Fear and loathing in Glas-Vegas

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by Paul Kavanagh

The great difficulty about writing about the Scottish Cringe is that it’s not easy to section off and divide up into easy to digest bite-sized chunks.   The Cringe is like a malignant tumour that spreads within a body infecting every part of the system and weakens and debilitates from within, but it can’t easily be distinguished from normal healthy tissue.

Cringe is not a good word for the phenomenon.  The word cringe implies something people are consciously aware of, something that they realise they’re doing and feel fear, shame or self-loathing as a result.  But that’s not what the Cringe really is.  People who have full blown cases (and I can think of a few amongst Unionist politicians and journalists) are not suffering from it in any way.  They’re quite happy, and on a personal level are perfectly well adjusted.  No one ‘suffers’ from their own Cringe.

The Cringe is really a bias in perception, but we’re not usually consciously aware of it because we think it’s normal to see things in a particular way.  It’s how we’ve always seen things.  The Cringe is initimately bound up with the way we’ve been taught to see the world.  The Cringe informs our perceptions and colours our emotions, but we can’t easily distinguish Cringe based perceptions from objective or healthy perceptions.  To us they appear the same, all appear equally ‘common sense’.  So we see no Cringe where there is rampant Cringe, and suspect Cringe where there is no Cringe at all.  Discussions of the subject rapidly descend into ill-tempered rancour.

Scottish culture and society are deformed and distorted in the prism of the Cringe.  Its false perspectives cause us to marginalise, infantilise and diminish ourselves.  If something is Scottish, it is familiar, if it’s familiar it’s common, if it’s common it can’t be valuable or worthwhile.  The Cringe is familiarity breeds contempt as an official ideology of state.   It’s how the Scots learned to be British.

The distorting effects of the Cringe crop up across the board in Scottish society.  Take for example the recent discussion of sectarianism, a problem which we are led to believe is Scotland’s Shame or Glasgow’s Shame.  Our views on sectarianism are warped by the Cringe which creates a false perspective we see as ‘common sense’.   It makes us magnify symptoms into major causes, and we have earnest discussions about football hooliganism.  We scapegoat Weegies.  We say it’s an Irish problem imported into Scotland.  We blame it on individuals with poor social skills.  We tell ourselves it’s the fault of stupid people behaving stupidly.  We trivialise and infantilise the problem.  

The Cringe allows us no wider perspective on what appear to be distinctively Scottish phenomena, so we can only seek an explanation for sectarianism within Scottish culture.  The fault must lie within us.  We are eternally condemned to repeat the same arguments about Weegies, football and schooling.  The symptoms of sectarianism become the problem and we cannot look further into its real causes and cures.  We all know the academic who tells us at length why sectarianism means that Scotland is an immature society and should never become independent.  He writes his tracts, he gets on his podium, and all the time he’s fostering the immaturity he believes he’s warning us against.  

The Cringe gives us false perspectives, it makes us confuse cause with effect, but it also makes us ignore the obvious.  Sectarianism is not in fact a problem of Scottishness at all.  It’s a problem of Britishness.  Sectarianism is how British nationalism historically manifested itself in a Scottish and Irish context.  Sectarianism is Britain’s Shame.  But we’re not supposed to think that the role of the British state in creating, maintaining and promoting sectarianism for over 250 years is in any way a part of the problem.  The problem is Scottish culture, or Glaswegians, or Celtic and Rangers fans.  

The common sense of the Cringe teaches us that British state is the kindly uncle who holds our coats while we have a square go, and who makes sure that we children don’t go too far in hurting ourselves.  The Cringe makes us see the problem as the cure.  We keep taking the cure, but we keep having the problem.  We’ve only got ourselves to blame, says ‘common sense’.  We keep on voting Labour.

Similar examples disfigure the Scottish mental landscape.  Like plooks on the body politic we’re reduced to endlessly squeezing them.  But we never look at the Westminster chip fat that gives us the plooks to begin with.  That’s not the problem.  We’re the problem.  It’s ‘common sense’ after all.

Giving Scottish people the choice to do things in a distinctively Scottish way remains controversial, even when by objective – non-British – standards these choices are perfectly reasonable.  Demanding these choices is considered as arrogance and ignoring the voice of ‘common sense’.  We hear this time and time again when proposals are made for perfectly reasonable things which are normal in any other self-governing nation – like control of broadcasting or our own natural resources, or the apparently outlandish suggestion that Scotland should collect its own revenues and pay Westminster for what Westminster provides instead of Westminster being in charge and giving us pocket money.  

But arrogance is not doing reasonable things in your own distinctive way.  That’s just self-confidence.  Arrogance is telling others they can’t do reasonable things because you consider them unreasonable.  The Cringe doesn’t want us to know the difference.  True arrogance is the British perspective which has colonised our minds and blinkered us in order to benefit the small but powerful minority of Scots who form our country’s British establishment.

To be Scottish is to live with a contradiction.  It is to be a member of a nation which isn’t allowed to act like any normal nation.  We possess a nationality that cannot be expressed like any normal nationality.  The Cringe arose as a means of dealing with the psychological contradiction between Scottishness and Britishness, a means which suited the demands of the powerful and influential within our country, those who personally benefit in their careers or personal lives from our current situation and for whom it is ‘common sense’ that this strange twilight state of affairs should continue indefinitely.  They have created our mental boxes so we will do their job for them.  They want us to remain firmly locked inside.  

We are taught that what is proper to Scotland cannot be valuable because it is familiar.  All things which are problems in Scotland are problems because of a problem of Scottishness.  All that is good and worthwhile was granted to us when the Unionist Fairy waved her sparkly wand.  They’re gifts from the United Magic Kingdom.  

For supporters of independence, these perspectives undermine the very message we seek to get across.  Being self-assured in who we are as a nation, being relaxed about and accepting of our diversity and seeing it as a source of strength, learning the difference between arrogance and self-confidence, and by realising that all that holds us back is the childish laughter of the Cringe, that’s the only way we’ll achieve independence.  We need to climb out of the mental box the Cringe has placed us in so we can see who we really are – a people standing before a wide horizon, unlimited choices and potential before us.  

The negative attitudes of the Cringe towards Scottish ways of doing things create the self-doubts which prevent us expressing ourselves freely and without fear.  We live in terror of its childish ridicule.  It keeps us in our boxes.  But it lives only inside our own heads.  Once you understand it you no longer fear it, it has no power at all.  That’s how to defeat the Cringe.  And every day more and more of us are realising that.

Even within my not so long lifetime we have made massive progress as a society.  Sectarianism is but a pale shadow of its former self.  We have achieved a measure of self-control over our own government, albeit limited and constrained.  The desire for independence is no longer the view of a doughty band of rugged individualists.  It may not be a majority view – yet – and due to the domination of the Cringe it is not adequately reflected in our media, but it’s a mainstream view.  We continue to make strides, we’re halfway up the mountain.  All that prevents us from completing our journey is fear.  

The flowers are blooming.  Spring is in the air.  The future is within our grasp.  Embrace it.  And don’t be afraid of the laughter of children.