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Culloden via Tesco?

tumblr_m0moftecla1rqpa8po1_500A preview of Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence, ed. Scott Hames

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.


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? [2008]). 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 [1998]).

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 [1994])

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.


* * *

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 [1999]). 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 [1971]).

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.

* * *

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.
Janice Galloway

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?
Alan Bissett

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?
Alasdair Gray

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…
Kathleen Jamie

The left-wing hankering for a Scottish capitalist state strikes me as a consequence of defeat and a guarantee of future defeats.
Ken MacLeod

The monarchy ties us to a class-riven, sectarian past and ensures that our relations with other countries are mired in that past.
Meaghan Delahunt

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.
James Kelman

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…
James Robertson

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.
Mike Small

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.

Comments (11)

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  1. …perhaps it’s time Scots for once and for all stopped whimpering and apologising for who we are and really began believing in and knowing for absolute sure who we are!!!!!!!!!

  2. Dennis Smith says:

    Or alternatively … The reason why most Scots don’t know who they are is that they have never had the opportunity to decide for themselves. Independence offers a chance for self-definition (and that’s scary).

  3. Anon says:

    p.s. Why is Allan Armstrong here? I noticed he was at the Radical Indy conference as well. That man does not support independence. He just masquerades as a Scottish republican.

    1. Job's Biscuit says:

      He’s not really a writer either. Not in the fiction sense.

      1. Martin Tod says:

        Mr Biscuit….you have a strange notion of what a writer is if you think writing fiction is a pre requisite. Allan has been writing in a thoughtful and analytical way about aspects of repbublicanism for decades ( Anon… clearly have a problem with masks and masques)

  4. James Morton says:

    “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” I have to disagree slightly here and be a bit cheeky and like Sturgeon quote TS Eliot that we will arrive at the place were we started and know that place for the first time.

  5. “The success of Trainspotting in London was the main reason Scottish literature became visible to Scots.”
    Or was it because of the film? Produced by a Scot, but funded by London-based Channel 4.

    1. Scott Hames says:

      Hi Paul — if memory serves, Alan is talking about the film there, and how it made ‘Scottishness’ visible (good), in ways mediated by fashion (heroin chic, Britpop) and exoticism (not so good). I think….

  6. Robbie says:

    The quotes from Kathleen Jamie and Ken MacLeod immediately strike me as the most pertinent and erudite out of your wee snapshot selection but the whole book sounds class Scott- looking foward to reading it. Big tings a gwaan fi yuh again dis year, One Love fae an old mate in Jamaica…

  7. John Gallagher says:

    Its commin yet for aw
    That FREEDOM

  8. Stephen Senn says:

    I think that the ‘1979 debacle’ is widely misrepresented. It is usual that constitutional change requires more than a simply majority of those voting. I am a Swiss who lived twice in Scotland (1978-1987) and (2003-2011) and was always surprised that this was not debated more seriously in terms of what was a good process rather than what was a desired result. The Swiss brake on constitutional change is that not only a majority of the people but also a majority of the cantons have to vote for something to be accepted. To give another example the creation of the Canton of Jura required many different votes by many different groups. The Scottish National Party itself requires that 2/3 (not a simple majority) of those present at National Conference have to vote in favour of changes in the constitution. Can it really be right that a simple majority of one part of the United Kingdom can decide its fate?

    Also strange is the Scottish identification of royalty with England. I fail to see how Bannockburn, Flodden, Culloden etc etc can be interpreted as Scots democrats against English Royalists. James VI and I (who unified the crowns) was a Stuart and Anne (under whom the parliaments were unified) also and it was English parliamentarians who cut the head off a Scottish born King. You could easily make a story, equally irrelevant, for the reverse. (It is actually rather amusing to consider that with Tudor, Welsh, Stuarts Scottish, Orange, Dutch and Hannover, German the English seems to have spent long periods ruled by foreign monarchs.)

    By the way I am currently enjoying reading John Herdman’s* account of the nationalist literary scene in the 1960s and 1970s. He mentions “The Knitted Claymore”. is this available online anywhere?

    *There is possibly a linguistic bias here since the meaning of Senn is “Herdman (or herdsman) of the alps”

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