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14 July 2021

How Scottish nationalism became the ideal form of political attention-seeking

Scots have discovered that the trick to getting noticed is to continuously threaten the structure of the British state.

By Rory Scothorne

The last time the Scotland, Wales and England men’s teams were all in an international football tournament together was the 1958 World Cup, an occasion so far removed from our own experience that barely half the population had televisions. Football was yet to become the global, marketised spectacle it is today – although Sweden, the host nation in 1958, broadcasted a hoax documentary in 2002 called Conspiracy 58, which suggested that the tournament had been staged by the CIA as an experiment in influencing the public through TV. 

This year, the problems of that global spectacle came under a more serious kind of scrutiny when viewers were outraged by cameras leering at the Danish player Christian Eriksen’s on-pitch cardiac arrest. Conspiracy 58 had a point – TV’s mass reach and appeal gives it the power to shape our collective sense of reality, raising questions about what kind of values and priorities inform that construction. This is especially the case at international football tournaments, which bring an almost unparalleled number of eyeballs to the magic screen.

That mass appeal has allowed commentators to praise football’s power to bring people together, particularly through the young, diverse and progressive image curated by the England football team. Yet television coverage of the home nations also came under attack for perceived territorial bias, as fans of Scotland and Wales complained about the preoccupation of English commentators, pundits and producers with their own side’s fortunes, on ostensibly UK-wide channels. With Britain’s territorial cracks more exposed than ever, this sense of media asymmetry is not just killjoy nationalist bitterness. It illuminates deeper problems facing the British state in an age of endless competition for attention, mediated through both television and the internet.

The issue has existed for as long as mass broadcasting, popping up in complaints throughout the 1930s about Scotland’s status as a BBC “region” rather than a nation, and the predominance of London as the default centre for wireless programming. It is built deep into the architecture of the state – London might be the capital of the UK, but is also the hub of its English majority, and the resulting Englishness of Britain’s cultural, political and economic centre is easy to take issue with if you’re from the minority nations. The problem becomes especially pronounced when “efficiencies” need to be found, for it is usually the smaller audiences – more remote or specialised – who face the chop first. Scotland was only afforded its own coverage for the Scotland games, forcing us all to sit through the rest of England’s fever dream without a national filter. The implication was that the dangers of Anglo-centrism are perceived to be circumstantial, limited to moments when we’re especially conscious of our own differences.

One of the ways that broadcasting became a significant element of constitutional politics, however, was through efforts to address this imbalance. Alongside London-based programming, Scotland has also had its own distinctively national (or “regional”) programming on radio and then TV for most of the broadcast media’s existence. Prefiguring the changes wrought by political devolution, media devolution interacted with the sweeping social changes of the postwar era in powerful, self-reinforcing ways. The sociologist Steven Kendrick has argued that from the 1960s, the gradual dissolution of settled class and community loyalties left a vacuum of identity that televised visions of reality – only just becoming a mass pursuit – were well-placed to fill. Crucially, the growing significance of Scottish news programming, as governments developed a more assertive “regional” policy, created a “Scottish frame of reference” within which political and cultural identities were remade. In the country of John Logie Baird, television projected a more coherent and subtly politicised idea of Scotland into Scottish homes, making demands for greater Scottish autonomy or concerning “Scottish interests” more resonant.

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Some unionists insist on thinking of these processes in conspiracist terms, as if representing Scotland as different is itself a kind of nationalist propaganda, but this misses the point entirely. The retention of Scotland’s distinctive civil society was a condition of its political dissolution in 1707, and as media and administrative structures have evolved they have had to reflect these enduring differences in new ways, with new consequences. This is not a political trick but a practical necessity, making it a source (rather than a consequence) of nationalist ideology that is all the more powerful for its banality. 

The real problem is not Scottish difference, but English predominance: so long as the UK also requires its own shared media landscape, over and above its constituent nations, Scots are going to see themselves marginalised within visions of the world that cater to the population as a whole, understood in terms of raw viewing numbers within which the English are an overwhelming majority. That England is deeply divided and complex does not counteract this – on the contrary, the negotiation of those divisions and complexities takes up a huge amount of cultural space within “Britishness”, leaving even less for everyone else. The same goes, of course, for electoral arithmetic. The result is what political theorists have long recognised as a fundamental component of modern politics: protests against a perceived denial of “recognition”, of the kind that drives identity politics across the world. 

Unlike the bearers of most progressive identity politics, Scotland cannot seriously claim to be oppressed by England, but there is an undeniable inequality and one-sidedness in the distribution of recognition across the UK’s unevenly combined media structures. Scots who concern themselves with politics have to pay close attention to Westminster, where English questions predominate, as well as Holyrood, for both have profound consequences for everyday life in Scotland. Our English equivalents, however, only really need to pay attention to Scotland when it threatens the structure of Britishness as a whole. 

Understand this, and you begin to understand why some form of Scottish nationalism – either voting SNP or supporting independence – is so appealing for such a broad spectrum of Scottish society. Social media and the internet have made everyone more aware of the “attention economy”, in which information is overabundant and attention scarce, and where simply getting noticed becomes a powerful substitute for the more meaningful forms of recognition denied to us by marketised existence. With so many people and causes clamouring for attention, Scots have discovered that the trick to getting noticed is to continuously threaten the structure of British politics, aided by the apocalyptic excitability of the media and a political party that increasingly functions as a kind of international marketing firm for the nation.

Perhaps the same dynamic also explains the overexcitement of English liberals with their own football team’s self-conscious progressivism. Finally, after years of Brexit-infused cultural reaction, the nation’s voice was speaking their language on the international stage. But there is no distinctive nation for polite Anglo-progressivism to claim – it is irrevocably mixed-up with the darker, angrier forces against which the English team define themselves, and it will now have to trudge back to the precarious margins of its own national identity until the next tournament comes along. Its advocates might now have a better sense of what it feels like to live on the peripheries of modern Britain, trapped inside an endless loop of someone else’s anthem. It was never coming home up here.