Thursday 20 September 2018

Scotland: Group feeling and the Matter of Britain

                                                                 A blogger stirs...

The howffs and wynds of Scotland are full of talk about Ibn-Khaldun's concept of asabiyyah or group feeling...

My particular thoughts on this were prompted by Alice Roberts' documentary on King Arthur and a consequent discussion on Twitter, as well as an earlier tweet by (Britain's leading theologian) John Milbank suggesting that 'The Matter of Britain' was central to British identity. (Having just wasted an hour or so trying to find that tweet, I may have to consign it to an existence just as mythical as King Arthur's own. However, if Milbank did not tweet it, he really ought to have. I offer this article as evidence that the existence of the tweet is true, even if not real. (Or perhaps vice versa.))

Anyway, let's take this claim that the Matter of Britain is central to 'our' identity. (We'll come back to that 'our'.) It had me mulling over the thought that, in Arthurian legend, Scotland is rather marginal. Now my second thought is to question whether or not that first thought is true. Certainly, there are Scottish elements: at random, I can think of Alistair Moffat's identification of Roxburgh as Camelot, Nikolai Tolstoy's search for Merlin in the Lowlands, and Clive Owen's knocking around north of Hadrian's Wall in the 2004 King Arthur. But much of this (and I note that the first three things that spring to my mind are modern contributions to the Matter) are self-consciously revisionist -which suggests that the more traditional working of the Matter plays them down.

So I'm not sure, but my impression is that Scotland generally is marginal to the Matter, with the possible exception of the Lowlands (which by definition can only be part of any Scottish national narrative). If we take the (perhaps mythical) Milbank tweet as true, then that is a problem for British identity. And even if it is not true, it is at least the starting point for considering how narratives contribute to asabiyyah and how the central stories of the British Isles (among which the Arthurian legends are an important strand) contribute to our senses of British or Scottish identity.

And into this mulling plunged Professor Roberts. Now there is a clearly existent tweet here which is relevant:

Holland is of course correct, but it is perhaps a rather uncharitable take on what Angus MacNeil was trying to say. In Roberts' programme, much was made of how the 'conflict' between Anglo-Saxons and native Britons was important to understanding the history of the 'nation' (the singular was clearly used at the beginning of the programme). More generally, the programme was focused on arguing that an important part of our history was being misrepresented if it were believed that the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain rather than drifted in peacefully and exerted a cultural influence over the existing population. But although the programme was ostensibly about an important piece of our national history, very little was said about Scotland and (very oddly for a piece about Arthur) Welsh history. Indeed, the only mention of Scotland that I caught was right at the end when (rather quickly I thought) an understanding of early mediaeval Britain as divided into a south-eastern bit oriented culturally to the continent and a north-western bit oriented towards the Atlantic seaboard was presented. (As an aside, this was rather a pregnant view given the traditional North-South divide and Brexit. It was perhaps odd that one narrative aspect of British history -the nature of the Anglo-Saxon influence- was subject to a sort of revisionist interpretation, while perhaps a much more currently potent narrative -on the split between two sorts of Britain- was not only reinforced but actually extended into deeper cultural time but without much comment.)

So I take it that MacNeil's point was that, in what was ostensibly a programme about an important part of our national story, very little attention was paid to the (what we now call) Celtic parts of the British Isles (with the exception of Cornwall). And although allowing for the inherent subjectivity of a reaction to a medium like television, where there is an inability (or at least general lack in practice) of going back to test one's impressions, I think that take on the programme is fair. Now of course, there are perhaps good answers to this. Not every programme has to be about Scotland. Not even every 'Matter of Britain' programme has to be about Scotland. But IF the programme is claimed to be about 'our' history, and if there is rather a tendency to slide within the programme between the use of Britons/British/Britain as applying to the pre-Saxon peoples/land and applying to the modern peoples/land (I think there was, although again, I am open to different views on this), it's not unreasonable, certainly from a Nationalist MP, to expect some querying.

My own view is that it's perfectly reasonable for Roberts to make a programme which elides Scotland and Scottish identity. (Why on earth would one expect everyone to worry about this as a subject?) But equally, it's perfectly reasonable for others who are more concerned about this area to point out some of the problems in the treatment. And specifically, in a programme that seemed to be claiming to make points relevant to a modern British identity, to note that almost nothing was said about Scotland. At one level, this is just a well-worn point about the modern UK: by default, a lot of what is claimed to be British is in fact just about England. (And this will raise again familiar questions about those generators of modern narrative, the modern media.)

But there is a deeper level at which narratives about British national identity which just leave out Scotland no longer work. Were I convinced Unionist, I would simply note that, if I want to hold the various nations of the UK together, the asabiyyah of those nations, particularly Scotland, has moved on and that, consequently, the narratives that construct that imagined community of the UK also have to move on if you want them to work as a unifying force. Crudely, a Scottish viewer watching Roberts' programme is not going to see it as his or her Our Island Story. That wouldn't matter if the programme were simply framed as an investigation into the fairly niche question of whether the Saxons came armed or in peace. But it wasn't. And the failure to notice that (let alone acknowledge it as a problem) is what bedevils a lot of modern Unionism. The old narratives based on a common quest for Empire and a common heritage of Protestantism no longer work. If a new set of Unionist narratives is going to be constructed, I'd suggest, they need to take account of the changes in Scottish asabiyyah and work with them.

Putting aside those immediate questions of Unionism/Nationalism, more importantly, asabiyyah in Scotland generally has to wrestle with the narrative element of that identity. And the difficulty in applying one important British Isles narrative, 'The Matter of Britain', simply emphasises the difficulty of applying any narrative to Scotland which has some historical and mythical depth: this is compounded by a modern Nationalism that prides itself on being progressive and thus anti-past and anti-myth; and the thinness of any historical narratives that are knocking around. (Think Braveheart.) For a Catholic conservative, imaginative engagement with space and time is essential: oikophilia is essentially an imaginative act and without it, we inhabit a wasteland. Neither Unionism nor Nationalism is really developing those sorts of imaginative depths at the moment. I'm not sure whether this is just a temporary accident, or whether it says something deeper about Scottish culture: a disassociation from enchantment caused by the Reformation or perhaps the abandonment of acquired essentially English narratives such as Roberts' that worked for a time but no longer. In any case, the modern disenchantment of the world seems particularly acute up here in North Britain.


  1. 'The howffs and wynds of Scotland are full of talk about Ibn-Khaldun's concept of asabiyyah or group feeling...'

    Excellent! This sentence reminds me of that MacDiarmid poem in which Ibrox is filled to hear the obtuse verse of some Portuguese poet (assuming memory serves, that is).

    Great to have your thoughtful and interesting commentary back, Lazarus: you observe the Scottish scene from a native social conservative perspective that is not always heard in the national discussion.

    Anyway, you're right about the need for a new Unionist narrative that takes account of the contemporary reality of Scotland and, of course, the changes in other parts of the British Isles too. A nostalgic, centralised Unionism based on Protestantism, Empire, the Monarchy and so forth deserves to fail.

    The point about the relative shallowness of our current Unionism and Nationalism is well-made, but I daresay we Scots are not alone in this right now!

    1. Thank you!

      I do want to bring a perspective to the national debate which I don't find often in other participants. My primary focus is a) God and b) social conservatism. I think both those causes could arguably be served within either Nationalism or Unionism and therefore I would encourage the development of these perspectives within both 'sides', and within major political parties.. At the moment, we are in the position that neither side (nor any party) seems to do either God or social conservatism; and that seems to me a more profoundly important problem than whether we are ruled from Brussels, London or Edinburgh. (And anyway, even if that's not true, it is the problem that exercises me!)

  2. I don't understand the statement "in Arthurian legend, Scotland is rather marginal". A great swathe of the major characters in the legend are from the part of Britain that would later become Scotland: Sir Gawain of Orkney and Lothian, his father King Lot (after whom Lothian is supposed to be named), his brothers Sir Agravain, Sir Gaheris, Sir Gareth and Sir Mordredhis their sister St Teneu and her son St Mungo founder of Glasgow. King Urien of Rheged and his son Sir Ywain. These are hardly marginal figures in the story. The earliest reference to Arthur is in Y Gododdin the oldest literary work deriving from the area of modern Scotland. What the Arthurian tales point to is that this territory is more fundamentally and originally British than it is Scottish just as they draw attention to the antecedent Britishness of Lloegyr. The evidence in that film that there was no Anglo-Saxon invasion proves no such thing. It simply points to the fact that Saxons had been raiding the province of Britannia for many centuries, that much of the territory was unprepared to resist and that they never (even after the conquest) made up more than a minority of the population (like any military aristocracy).

    1. You'll note that, in context, the 'statement' is not left unchallenged.

      In addition to the points in the blog post, I'd add: 1) whatever the potential for developing the 'Scottish' elements within the Matter, my impression (and I accept that discerning the cultural force of narratives is a tricky business) is that generally this has not been done. The Arthurian cycle is predominantly felt as a Southern English narrative, probably centred in Winchester or Glastonbury. (The only quick evidence I can provide for this is that I've put into the blog: that reworkings that emphasise Scottish elements are presented as self consciously revisionist.)

      TBC -have to do some family picking up and dropping off!

    2. I never encountered the Arthurian legends that way. Arthur often held court at Carlisle. Taliesin was from the Eden Valley. Lancelot is based at Din Guayrdi in Northumberland. Gawain was a Scotsman. The Dolorous Stroke is stuck by a Northumbrian. The most impressive Arthurian site I knew was Arthur's seat and Arthur himself slept under Sewingshield Crags.

    3. Fair enough. I accept that,were I to argue that the Arthurian cycle was experienced *solely* as a Southern English epic, I'd have my work cut out. If the claim were reworded as a claim to being an English epic, that would deal with most of your points.

      But I think we have to dig a little deeper into how the Matter of Britain is re-presented and experienced. Clearly, indviduals will have their own personal experience of this. (Eg: one of the most pregnant moments for me was seeing the Round Table in Winchester.) Quite apart from our experiences of representations and reperformances, the key texts are polysemous and not consistent within the corpus. From all this, whatever assessment of the impact of the Matter of Britain is made, it will remain fluid and not to be settled by definitive claims (eg: 'Arthur's Seat is in Edinburgh therefore...').

      Bearing all that in mind, I would simply suggest the (tentative) claim that the general tendency of paradigm representations is that the geography is more Southern (and certainly more English) than you're suggesting. And Glastonbury and Winchester are simply culturally more powerful foci for the representation of the Matter than the Eden Valley and Carlisle, let alone Edinburgh.

      Of course, the creative reperformance of the Matter leaves open what may be found in them and what becomes more powerful in the future. But I think there are some key features of the Matter which make a Scottish focused reperformance particularly problematic. (I'll say more about this in a blopost to follow.)For the moment, I'd simply note that Robert's representation of the Matter ignored almost everything except of South Britain location. (Which would justify MacNeil's observation.)

    4. I've now posted more in reply: