Is Liz Lochhead a racist? In his column in The Times today, former deputy editor at Scotland on Sunday Kenny Farquharson thinks so, comparing her to Nigel Farage (‘There’s a blind spot in our multiculturalism’). It’s an ignorant tirade which merits a response. In an interview by Colin Begg in Gutter magazine – which runs to 6000 words – Lochhead explores the current Scottish literary and cultural landscape.
Farquharson writes: “How disappointing that Liz Lochhead … should this week lament that it is a “great pity there’s a shortage of Scottish people working in the National Theatre of Scotland”. In an interview with a literary magazine she goes on: “It’s just a shame, you know. I’ve nothing against any of the people that do work there. I just wish there were more Scots, more people with a Scottish theatrical culture.”
This simple, uncontroversial view in which she articulates that Scottish theatre has a particular cultural background and is a ‘distinct thing’ in itself worthy of being recognised, somehow allows Farquharson to then make a giant and hysterical leap.
“We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns. Except, perhaps, if you’re English. Our liberal, inclusive, self-congratulatory multiculturalism has a blind spot, and it’s the English. My test for this is simple: we’ll know Scotland is finally relaxed about the English when there’s a St George’s Day parade down Sauchiehall Street, followed by an afternoon of morris dancing in George Square, with no heckling and no arrests. What’s the chances?”
This is an extraordinary thing to say. It’s a virulent response to a well-respected cultural voice simply stating that Scottish cultural traditions exist and people who are aware of, immersed in and expert in these traditions are best suited to lead and guide key institutions. In any country in the world this would be uncontroversial. In this country to state these simple facts creates a vicious backlash.
He goes on: “The idea that the English in Scotland — there are about 450,000 of them, many more than any other minority — might want to celebrate their own culture in an overt manner is barely conceivable to the average Scot. While other immigrants are allowed, encouraged even, to display their cultural antecedents, the English are expected to assimilate or, failing that, keep their heads down. They are certainly expected to keep their voices down.”
The irony won’t be lost on many. Keep their voices down? This, in a column smearing the Makar with outrageous allegations? Perhaps the reason nobody wants to organise ‘Morris Dancing in George Square’ (how patronising is that?) is because English identity doesn’t need to be asserted, not because there’d be riots in the streets by rabid Scots?
He continues: “I have no hesitation in pointing out the similarities between her rhetoric and that of Nigel Farage. The parallel will appal her. Good, I hope it does.”
I doubt Kenny has read the interview, but he didn’t have to in order to exercise his misplaced grievances.
The Gutter’s editor Henry Bell has this to say: “As an English person working in Scottish theatre and an editor of Gutter magazine I can’t think of even a hint of a moment when Liz Lochhead has exhibited anti-Englishness or any other xenophobia. And not that it’s relevant, but when it comes to Scottish theatre being a distinct tradition that doesn’t always get its dues, I agree with Liz.”
It’s deeply embarrassing for Kenny Farquharson and the Times to publish this.
It’s an obsession based on a caricature and it shows an inability to actually engage in cultural debate. Henry Bell again: “There’s subtleties to Liz’s opinions that survive better in Gutter than in the Herald, the Times, or on Twitter, but I think it’s impossible to unfankle identity, tradition, culture and nationality in Scotland and in theatre. It’s necessarily messy. Liz is not saying anything she hasn’t said before she’s just carrying on the long discussion about what we want the national theatre to be. And there’s twice as many opinions on that as there are people that go to the theatre.”
Robert Sommyne reflects on his blog about some of the recent history of this debate:
“In his book Independence: An Argument for Home Rule & Many Others (Alasdair) Gray with finesse further examines, within the historical context, the importance of a nation’s ability to own and develop its culture at all levels. Deep within his analysis are the much neglected areas of class, history and region. Gray expounds on how Scottish official culture has been imposed via middle class respectability since before the Second World War. This meant that culture in its literary and theatrical forms were rarely explored through a distinct perspective of ordinary Scots in all their variety at a national level or local outlook. It seems to me that the Scottish theatrical culture Lochhead describes that is “gutsy, upfront, borderline” with a “rough and ready relationship with variety”; is a tradition rooted in working class attitudes to artistic expression and regional variety. This is indeed too little seen despite the good will of many…An additional observation is the way in which Scottish representation is seen as a form of racism. Whenever Scots feel the need to redress clear historic biases based on nation and class they are called chippy, narrow or racist. They are Robert Mugabes of the arts world no doubt. What makes it harder for Scots with the concerns of Gray and Lochhead to speak up is that they are speaking for a majority unheard in their own country.”
This isn’t cringe this is cultural self-loathing. It’s a misplaced paranoia which is almost comic given the extent to which Anglo-British culture dominates much of our lives. It’s great to experience the vibrant internationalism of Edinburgh just now – and the coming Mela Festival too. To argue that Scotland merits its place in the global cultural throng doesn’t make you a racist.