs according to the bookmakers, were only denied a monumental triumph in the last minute. A 35-34 defeat against Australia, the champions of the southern hemisphere this season, might be thought another chapter in the long history of Scottish heroic failure but, like almost everyone else, Sturgeon recognised the pride and courage shown by Greig Laidlaw’s men. It was, almost everyone agreed, a game for the ages.

But not for everyone. For some, it became an opportunity for political point-scoring of the kind that leaves sane and normal people in a state of despair equal to the disappointment rugby supporters felt when the final whistle was blown on Sunday afternoon.

Let’s review what happened. The broadcaster Muriel Gray tweeted that she didn’t mind the result too much because “Scotland were magnificent! Magnificent!”. JK Rowling, the author, agreed, responding “True that”. At which point everything kicked-off.

Rowling and Gray could, you see, “both f*** off” because “You don’t think we’re a nation at all”. Their crime – as declared by the Reverend Stuart Campbell, proprietor of the pugnacious pro-independence website “Wings Over Scotland” was to dare to support the Scottish rugby team even though they had voted No in last year’s referendum on independence.

Not that Campbell was alone. Another nationalist suggested Rowling, who lives in Edinburgh, should leave Scotland: “Have you ever heard the premise of over-staying your welcome?” Another told her she was a “self-hating English woman” while yet another insisted it was “very insensitive of JK to tweet her 80 minute patriotism – people are upset”.

This last missive carried echoes of Jim Sillars, the former deputy leader of the SNP, who more than 20 years ago famously – that is, infamously – condemned his compatriots as nothing more than “90 minute patriots”. That is, the Scots were happy to cheer on their national football team but lacked the guts and the gumption to vote for independence. They were, if you must, Fainthearts not Bravehearts.

So while it would be absurd to suggest all or even a majority of SNP supporters endorse the abuse hurled at Rowling and those who, like her, opposed independence that abuse and the thinking – if it can be so dignified – behind it does have a lengthier pedigree than sensible supporters of independence might find it comfortable to admit.

Rowling, for her part responded to Campbell by tweeting “I know Scotland’s a nation. I live there, you see. I pay tax there and I contribute more than bile there.” She asked a good question to another of her critics, “This is the Scotland you want to show the world is it? Get out if you’re not pro-nationalist?”

Perhaps so. If that were the case, many of us would have to leave. This great migration would necessarily include many of the men who have played for Scotland too. Gavin Hastings, a supporter of the Union, for one. He could “f*** off” too, said Campbell. He, like any other No voter who ever played for Scotland, was just a “hypocrite”. (It bears noting that if selection for the national team were restricted to those who voted Yes, Scotland would win even fewer games than has, regrettably, been the case in recent years.)

By this measure, it might also be noted, every English or Welsh player who does not seek an independent Wales or an independent England must also be considered a hypocrite and someone ripe for abuse. Ditto, perhaps, those Irish players from Ulster who, though proudly Irish, nevertheless desire neither an independent Northern Ireland nor a United Ireland.

Be that as it may, this miserable spat reminded us that there is a strain of nationalist thinking so petty, so chippy, so blinkered and bigoted that it has no room for anything else, least of all the cheery hope and sunshine with which the pro-independence case was made – at times heroically – last year.

It is a rancid worldview determining the acceptability of your Scottish credentials by the political views you hold. It is a kind of corruption, a putrefaction of the soul deeming one group of Scots more authentic and deserving than another. As expressions of joyous, civic, nationalism go it is pretty ethnic.

That is where we are in Scotland, however. At least for some people in Scotland these days everything – and I mean everything – must be measured against the soundness of your views on the national question. This is not, it should be noted, purely a nationalist phenomenon. A good number of Unionists, dragged into a constitutional stramash they neither wanted nor enjoyed, also carry a sourness with them these days. Nicola Sturgeon, for one, is the unlucky recipient of any number of appalling comments on social media.

And yet, disagreeable though this is, there is, I think, a difference between considering your political opponents misguided or even deluded and reckoning them second-class citizens or traitors.

There is, again, however, a certain tension even at the upper-end of the SNP. In her speech to the SNP conference on Saturday, Sturgeon welcomed the prospect of being judged on her record. This was, she suggested, how any government should be measured and she welcomed the task of refuting her opponents’ arguments. That is, naturally, as it should be. And yet, just the previous day, her deputy leader Stewart Hosie, had complained that the Scottish government’s critics were guilty of “talking Scotland down” when they criticised the SNP’s record in office. The implication was clear: criticism is, in some mysterious fashion, unpatriotic.

A nation, of course, is not necessarily the same thing as a state and there is no requirement that it must be. Scotland’s great constitutional disputation was never about whether it be a nation but, rather, whether it should be an independent state. Sensible, sane, Scots on both sides of the argument accept, indeed agree, with this elementary proposition.

But the fury chimps on social media and elsewhere who, every time Scotland play rugby, ask how Scotland’s Unionist voters can bring themselves to sing “Flower of Scotland” do not see it that way. For them, 55% of Scots are simpletons at best and, more probably, sell-outs and hypocrites.

It is a charmless worldview, right enough and one rightly repudiated by Nicola Sturgeon. But it’s also more widespread than any of us might care to contemplate. A reminder, too, of how ideology ruins minds. According to Campbell, however, any Yes voter who had a problem with his attitude was nothing more than a simpering “WetNat”. Doubtless this now includes the First Minister, proof if ever it were needed, of how far down the rabbit hole of delusion some nationalists have journeyed.

As for the rugby. Well, this is a Scotland team on the up. If only the same could be said of what passes for our political culture.

Alex Massie is a political commentator, based in Edinburgh