Andrew O’Hagan’s Scotland, Storytellers, Culture and Politics

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 23rd 2017

Andrew O’Hagan is a gifted, talented writer and intellectual force who both encapsulates curiosity and creativity and encourages it in others. Last week he gave a fascinating keynote address in Edinburgh on the subject of Scotland.

O’Hagan’s very public painful relationship with modern Scotland has in the past created waves and controversies. He grew up in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, from a working class Catholic background scarred by the memories and shadow of intolerance and sectarianism. This left its mark on O’Hagan, and like James McMillan many of his crusades seem informed by the wounds left by this unpleasant experience.

He has also on numerous occasions expressed his disquiet at Scottish exceptionalism, the claims of Scottish nationalism, and intervened many times pouring a potent lyrical scorn on aspects of our conceits, and of course, the case for independence. In many respects, O’Hagan’s past interventions, like McMillan, come from a very old Scottish tradition, of over-stating your case to invite a response. This is the male, flyting, black and white tradition of the Hugh MacDiarmids and Hamish Hendersons, which some like to romanticise, but, undeniably excluded many, and hurt and humiliated others.

‘Scotland, Your Scotland’ (the analogy is to Orwell’s ‘England, Your England’ 1941 essay) is rich with metaphor, literary references and ambition. O’Hagan acknowledges his individual and intellectual odyssey in a text this is gripping, but like any such intervention isn’t perfect. For example, it would have been helpful to hear O’Hagan fess up a mea culpa for his previous overblown rhetoric and arguments, but none is forthcoming beyond one comment that ‘Scotland used to feel sorry for itself, and was once addicted to historical injury … and I should know’.

O’Hagan recognises that something has changed in Scotland in recent years and locates this in the experience of the indyref, writing of the result and its aftermath, ‘I felt the union wasn’t saved, it was in fact over.’ Britain had died and this has been confirmed by Brexit, and the capture of English politics and imagination by a narrow, intolerant Brexit version of England and Britain.

This leads O’Hagan to invoke a Scottish republic of the imagination – name checking David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott and Robert Burns. He cites the example of the Scottish Enlightenment, and our history and tradition of innovation, inquiry and discovery, and the link between the particular and the universal, which have contributed to Scotland having a global footprint way past its small size.

This is one of the most interesting interventions post-indyref. It is expansive, open-minded and not driven by the overt political point-scoring of those who regard themselves as the moral guardians of truth. It is certainly miles above the kind of myth reinforcing rhetoric which has passed for Tom Devine’s recent interventions. In this it is a worthy contribution in the tradition and style of Neal Ascherson and Tom Nairn and the long tail of Scotland’s intellectual development. This does not mean it is an end point. It is the prospective beginning of a debate: an opening and invitation and therefore not immune to discussion and criticism.

The latter came from writer David Torrance, the day after the public address, in ‘The Guardian Comment’ in a piece titled ‘Andrew O’Hagan’s romantic view of Scottish independence is nonsense’. Apart from the question of whether it is advisable to dismiss a significant intellectual intervention as ‘nonsense’, Torrance makes several salutary points.

There is a reinforcing of a mythology of a selective Scotland and even collective amnesia in the latest O’Hagan, somehow seeing this nation as informed by ‘a rage for fairness and equality’ which is just too glib and how we like to see ourselves. Torrance rightly points out that the detailed questions of any plausible and real future: about government, priorities, fiscal choices and restraints, get no mention at all.

Torrance cites O’Hagan’s rebuttal of Neal Ascherson’s ‘Stone Voices’ in the ‘London Review of Books’ in 2002. He says that ‘the Scotland of 2017 still resembles that [which] O’Hagan described in 2002’ – characterised all those years ago as a place of ‘paralysis, nullity and boredom, a nation of conservatives.’

The O’Hagan piece cited was a typical over the top, contrarian call to metaphorical arms, and seen as partial, even unhelpful at the times, producing a host of Scottish respondents to write to ‘LRB’. But that was then and this is now. It is surely stretching things to suggest that Scotland 2002 and Scotland 2017 has seen little change and is essentially the same place. That’s not to argue lots of things aren’t the same.

A couple of examples of change. First, independence is at 46% in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey: an all-time high and twice the level of five years ago. Second, the Scottish Parliament (unlike the early days of devolution) is seen in surveys as the most important political body in the nation and more so than Westminster. Third, there is a lack of homogeneity of British politics. Indeed, we no longer have an overarching national politics: witness 2015, 2017 and Brexit. This does leaves a problem as we still have Westminster and UK Government.

Finally, as I argued in ‘Caledonian Dreaming’ and ‘Scotland the Bold’, power in society has shifted in that traditional institutional authority has crumbled and significant anchors and reference points imploded. Look at the case studies of RBS, Rangers FC and the Catholic Church, all of whom experienced ‘Big Bangs’, while other once formidable forces such as the Labour Party and BBC have struggled to come to terms with this more disputatious society where power is held more contingently. I have long argued that the SNP won’t seamlessly inherit this situation, but that this would eventually become a problem for them. So it has turned out to pass.

O’Hagan’s intervention has much to commend, but has omissions. It is noble to talk of ‘a reconstituted Scotland’, but this comes over as a curious abstract: a land that is without many of its contemporary specifics, reference points and people. His intellectual citations are also of an obvious literary Scotland of old with few surprises or any contemporary examples.

There is little comment about the state of our democracy, its many flaws and exclusions. Not one historical or contemporary Scottish woman is cited (except Jean Brodie), and the only two women who are mentioned are Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. He tells us that central Edinburgh’s statues are an expression of ‘the will of the people’ which is the deceptive story elites have told us: ‘the will’ representing a tiny slither of privileged voices.

There is a flight of fancy about a new digital commons which O’Hagan takes to a utopian techno determinism of unreality. He writes that Scotland can have a ‘digital renaissance’ and second Scottish Enlightenment and then goes even further writing of our future global role in ‘a new Gettysburg address for peace’. Some of this is so far removed from everyday Scotland’s problems which he has had next to nothing to say about, that it feels a diversion.

Coming back to earth Torrance says that Scottish independence has of late ‘a surplus of literary dreamers’ and the reference is understandable. This is I think half-right and half-wrong, which means he has a point, but we need to dig deeper.

Scotland needs new storytellers, imagineers and free thinkers. We need a mix of dreamers, practical do-ers and rebels. What we even more need to be prepared to do is break through orthodoxies – old and new, declining, current and emerging – and encourage people to say the unsayable, to bust through conventions, barriers and conformities which exist in any age and in the Scotland of the present.

We could do with being more grounded, humble and honest: the foundation stones for any boldness and radicalism. One universal truth we have to navigate is ‘the danger of a single story’: the words a warning from the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. She wrote that when we reject this and ‘realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise‘.

Stories have their limits too. We need facts about the economy, public spending and structural deficit, all of which have become clouded in our adversarial times. This is a point made in Alex Massie’s take on O’Hagan in ‘The Times’ when he writes that ‘culture and politics now lead in two different, perhaps irreconcilable, directions’. But it is too simple to say as Massie does that culture is defined by Scottishness and nationalism, and politics by unionism. Instead, there is an inter-relationship between culture and politics, and for the moment, most politicians, the SNP included have little to say on the former.

Lets have more storytellers and even literary dreamers, but recognise that such imaginations rarely translate over easily into the pressures of government. We have to have the courage to tell multiple stories, but also make a stand for a debate which has some detail and a few facts and figures. Who knows we could even recognise that there is a culture in politics and a politics in culture.