“Be careful about including me in that,” said T., “I’m marmite.” We were working on a joint open-letter to the Scottish National Party in defence of a colleague independentista who had been accused – deliberately and wrongfully – of antisemitism by a Labour trade union activist, and T. was afraid for us to attach his name to it because he was thought “marmite.” Now, this is an interesting turn of phrase. Marmite is a delicious/repugnant edible spread – depending on one’s palate, well known in Scotland. Its use in reference to a person is somewhat obvious, it refers to someone we either love or hate – someone for whom there is no neutral opinion.
Our friend T. is well aware that in the gaze of public opinion he is loved by some and loathed by others. He is a divisive and controversial figure. His awareness of this forces a certain self-imposed limitation upon him. There are certain activities within the independence movement in which he will not involve himself because he sees the potential of his involvement to be a cause of strife. For the sake of the cause he keeps himself in the main to his own tribe, thus limiting his reach and his voice only to those who love him. Being branded “marmite” compels him therefore to live in a self-imposed partial exile from the movement.
On a recent blog post discussing my own recent travails with the British state an anonymous commenter wrote that I was “something of a Marmite figure,” a comment which brought to mind T.’s present situation and got me thinking about my own and what this term means – what it really means. This opinion, at least on this occasion, stems from my personal politics. People look, of course, and see in what I write a Scot living in Ireland, a Republican and active Sinn Féin member, who is at the same time committed to the independence of Scotland. In this they see a confusion, perhaps a dangerous contradiction; explained to me on Twitter:
Perhaps those that have distanced themselves [from me], have done so to stop support for independence being conflated with “the Troubles (as a civil war on our doorstep was called).”
Yet, I fail to see the contradiction. Seeing, rather, in those who see one a logical inconsistency. Ireland’s Troubles and Scotland’s dependency are tied together by a common thread – their relationship to England, the British state. England’s political domination of Ireland is and was ever the active ingredient in the hostility between Ireland and England, and the primogenitor of the political violence on the island of Ireland. England’s political domination of Scotland is, in many respects, no different. It is not the case that Scotland and Ireland are two vastly different nations struggling for freedom from Britain. Yet, it is the case that Britain – or England – is one nation using broadly similar means to dominate two remarkably similar Gaelic nations.
Calling this analysis “marmite” strikes me, then, as an attempt to create a false distinction between the two dominations – as though they were happening at different times and on different continents. No, they are ongoing simultaneously and under the yoke of the same dominating hegemonic force. They are, whether we like it or not, two theatres of the same conflict. As to the violence, one is latent and the other in hiatus. Insistence upon this false distinction – a form of cognitive dissonance – disables both sides of the struggle from learning the lessons of the other. Ireland is robbed of Scotland’s tradition of democracy and careful negotiation with the foe, while Scotland is cheated of Ireland’s long experience of active resistance to imposed state violence at times when England loses its temper. Scotland has forgotten the taste of Britain’s fury.
Marmite is what we say, I image, to inure ourselves to difficult truths. It absolves us of taking on alternative narratives which perhaps we see as too painful or to difficult. Maybe it is the case that accepting the truth of the other narrative will upset the comfort we find in the fortresses of our own measured opinion. But such fortresses are dangerous. They are static targets, which, deprived of supply from without, fall easily to the enemy. In this “marmite” slur too, I discern a note of class antagonism – that the marmite voice is the proletarian voice, the voice of the dangerous class. This too is a danger. Both in Scotland and in Ireland the struggle for freedom is a class struggle, and the resistance to it within these nations, I believe, is the force of reaction – the powers-in-waiting who imagine independence and Irish unity as a transfer of power from one dominant class to another.