In 1996 at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in London the playwright and director Martin McDonagh, nominated for best newcomer award, was slightly worse for wear when Max Hastings, editor of the Evening Standard, proposed a toast in honour of the Queen. McDonagh in his own words started ‘taking the piss’: ‘next thing I know there’s a hand on my shoulder and Sean Connery is standing over me saying, “Shut up, or leave”, in that James Bond voice of his. It was surreal. I mean is this guy supposed to be a Scottish Nationalist, or what?’
McDonagh highlights a peculiarly Scottish brand of contradiction, or alternatively, hybridity, duality or ‘concentric loyalty’. Connery has been arguing for Scottish self-determination since the 1960s and in 2008 remarked that independence would move Scotland ‘out of the shadows of our friends and neighbours in England and forge a new partnership based on equality’. Connery’s idea of equality does not extend to the inequitable and elitist British monarchy, adding that both countries would ‘have a shared head of state in the Queen’.
For republicans, Connery’s position is untenable; nevertheless his attitude is held by many in Scotland, few of whom have a knighthood to justify. Billy Connolly, Scotland’s other foremost celebrity export and unofficial king, boasts is a Commander of the British Empire and a personal friend of members of the royal family. In a recent interview promoting the film Gulliver’s Travels in which he played a king, Connolly indulged his regal status by declaring that if he ‘…was a king, [he] would be the way Prince Charles would be if he was a king. I’d be cool about it, you know… grow organic food and be nice and involved. I would get people together and show people that you care about them, the way prince Charles does. So, that’s what I tried to be… an easy going guy who thought he had landed on his feet.’
While Connolly’s knighthood is surely only a state funeral away, his regal pretensions may explain why a self-confessed unionist would voice the character of King Fergus in Brave, a conspicuously pro-independence movie which was, according to Robbie Coltrane, ‘hijacked’ by the SNP. However, neither Connery, Connolly nor Coltrane should be concerned about the future of the monarchy since Alex Salmond in a speech on January 25, 2012, declared: ‘With independence we will have a new social union with the other nations of these islands and will continue to share Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State’.
The comparisons and contrasts between Connery and Connolly are symptomatic of Scotland’s wider identity issues. One is from Edinburgh, the other from Glasgow; one a nationalist, the other a unionist; both have working class origins, both are royalists and both are from Irish Catholic backgrounds. It is interesting to note that, notwithstanding George Galloway’s sensationalist and failed attempt to bring religion into the national discourse, the thorny subject of religion has been largely omitted from the independence debate, partly because the SNP commitment to retain the monarchy has stunted any debate on republicanism and any debate on republicanism will inevitably expose Scotland’s divisions around the culture of monarchy. In Unstated: Scottish Writers on Independence, James Kelman points out that ‘the Scottish nationalists’ support for such an intrinsically British institution will appear as a sop not only to unionist sympathisers but to “the Protestant vote”. Traditionally Protestants are anti-republican unionists… [whereas] Roman Catholics are believed to favour republicanism… the subtext to their pro-unionist, anti-republican stance is sectarian racism: anti-Catholic, anti-Irish. Others in Scotland will view the nationalist retention of the British monarchy in these terms.’
Clearly, to be Scottish is to be many things and the independence referendum, if it accomplishes anything, may reveal the acknowledged but little discussed realities of the complex and often divisive nature of Scottish identity. Certainly the impact of the British project on Scottish identity has been insufficiently examined. I would argue however that the Bond movie Skyfall, which I consider to be influenced by and, in part, a response to the Scottish referendum, shows signs of the often conflicted nature of Scottish identity.
* * *
When James Bond made his first appearance Britain was emerging from post-war decline and loss of Empire. Since then no fictional character has embodied Britishness to the same degree, nor been so encumbered with the mission of preserving (however fictitiously) Britain’s standing in geo-politics. The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, shared its birthday with the coronation of that other paragon of Britishness, Elizabeth II and like her, ‘Bond… functioned… as a site for the elaboration – or, more accurately, re-elaboration – of a mythic conception of nationhood.’ In the aftermath of Suez, James Bond was tasked with the mission of ‘maintain(ing) the myth of British… particularly English – superiority’.
In 2012 the franchise celebrated its fiftieth birthday, sharing its anniversary with the Queen’s Jubilee. In common with Casino Royale, Skyfall was released during a period of pageantry and austerity and at a time when the future of Britain was in doubt. Consequently Skyfall unashamedly wears its patriotic heart on its sleeve, or perhaps more accurately, the bulldog on its arm. The monarchic and Olympic events of 2012 undoubtedly influenced the film’s success, becoming the highest grossing British film ever and the first of the franchise to win a Bafta. Evidently Britain needed James Bond.
A review in the Daily Telegraph described Skyfall as ‘a true British film, with a true British hero’. Similarly, in the London Review of Books, Michael Wood described Bond as a ‘rough-’em-up bulldog’ and suggests that patriotism may have influenced the ‘wildly enthusiastic critical reactions’ Skyfall received in England. Its overt patriotism, however, is not to everyone’s taste and has been described as ‘a 143-minute-long party political broadcast for “Britishness”’. Skyfall performs a similar function to Danny Boyle’s opening Olympic ceremony and, like Boyle’s ceremony, it features iconic British locations, institutions, brands and symbols: the London Underground, Westminster, Whitehall, Range Rover, Aston Martin and the indomitable British bulldog. James Chapman, author of Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the Bond Film, has remarked that Bond’s Britishness ‘has been central to the ideology of national identity which the films project’. His Britishness however is typically reinforced using English signifiers. London provides the setting for more than half of Skyfall, and through its repeated use of English locations and cultural referents such as the union flag, England and Britain coalesce.
The most prominent British symbol in Skyfall is the union flag. Of course the union flag pops up in many Bond films, most famously the parachute stunt in The Spy Who Loved Me and also the title sequence for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which features a woman holding the trident and shield of Britannia against a backdrop of the union flag being squeezed through an hour glass. The hour glass suggests that time is running out for Britain, and Bond – who is silhouetted dangling from the hand of a giant clock (presumably Big Ben), which is turning anti-clockwise – is the only one who can save it. The title sequence of OHMSS supports the observation of Tony Bennett and Janet Wollacott in Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero, that Bond ‘supplied a point of reference in relation to which the clock of the nation had been put imaginarily into reverse’.
In Skyfall, I would argue, it is the uncertainty surrounding the future of Britain that Bond attempts to reverse. Skyfall is, to some extent, an expensive promo for Britain and attempts to do for the British/English paradigm what Braveheart and more recently Brave did for Scottish nationalism. In fact, the advertising campaign for Skyfall ran a parallel campaign with VisitBritain, the slogan of which was ‘Bond is Great… Britain’. However, while Skyfall endeavours to transmit a pro-British ideology, such patriotic posturing during a period of enforced austerity, welfare cuts, food banks, the bedroom tax and the demonisation of the unemployed and immigrants, complicates a straightforward transmission of its patriotic message. In addition, there is the impending Scottish independence referendum lurking in the shadows.
* * *
In an article for Newsweek Simon Schama remarked that ‘James Bond was dreamed up as the British Empire was on its last legs.’ With the release of the 23rd Bond it is no longer the empire but the British union which may be on its last legs and Skyfall is accordingly introspective and nostalgic. In one scene Bond pulls back a sheet to reveal his famous Aston Martin, first seen in Goldfinger in 1964 and again attempts to reverse into history: ‘Where are we going?’ M asks. ‘Back in time’ replies Bond. Skyfall vacillates between the Britain of Bond’s cinematic origins and ‘the brave new world’ Bond speaks of after meeting the new Q for the first time. As this ‘brave new world’ may be one in which Britain no longer exists Skyfall seems determined to get good use out of the union flag while it can. Interestingly, the first time we see the union flag there are several draped over coffins, reminding us of the sacrifice that some must pay for the cause of greatness. Alternatively, it also suggests that the idea behind the symbol is dead.
Despite being played by a Scotsman, an Australian, an Englishman, a Welshman and an Irishman, 007 has become the archetypal English/British spy. Bennett and Wollacott describe Bond as ‘first and foremost an English hero’, who personifies the ‘myth of Englishness.’ Of course, as aficionados well know, James Bond is not English but Scottish. Inspired by Connery, Fleming chose to give Bond a Scottish back-story in the novel You Only Live Twice, in which he added an obituary which explains that Bond’s father was a Scot, Andrew Bond of Glencoe, and his mother Swiss. Bond’s Scottish origins, both literary and cinematic, grate against the overtly British/English appropriation of Bond post-Connery. This has produced a dissonance in Bond’s identity, problematising elements of the films which involve Britain and Britishness. Fifty years later this dissonance is still in evidence in Skyfall.
For the majority of Bond’s cinematic existence there has been a tussle over his national identity. Traditionally this has been based around the Anglo-Scottish debate about who is the better Bond, Connery or Moore? The distinct characterisations of Bond by Connery and Moore can be viewed in terms of the clichéd constructions of Scottish and English identity. Whereas Connery’s Bond is masculine, animalistic and abrasive, Moore’s is urbane, charming, distinctly English and could get away with wearing a safari suit. The contrast between Connery and Moore’s Bond is in many ways a continuation of the national/cultural differences represented in sixteenth-century treatises, seventeenth-century drama and eighteenth-century political caricatures.
In our own time the traditional political and cultural friction between England and Scotland has been aggravated by the impending independence referendum and the intensification of right wing politics in England. Unsurprisingly, the espousing of national stereotypes has become more apparent and less playful. For instance, following Nigel Farage’s ill-advised media gathering in Edinburgh, a UKIP candidate in Plymouth tweeted that he was ‘amazed that 50 Jocks could get out of bed that early’, adding ‘it’s not signing-on day, is it or is the chemist open?’ In the eighteenth century the propagandist prints of John Wilkes were motivated by a perceived Scottish threat to the English/British way of life; in the 1950s Ian Fleming reacted to the decline of Empire by creating an indestructible British hero; and Sam Mendes in 2012responded, intentionally or not, to the possible loss of England’s internal empire and by association the core of British identity by producing Skyfall.
In the Connery films Bond’s Britishness is much less in-your-face. Bond’s overt Britishness/Englishness really emerged when Roger Moore’s eyebrows took the role in 1974. For example, in the opening scene of The Spy Who Loved Me, moments before the union flag parachute stunt, Bond is enjoying a romantic tryst when he is suddenly called into action. ‘Something came up’ he tells the girl. ‘James I need you!’ she pleads, to which Bond replies ‘So does England!’ The juxtaposition of Moore’s ‘old-fashioned construction of Englishness’ and the union flag fuses England and Britain. This slippage between Britain and England is evident in Farage’s response to the Edinburgh demonstrators who chanted ‘shove your union jack up your arse’. A visibly wounded Farage declared that the advice was ‘clearly… anti-British, anti-English’, adding, ‘they even hate the Union Jack’. His interpretation of the demonstrators’ disdain for the British flag as anti-Englishness tells us less about the real intent of the demonstrators and more about his perception of whom and what the flag represents. Farage overlooks the Welsh, Northern Irish and the Scots who currently have made no complaint. While it is politically expedient to label the protestors as ‘anti-English’, the position of UKIP’s leader, particularly his conflating of Britain and England, is consistent with historical and contemporary patterns. As Murray Pittock points out, ‘the cultural semantics of “English” and “British” have become ‘interchangeable’. There is a revealing moment in Skyfall when Bond, taking part in a word association test, is prompted by the word ‘country’, to which he immediately and resolutely replies ‘England’.
In light of the present debate on Union, Bond’s choice of England over Scotland or Britain is suggestive of the current political situation wherein Scots are faced with a similar choice which, to some extent, will be based on their sense of national identity. Bond’s nemesis in Skyfall, Raoul Silva, has no divided loyalty. A former agent of MI6, Silva was betrayed by M and is now bent on destroying his former chief, at one point blowing up her office – including the porcelain British bulldog on her desk. When Silva tries to convince Bond that he is being manipulated by M, Bond tells him ‘I make my own choices’. Silva replies, ‘You think you did, that’s her genius.’ The confrontation between Bond and Silva is in effect a confrontation between someone who still strongly identifies with Britain and someone who no longer does.
After Bond’s own Glencoe massacre he returns to London and we find him standing on a roof, like a sentinel looking out over the city. In the distance the Union Flag flaps defiantly and in his hands Bond grips a last gift bequeathed to him from M: the slightly burned British bulldog from her desk. Britain has survived, but not unscathed. In the final scene the new M asks Bond if he is ready to once again do his duty, to which Bond replies ‘with pleasure… with pleasure’. Her Majesty would be pleased by her secret servant’s continuing subservience.