WHY ALASDAIR GRAY MATTERS (AND WHY HE MUST BE SMEARED)
When the Tory government were re-elected for a fourth term in 1992 Scotland was plunged into a constitutional crisis. An unelected unwanted government with alien social values had been imposed on the people of Scotland. Again. The concept of “a democratic deficit” gathered political momentum and from the low of 1992 Scots slowly but inexorably stirred, rose to our feet, and began to assert our right to exist as a self-governing nation.
Into this cauldron of questioning and cultural renaissance author Alasdair Gray published an incendiary pamphlet titled ‘Why Scots Should Rule Scotland’. In the first few sentences of Chapter 1, The Scots and Where They Come From, Gray laid down a marker:
The title of this book may sound threatening to those who live in Scotland but were born and educated elsewhere, so I had better explain that by Scots I mean everyone in Scotland who is able to vote.” He continued: “My definition cheerfully includes many who think of themselves English but work here as hoteliers, farmers, administrators and directors of Scottish institutions.
He generously included as Scots the Dukes and other great landowners who have stately homes and property in many other countries.
Some may think this definition of a Scot both too liberal and too narrow, but I believe that every adult in a land should have equal say in how it is ruled so therefore belongs to it, however recently she or he arrived.” Adding, as a reminder, lest we need one: ” The first people who called themselves Scots were immigrants.
The influence of these few paragraphs cannot be overstated. Alasdair Gray defined civic nationalism for a generation and his definition of “a Scot” could not have been more inclusive and welcoming, nor further away from inward looking ethnic nationalism. In this respect Gray, as much as any one individual, helped shape the modern Independence movement as it is today. Thanks in much part to Alasdair Gray our independence movement has no place for racism or anti-Englishness 1. It has inclusiveness and the welcome at at its heart.
Fast forward 20 years and Scotland on Sunday run a story under the provocative headline: ‘Gray attacks the English for ‘colonising the arts.’ The sub-header is equally provocative: ‘Writer claims incomers are exploiting Scottish culture’. Before anyone read his essay the social media mobbing of Gray began, braying for his head.
The SoS article bases its allegations on a new essay written by Gray with the highly provocative title of ‘Colonisers and Settlers.’ It is published in Unstated, a new anthology of essays from Word Power Books, where a number of writers discuss issues related to Scottish Independence.
Let’s not beat about the bush here. Words like ”incomers’, colonisers’ and ‘settlers’ are potentially loaded terminology; usually associated with far-right racists. Loaded terms are best avoided in general, or if used they need to be carefully explained beforehand. In his essay Gray does just that. He clearly illustrates what he means by the terms. For Gray ‘settler’ like ‘immigrant’ is not a pejorative term. It’s what every country is essentially and historically made up of.
Yet the SoS article twists this into a general critique of immigrants putting Gray almost into the same boat as the BNP. “In a critique of English immigration north of the border….” says the SoS. This is a deliberately poisonous interpretation of Gray’s words. Far from having a pop at incomers as the SoS dishonestly claim, Gray’s thoughtful historical essay lauds the efforts of people who have arrived here in Scotland and have contributed and enriched our arts, culture and society.
The substance of Gray’s essay is to ask why such a disproportionate number of people in senior administrative positions in the arts are not Scots (in the broad inclusive definition given above) and whether this is having a negative effect on Scottish culture. This is an important question. When Gray cites the “exclusion policy” of Giles Havergal in his 34 year tenure as director of Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theatre; where he staged just two plays by Scots with Scottish settings, he has a point. When Gray criticises Creative Scotland for appointing a Chief Executive who wasn’t Scottish and “knew nothing of Scottish culture” who can disagree with that.
If journalist or commentators think that there ISN’T a problem with self confidence, inferiorism and the profile of Scots in senior positions in Scotland today, they aren’t paying attention.
The truth is that Alasdair Gray hasn’t got an anti-English bone in his body as everyone who knows him and his work will readily testify. It takes a particularly twisted self-loathing kind of journalism to try and imply that about Alasdair Gray. Which is why the job was given to Tom Peterkin.
In a recent essay on Bella about Peterkin and co. we reflected on the tactics that the Britnat press would use over the next two years. One will be to try and smear leading indy supporters rather than engage with ideas. Therefore as an influential thinker and supporter of Scottish independence Gray too had to be smeared. This is the Britnat mindset that plays free and easy with the truth in our so-called Scottish press.
Yet when you consider that Alasdair Gray is Scotland’s greatest living writer, our James Joyce in many respects, and the man who has done so much to encourage an inclusive welcoming Scotland at peace with the rest of the world, such smears can’t be allowed to simply pass by.
This time the Scotsman Publications have stepped over a line. But don’t take our word for it. Read the essay – thoughtful, considered, nuanced as it is – and make your own mind up. But let’s not have a twitter mob and let’s face up to some of the real issues it raises about why so many key institutions throughout our country are led by people who know nothing about it. Why is this? What does it mean? What should we do about it?
Independence isn’t about shallow constitutional change, it’s about re-evaluating the deeper values we hold and the systems in place. For decades there’s been an underlying assumption by many in positions of authority influence and commerce that if you’re from here you can’t be any good, and if you’re not from here you’re probably better. There’s several drivers to this. There’s a confidence in people who up-sticks and re-locate that can’t be denied. There’s also a lack of confidence about a people who’s culture, history and politics is routinely presented as insignificant, provincial or otherwise marginal. At a certain point these factors become self-perpetuating – so that it’s expected that senior management positions are filled by people from outwith these borders.
Little of this will be news to anyone who has eyes or ears and lives in Scotland today.
1In fact Scottish Government policy to attract highly skilled immigrants under the ‘New Talent’ initiative was overridden by the UK because it didn’t suit English political sensibilities.