Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Saor Alba or Long Live the Union?

Image Source
Eda Derhemi talks with Daryl Rodgers about the coming referendum in Scotland. 

When Daryl and I taught for the Italian program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we never used English. For years our everyday conversations, our meetings, our parties were all conducted naturally in Italian. The friends that we shared were also Italian. But the one time that I heard Daryl speak to somebody in English was enough for me to never forget the beauty of his Scottish accent. It was like something coming directly from a theatrical stage where Douglas of John Home was being recited, or, to be more contemporary, like something similar to Sean Connery’s accent. It also might be that I am in love with the sounds of all the languages of the world, especially the endangered languages of minorities… In fact, I could have interviewed the green ogre Shrek for the purpose of this blog entry (who as I’ve read has expressed his support for the unionists in these words: Mike Myers speaking as Shrek: "Shrek wants what the will of the Scottish people want." He added in his own accent: "I love Scotland. I hope they remain part of Britain - and if they don't, I still love them.") [source] But I preferred to interview a real Scot with particular linguistic sensibilities, although he lives in the US and speaks Italian as a working language. This is my conversation with Daryl Rodgers, a Scottish professor of Italian at the University of Susquehanna. 

On September 18th, after an officially renewed initiative and after years of campaigning of its First Minister Mr. Salmond of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Scotland will vote on whether to secede from the union with Britain, and become an independent state. The polls last year made officials in the Westminster feel relatively comfortable because of a significant advantage for the Union supporters. But The Economist of this morning (September 13th) reports that the polls have recently shifted from a 20 point difference to a 2 point difference [source]. Hence the results at this point are very close to call, and therefore the campaigning has become fierce on both sides. Obviously at this point every single vote matters.

1. Is the voting made possible for the Scots who do not live in Scotland, and are you going to vote?

I would like to be able to vote but I can’t. Only people with a permanent address in Scotland are entitled to a vote. Even my younger sister and her (Scottish) husband who live in London cannot vote. On the other hand, people from other countries (including England) who are currently living in Scotland can vote. I understand the reasoning, but I would still like to vote.

2. Is your native town a strong advocate of the independence or is it against it? Or are the people there divided on the issue, like in most of Scotland?

I think the country is pretty much divided 50/50. Based on what I hear and what I’ve seen from people I know in Scotland on social media, it looks like it will come down to the wire.  

3. This is what was recently reported: “12 Sep 2014: The Guardian/ICM poll finds support for the “no” campaign at 51% and “yes” at 49% with less than a week to go, but 17% of voters say they have yet to make up their mind.” [source] From discussing with your friends and family, are these numbers credible to you?

I know my own family (my parents and older sister who all live in Scotland) were split on how they were going to vote. Well, at least up until recently, that is. Now they all seem to be on the same side (the YES side). The tactics used by the NO campaign seem have to been responsible for this move. More about that later!

4. As a Scot who lives and works in the US are you in any way personally affected by the results of the referendum?

It’s interesting. I have actually wondered about this myself. I have wondered when I next go home whether I will need a different passport, for example, or whether I will need to go through border control when I drive from Scotland to England to visit my sister. But I think it will affect me more indirectly in the sense that my family are still there and what affects them (positively or negatively) will of course have some kind of effect on me, I suppose. 

5. How old were you when you first heard about the possibility for Scotland to be completely independent from England? Has this issue been important for the general population during the time you grew up and during your studies in Scotland or has the question of independence become more of a public issue only in recent years after the victory of the SNP?

The question of independence from England has always been lingering in the background for as long as I can remember. Growing up in the 80s in Scotland I had always heard about how Scotland had had the chance to be more independent but that the English government hadn’t allowed it because the proportion of voters was not large enough (in reference to the 1979 vote for a devolved Scottish parliament). However, I always saw the SNP as the idealistic party with no hopes of every getting elected. I always had the idea that Scottish independence was something of a fairy tale or for the movies. Never did I think that Alex Salmond would go on to become the First Minister of Scotland, and never ever did I think that we’d get to the point where we are now that Scotland could possibly become an independent country again. It’s really amazing. 

6. The conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (whose personal political capital will be significantly damaged if Scotland votes independence) went to Scotland three days ago, together with other leaders of the whole ideological spectrum like Miliband and Clegg, to convince the Scots to remain in the Union. It seems like Westminster, surprised and troubled by the recent polls, is now promising to Scotland further devolution and more power [source]. This was immediately repudiated by Mr. Salmond who called it an panicky measure and an effort to bribe the Scots (The Economist, Sept. 12). Certainly large economic interests are at stake here, (especially in the oil, fishing, banking and whiskey industries) but those are played in two completely different ways by the opposing parties. There is talk (Jim Sillars from SNP as reported by BBC News, Sept. 12) that large wealthy private companies in Scotland are in cahoots with the Prime Minister to keep Scotland poor, and that their "day of reckoning" and nationalization is coming if Scotland votes for independence. The New York Times (Sept. 11) connected the independence of Scotland with the exit of Britain from Europe based on fears of banking industries if independence has its way.

A) Do you think such complex economic and political issues that go beyond the borders of Scotland, are made clear to the voters by the Scottish media? Or have the political leaders of both sides had an easy way in stirring up mass emotions based on the old “disdain for Westminster” and the fears that wealth and advantages coming from central power will be gone if independence comes? 

My impression is that, as is typical of all political parties, nobody really knows anything for sure. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it seems like both sides continue to contend that each one is correct and the public is still left wondering whether or not Scotland will lose big businesses or whether or not they can actually survive on their own thanks to their oil/ whiskey/ fishing, etc. industries. Each side wants to believe what it wants to believe and it seems very difficult to find any impartial sources right now. Just the other day the BBC was accused of impartiality in its reporting of the independence debates and issues. Of course, that’s not a big surprise. It’s been widely accepted for years that the BBC was in the pockets of the English government anyway!

B) Also, can Cameron’s promises still change the results of the vote? The polls show that many voters have changed their minds only very recently, especially very young voters, like students. Do you think the public is well aware of what is at stake and of the pros and cons of independence from England, or do you believe people (especially the young) are jumping on the bandwagon of independence right now under some sort of festive hypnosis…?

I honestly think that when Cameron (and Clegg and Miliband) came to Scotland last week they did more harm than good for their side. One thing they should know by now is that you don’t get anywhere with Scots (man or woman) by threatening them and that, essentially, is what they did. Having said that, I believe that fear ultimately has a great effect on people, and so I have to think that more than the threats of the English government, the threats from big banks and businesses might end up swaying the undecided to vote NO. My concern, of course, is that someone would vote out of fear, but equally so that someone would vote out of “festive hypnosis”, as you put it, because at the end of the day the party is going to finish and the people are going to be left to face reality – whatever that ends up being.

7. Cameron has his own troubles right now in connection to his promise for a British referendum in 2017 (if he wins the 2015 general elections) on whether to leave the EU. His new requests and political moves are seen very skeptically by Merkel and other EU members who, while asking Britain’s cooperation, are talking of “finite patience” with England (The Guardian, Feb. 27, 2014). Many today believe Cameron is doing this for election purposes and that in fact he is not in the position to renegotiate terms with the EU. 

A) Once Scots particularly liked the possibility of being in the EU without being in the Euro-zone, just like England. I mean their hope for sharing England’s “special treatment” in the EU was strong, but probably is becoming now less alluring than it used to be. As recently as November 2013 the Scottish government, while contemplating independence, was still leaning towards gaining EU membership through article 48 of the EU Treaty (hence, from within the UK), and not through article 49 (as an independent State). Do you think the perceived weakness of Britain vis-a-vis EU could be the reason why the Scots’ support for independence has surged recently? 

I honestly doubt it. My perception of Scotland’s relationship with the EU has always been that it is tenuous at best. My feeling has always been that Scotland (and the U.K. in general) feel only peripherally connected to the EU – both geographically and politically. I think there may actually be more interest in being an integral part of the EU if Scotland were to become an independent state than there was when it was part of the U.K. simply for practical reasons – being a smaller fish in the pond it would possibly be seen as more beneficial to ‘belong’ to the big pond than it seems right now for most Scots. However, I do not believe that is the motivating factor for most Scots.

B) Do you think there is still a wide-spread belief among Scots that they need Britain in order to advance in the EU or do they think that Britain’s power in the EU is fading away?

I think I probably answered part of this question above, but I will add that again, in my personal opinion and based on my perceptions, Scottish people (and the U.K. in general) seem to have grown tired of being ‘dictated to by Brussels’, to quote an often heard phrase. As you can imagine, proud Scots haven’t taken too kindly to what they perceive as France and Germany telling them how to run their business, especially when they believe that Eurocrats in Brussels have no real idea of the reality of living in Scotland. But that’s not a sentiment limited to Scotland, I know. Many Italians I know feel exactly the same. It’s interesting to note that for years Scots have been complaining that they are tired of being told what to do by politicians in London. So, that feeling has been compounded when you add Brussels to the equation!

Let us now move to discussing more fun issues than economic politics. Let us talk about culture, deep rooted national psychology and especially, let us talk about language.

8. The film Braveheart is considered by the reviewers as a historically inaccurate film. Do people in Scotland see it mainly as a commercial production based on a spectacular exaggerated myth or as a story that does symbolic justice to their struggle to be free and independent? 

I think it’s probably a bit of both. While we recognize the historical inaccuracies of the film, I think it did help reignite some pride in Scotland and rekindle a nationalistic spirit. Of course, such feelings can be short-lived if there’s no political force to back them up and that appears to be what has happened in the last three years.

9. Are people like William Wallace or Andrew Moray seen by young Scots as legendary figures and remote folkloric images, or do they continue to actively resuscitate feelings of political apprising and self-determination? Do the school text books have any role in this? Coming from the Balkans I know that the battle of Kosovo of year 1389 between the Balkan forces and the Ottomans, is still celebrated by certain groups as an event that happened only a few years ago, and it is used very successfully by political parties today to swing peoples’ votes. Are the years 1328 or 1707 seen in the same way in Scotland, or do Scots no longer see themselves as victims of the Kingdom of Great Britain, so that independence is simply a practical step of Real politics to become a stronger state? 

I would venture to say that more young Scots know who Andrew (Andy) Murray is than Andrew Moray! William Wallace, yes – thanks to the film – but Andrew Moray, no. You see in my experience school textbooks (at least when I was at school) contained few if any references to Scottish history in general. Most of what I learned about Scottish history I learned on my own. My parents’ generation was much more informed on Scottish history, and British history in general (as far kings/ queens, Act of the Union, etc.). You see, for as much as we are a quietly proud country, I would say that we are not very patriotic, at least not in the way that other countries are, like the U.S. So, growing up, I do not remember celebrating any kind of event that was specific to Scotland only, except maybe a mention of St. Andrew’s Day or Robert Burns’ birthday. So, to me, the resurgence in Scottish nationalism is in many ways a surprise, but has grown out of a practical reality. It’s a feeling that has been growing in Scotland for some time, to be sure, but I don’t believe it’s linked more to the realities of modern history than to some historical sentiment of resentment.

10. While the beautiful Scottish Gaelic language is seen today by many as a linguistic institution, we all know that it is in a definitely endangered state.  When in October 8, 2009 The Independent announced that Scottish Gaelic was accepted at EU level, it joyfully and ironically reported two events: first, that Jim Murphy, then the Secretary of State for Scotland, said “this will allow Gaelic speakers to communicate with European institutions in their mother tongue”; second, that the newspaper had contacted the Scottish Office, the Scottish Parliament  and the Scotsman Newspaper to see if the main statement for the introduction of the Scottish Gaelic in the EU and that of Mr. Murphy could be translated in Gaelic, but was given in all three places the answer that no one there could speak the language. This clearly underlines the problem, which is also shown by the numbers: in more than five million Scots, less than 60,000 speak the language (counting many who can barely use it in communication or who have only a symbolic competence in it).

A) Do you or members of your family speak Scottish Gaelic? Did you study the language at school and, if yes, for how long, and did it help? How about your friends, neighborhood, town?

I knew one person who spoke Gaelic. He went to high school with me and the only reason he spoke it was that his family had moved down from Barra in the Outer Hebrides. You see, as far as I understand, no dialect of the Gaelic language has been spoken in the central lowlands for hundreds of years. So, for us, it was always a language spoken only in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Despite efforts to encourage interest in Gaelic over the past twenty years – including putting up street signs in both English and Gaelic – I believe it continues to be spoken by relatively few people in the most populated areas of Scotland (i.e., the Central Belt). As a linguist, I would love to learn it, but even I can’t see much practical use for it in my life – except maybe if I visit the Island of Barra! ☺

B) An article of The Guardian today (September 13, 2014) raised concerns about how the cultural segments of the society that do not directly produce economic wealth will do in an independent Scotland. Classical musicians for example, were very concerned to lose the centrality of London as an international capital of music, large state subsidies coming from the central government, a large market considered secure in a union with Britain, and especially the unrestricted publicity coming from a large and important country. Do you think there are parallels of these fears expressed by classical musicians that could be the same for those who support the use and maintenance of Scottish Gaelic?

The only reason I could see that being true is that the BBC, and BBC Scotland in particular, has done a lot over the past several decades to try to develop programming for Gaelic speakers and to encourage others to learn Gaelic. But, I am more inclined to believe that independence may actually benefit the Gaelic language more than staying together.

C) Ireland is a clear example in that although Irish language is seen as a strong identity symbol, is legally recognized as the first official language of the country, and is given strong institutional and financial support, it has remained still very weak compared to English, is used by only a small portion of the population and is not advancing as expected.

Do you think Scottish Gaelic has better chances to survive and grow in the union with Britain or in an independent Scotland? Can you elaborate on the reasons?  

Irish Gaelic has always been much more widely spoken than Scottish Gaelic. For example, I believe that all Irish children learn both at school and that you must be bilingual in both in order to be able to get a job as a teacher in Ireland (I don’t know that for sure). But again, even there, I understand that there are areas of the country where people are more likely to speak Gaelic than in other parts. However, while I think Scottish Gaelic will never become a widely spoken language in Scotland, I think that there is more of a chance that it would become more popular if Scotland were to become an independent country. Somehow in my mind, for as long as Scotland remains part of the U.K. and its identity is wrapped up with that of the U.K., it will never see a real need – practical or sentimental – for teaching and learning Gaelic. Whereas, if it is independent, it would seem that its identity becomes more restricted in every sense to that of ‘just’ Scotland. In this case, recognizing and appreciating the cultural and linguistic diversity within our own borders may make more sense at that time.


Post a Comment

The moderators of the Linguis Europae blog reserve the right to delete any comments that they deem inappropriate. This may include, but is not limited to, spam, racist or disrespectful comments about other cultures/groups or directed at other commenters, and explicit language.

Cookie Settings