Don’t be a dumpling
PERSONALLY, I’ve gone through the rage and anger stage about the dire state of Scotland’s political culture. When it concerns – as the subject of this column does – a furious row about a form of Scottish steamed pudding, there’s the option of just laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all, I guess. But having spent the best part of a decade working on the frontline of Scotland’s constitutional battle watching its dreary repetitive skirmishes, these days I just find it terribly and mournfully sad.
That was my primary reaction yesterday upon reading the story of Michelle Maddox, the owner of Clootie McToot, the world’s only clootie dumpling shop, based in Abernethy in Perthshire.
As was reported yesterday, Michelle was among twelve businesses who last week were invited by the UK Government to set up market stalls in Downing street to showcase the best of British produce.
Alongside cheese from Snowdonia, Tayto crisps from Northern Ireland and Monetzuma’s chocolate from England, Michelle set up her dumpling stall and welcomed Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other ministers to sample her product. Mr Johnson was given a dumpling wrapped in Harris Tweed and, afterwards, Michelle posted a message on her Facebook page about the day out.
Whatever you think about Mr Johnson, whatever your views on Brexit, austerity, Trident, independence, No10 parties, the House of Lords, and the French migrant crisis, surely you’d accept this was an entirely positive event which stood above politics and helped to promote a great local Scottish businesswoman to the wider UK market?
It’s just a story about one man, one woman, and a pudding, right?
Sadly not. Within hours, Michelle’s Facebook page received a series of appalling threats and abuse in a series of private messages from people who saw her trade visit not as a useful attempt to boost Scottish produce but as a kind of treacherous endorsement for Mr Johnson’s leadership.
“It’s been horrific,” she said yesterday. “Who would have thought a clootie dumping could have caused this? I’m not political at all. I would have gone to a Nicola Sturgeon event if she’d offered me one, as long as it was food-related and non-political.”
She went on: “The threats were in direct messages from men. I was told I was a traitor and that I could get a brick through my van.”
“Another warned me to not walk down a dark alleyway. Another message was not a direct threat of harm but was verbally awful.”
“I was in tears and petrified and I’ve not checked by Facebook messages again,” she concluded.
Clootie McToot employs nine staff and makes around 20,000 dumplings a year. Incredibly, around a dozen orders, including one large bespoke order, were cancelled.
Where do you even start with this? What do you even say in response to this kind of desperate and squalid behaviour?
First, it’s worth trying to get into the heads of the men, and I am sure it will have been mostly men, who sent her these messages and who, on hearing Michelle had promoted a great Scottish product in Downing Street, decided - and I can’t quite believe I’m writing this – to make a political statement by deciding they no longer wanted to eat one of Michelle’s clootie dumplings.
It feels important to say to them that you are very, very small people; a complete embarrassment to your country and to the cause of independence you support. The poet laureate of Scottish nationalism Hugh McDermid famously protested against those who sought to diminish our “multiform” and “infinite” nation. How dare anyone, he wrote, see Scotland as small? How ironic that, today, it is these nationalist successors of his who, thanks to their rigidly uniform and myopic outlook, are turning Scotland into such a diminished space. They are making a chump of this country. Anybody who lives here and loves Scotland can only but hope that this story does not escape our borders and that the rest of the UK, Europe and the world doesn’t notice.
Second, it is also worth examining the culture of political nationalism which has incubated this kind of absurd behaviour. It bears repeating that the cause of Scottish independence does not need to be nationalist in nature. I think of friends who support independence not because they loathe the rest of the UK but because they simply believe Scotland should be politically sovereign. Yet it is an indisputable fact that the majority of prominent Scottish nationalists in recent years have sought to frame their pursuit of independence in an overtly nationalist manner – as a constant struggle between insiders and outsiders, between them and us, between the oppressed and the oppressors. Michelle Maddox’s experience shows us that this behaviour has consequences. It dehumanizes our culture. It turns opponents into enemies. It sends a clear message to crazy, angry, unhinged people who sadly inhabit every nation, not just ours, to act in a crazy, angry, unhinged ways. SNP politicians like John Swinney were out in force yesterday to come to Michelle’s side and criticize the Dumpling boycotters. They may even believe they’re nothing to do with them. But let us be clear: they hold their share of blame. For when SNP figures – from the First Minister down – deliberately set up Scottish life as a battle between us and them - they cannot be surprised when the mob is ready to pounce.
Yet I don’t think it ends there. Because I think Michelle Maddox’s experience isn’t just a lesson for modern Scottish nationalism, it’s one for the rest of us too – and indeed for people outside Scotland as well. Over the last few years, the revolution of social media has given us a platform to express our views, all of the time. These platforms reward and encourage the vituperative, the extreme, and the brash. Only now are we beginning to wake up to the fact that when thrown on top of our fractious and polarized politics – whether that be in Scotland, England or in the United States – this has the power to wreck us. We become driven towards the extremes ourselves. We grow convinced that we have to choose between one or the other. And with every move from one side, so those on the other feel the need to counter-balance it by becoming ever more shrill and reactionary in response. For example, last week, as a representative of the pro-UK Our Scottish Future think-tank, I appeared on STV to comment on a new IpsosMori poll which showed majority support for independence. Nationalists were cock-a-hoop. After leaving the studio, my Twitter notifications went bananas, not because of anything I had said, but with furious Unionist supporters claiming the poll was a SNP stunt and that the broadcaster was a Nationalists stooge. It is, as I say, all rather sad.
The task in hand is to rise above all this, and the fact that people responded to Michelle’s experience yesterday by buying her entire stock of dumplings until next February shows they get it. This miserable episode should not be tossed around as part of our endless Nationalist vs Unionist trench war. Rather, it should remind us to choose between two versions of Scotland: between the big, and the small. The smaller Scotland revels in the extremes, finds a kind of twisted identity in our chosen tribes, and fights fire with fire. It decides that the best way to respond to a nationalist boycott of clootie dumplings is to decide that we’re not buying any sausages from that Yes supporting butcher down the road. It is inherently ridiculous.
Please, no. The task is to seek the bigger Scotland which recognizes that the small squalid nature of our politics betrays the nation we’ve inherited, commits to treating opponents with respect, and vows to do better than simply add to this spiteful furnace of contempt.
Otherwise it’ll make dumplings of us all.
This article first appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail, December 8th 2021