Brian Monteith: Satire? It’s no laughing matter for Nationalists

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There’s lots to laugh about in Scotland, and if we’re not able to laugh at ourselves – whoever’s cracking the jokes – then some of those advocating independence are, ironically, not ready for it.

I’m not one of those people that thinks Scotland wouldn’t manage were it separate from the UK. Nothing is certain, nothing is inevitable; it is what we make it. I just happen to believe we have more opportunity, more mutual support and more to share in if we stay in the UK. That makes me no less Scottish.

One aspect of being independent that does concerns me is the possibility of Scots turning on themselves, of Scotland becoming more embittered against fellow Scots who don’t sign up to the new patriotic programme.

Of course, there are many SNP politicians that will say it won’t be like that – well, they would, wouldn’t they? But the evidence of the last week shows that in a country divided by the choice of what is best for the nation, some Scots can become rather nasty to the point you wonder what would it be like if they were actually holding the reins of power.

I am referring to two comical episodes over the weekend past.

On BBC One’s Have I Got News For You, Ian Hislop joked the Scottish currency could become Mars bars. I thought this was hilarious. Descending into the role of a Cockney cab driver, the quiz show chairman for the evening, actor Ray Winstone, said Scotland’s main exports were “oil, whisky, tartan and tramps”. Winstone knew this to be a caricature but he was seeking to get a rise out of people – and boy did he get a response. More than 100 complaints and counting, accusing him of being racist and worse.

The next day on BBC Radio 4 the Scottish comedienne, Susan Calman, made some jokes about Scotland and the independence referendum and, lo and behold, those Nationalists that don’t have a funny bone swarmed around her calling her unpatriotic, a traitor and words I wouldn’t contemplate using in female company. Her jokes were all mild stuff but she was rightly shocked by the ferocity of the attacks.

Some SNP politicians tried to calm the situation down, but they of course had led the way themselves last year when they were spitting tacks about the front cover of The Economist 
having a cartoon map of Scotland with the title Skintland. The article inside actually said independence needn’t – and probably wouldn’t – be like that, but covers are there to sell papers and taking the worst-case scenario is standard.

What we’re witnessing here is the inability of some Scots, almost exclusively Nationalists, to laugh at themselves. This is all the more ironic as the same people would probably be laughing about Essex girls or other stereotypical features of English life, especially Tory politicians.

Only a fortnight after some Scots wanted to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s death, we have others calling a Scottish comedienne after parts of her anatomy. What is it with these people?

Some have tried to defend them by saying Scotland has no history or tradition of satire, that we do not do political humour. What utter rubbish.

The play Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis ridiculed the powers that be of the day – the Church, the Monarchy and the Merchants – when it was first performed back in 1552, before Shakespeare was even born. It has been played regularly ever since.

Scottish comedians often take a poke at our own lifestyles, our bad habits, our parsimony, our “whae’s like us” bravado. We also tell each other Englishman, Irishman, Welshman and Scotsman jokes – and in Scotland the Englishman never does too well out of it!

When it comes to modern times the two best British satirists have Edinburgh connections – Armando Iannucci and Rory Bremner. Frankie Boyle may not be to everyone’s taste, but much of his humour is politically thought-provoking.

For those saying we have no Private Eye, let me just point them to The Daily Mash, a hugely successful website that ridicules the world from its base in Scotland.

The point is, Scotland does satire.

If there is a problem, it is that it is rarely on Scottish television or radio channels, for they tend to play safe and avoid political satire as being too risky. Now we can see why. The result is that our best satirists, like so many Scots, have to follow the money and head south to sharpen their wit there.

Independence won’t change that, the big stage and the big audiences will still be in London, just as in America they are in New York and LA (which is why so many Irish comics are in London, too).

The worry I have is that were we to have independence then to criticise the Great Eck, to joke about any malady that befalls us will make you out as a traitor, as anti-Scottish. Even humorous criticism, no matter how justified, will make you an outcast in your own land.

It needn’t be that way, but the evidence tells me we’d have a hard time preventing it from becoming the reality.