Forget Kenmure Street: Welcome to Gormenghast

Sunday National, 6th May 2021.

It was a week of powerful contrasts. The pictures and footage emerging from Kenmure Street in Glasgow on Thursday are some of the most extraordinary I have seen in modern Scottish politics. Denounced immediately by the Home Office as “a mob,” what fair-minded observers will have seen in the south side of the city was a mix of ordinary folk – pedestrians and cyclists, parents and prams, all ages and ethnicities.

There is no “mob” in these pictures. Instead what you see is a community assembling in a spontaneous, organic way to stymie the high indecency of the Home Office descending into the heart of the Muslim community in Scotland on Eid al-Fitr.

You can only wonder what the experience must have been like for the two men, bundled into the back of the Home Office van in the early hours of the morning, only to emerge, blinking into the light of the afternoon hours later, freed for now, and surrounded by hundreds of cheering people. Surreal, I reckon.

Surreal too for many of the folk who found themselves involved in the impromptu protest. The idea these people are sinister anarchists or lawless wreckers is just lazy propaganda and a convenient pretext to justify a monstrous lack of reflection – on the part of the Home Office and its apologists – about how its actions helped light the touch paper on Kenmure Street. For commentators who are worried about the legitimacy of the British state being undermined, all I can say is: healer, heal yourself.

Another contrast was also particularly sharp this week. On Tuesday, Queen Elizabeth was obliged to make one of his occasional visits to the House of Lords to read out a characteristically short and stilted speech about the UK government’s legislative plans for the session. Covered with ridiculous solemnity by the BBC, viewers were – as usual – invited to admire archaic features of the protocol and coo at the unique genius of British statecraft, which seems to consist principally these days of senior citizens in military costumes walking slowly around mouldering buildings gilded with just a little Mar-a-Lago bling. Forget Kenmure Street: welcome to Gormenghast.

At the same time as protestors first began to gather in Pollokshields, on the other side of the country, our new-minted MSPs were being sworn in in Holyrood. The words of the oath they are obliged to swear should be anything but inspiring for the democrat: “I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, her heirs and successors, according to law.”

Only some of the Scottish Tories seemed honestly enthusiastic about plighting their troths to the sovereign. It was good to see a good handful of MSPs from three different parties keeping up the spirit of sedition in Holyrood this week, taking their oaths “under protest”, “true allegiance to the people and not the crown.”

In Holyrood, Findlay Carson’s fumbled oath to Queen Elizabeth’s “hares” seemed strangely apt. The British constitution often feels like a Mad Hatter’s tea party. Swearing solemn fealty to a great bunny of state is intrinsically no more ridiculous than the fact the Duke of Norfolk is responsible for organising what we’re obliged to describe as “ceremonial state occasions” because Charles II wanted to keep the Howard family sweet by giving them another hereditary gong in 1672. Count your blessings that the NHS doesn’t recruit brain surgeons on the same basis.

Forcing democratically-elected politicians to do obeisance to an unelected monarch and her family remains a ludicrous spectacle. I suppose it was a small mercy that the Duke of Hamilton and the creaking joints of the Royal Company of Archers weren’t required for this formality of the Holyrood process. No fantasy claymore or bunnet on a pole was required to get proceedings going.

Having been elected the new presiding officer, Alison Johnstone even managed to walk to the chair rather than being ceremonially dragged, and faced no questions about whether she’d be wearing the traditional speaker’s frock and full-bottomed wig to enhance the pantomime dimensions of the job. It wasn’t felt necessary to slam the door in anyone’s face either, just as – in time – the Scottish Government will somehow manage to announce its programme for government without obliging a 95-year-old to get her gear on to give the nation a stilted run-down on what Boris Johnson’s ministers are minded to inflict on the nation.

Since 1999, Holyrood has reinterpreted the feudal flummery of swearing in, seizing the opportunity to express other – much more meaningful, much more civic – values. I counted Gaelic and Scots, Doric Arabic and Punjabi, British Sign Language, Orcadian, Welsh, Zimbabwean Shona, French and German amongst the languages our newbie MSPs swore in with. We’ve heard Italian too in previous sessions, representing the historic diaspora which accounts for an estimated 100,000 Scots today.  

Cynics – and you never need to look far in this country to trip over a few – may be inclined to cock a snook at the symbolism of all this. But it isn’t the words so much as the message that is important. There are two dimensions here. It demonstrates that Scotland is not –  and has never been – a monoglot nation.

It is a parliamentary rebuke to all the furious dads of Twitter and deadbeat columnists who howl into the void about Gaelic road signs and imagining abusing charismatic young women popularizing the language of Scots is a defensible use of their time. Given the fact that that these irrational haters are not infrequently supporters of the Conservative Party, it was nice to see Highlands Tory MSP Donald Cameron cracking out his Gaelic on Thursday.

But the message is wider still. The languages we speak are different perspectives on the world. Hearing some of them pride of place in Holyrood is a simple but affecting statement of the fact there are many different ways of being Scottish. While Aamer Anwar was conferring with the two men detained on Kenmure Street in Urdu, Humza Yousaf was being sworn in in the parliament in the same tongue.

This linguistic diversity recognises – and recognises unapologetically –  that all of us are the temporary expression of the history, choices and accidents of chance which brought us or our ancestors here. It is easy to overlook the significance of this, so relaxed and natural does it seem. But in many political systems, linguistic diversity is often an object of suspicion and unease.

It should go without saying that these arguments are rooted in a deep insecurity and an expression of politics which is defensive, culturally embattled, fuelled by anxiety. The dangers of this kind of politics should go without saying.

It is straightforwardly untrue that “all nationalisms are the same.” Look at the evidence of your own experience. Look at the world today. Look at the UK. Our imagined communities can leave their doors ajar to the world, or try to keep them locked and bolted. They can be comfortable in their own skin – with all their diversities and tensions and contradictions – and they can find themselves eaten up with insecurities, be they ethnic, religious, linguistic.

The many tongues we heard in Holyrood on Thursday is a small but quietly confident gesture. And in politics as in life – quiet confidence is often the best kind.

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