Closely after Burns was enlisted to support a Yes vote (followed by a scurry of slightly desperate denunciations) along comes James Joyce. Placing Scotland on the periphery of Europe (but in a good way) in Cultural Weapons (1992) Christopher Harvie writes ‘What we have going for us is, on our side James Joyce’s ‘silence, exile and cunning’. Maybe less of the silence these days but the point remains that being outside the default centralism of functional European bureaucracy, and beyond the degenerative grip of Westminster Mondeoism leaves people more hungry.
This is Joyce’s birthday. Writing in the Guardian Richard Barlow charts his connection with Hogg, Stevenson, MacDiarmid and others, noting:
MacDiarmid’s Joycean aesthetic was part of an ideological programme aimed at cultural and political transformation in Scotland. As Margery McCulloch has noted, early 20th-century Scottish artistic resurgence was designed to revivify the entire national fabric: “What made this post-First World War literary revival movement unique among Scottish cultural movements was the belief of those involved that any regeneration in the nation’s aesthetic culture could not be separated from revival in the nation’s wider social, economic, and political life.”
This holism, or generalism, survives. It’s the complete opposite of the strangely anodyne piece by Robin Hodge we wrote about earlier in the week, where the same authors were cited as an example of the Union’s cultural vibrancy.
What ‘cultural commentators’ need to get to grips with it that the reason the cultural movement in Scotland is backing Yes is that it’s political, and confident. This despite efforts to depoliticise our very existence. This goes back to before Brown. Ross McKibbin wrote:
The aim of the Blair Govt is to depoliticise political action. That legacy of its predecessor, whose aim was also depoliticisation under the Conservatives the average voter w as conceived as a customer, a client, a consumer, an investor – anything but a politically active citizen. Depoliticiization was to be achieved by a central state whose powers were not only undiminished but in many ways increased. In this respect too, the New Labour is very much the child of Old Labour, many of whose deepest attachments were to the British state and its constitutional apparatus.
It’s cultural revival that can lift people more than the perplexing search for facts as outlined by Tom Hunter’s poll. It’s culture and arts that will give people a story that will break through more than fact sheets, hyperbole and disinformation. Who tell’s the best story matters. Too tall a tale and nobody will believe you. Too old a tale and no-one will listen.
A few weeks ago Alex Salmond tried to head-off the hyperbole in an interview with James Naughtie by saying ‘there won’t be three taps in your house for oil, water and whisky’. For some of cautious mind the Yes campaigns assertion that we’d be the 8th wealthiest country in the world seems unfathomable. If this is true – so Lesley Riddoch has argued – this leaves people feeling remarkably stupid. It is in fact an obstacle to real change, as it presents people with a psychological hurdle. Nobody likes to be made to feel foolish. For many people then, putting up the shutters and agreeing (tacitly) with ‘UK:OK’ (‘everything’s fine’) is preferable to saying, this really doesn’t work any more, what are we actually going to do?
So one reason that Yes sounds ridiculous is we don’t want to face up to that lost opportunity, that realisation that we’ve been duped, that feeling like we’ve been stupid. On the other hand the reason that No feels and looks ridiculous is their deliberate inability to articulate a positive message. This is a deliberate tactic. While Yes and the wider indy movements attempts essentially an assets based approach, No is operating a simple scorched earth plan. In this, methodologically they are new school versus old skool.
There is however some commonality between the Scottish and the Anglo-British psyche, and to slip momentarily into Jungian psychobabble, both are rooted in unexpressed, unfulfilled identity, both mired in entities which lack confidence and self-esteem., both doomed to leap from gloomy introspection and triumphalism. The difference, and this is crucial, is that Scots are faintly aware of this condition.
This oscillation between great and awful (Alba/Albania) is found in ‘Britain-England’ too. The great but curiously absent Tom Nairn has noticed that:
Scotland and Wales have always been known as edgeland dumps peopled by half-humans unable to ‘manage on their own’. Except (that is) when they were being the greatest wee counties upon earth, responsible for nearly all inventions (including the British Empire) and capable of occasionally trashing the ‘old enemy’, on or off the sports-ground. The cringe and the chest-beating went hand-in-hand. Sometimes one was encouraged to pretend this was an interesting way of life.
While, writing in the Independent in (April 2001), Anne McElvoy has written:
The British are either a Cool great power still cruising the grand large, or ‘the worst, the most depressed and self-abasing country going: a blasted landscape of bestial epidemics, rail disasters, fuel crises and the over-long winter’.
The truth is – horrible cliché alert – somewhere in between. What we don’t want to be, but would be far better aspiring to, is the status of an ordinary functioning contemporary European democracy. Okay, qualifier, there’s a lot wrong with many ‘ordinary functioning contemporary European democracies’, but it would be a good start.
The No campaign is destroying itself from the hopelessly gloomy picture it paints. This just doesn’t tally when people look about them and see clever interesting innovative people with a full set of faculties.
What we are now seeing is the No campaign’s slow and steady decline, which is likely to accelerate as the cultural void opens up. With few storytellers (Darling?) and a fragmented and badly timed tale about Devo Max – an option not available – the Unionist plot is twisting in on itself.
Joyce was right, there’s a new Celtic spirit about. We will write poetry with it.