Sir,

As an aspiring young academic and a proud graduate of the University St Andrews, it is with a heavy heart and bitter disappointment that I feel the need to express the hurt and offence I felt upon hearing one particular element of the graduation address delivered to all guests on Thursday afternoon.

Quietly inspired by two humbling, respectful, solemn and dignified Laureation addresses and acceptance speeches, Dr Bettina Bildhauer followed with a valediction which soon descended into insult and ill-advised and insensitive politicisation of the ceremony. Given the ritual and solemnity of the occasion, and the gravity and integrity of the addresses we had just heard, it took some time to process the magnitude of what had been suggested – that I, my family, friends, and hundreds of thousands of others, were taking the same path of nationalism that produced Nazism. It was only our acceptance of the solemnity of the occasion that kept those of us deeply insulted in our seats.

Dr Bettina Bildhauer, the academic entrusted to deliver my graduation address, used the occasion to mount an ill-informed attack on the views of many present and beyond, which was thoughtless and offensive. Furthering her own narrow political agenda, she warned the audience of the dangers of nationalism, asserting that it always develops into xenophobia. While I understand that her personal context fosters a distrust of nationalist movements, this should neither encourage nor allow an understanding of all nationalisms based upon one model. However, referencing her German birth and nationality, we were instructed only to look to Germany for lessons from history.

I firmly believe in Dr Bildhauer’s right to freedom of political expression, but there is a time and place for such expression, and a graduation address is not it. Personal political opinions, of whatever nature, are completely out of order on such a formal and public occasion, and Dr Bildhauer’s pontification was unacceptable. The inappropriate politicisation of Thursday’s graduation ceremony will always leave a bad taste in the mouth of many present. What should have been a celebratory and light-hearted day for me, my family, my Scottish friends, my English friends, my German friends and their families, was fraught with tears, anger and disbelief. I have counselled a close German friend and his parents, who were made to feel deeply uncomfortable. Without the persuasion and support of my family and friends, I would have left straight after the ceremony, missing the opportunity to share the positive relationships I have developed during my time at university. I stayed, but my graduation day, which should have been a happy culmination of four years of study, is forever tainted.

Many academic colleagues and students, regardless of political allegiance or persuasion, have voiced their dismay at this part of Dr Bildhauer’s graduation address. Not only was its divisive politicisation of a graduation ceremony completely inappropriate, but the views which she asserted were extremely hurtful and offensive to many. Perhaps more than anything else, however, Dr Bildhauer’s remarks equating modern Scottish nationalism with fascism demonstrated just how far removed she is from the reality of what is happening in Scotland.

It is a serious lapse in scholarly rigour to equate all forms of nationalism, past and present, with exclusion and xenophobia. Such reductionist thinking and homogenisation runs contrary to the rigour of analysis and questioning she had earlier implored graduates to exercise. It demonstrated a a disappointing lack of critical thought, research, evidence, insight, thoroughness, and balance, the very values instilled in, and demanded of, us as her students. This extreme generalisation exposed a concerning lack of awareness or understanding of the distinct historical, political, social and economic conditions which define, and have defined, diverse concepts of nationalism and nationhood across many continents and centuries.

To list only a few examples, the nationalism of Woodrow Wilson, founded on the ideal of democratic self-determination, was not xenophobic. The nationalism of Nelson Mandela, driven by emancipation, democracy, a powerful sense of social injustice, a vision of equality of the races, and characterised above all by a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation, was not xenophobic. The nationalism of modern Scotland, as anyone who has any knowledge of the campaign for independence is aware, is not xenophobic. The clear and overwhelming tone and drive of the Yes campaign is an inclusive, forward-looking, internationalist and civic nationalism, whose goals are self-determination, democracy and greater social justice. Ever more urgently, this nationalism is about rejecting the very real xenophobic, anti-immigration, homophobic and misogynist rhetoric dominating the UKIP-driven Westminster political agenda.

The current Scottish government is actively and vocally in favour of greater immigration. Majority Scottish public opinion is clearly and consistently pro-Europe. Scots Asians for Yes, Polish for Yes, Africans for Yes, England for Yes and Yes LGBT list among the many groups campaigning under the banner of Scottish nationalism this year.

It was indefensibly inappropriate of Dr Bettina Bildhauer to use a public graduation ceremony to air her political views, thus compromising the admirable and proper neutral position of the University of St Andrews. It is ignorant and mistaken to equate the growing civic, internationalist, democratic and inclusive nationalism in Scotland with the creation of outsiders and xenophobia. This equation denigrated an open and inclusive Scottish nationalism which celebrates diversity, a nationalism which I and many others am proud to hold.

Yours sincerely,

Ashley Husband Powton

12 COMMENTS

  1. The only thing that’s “narrow” in this discussion is the argument that Dr Bildhauer’s speech was about trashing Scottish nationalism. The fact is that it represented only a tangential fraction of what it was. She spoke of a social issue across Europe – not just Scotland – in the rising nature of nationalism, “English, Scottish, French, and German,” that worried her. And used that personal example to encourage graduates to think *like* graduates.

    Having listened through a fair few of the graduation speeches this year, I have to say Dr Bildhauer’s was easily one of the strongest. It’s unfortunate that one student and her family (I make the assumption here that Ashley is from the same family as Jackie Powton of the ‘Bella Caledonia’ blog, http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/06/29/graduation-address-by-dr-bettina-bildhauer/ – I leave only those of strong hearts to read through the depressingly rude [and, funnily enough, a fair few xenophobic] comments about this very topic) have taken an over-zealous protectiveness of a contemporary political movement and applied it to a speech that really wasn’t about independence: it was about thinking for yourself and the role you can play in moving the world forward towards a better place, be it through social anthropology, modern languages, medicine, physics, or whatever field you chose.

    • “The fact is that it represented only a tangential fraction of what it was”. Perhaps her comments made up only a fraction of her entire speech, but they were weighty nonetheless and clearly more memorable than much of the rest of it. Neither England, France nor Germany has referendum approaching this year. Even if we give Dr. Bildhauer the benefit of the doubt that she “was not trashing Scottish nationalism”, she should have recognised that her comments could easily be misconstrued in such a loaded political climate, and were definitely too heavy for a celebratory occasion. As it stands, however, telling graduates from a Scottish university, many of whom have voting rights, that you’re worried about nationalism in the context of the approaching referendum is inappropriately biased. Context is key – it’s quite clear what message she was intending to send.

      Also, I don’t think the author is trying to protect the Yes-campaign in this article. The only Scottish government policies she refers to are those promoting greater integration in society, which serve as an example of how not all kinds of nationalism should be tarred with the same brush, in the face of Dr. Bildhauer’s comparison of German history with the Scottish present (which is anachronistic, at best). The author seems more concerned with highlighting the reasons why Dr. Bildhauer’s speech was inappropriate in this context. And whatever her blog affiliation (which I don’t care to comment on here into lest we enter the inevitable YES vs. NO stalemate and which I also deem irrelevant to the discussion at hand), her comments here, on this issue (re. the propriety of the speech), do stand.

      • Yes, the words were weighty, but they were more memorable only to a relative minority of people in the room – otherwise, I imagine we would see something much more than a couple posts on the internet contesting Dr Bildhauer’s message. It seems (or, at least, I hope) more people paid attention to the message at the heart of the address rather than inclusion of ‘Scottish’ within a list of nationalities.

        Indeed, context is key, and there’s a world beyond the Scottish referendum. What of the European Parliamentary elections? I see the point as a stronger and more pertinent referent than the referendum; thus the explicit mentions of English, French, and German nationalism. Indeed, if this address were intended as a political soapbox moment (which I’d contest), would it not be more effective and relevant to try to ‘move the needle’ in European elections, given that most of the graduates in that room would not just be Scottish, but English, Welsh, French, German, and reaching out to many other corners of Europe and the world?

        Also worth considering that the Schools graduating their students for that ceremony all quite likely had higher proportions of RUK and overseas students who, more likely than not, would not be eligible in the Scottish referendum. While St Andrews is a Scottish university with Scottish students, we are (in)famous for our historic “third-third-third” cultural division of Scottish, RUK, and overseas students, with that Scottish fraction increasing to dwindle.

        If this article is not an inherent defense of the Yes vote, then please educate me on why the title of the letter is a challenge to the content of the address (not a challenge of the appropriateness of the content at a graduation) and why the tags for the letter – namely, independence referendum and Scottish independence – are there for associating the discussion more to the referendum than to anything else. There are few who would contest the other political, yet possibly more popular, opinions that were expressed at the graduation ceremonies: this article and this fervour around Dr Bildhauer’s address are explicitly not about the appropriateness of political commentary in a graduation address but about the ruffled feathers of these comments in a graduation address.

        If the letter here was intended to challenge the idea of political commentary in a graduation address, it would have done well to not pick up on one sentence within one address within one graduation within one university. There were eight addresses in St Andrews alone this month: how many others across the country, across the globe, have been omitted from this discussion despite their similar stature of making political comments at a graduation ceremony?

        Dr Bildhauer’s remarks – challenging graduates to think for themselves, to engage in debate, and to talk with one another – seem to be working in the end, only going further to prove their point through provocation.

        • I’m not saying the message at the heart of the address was not ‘challenging graduates to think for themselves’, just that the nationalism aspect of the address was perhaps ill-considered given the political climate in Scotland, and more importantly given that this was a celebratory occasion, not a platform for political debate. How one’s words are interpreted remains the responsibility of the speaker to some degree.

          It’s worth remembering that it’s not only Scots who can vote in September. Many RUK students have been resident in Scotland long enough to vote in September.

          I don’t think differentiating nationalism and Nazism necessarily has anything to do with promoting Yes values. Headlines are designed to attract attention, most of the article does not concern Yes-campaign values. Associating the discussion with the Scottish independence question is not the same as promoting Yes. The author only really mentions her own political stance at the end. I, personally, would be equally appalled if Dr. Bildhauer had spent her address promoting Yes-values, or the values of one political party over another etc.

          I’m not defending the entire article. As I said in my first comment, however, I believe the author’s comments about the propriety of the address still stand (see par. 5 which is written quite neutrally), and should not be written off regardless of her own political agenda/blog.

  2. The comments thus far have overlooked one key fact. Ashley Husband Powton is a lizard. Yes, a shape shifting lizard, born of the womb of her lizard king Alex Salmond, hell bent on dividing this glorious nation. She can’t even be classified as a conventional reptile, because that would require her to have some kind of quantifiable earthly form – which, as a malevolent paranormal entity continually shifting between dimensions, she simply doesn’t have.

    Whatever the intention of this graduation address, one fact remains. Ashley Husband Powton is a lizard.

      • They are just trolling. Ashley Husband Powton on the other hand is the person who wrote a ‘reply’ to the well thought out commentary on the referendum by Professor Colin Kidd which ended by suggesting he was a misogynist (despite the lead that No holds above Yes amongst women). I don’t recall many people calling her out for that.

        I think that this letter to the editor, while raising some valid points is symptomatic of the overly knee-jerk defensive/aggressive strand of Scottish Nationalism that only focused on Scotland being mentioned among many other Nations. Husband Powton ought to recognise that it is not constructive to adopt a ‘holier-thanthou’ attitude or attack people constantly. As a student of the august institution, I would have expected better of her. I continue to be sorely disappointed by the aggression, the ‘chip on the shoulder’, and rabid narrow mindedness she brings to all her letter to the Saint.

  3. I think no matter what the context, to talk of political matters such as this during a graduation ceremony is extremely inappropriate whichever way you lean on the issue, and hurtful particularly for the students/graduates and their families who are extremely passionate about winning Scotland independence. This was not the time nor place to discuss such issues, tarnishing the “neutral” stance which the university should take.

  4. After the Saint issue containing Prof. Colin Kidd’s article, Ashley Husband-Powton followed with a letter which soon descended into “insult and ill-advised and insensitive politicisation” of the Saint…

    Grow up Husband-Powton. Worse laureation addresses can and have been made, and I imagine you’ve said nasty things about people you’ve never met too.

  5. oh shut up and stop taking yourself so seriously (writer)

    If you get so offended by a person making a point imagine how upset you’ll be when Scotland don’t get their independence. Well done for sticking out the torture though

  6. Ashley I think you shoot yourself in the foot. This aggressive article highlights the enjoyment you’ve had in taking offence to one justified comment in a speech. You remind RUK students that they may have the right to vote in a desperate bid for your cause but frankly I don’t think your self righteous umbrage and bitterness would inspire anyone’s vote.

    I don’t believe anyone would want to be part of the seething Scotland that you promote.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.