I did a quick search but failed to find where or when Gordon Brown made the remarks attributed to him by Sir Keir Starmer in his address to the faithful and the fractious at British Labour’s conference. Perhaps somebody with more time and inclination will dig it up. Not that it matter. Having repeated the words in a very public forum Starmer has taken ownership of the comment and all that it implies. Had he any self-awareness, he’d now wish he hadn’t. But if he had any self-awareness he wouldn’t be a British politician.
As very often happens – especially when words are chosen to pander to a particular prejudice – the remark says more about the person making it than it says about the intended target. The manner in which a person fallaciously regards and falsely represents a worldview that is not their own commonly provides indications of their own mindset. We can deduce much about their thinking on any issue from their ‘analysis’ of an opponent’s position. Populist hyperbole tends to be informed by prejudice rather than knowledge. The form of the rhetoric tells us much about the prejudice that shaped it.
First, let’s remind ourselves what Starmer said. Or what Starmer said Gordon Brown said. They are as one on this matter.
As Gordon Brown said recently, when a Welsh or Scottish woman gives blood, she doesn’t demand an assurance that it must not go to an English patient
The implication, of course, is that Scottish nationalism is of the ‘blood and soil’ variety. The intended inference is that the independence campaign is principally or largely concerned with ethnicity. The remark none too subtly portrays Scotland’s cause as being all about ‘racial purity’. Or ‘ethnic purity’ for those in the audience with wits enough to recognise that it’s several thousand years too late to start thinking about an unsullied pedigree. There is no Scottish race. It may be argued that there is some kind of Scottish ethnicity. But whatever this Scottish ethnicity is, it isn’t ‘pure’ in any sense. In fact, many (most?) of those who call Scotland their country take some pride in our mongrel heritage. Many (most?) of us see racial, ethnic and/or cultural mixing as a positive The last two are enriched by what they take from other cultures and ethnicities. Or what is gifted to them by those cultures and ethnicities.
There is no ethnic component to Scottish nationalism. There just isn’t. Which is not to say there are no racists and xenophobes on the extreme fringes. But that’s where they belong. If such attitudes must exist – and regrettably human nature seems to dictate that they must – then so long as they’re kept well away from the mainstream they are relatively harmless. Which suggests we should be very wary indeed of those who attempt to inject such attitudes into mainstream politics. Which is what Gordon Brown was trying to do when he first (allegedly) made the comment. And what Sir Keir Starmer was doing when he quoted the odious Mr Brown. Both were attempting to drag the ‘debate’ around the Union into the dark realm of identity politics in it’s most objectionable and dangerous form. Both should be deeply ashamed. But that would require a degree of self-awareness. The dearth of which among British politicians is something we keep coming back to.
Another thing that invariably comes up in any discussion of nationalism is British exceptionalism and the many ways in which it manifests in British politics. It is British exceptionalism combined with personal and partisan interest which is evident when Jackie Baillie accuses the SNP of wanting to “steal our voters” (my emphasis). The possessive pronoun acting as an adjective in that phrase describes Scottish voters as belonging to Baillie personally; to her party; and to the system of power, privilege and patronage which defines the British state. A system which is held to be sacrosanct by those who crave the power, lust after the privilege and hunger for the patronage. It’s ‘British is best!’ coded into the DNA. The system serves them. They serve the system. And if the system fails them it’s because they haven’t served the system well enough and so they must serve the system better. (The similarity to religion is not at all coincidental.)
Be sure that ‘sacrosanct’ is the appropriate term. It means something that must be kept safe. Something that must be defended against harm or violation or contamination. Something that must be kept pure and unsullied. Something exceptional. Hence British exceptionalism.
When Gordon Brown and Keir Starmer attempt to smear the SNP with the calumnious insinuation that Scottish nationalism is driven by notions of racial or ethnic purity what we see is leakage of their British exceptionalism. The ‘quote’ “Accuse the other side of that which you are guilty” is one of many dubiously attributed to Nazi master propagandist Joseph Goebbels. It’s not a particularly profound thing to say. It’s just something people do. They try to reapportion guilt. Even children do it. It’s instinctive. A basic urge to redress an imbalance of culpability with its implications for relative power. Being blameworthy tends to make an individual, group or organisation less powerful. Pushing some of that blameworthiness onto others is one way of evening things out. Especially useful if claims of innocence cannot be credible.
The blood donor remark makes little sense in the context of Scottish nationalism. It’s a smear because it makes no sense. But it makes perfect sense in the context of British exceptionalism – and hence British Nationalism. When Gordon Brown first made the remark and when Keir Starmer repeated it, both were speaking as British Nationalists. Both were revealing something of the nature of their own nationalism. And what an ugly thing it is!
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