City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Book Festival: Gavin Bowd, "Scotland's Extremist History" Review

By Bill Dunlop - Posted on 17 August 2013

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
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Paul Gutteridge (chair)
Gavin Bowd

Even in douce Edinburgh, it is still possible to encounter those with a more than slight sympathy for far right ideologies.

Introduced by Gavin Paul Gutteridge of The Guardian, Gavin Bowd began his talk on his book ‘Fascism in Scotland – Caledonia and the Far Right’ by explaining that his interest had been sparked on discovering the existence of a radio station broadcasting to Scotland from the German Third Reich – Radio Caledonia.

Bowd’s book, like his talk, opens with the arrival of Rudolf Hess in Scotland. The high-ranking Nazi described how he was ‘looked at in a compassionate way’ by the Scots he first encountered.

Bowd suggests, not without justification, that there were a number of Scots sympathetic to the fascist cause, including members of the Scottish aristocracy.

As with other areas of Scotland’s past, silent amnesia is often the defence of choice when facts fail to conform to our preferred interpretation of events.

Although Mosley’s British Union of Fascists failed to ‘take off’ into significant numbers in Scotland, there were nevertheless some 3,000 at its initial rally and although ‘small, dispersed and harassed’ they exhibited a similar devotion to their cause as that of Scottish Communists to theirs.

Immigration played some part in this, as 40% of Scotland’s Italian community was counted as being at least sympathetic to Mussolini and Italian fascism.

Fascism could be seen as being, to some at least, a means of expressing political discontent, embraced, or at least flirted with, by figures as disparate as Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) and the Earl of Errol (he of Happy Valley fame).

Fascism in Scotland certainly had its share of the great and good (or not so good), but it also appealed particularly to a Protestant working class threatened by joblessness and Irish immigration.

Bowd’s book offers considerable illumination of the dark side of inter-war Scottish politics and political discourse, but perhaps a little less when he ventures into the light of more recent times.

It’s certainly true that the Second World War did not end Fascism in either the UK as a whole or in Scotland; to live uncomfortably close and in daily contact with fascist beliefs and attitudes does not necessarily inoculate one entirely, although one may hope to recognise the real thing when encountered.

Bowd is perhaps a little too ready to conflate Scottish far right attitudes of the nineteen thirties with those of post-war Scottish nationalists. He did attempt (not too convincingly) to defend 'The Scotsman' illustration which accompanied an article on his book, showing an Iwo Jima style planting of a flag conflating a swastika with a saltire.

Although the assertion in some quarters that National Socialism and Scottish nationalism hold more than a passing resemblance to each other, it seems to obscure another, more sobering truth; we may indeed be the land of the Gaelic-speaking Pakistanis (one of whom at least has won the Mod), but we are also a land where racist attacks take place.

As Bowd himself pointed out, not all racists are fascists, but all fascists are racists. Although the price of freedom has always been vigilance, and while we should never deny the darker aspects of our past, our vigilance ought perhaps to be focused on our current problems.

Gavin Bowd Fascist Scotland - Caledonia and the Far Right - Birlinn £ 12.99 (p/b)