Bella Caledonia and the Art of Comment Baiting

Bella Caledonia’s homepage

Recently Mike Small at Bella Caledonia wrote a piece denouncing two articles/blogs by members of the ‘English left’ []. The first by James Stafford a PhD student in History/Politics at the University of Cambridge and commissioning editor of Renewal Journal [], the second by me, Seán Duffy…also a PhD student in Sociology/Education at the University of Glasgow, commissioning editor of the Snaffle Bit’s premier second place pub quiz team []

The first thing we should probably deal with here is that yes I am English, and I assume James is too, though you would think we are fully signed up members of the Morris dancing stonemasons of Glastonbury Tor, who know one another well, based on the article. This in and of itself is pretty unremarkable. There are a lot of English people commenting on Scottish politics, many of them live and work in Scotland, I am one of those people. With that fact in mind it seems somewhat odd to describe me as on the ‘English left’. This English left is of course always referred to as ‘in crisis’, whereas the flourishing socialist rhetoric reaping the streets of Scotland is incomparable in its fervour…or so I am told.

This is characteristic of the sort of in group/out group rhetoric that those espousing divisive concepts like ‘the 45’ have come to use as conversational. It’s fine being English, as long as you agree with us. If you do not, it’s because of your Englishness, which is exactly why English Scots for Yes became such a ubiquitous campaigning tool in the final months of the referendum. There is no better tool for a winning national rhetoric than co-opting the imagined nationalism of your imagined opponent.

This was remarkably prevalent in Robin McAlpine’s article ‘So Far So Good. British Unionism’s Review of 2014’ for Bella Caledonia [] in which he remarks:

In the end, reality wins out over fantasy. No blood was spilled, no glass was broken; Scotland lived up to its democratic duty in a way and with a maturity that should shame the current British Empire. Remember, Scots-born voters voted Yes. Without ‘English immigration’ Scotland would now be independent (English-born voters voted three to one against). Yet everyone of us ‘barbarians’ embraces the ideal of those resident being part of our community wherever they started their lives. Not a single one of us has formed a UKIP, not one of us has talked about the ‘English problem’ or asked whether these incomers have distorted out politics and what we should do about it.

As Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism) commented on Twitter ‘here’s robin mcalpine expecting us to pat him on the back for not hating english people’ and that is exactly what such a paragraph is. It is a plea to the mushed minds of England that no matter how many of you own holiday homes in Ayr, or how frequently you come to our golf courses and embarrass yourselves in front of your kids we are never going to run you out of town, like you lot are doing with your saviour Nigel Farage. Well thanks for that Robin…top man.

What’s more is that this is remarkably unrepresentative of my experiences in Scotland, and I must admit by that I largely mean Glasgow. I have rarely heard anything remotely as stupid as this, and no one has ever made me feel unwelcome – except those two times we thumped you in the football. What does Robin even mean when he says ‘not a single one of us has formed a UKIP’? Did the European elections pass him by, or did he conveniently forget the decades of anti-Irish prejudice that still leaves its mark to this day?

In fact, this categorisation of the ‘English left’ seems almost deliberately designed to illicit a particular kind of response. If we follow the comments section of said article we can see some prime examples (disclaimer comments sections should not be read as representative of the views of the website bearing the article – though they are a good laugh)

MBC comments:

I think you are spot on. And though Mr Stafford does raise some good points in his angry riposte to Mike, explaining for instance that his polemical article was intended merely as an opinion piece, and is not definitive in scholarly terms, but can still be backed up by his wider scholarship, if Mike cares to examine it, it is undeniable that what has really riled him is that Mike and others on this thread have pointed out the paucity of his aspirations as a wannabe English radical. Thus showing the futility of the Union as a vehicle for progress. Mr Stafford accepts neo-liberalism as a universal system and thinks that all you can do is nibble your way around the edges, and that the crumbs that are released are worth having. The Scottish ambition to establish a new state which frees itself from the wrong patterns and worst decisions of neo-liberal austerity Britain raises resentment not admiration, because it reveals how much further the radical tradition is in Scotland than in England. And as an Englishman that galls him.

His reaction is significant for a number of reasons.

It is hypocritical to aspire to be any kind of radical yet despise the radical pretensions of fellow-Britons by defence of the forces of reaction and power that radicals struggle against.

It also reveals the lack of fellowship in the concept of ‘Briton’, or any sense of the term ‘Briton’ as meaning something progressive.

In short, Mr Stafford is an Englishman first, a radical second, and a fellow-Briton, last.

Here’s the wonderfully named Big Jock in reply:

MBC. We can use all the polite reasons and excuses for how people voted. But if you are asked ,should Scotland be independent. You are offering nationhood in a referendum. You cannot choose to be a nation for football or at a Burns night. Its not a part time job. Being a nation means you accept everything, and the responsibility of being independent. You can’t have it both ways. The world looked on and saw that Scotland chose to remain a region of the UK. Whether we view ourselves as such doesn’t really matter. Legally and politically we are not a nation in the UN.

We can’t keep making excuses for people running away from things. I know businessmen,poor people,old people young people who voted yes. Why because regardless of money,wealth or even political persuasion. They agreed Scotland was a real country. Everyone has personal circumstances! Is the cleaner in my work less worthy because she doesn’t have a car and large mortgage. The argument being that poor people have less to lose. I am middle class have a mortgage and cars and wife and bills. Why did I not care about any of that when I ticked my box. Because it wasn’t about me,it was about Scotland my nation.

Me and the lads back home.

I have had enough of apologists having their personal circumstances as an excuse for voting no.Everyone who voted yes has personal circumstances, and how dare no people presume theirs are unique or more important than the 45.

I am not sure how else you can read this other than to say it is xenophobia, and I do not say that lightly. As a white, male from Northern Europe it’s not often I have ever felt pigeon holed but reading this attack piece it was difficult not to consider it.

Of course these quotes are out of context and if you want to read the full discussion between MBC and Big Jock to remind you what it might have been like to encounter Popper and Wittgenstein going at it you should visit the original site.  There’s plenty more where that came from.

Yet quotes out of context are far from off the cards for Mike Small as he writes that:

Seán’s analysis is par for the course: set a radical critique of the independence movement and adjourn to the Labour Party as default lounge of historical choice; declare nationalism a corrupt and useless vehicle; finally, declare all of Scottish politics redundant and file ALL of the indy movement as being about the ‘Yesnp’. As he boldly declares: “If independence is a ‘movement’ then it’s only functioning and influential facet are the SNP and their business cohort.”

Which is all well and good, except I am fairly sure I have never used the term ‘Yesnp’ (if I am wrong then I shall retract that) and the culminating quote is actually from a tweet I wrote but a few days ago on my handle @seantduffy, and has nothing to do with any analysis I included in my article. Despite pointing this out to Mike he has refused to change the attribution. Any casual reader would assume I had written that in my article, I certainly did on first perusal. Prior to my request Mike had also failed to link to my article that he is critiquing, nor even do me or James the courtesy of pointing out this denouncement had been written. Perhaps I am simply not important enough, and if so why bother in the first place, but this is hardly in line with the kind of spirit of debate I believed sites like Bella Caledonia were set up to foster.

The insubstantial demonisation continues throughout as Mike seeks to attach everything James or I write to the Labour Party. His belief that my article was designed to persuade people to ‘adjourn to the Labour party’ is not supported by a single thing I wrote. This is pure conjecture and not in line with my views at all. In truth I think Scottish Labour deserve a right royal thumping, and in cities like Glasgow they have operated almost as monarchical tyranny. This does not mean to say I would seek to unseat them and hand power to the Conservative Party at Westminster of course, but I would certainly never belittle anyone for abandoning Scottish Labour given the recent context and new leadership.

It seems ‘strange’ and ‘bizarre’ that  I would criticise Better Together to many of the readers of this article. Why is that strange? Do the self-appointed doyens of Scottish new media really believe there is no one on the left of the Labour party who thinks the concept of Better Together was severely flawed if not borderline suicidal? If the contest by Neil Findlay to take the leadership, and the surprise level of support it received, was not testament to that then I am not sure what will convince such characters, characters who think simply using the word ‘dialectic’ equates to quoting Marx. I really do despair. I accept the need for commentary not to be a preserve of academia but this is exactly the kind of anti-intellectual nonsense my original article was trying to highlight and therefore I must be grateful to Mike for adding further fuel to the flames.

James has adequately defended himself in the comments against a wall of white noise, so I shall let him speak for himself. I would implore you to read his thoughts however as they highlight many worrying trends prevalent here that I do not have time to go into.

Another point of note that keen observers will have picked up on are the graphics chosen to adorn this article. One depicting a reactionary protest against the ‘Islamification’ of Britain with a noose and plentiful union jacks in shot, the other of the now infamous ‘Go Home’ vans that blighted parts of the South East due to a heavily ill-advised policy by the incumbent coalition government. All interesting sociological images I am sure you will agree, but what they have to do with my article or James’ work seems to be a mystery. Presumably because we criticise the Scottish independence movement we are as a result advocating the worst kinds of neo-fascism going on in Britain today?

This is by and large tabloid comment baiting. Mike knows that his readership loves nothing more than a good swipe at the British state and/or the Labour party. Finding two relatively tame articles by largely inconsequential early career academics who just happen to favour the Labour party is manna from heaven for this cause. Be they English? Even better.

This highlights a prevalent trend that many friends have commented on of denouncing any reluctant defence of the union as being a symptom of a lack of ‘thinking big’. This is the language of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, not serious economic consideration. I suppose that many Bella Caledonia supporters would describe their constant banging on about Tom Nairn and similar writers as part of a ‘democratic intellect’, whereas the snobby intelligentsia  that James and I produce is of the old guard, there’s something of the imperial about us etc. This is a tiring dualism that really should have no place in serious debate. Most PhD students are paid well below a living wage if at all, and not all are privately educated Oxbridge graduates (as the common demonisation goes), so it would be heartwarming for once to see some recognition of this instead of constant berating of any attempts to academically discuss a phenomenon with a blanket attribution of elitism to anyone who might be working at a university.

In many ways this is sad to see as I have enjoyed a number of articles on Bella Caledonia over the past year, and believe it has provided occasional glimpses of the kind of quality citizen journalism that is required in any locale, never mind Scotland.

It is time those on the left of any inclination in regards to the independence referendum began discussing substance and engaged in serious polemics that are not chock full of ad hominems. I would like to think that these prejudicial definitions were not deliberate, but consistent identification of this by myself and others has not led to any change in tone by Bella Caledonia and other much worse imposters.

I see myself as part of the Scottish Left, and it’s future, and the British Left and our future. That is still a thing….isn’t it?