This book (which I think and hope will enliven the whole debate) started in discussion between Bella Caledonia and Scott Hames on 2 January 2012. I think from here things start to get interesting and nothing is altogether trivial …The book will be launched Monday 17 December at the Word Power bookshop in Edinburgh.
By Scott Hames
Weeks before the 1979 referendum on devolution, William McIlvanney sensed a mood of national stock-taking: ‘Faced with the strangeness of where we had come to, we were perhaps more inclined to wonder about the strangeness of how we had got there.’ A similar feeling is with us now. The Free Presbyterian Kirk recently warned that Scottish statehood ‘would be a provocation of God’. Perhaps this is what Rupert Murdoch meant by arguing Scotland should be allowed to take its own risks.
Part of the current strangeness is the murky place of ‘culture’ in the political shift implied by the upcoming referendum on independence. The very phrase would have sounded miraculous to cultural nationalists in March 1979, when McIlvanney lambasted ‘The Cowardly Lion’ who chose the feeding bowl over ‘the terrible distances of freedom’. But how much distance really has been run since then, and what role have writers and artists played in crossing it?
In the years following the 1979 debacle, it is commonly argued, Scotland achieved ‘a form of cultural autonomy in the absence of its political equivalent’, led above all by novelists, poets and dramatists (Murray Pittock, The Road to Independence? ). Writers such as Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, James Kelman and Liz Lochhead are held to have energised a wider cultural debate concerning national identity and self-determination, exercising a quasi-democratic function in the period leading up to, and in some sense preparing the ground for, devolution. In 1998 Christopher Whyte argued that ‘in the absence of elected political authority, the task of representing the nation has been repeatedly devolved to its writers’ (‘Masculinities in Contemporary Scottish Fiction’, Forum for Modern Language Studies ).
This view of literature as a democratic surrogate has become a commonplace in Scottish criticism, but prompts as many questions as it answers. Without dismissing this ‘usable tradition’, this book emerges from a conviction that the relationship between contemporary Scottish literature and contemporary Scottish politics is much more ambivalent, charged and complex than this narrative would suggest.
* * *
At the launch of the ‘No’ campaign Alistair Darling warned against ‘going on a journey with an uncertain destination’. But if the destination is known in advance, it is not a journey at all. If going nowhere is the essential message of ‘Better Together’, it could do worse than to hop aboard the Inverness bus-route noted in John Aberdein’s essay in Unstated. ‘Culloden via Tesco’ has a suggestive bathos as we approach an historic crucible by way of retail politics. Buy autonomy get equality half-price. Premium defence contracts while supplies – and the Union – last. This cheapness found its cultural level at the ‘No’ launch when pro-Union celebrity Miss Inverness 2010 let it be known that ‘there is nothing I like better than donning my tartan mini-skirt’. Are we really back to the neurotic, sub-nationalist ‘thistle patch’ diagnosed by Tom Nairn in The Break-Up of Britain (1977)?
* * *
Recalling the strangeness of Scotland’s organised political nationalism, decried by Nairn as ‘an apolitical and anti-cultural nationalism unique in the world’, it might be fairest to say that ‘culture’ contributed a great deal to the formation and recognition of a mobilisable Scottish identity, but the electoral beneficiaries of that mobilisaton had little firm interest in culture as an end in itself. Their actions in office bear this out, and here history repeats itself. In that infamous year of civic boosterism, Glasgow’s 1990, Angus Calder questioned the cash-value of Scottish left-wing culturalism:
Even if you throw in a few anti-apartheid songs and musical contributions from Chile and Nicaragua, what have the uses of popular culture which have been made by the labour movement in Scotland helped to achieve? Total Labour Party dominance in Lowland Scotland voting patterns and the yuppification of central Glasgow and the Old Town of Edinburgh, that’s what, if anything, they have helped to achieve. (Revolving Culture: Notes from the Scottish Republic )
This is a valuable reminder. Writers, musicians and performers may have articulated a sense of Scottish disenfranchisement in the 1980s and 90s, and brought the ‘substratum’ of cultural autonomy, in Pat Kane’s formulation, to the electoral surface. But the conservative political process we call ‘devolution’ – no more or less than an effort to re-legitimise the UK state – was, in the end, not meaningfully shaped by them. To read some cultural histories of the past few decades, you would think Holyrood was dreamed into being by artists. It wasn’t. That the name of ‘Alisdair Gray’ is misspelled on Holyrood’s Canongate Wall is fitting, and installs a necessary distance between the cultural and political processes at issue.
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The unofficial credo of Scottish cultural nationalism, Gray’s ‘work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation’, has a history all its own. As Gray has grown tired of acknowledging, the phrase derives from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee. Considerably less sunny than Gray’s slogan, Lee’s long 1972 poem Civil Elegies is no encomium to nation-building but a tormented meditation on voided citizenship. Far from the promise of a clean slate, the poem dwells on national defeat, ‘honour[ing] each one of my country’s failures of nerve and its sellouts’. But even knowledge of its own abnegation is worthless ‘in a nation of / losers and quislings’ content ‘to fashion / other men’s napalm and know it’. (Officially, Canada abstained from the US war on Vietnam.)
Gray’s is the more attractive vision, but Lee’s poem is a reminder that it is entirely possible to remain dominated, and complicit, from behind your own ‘sovereign’ borders. If that was true four decades ago, it is all the more so today. ‘The trajectory of even the most heroic nationalist movement’, Alex Callinicos argues, ‘is to carve out its own space within the capitalist world system and therefore ultimately make its peace with that system’ [‘Marxism and the National Question’ in Scotland, Class and Nation, ed. Chris Bambery ). This is a criticism from the radical left, but comes suggestively close to the SNP’s rhetoric of ‘normalisation’.
A year before Lee’s poem was published in its final form, the Edinburgh poet Alan Jackson argued that the individual freedom of the writer was partly at stake in the debates of a renascent Scottish literary nationalism. With a tang of hippy individualism, Jackson argued that the price of the liberation promised by nationalism was ‘continu[ing] the myths by which a few can act on behalf of many’.
Are we too to have our frontiers and passports, our own call-up papers and definition of undesirable aliens? A new form of loyalty and so a new form of surrender? (‘The Knitted Claymore’, Lines Review 37 ).
To put Jackson’s reminder another way, the fulfillment of nationalist desire lies not in ‘un-neurotic’ cultural Scottishness, but political statehood, including its unlovely apparatus. (Look closely at Chad McCail’s cover.) Others will insist the status quo can hardly be preferable, when the broken democratic machinery of the UK guarantees rule by a ‘few’ elected by a different ‘many’, depriving Scotland of responsibility as well as agency.
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Even at this early stage of the referendum campaign, we are deluged by facile arguments and factoids designed to ‘manage’ debate, or to rig the terrain on which it is contested. As the politicians sharpen their messaging and reduce the discussion to slogans, fantasies and nightmares, it is increasingly apparent that the truly thorny, exciting and difficult questions about self-determination – including the basis of that national ‘self’ – will be submerged and hidden from view. Before the party machines and newspapers settle the parameters of a bogus debate, there must be room for more radical, more honest and more nuanced thinking about what ‘independence’ means in and for Scottish culture. The aims of Unstated are two-fold. First, to set the question of Scottish political independence within the much wider and often radical horizons which inform these twenty-seven writers’ work, both as artists and public intellectuals. Second, to document the true relationship between the official discourse of Scottish nationalism, and the ethical concerns of some of the writers presented as its guiding lights and cultural guarantors.
Here are a few brief excerpts from the writers’ essays:
All we have to lose is what we signified – a humble of mean-minded stereotypes, our status as the last kick of Empire, our sense we somehow deserve not only less than we hope for, but a smack for getting big ideas in the first place.
The success of Trainspotting in London was the main reason Scottish literature became visible to Scots. Do the French encounter their own culture so rarely?
Independence is not a moment to vote for, but a process of state formation to participate in (or be excluded from) or to resist.
Leigh French and Gordon Asher
The appointed director of Creative Scotland [soon to be ex-director] is not Scottish, admits to knowing nothing of Scottish culture, but says he is willing to learn. Ain’t Scotland lucky?
We’ve been conned into believing that it’s impossible to fashion public policy out of common decency. This is not proven, we can try…
The left-wing hankering for a Scottish capitalist state strikes me as a consequence of defeat and a guarantee of future defeats.
The monarchy ties us to a class-riven, sectarian past and ensures that our relations with other countries are mired in that past.
We are being asked to provide a priori evidence of our fitness to determine our own existence before the freedom to do so is allowed.
I’m with you in Scotland
where the cultural cringe bows to reveal
the cultural cringe
Kevin MacNeil (channelling Allen Ginsberg)
If we opt for independence out of small-mindedness, or greed, or envy, or hatred, then we should, we really should, leave well alone…
If you want to paint your face with a Union Jack, listen to the Archers and genuflect at the Queen, be my guest. None of that is threatened by your parliament being able to make decisions.
Full list of contributors:
John Aberdein, Allan Armstrong, Alan Bissett, Jenni Calder, Bob Cant, Jo Clifford, Meaghan Delahun, Douglas Dunn, Margaret Elphinstone, Leigh French and Gordon Asher, Janice Galloway, Magi Gibson, Alasdair Gray, Kirsty Gunn, Kathleen Jamie, James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Ken MacLeod, Aonghas MacNeacail, Kevin MacNeil, Denise Mina, Don Paterson, James Robertson, Suhayl Saadi, Mike Small, Gerda Stevenson, Christopher Whyte
These are excerpts from the editorial introduction to Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. The full version offers a much longer (and fully referenced) historical sketch of recent intersections between Scottish literature and Scottish nationalism, addressing many writers, arguments and positions conspicuously under-represented above.
Scott Hames teaches at the University of Stirling, where he co-convenes a Master’s programme on Modern Scottish Writing.