Alasdair Gray, Book review., Books, Democracy, European Union, Gordon Brown, James Kelman, James Robertson, Kathleen Jamie, Ken MacLeod, Norman MacCaig, Opinion, Politics, Red Paper on Scotland, Scott Hames, Scottish Independence, Scottish Nationalism, SNP, Sovereignty, Suhayl Saadi, Tom Nairn, Unstated - Writers on Scottish Independence
The University of Stirling’s Scott Hames has compiled a book of 27 essays about Scottish independence. The essays were written last spring and the collection, Unstated, was published by Word Power books prior to Christmas. It is a little like Gordon Brown’s 1975 Red Paper on Scotland (although this featured 28 contributors), and similarly socialist in its general character. Unstated nonetheless departs from the Red Paper in soliciting contributions mostly from writers of poetry and fiction.
I concede that it is probably my fault, but I have only previously heard of three of the contributors to Unstated (and I would not recognise these three if I met them in the street). The literary nobility have largely abandoned Unstated to the middling ranks. In the place of writers whose views are already well aired in the media (Irvine Welsh, Tom Devine, Ian Rankin), we get professors and editors and makars and Saltire Award winners, not household names but stout literary professionals.
It actually becomes a bit of a circus. We hear from a Communist, a eunuch, a queer activist, two Occupy types, an Australian immigrant, and an ex-pat Scot in Hungary. One or two are even exotic enough to have been born in England, which seems fortunate given the adverse attention which Unstated has received over its contributor Alasdair Gray’s off-message definition of English Scots (as either “colonisers or settlers”).
You may be wondering why the world needs a glossy book filled with opinions about Scottish independence, when the internet provides twenty-four hour rolling commentary on this and every other question. Yet Hames distrusts the “management” of the existing debate and he fears that difficult questions “will be submerged and hidden from view.” Writers of fiction can offer “more radical, more honest and more nuanced thinking.” This backfired when Unstated sold out a week into January, and twenty-first century readers (including Tychy) were confronted with the twentieth-century problem of being unable to obtain a copy immediately, something which should be inconceivable in the age of Amazon. It is a sorry irony: a book which seeks to open a new debate on the future of Scotland was unobtainable because the publishers had assumed that only an elite would want to read it.
Scottish writers may remain “un-stated” and “independent from the independence debate,” but their usefulness to the independence struggle has long been a bone of contention. In 1951 George Blake alleged that “the Scots remain inveterately backwards in literary circles – bewildered and sentimental children bleating for the old securities of the parochial life.” The Marxist Tom Nairn quoted Blake with relish in the Red Paper, although he warned that the “Kailyard” tradition which Scotland had produced by way of any indigenous writing was just as much a historical “necessity” as the geographical – and/or intellectual – “emigration” undertaken by such Scotch lions as Hume, Smith, Scott and Stevenson. Successive writers concreted over the kailyard with Lallans, but this merely replaced one provincialism with another.
An immigrant king had once struck a mighty blow against Scots with his Authorised Version of the Bible, which was distributed throughout Scotland in Standard English. David Hume led the way in producing a Standard English acceptable to bourgeois readers in London and Edinburgh alike (not least through his momentous History of England). Centuries later we find the agreed language of the imperial ruling class, “BBC English,” being first broadcast under the aegis of that dourest of Scots, John Reith. It is wrong to assume that a little provincialism is not a good thing. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, for example, was an elitist high-Tory enterprise which nevertheless championed the exemplary “peasant” fiction of James Hogg. Even so, ambition is the most important quality in any writer, and ambitious literary Scots have historically identified with English rather than Scottish literature. Two of Victorian literature’s most influential creations – Sherlock Holmes and Edward Hyde – were moulded from Scotch clay, albeit with all of their Scottishness eradicated under an English glaze.
Every Scottish writer must remain conscious that the greatest products of their heritage were not merely intended for Scottish consumption, but inspired by the periphery’s fury to colonise the centre. And there has been eloquence in the surrender – Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would readily meet the Saltire Award’s own criteria for “Scottish fiction.” Of course, a cultural Union by no means dictates a political one. The UK contributes to a rich, deep transatlantic culture without numbering amongst the United States. As Suhayl Saadi jokes in Unstated, your ability to “listen to the Archers” is not “threatened by your parliament being able to make decisions.”
Yet Scottish writers are being forever sucked back towards unambitious and provincial themes. In the poetry of Norman MacCaig, we find English at its most exquisite and crystalline, and yet the Scots have largely kept MacCaig to themselves. Plodding around Sutherland, brooding in Edinburgh, shoehorned into Scottishness, his majesty would never echo around any Empire. Scotland may have been a Muse to MacCaig, but he wrote in a finer, purer English than many if not all of his English peers. He should be ultimately honoured for his contribution to English not to Scotland.
We must guard against philistinism. Out of all the contributors to Unstated, Douglas Dunn articulates the best what is at stake in the independence struggle. His poem is heaps of fun and its conclusion “live and let live” might sound unspectacular. Yet Dunn reminds us that Scotland will always have to “live” with English. He concedes that “I haven’t lost it, nor could it lose me”; he wonders “What’s odd or treacherous other than the name?” Jenni Calder is wary that independence will provide too easy a way of absolving Scotland of its imperial past. The legacy of imperialism is “not conspicuous on our streets in the way that it is in London or Bristol or Bradford.” However “our accents mix” in the new Parliament, we would do well to ponder Dunn’s question: “Cut out our tongues to save the national face?”
There is banality to this book too. Tom Leonard offers a dead poem floating in formaldehyde. Leigh French and Gordon Asher’s address to the demos could not be more ludicrously estranged from the language of ordinary people if it was written in Gaelic (“How can a process for and beyond independence take an anti-imperial/anti(neo) colonial stance – one that acknowledges the realities of historic and contemporary projects of the…” – and so it continues). According to John Aberdein, the freeing of al-Megrahi (in order to safeguard his conviction) was “a noble moment in our history, nobler in the annals of virtue than even Bannockburn” – a statement as downright stupid as the SNP’s conduct was ignoble. Alasdair Gray wants to kick NATO off the Isle of Lewis, when to my mind Lewis is probably the best place to send NATO.
Aberdein, along with several contributors, author “why-oh-why” essays. There are pointed criticisms of capitalism which turn out to be just descriptions: “capital needs its minimum 3% annual return, come what may” (Aberdein); we are “helpless slaves of the market” (Jo Clifford); and “our world is finite… and we are incapable of stopping ourselves… the economy cannot grow forever” (Margaret Elphinstone). Ephinstone can even foresee a future “living in hill forts… depending on a local warlord for protection against marauding bands,” which will be a tough one for the SNP to sell on the doorstep.
The contributors also cannot agree upon a single metaphor for an independent Scotland. The chap waving the LGBT flag, Bob Cant, equates the freedom of queers with national self-determination. For the “transsexual” Jo Clifford, an independent Scotland heralds an age when “traditional views of what makes a man a man and a woman a woman are of very little use at all.” For Kirsty Gunn, Scotland is a nonconforming “loner,” whilst Magi Gibson pictures Scotland as a fabulous woman who is trapped in a marriage to a bastard. Ken Macleod refuses to play, demanding that we “take a jealous care not to mistake the nation’s independence for our own.” Only Janice Galloway and James Kelman resort to the bald cliché of Scotland as a confused adolescent.
At the helm of the Red Paper, Gordon Brown had chided that, “Scottish socialists cannot support a strategy for independence which postpones the meeting of urgent social and economic needs until the day after independence.” Suhayl Saadi amusingly propels Disraeli’s famous description of “two nations” into this context, reminding us that even within Scotland the poor remain the most oppressed nation.
Many of the contributors to Unstated are unhappy that the SNP is at the front end of the independence campaign, some because the SNP are pro-capitalist and others because the party takes a corporate attitude to arts funding. Kathleen Jamie complains that before the SNP came along “the country was wittier, fresher, more angry.” Allan Armstrong shrewdly recognises that “Salmond’s political strategy for winning… is to constantly dilute the meaning of self-determination to the point at which it becomes acceptable to the majority of the current Scottish establishment.” Meaghan Delahunt provides an unexpectedly practical warning about the dangers of incomplete self-determination, by retelling the story of the 1975“Dismissal” of Australia’s Labor government through a use of emergency monarchical powers.
Jamie may well speak for a nation when commenting that “today’s Independence “debate” is being handed down to us by career politicians so it immediately feels inauthentic.” Yet if this is so then why not just tune out altogether? Her support for independence is pragmatic: “I can’t now see any other way to clear the space we need if we are to become a mature and self-determining country.” James Robertson remains suspicious of the implied message “Just put your X in the right place and leave the rest to us,” and he begs for “thinking, by lots of people and on a grand scale.”
Only Saadi is explicit in venturing that an independent Scottish state would be easier for socialists to overthrow. But are we likely to end up with the same old struggle merely in microcosm? Macleod warns that the Left’s “hankering, whether tactical or sincere, for a Scottish capitalist state strikes me as a consequence of defeat and a guarantee of future defeats.” Mike Small, on the other hand, charges that the other side are in the same disarray: “The very institutions that could hold Britain together as an idea have been picked apart, privatised, sold-off or dismantled.”
Perhaps more revolutionary initiative is needed. “I wish an independent Scotland well…” Christopher Whyte proclaims. From perusing these essays, one would scarcely think that independence enjoys only 23% support in the current crop of polls. Most of these authors assume that Scotland is floating serenely towards independence, with merely details to be ironed out rather than a nation to be fought for. “It’s not been a driving force in my life…” Robertson concedes, “not made me want to… take up arms or man barricades.” Indeed, the angriest of these essays is Don Paterson’s rant about Creative Scotland, a body which plays the same role throughout Unstated as Captain Hook in the Peter Pan pantomime.
Kelman tries to drop a bomb on the debate by defining self-determination as a moral absolute, which renders all “economic consequences” secondary considerations. Far from forestalling the debate, however, this reduces it to technicalities: should my self-determination be achieved by Leith, or Holyrood, or Westminster, or Brussels? All of these administrations are elected, or rather all have the potential to be rocked by their (these days) equally multicultural electorates. Shying away from this question may lead towards Gray and Gunn’s barren, mythical connection between the people, the land, and the nation.
Kelman’s essay, like many in this book, is fatally undermined by its failure to acknowledge the transfer of Scottish sovereignty to the EU. Some of the blame for this can be placed at the feet of Tom Nairn, who, with unforgivable naivety, regarded Europe as the solution to Scotland. I fear that I am climbing back on to Tychy’s favourite hobby horse, but nevertheless: in a book which rotates around the word “Independence,” the EU is not actually mentioned by name until page 149 (by Denise Mena).
The culprit escapes once again whilst Mena is moaning more conventionally about the banality of Question Time and Twitter. Some contributors potentially encompass the EU within the washy term “neoliberalism,” but this avoids specifying the powers which would eclipse Scotland’s independence. Westminster at least has a history of being forced to devolve powers to Holyrood, but with the EU we are not even at the stage of 1979. Westminster is presently just as mindful of “independence” as Holyrood in being harried by its electorate to raise at least a daring eyebrow at Brussels.
In his contribution to the Red Paper, Owen Dudley Edwards had conceded that “Scottish nationalism, like sex, is here to stay and has to be lived with.” This may be as grim as it sounds, but the largely right-wing Unionist lobby need to grasp that only a resurgent Left can remove the SNP from office and rip down the nationalist scaffolding. When the Unstated crowd pen little vignettes of an independent Scotland, it often emerges as a modest wee thing, where capitalism is put firmly in its place and we can all bask virtuously in welfarism. “Och, nothing fancy,” as Kathleen Jamie puts it. Yet we need an ambitious state which rather than merely withholding Cuts can build new homes, new industries and new technologies. The present danger is that the Scottish state ends up rebuilding itself rather than building our future. And one way for Scottish writers to disavow the provincial imagination is to dream big.