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The Tunnock's Trauma: Are Biscuits a Crisis Point for Nationalism?

08/01/2016 10:14 GMT | Updated 07/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Following a new advertising campaign in which tea cake giants Tunnock's referred to their iconic Scottish snack as the 'Great British Tea Cake' and removed the Scottish Lion from its packaging, nationalists in Scotland have called for a boycott of the company. Some pretty severe anti-Tunnock's sentiment from patriotic Scots can easily be discovered by a quick Google.

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This strange eruption of ill-feeling towards the traditional confectioners threatens to make us aware of a very peculiar relationship: the connection between nationalists and biscuits. It raises a slightly odd question: can a biscuit company be wrong to abandon its use of national identity in advertising campaigns, letting down its Scottish roots? Perhaps more interestingly, it raises a question that is even odder still: could the biscuit company have been wrong to employ imagery that would encourage nationalism in the first place?

Many nations have national biscuits: Scottish shortbread, Italian biscotti, German Spritzgebäck (the list is endless). Generally speaking, they are a fairly harmless example of national pride in traditions of baking and have little to do with negative nationalist feeling. Despite this, the latest Tunnock's saga is not the first time biscuits have caused nationalists a bit of serious trouble. In the early 1990s, in the midst of the conflicts that led to the break- up of Yugoslavia, Serbians and Croatians squabbled about whether Gingerbread Hearts were part of Serbian or Croatian culture. As each side desperately fought to avoid losing their prized confectionery to their greatest enemies, many reports surfaced of arguments about Gingerbread Hearts resulting in full scale fights and significant nationalist violence.

There are various opinions as to the most important things in determining national identity. In Imagined Communities, one of the most influential books ever written on nationalism, Benedict Anderson argued that newspapers and the media are the most important factors in creating and constructing our sense of national identity. Famous historian Eric Hobsbawn took a different view: he felt that the elite classes were the force most in charge of constructing national identity. Both of these are compelling claims in the case of us British: the royal family, as well as other aristocratic and elite traditions, are obviously powerful signifiers of our national identities, supporting Hobsbawm's view. At the same time, the media's reportage, celebration and portrayal of aristocrats (and of other things) clearly play an equally powerful major role in forging our sense of our Britishness, Englishness, Scottishness, etc. Both the elite and the media construct national identity: but so does the biscuit.

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Gingerbread Hearts: the trigger of nationalist violence in the 1990s

These are not just the views of two academics analyzing nationalism: they are the two main ways in which we talk about nationalism generally at the present moment. We often stress that the elite is to blame for nationalist sentiment. In the ongoing refugee crisis for example, those in power have often been the least open and most preservative of their own national boundaries and their own national identities, even if this comes at the cost of disaster for others. Likewise, we notice how the media is often to blame for whipping up further nationalist feeling. The elite and the media are remain to influential forces in forging nationalist sentiment.

As the Tunnock's saga unfolds it might be worth asking: what about biscuits? Could they rival the elite classes or the media as the force most in charge of how we conceive of our national selves? Do we need to get into discussion about the media's portrayal of biscuits, or whether the biscuits are a class signifier of any kind? Probably not.

What we can at least see though, is the relevance of the everyday in forming and constructing national identity. Whilst we are familiar with the elite and the mainstream media constructing national identity and encouraging nationalist sentiment, we are less attentive to everyday signs of national identity and the impacts of them on us. The humorous saga of the Tunnock's Tea Cake rubbing some Scottish nationalists up the wrong way forces us into this very serious realization. That is it not just the elites and the media that are responsible for nationalism but the everyday; the times we inadvertently or unconsciously see a British flag, a Welsh dragon or a Scottish lion rampant emblazoned innocently on a packet of crisps, or Irish shamrock on the side of a packet of sausages.

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To return to the two questions raised by the Tunnock's business. First, can the company be blamed for either leaving behind its Scottishness? And second, should we consider whether the confectioner is guilty of contributing to the buildup of nationalism in the first place?

The answer is, I think quite obviously, a resounding no. Of course, neither act committed by Tunnock's (using Scottish patriotism to sell biscuits or ceasing to do so) is particularly reprehensible. We probably will not get away with making the (admittedly quite reasonable) claim that all advertising should be free of patriotic pride in their product in case a few people get too far into it and become nationalists. But what we must do is be attentive to the power of the everyday in forging national identity: if a Tunnock's advert can ruffle nationalists up the wrong way then a great deal more seemingly innocent things are responsible for our conceptions of our national selves as well.

Far from being two unrelated news stories, the Tunnock's saga is the other side of the coin to the migrant crisis. At a time when our nations have shown themselves to be less welcoming and more insular than we might have hoped, convinced that we share an identity with each other and willing to demonize and reject those of other nations, we need also to ask what role apparently innocent symbolism, from Tea Cakes to the Bake Off, plays in the construction of this unwelcoming attitude.