Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Inferiorisation of a Scottish Currency: the BBC and belittling the Pound Scots.

For time to time an article appears that shouts its subtext louder than its ostensible contents. Just such an article appeared today on the BBC News website.

It’s a piece about Prof. Gavin McCrone’s evidence to Holyrood today, giving his view that an independent Scotland should opt for a separate currency, pegged to Sterling, rather than Currency Union, as the Scottish Government prefers. So far so good, and I actually agree with McCrone on this. However, now look at the article. [Link].

The version I’m looking at is date and time stamped 7 May 2014 at 07:23.

The title of the piece is “How many unicorns do you earn?”, and below that is a large fantasy fiction style picture of the mythical beast.

After asking “How many unicorns would it take to do your weekly shopping?”, the piece begins: “This sounds like the start of a bad joke”.

The Unicorn was a gold coin used in Scotland for only 41 years, until 1525, and named for the Scottish heraldic symbol used on its obverse face. When Scotland joined the Union in 1707, the coin had been out of use for the best part of two centuries. Gavin McCrone has not suggested the Unicorn be re-introduced. Nobody has. So why bring it up? Why name an article on a modern Scots currency “How many unicorns do you earn?”, and why illustrate the piece with a large picture of the beast? (Why, if mentioning it at all, not depict the coin?)

The article was trailed on Twitter with the words: “Unicorn, groat, penny and merk. Could Scots currency make a come-back?” And again the mythical beast was pictured.

I have covered before on this blog the practise of calling a Scots currency “Groats”. Scotland’s currency was never “Groats”. When last used in Scotland, Groats were in fact a Sterling coin. Last minted in the UK in 1856, Groats were worth four pence. They were used until withdrawn in the 1880s. They were never the name of the currency north or south of the Border. Why would Scotland call its currency “the fourpence”?

Prior to Union there was also Scots coin called the Groat, and there were variations of the name in coinage throughout Europe - The Dutch Groot, the Tyrol Groschen etc. It was a term for a thick coin, derived from the Latin adjective meaning thick or heavy, grosso. It is an antiquated coin type, once common across Europe.

People pretend they think a Scots currency would be called the Groat to belittle and ridicule the idea, and make the notion of a Scottish economy seem antiquated and obsolete. It's just a cheap shot by people who want to suggest an independent Scotland would be backwards, and a Scottish currency crude and naive.

The Unicorn was introduced to the story not by McCrone, but by BBC reporter Jamie Ross. The imagery is clear enough: the idea of having our own currency is a fantasy, and – as the opening remark tells us – “a bad joke”. This is all very familiar to those who have read Frantz Fanon; Jamie Ross is telling us that once left to our own devices by our Westminster saviours, Scotland “would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation and bestiality” (p169, Fanon, 1967, "The Wretched of the Earth"). Is he doing it on purpose? Possibly, but more likely he just knew what sort of thing would go down well: a jokey, fatuous, and patronising piece. The sort of thing no BBC reporter would ever turn in on Sterling.

Groat, Angel, Double Leopard, and Mark are all old English (and/or British) coins, of varying vintages. No BBC piece on modern Sterling would ever use up space discussing those, or illustrating the piece with pictures of angels from mythology (rather than the coin). Such an article would never get anywhere near the BBC website. But for Scottish stories, that sort of thing is exactly what is wanted. The patronising and cringe-inducing defence policy animation is another case in point.

McCrone has long advised a separate currency for an independent Scotland. He does so in his recent book “Scottish Independence: Weighing Up the Economics” (2013). It’s well worth a read. And he was quoted by the Scotsman as having favoured “the restoration of the pre-1707 pound Scots, or indeed the Merk, and it could be pegged against Sterling initially on a one-to-one basis as Ireland’s currency was.”

Why mention Merks? A merk was a Scottish silver coin, worth ⅔ of a Pound Scots. It wasn’t the name of the currency (that was Pound Scots). Perhaps McCrone was searching for a good Scots word to name the new currency, and it’s the same name the Germans used for their currency until joining the euro, after all. However he needn’t have bothered; there’s already a guid Scots word for Pound: Pund. McCrone’s slight linguistic diversion, though, is as nothing compared to the patronising flight of fancy that the BBC News website goes on. And not for the first time.

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