Changing Scotland’s State of Mind
Scottishness and Britishness are not the constitution. They are cultural ideas and they have meaning, positive or negative, today, just as they would under a different constitutional arrangement…One of the things that I find most disappointing and frustrating about the state of our politics in Scotland, and it did show itself during the referendum, not from the majority, from the minority, but a vocal minority on both sides, is this sense of hostility and resentment that exists between people on ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ sides of that independence debate.
– Patrick Harvie, speaking at Changin’ Scotland, Ullapool, Saturday 28 March 2015.
It’s difficult, from whatever side you look at it, to comprehend at what point Scotland will be capable of moving beyond the massive ramifications of last year’s events.
Certainly, a great deal has changed since that dire September morning when I sat looking up at Edinburgh’s Old Town from Princes Street Gardens, with only a bottle of Talisker for comfort (sneaking it into my coat pocket as I left a party represented at least one successful act of liberation from the night before). I was struck by all the fine old stone buildings of the Scottish establishment that seemed to stare back at me like a wall of entitlement and parochialism. In the early morning haar I was a very small, fallible individual again, and those ramparts seemed insurmountable.
With the onset of Spring and the continued unprecedented nature of Scottish politics, the scene is beginning to clear and fall into perspective once again. This was thoroughly demonstrated at last week’s Changin Scotland event, a long running lecture series on politics and ideas. Ullapool is a fitting spot for this kind of forum: in recent years, it’s become a small but well formed cultural capital for north west Scotland. Not because anyone anointed it as such but largely down to the hard work and audacity of a few community leaders.
Given the inevitable, frequent, references to the referendum, the 19th of September seemed both more distant and still present at the event. While a great deal is still unfolding: much that was live in the campaign remains so.
Perhaps such a time and place offer a useful vantage point. Scotland is still going through a process of transformation. Crucially, you’ll notice this as much in Ullapool as you will in Holyrood or Westminster. If a tangible effect
is discernible: it is that many Scots, long douce and patient, are tipping inexorably towards a state of mind that is more audacious, more demanding and far more able to self-educate and organise.
Kicking out incumbent lobby fodder in Glasgow and setting up a group in a Highland village to talk land reform might not seem like they are part of the same process, but in a sense, they are. Of all that has been hard to thole for Scotland’s people in recent decades, it is the neglect that comes with obscurity, venal entitlement and inherited privilege. It seems that the superstitious curse that it’s ‘aye been’ has lost its once enthralling quality. This, it could be argued, is as significant a development as constitutional change.
That said, it’s all too easy to assume that the form of expansive politics Scotland discovered last year has been grafted onto the coming election via the SNP. Elections are as fundamentally different from referenda as movements are from political parties. Rather than big electoral vehicles the referendum was about the ability of new groups to take root overnight. The ability of novel brands and formations to spring up with youthful speed and agility was central to the mammoth fast-forwarding experience that Scotland as a polity went through last year. For now, the time of that simple link between political ideas and their expression, or the kind of politics that can spontaneously take to the streets, is past. So, while it has become obligatory to talk of ‘Scotland the changed’, it’s worth remembering that the agents of change must always be found far beyond the membership of any one political party.
So the next task is not, in any direct sense, political. In Ullapool frequent concern was expressed at the depth of post-referendum divides. In some sense, considering all that was at stake in last year’s vote, Scotland’s continued capacity for social cohesion in the face of its many divisions is remarkable.
Rather than creating tribalism: the referendum divide now has a more symbolic role. It’s not about generalising the experience of the long running SNP/Labour grudge match. Instead, it’s a kind of Scottish version of America’s notorious and long running culture wars. A ‘silent’, generally older, small ‘c’ conservative bloc is watching a country it once knew disappearing thanks to a loud, generally younger and poorer, alliance of progressive forces.
Post-referendum, we cannot avoid this culture war: it is the pervasive backdrop to all serious discussions about the country’s future. It’s about a sense that a set of values embodied in the British union are under threat on the one hand and that a body of trendy progressive opinion, backed by prominent cultural figures, are locked into an alliance intent on destroying them.
Many contemporary societies experience such acute divisions: even if in Scotland it is a native underclass, rather than racial other, that faces ultimate demonisation. But the threat from below is still felt to be existential. The right to hold British values itself is threatened by this rag-tag assortment of vocal activists and artists ranged from the centre leftwards. The army, the monarchy and the BBC may not be safe. These institutions, that are the only carriers that British culture has left, are threatened as never before.
The parallels with America don’t end there. As the most recent findings of the Scottish Referendum Study revealed, with the exception of the Roman Catholic community, the yes vote only triumphed amongst the godless. Essentially the politics of Britishness/Scottishness have become carriers for social stratification on a whole variety of different lines. While complexities and strange alliances still abound within the two camps, the division is generational, class based and often rural vs urban.
It’s therefore not surprising that much of the art produced by those in the Scottishness camp is referred to as both degenerate and worrisome. That is of course if you believe such people are worthy of the title ‘artist’ in the first place. As in Alex Massie’s polemic Where’s the art, National Collective? the artist who backs independence is reduced to the status of hipster luvvie by association.
Judgements of what is and what is not art are always subjective. It’s possible to imagine that for some, this sublime piece of animation by Fraser Croall, released shortly before September’s vote, isn’t art. It’s equally credible that supporters of National Collective who performed and contributed work to the campaign: including Stuart Braithwaite, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, David Greig, Karine Polwart, Ruth Mills, Janie Nicoll, Dick Gaughan,Janice Galloway and RM Hubbert (to name just a few), do not fit with the runes in whatever secret codex Massie uses to asses artistic validity. Yet it’s not difficult to suggest that few would have time for such sweeping dismissal.
I suspect that, in reality, Massie would acknowledge such people are artists and we’d agree that the best work on 2014 is likely to follow at a later date, given that, overwhelmingly, that’s how the creative process works. And yes the definition of artist-creative used by National Collective was wide: as he points out, it included comedians and teachers, though if being a teacher stops you producing art Massie’s unionist canon would exclude the likes of Norman MacCaig, Robin Jenkins, and a host of other prominent contributors to Scottish culture who worked in the profession.
The point however, is this: it doesn’t matter that National Collective can be reduced to some cherry picked student prose or to the social media hype it used to promote itself (even if it is regrettable that common appreciation of artistic value can get lost in the mix). Fundamentally, Scotland is a country that consists of two separate and fragmented audiences, cleaving to mutually exclusive narratives about the country’s history, culture and the experience of a totemic referendum campaign. Massie is performing for only one camp in the culture war. For its followers National Collective deserves nothing other than condescension and spite.
For it’s not artists that are the real target of a piece that is redolent with the very familiar disdain from certain quarters about the character of the wider yes movement. It’s really a proxy attack on millennials, who were seen to support yes in the greatest numbers and who were at the forefront of groups like National Collective and Radical Independence. Precarious, young and often sporting a variety of fashions and attempts at facial hair, the ‘hipster’ generation is an easy target, partly because its inheritance is so meagre. PhD qualified zero hour contractors and sculptors that work in Sainsbury’s are very easy to mock: especially if you came of age at the right time to buy a home or land a permanent salaried position. But the idea that this lack of economic security or vocational identity is somehow the result of a talentless, non-committed generation, doesn’t stack up. The reality is that many minds brimming with projects, degrees and distant aspirations, are as likely to be serving, as they are to be purchasing, a flat white in Finnieston. As the Scottish Referendum Study has found: the worst-paid, most highly educated, chronically interned and underemployed generation voted yes by a majority. In reaching out for a movement they chose one that reflected the nature of their lives. In Scotland’s culture war, this demographic reality is taken and mocked by an older, more conservative nation: a partisan contender that will do anything other than admit that the country it left to its children is often devoid of opportunity.
How do we reach across these barriers of wealth, status and age? The object lesson from America is not to let this conflict of values be played out exclusively in the realm of party politics. We need to keep the conversation big and broad, while understanding that the cultural influence of the union, for all that many of us proudly cultivate a Scottish alternative to it, remains pervasive.
But a mature culture does not have to ask permission to thrive. It does not allow itself to be defined by the structural problems it faces, anymore than the people of Ullapool were prepared to settle for a situation in which culture was seen to stop at Inverness, if it even made it that far.
In our Scotland in flux, old divisions, sometimes with new names, are everywhere. The independence of mind that many of us now seek must be about so much more than the backing of competing politicians. It must be cultural in its widest sense: recognising that the nature of the current fight is about the embedding of youthful confidence and a refusal to be defined by a conservatism that dare not speak its name. Constitutions aside, a country that is prepared to break out of its British-Scottish stasis will be all the richer for it. You never know, one day some of us might even get a paying job in it.
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