Beyond the Cultural Cringe: The Need for a Multi-Story Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 3rd 2014

The independence referendum is remaking Scotland. History is being made which scholars will look back and study years from now. The very idea of Scotland is on the move and changing, as is what we think of as politics and even the notion of what is public.

One of the constant refrains, both in the independence debate, and over the last 30 years, has been the importance, role and, critically, the fragility of Scottish culture.

Whether it has been the existence (or not) of a ‘cultural renaissance’ in the 1980s, the supposed influence of Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’, or artistic and cultural figures becoming politically engaged, first in the 1980s, and now in the referendum, the politics of culture have influenced both cultural politics and politics per se.

At the same time, a counter-strand has worried about Scottish culture, that its very existence might be under threat and that somehow it might be assimilated or excised. In certain circles, this anxiety has reached a crescendo in the independence debate which has been revealing, but which has deeper roots in history and the Scottish psyche.

There have been hosts of cultural interventions and musings about the state of Scotland in the independence debate. One illuminating example was provided by ‘The Guardian’ when bringing together a collection of Scots based writers under the heading, ‘Scottish writers on the referendum’ (July 19th 2014).

There was nuance from the likes of Janice Galloway, Val McDermid and Alison Kennedy. There was contingency, doubt and movement in their accounts, with Galloway writing, ‘How to deal with London’s already independent city-states and unconnectedness to the rest of the UK concerns me’. And then reflecting that, ‘I want my vote to mean something. But the No campaign seems not to notice that people like me (or my thoroughly English, thoroughly yes-inclined husband) exist’.

There was also bluster and assertion, particularly from Alan Warner, commenting that ‘a Yes vote would free us as Scottish writers from a hidden war that rages inside our minds’. However, the prospect of a No vote would signal something calamitous, ‘It will be the death knell for the whole Scottish literature “project” – a crushing denial of an identity …’ Not content with the desolation of this he went even further, declaring that a No vote meant, ‘Scotland will have become a mere global brand, its reality officially cancelled by its own people’, and then signed off, ‘Ultimately, Scotland will have voted Tory’.

The above are not isolated over-statements. Alan Riach, the only Professor of Scottish Literature at a Scottish university, wrote in his ‘Herald Manifesto’, ‘There is only one argument for Scottish independence: the cultural argument’ (February 20th 2013). So, instead of ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, we have ‘It’s culture, stupid’. Similar sentiments could also be seen in Iain Macwhirter’s recent ‘Sunday Herald’ column where he posed that over the last forty years Scots voters had consistently rejected the allure of ‘self-interest’ and ‘materialism’, instead being more motivated by the values of ‘New Testament morality’ (August 31st 2014).

Riach’s ‘manifesto’ led to and is reproduced in his and Sandy Moffat’s book ‘Arts of Independence: The cultural argument and why it matters most’ which expounds this case at length. There is in any exchange between two figures of the insight and knowledge of Riach and Moffat, richness, wonder and fascinating reflections shared between them, but also over-assertion.

Thus, after listing a whole range of wonderful art, they conclude that without it, ‘Scotland would be no more than a geographical region to be exploited. There would be no argument for Scotland at all’. Then there is the inaccurate reading of history, our past and present, stating, ‘We have been ruled by authorities in London who care little or know nothing for Scotland and the people of Scotland’. This is to put it mildly a gross simplification of the history of the last 300 years; the ‘idea’ of the union and Scotland’s place in it has been deeply ingrained in British elites for centuries, whatever one’s opinion of the union today.

Another example was provided recently at the Edinburgh International Book Festival when Sandy Moffat implied that Scottish culture was under threat from the nation remaining in the union, and when asked for an example, cited the lack of retrospectives on the painters Allan Ramsay and Henry Raeburn (due to Scottish funding bodies). It did seem to be stretching the point a bit!

Then there was Alan Bissett’s play, ‘The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant’, just on at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This was political pantomime – fun, camp and cheesy, all positive and joyful qualities. Maybe given this the underlying messages of the play shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but in all its irreverence, it was asking Scots to think about the future consequences of voting Yes or No.

To do this it took us into the future landscape, years after a No vote and posed that this would result in Scotland, as a name, nation and community, ceasing to exist. The result was that the naysayers and doubters were horrified at the result of their own actions and headed back to 2014 to resoundingly vote Yes. The problem is Scotland’s existence isn’t under threat from anyone; in fact as a nation and ‘idea’ we are in rather robust health.

There are a number of factors which are often unexplored in the cultural accounts of modern Scotland. For one, there is a significant gender dimension. Is it an accident in ‘The Guardian’ that the thoughtful, nuanced voices of hope and doubt came mostly from women writers? And that most of the more one-dimensional, simplistic interpretations have been from men, seeing the world in much more emphatic and black and white terms.

Another influence is what motivates Scottish cultural figures, what they define themselves in relation to, and even rebel against. The current state of Britain, politically, culturally and power, provides a set of elites and ideas to challenge and reject. David Torrance in a perceptive observation at the ‘If Scotland’ conference at Stirling University posed that the present state of the UK and power nexus of London, provided a ‘creative spark’ for cultural imaginations to engage with, seek platforms and oppose. There is something in this remark which deserves consideration: the cultural opportunities and crises of the union are a rich tapestry for artistic endeavour!

Some date a lot of this back to the Scots annus horribilis of 1979 and the twin peaks of the devolution debacle and arrival of Thatcher, but this touches on a much deeper stream.

A longer view is evident in the cultural lack of confidence which has gone with Scotland sitting next door to England, the tensions of the union, and the role of Scottish identity in the British imperial state both at its apex and now twilight years. There was the notion of Scotland as being distorted and disfigured by the ‘divided Scotland’ set of historical stories – one articulated in an alternative version by radicals such as R.D. Laing and Tom Nairn.

There is the problem of the singularity account of Scotland with all its essentialism and self-reverentialness – of seeing the nationalist interpretation with a small ‘n’ as the defining story of past, present and future and then explaining everything through this – more reification of ‘Blackwatch’ than ‘Braveheart’.

These anxieties have long made up part of the fabric of Scotland, but isn’t the society and nation before us – one on the brink of a historic and seismic independence vote – the appropriate time and place to let go of such nerves?

Living in complex times of uncertainty and fluidity, no one story can shape and define individuals and the society we live in. Instead, with a nod to the modernist pasts, Scotland has come from, there is a need to embrace multiple Scotlands – or what we could call multi-story Scotland. This would recognise the claim of not just nationalism, but its limits, and the value of other isms: from post-nationalism to unionism, unionism-nationalism and all sorts of other isms, and a world beyond ‘them’ and ‘us’.

It is fascinating that outsiders can notice how much Scotland has changed. Thus, Paul Mason of ‘Channel 4 News’ said this week that what defines Scotland is that ‘a significant number of Scottish people have a dream: where statehood, social justice and cultural self-confidence fit together’ (September 1st 2014). That’s a rather powerful way of describing the best of this debate at the moment.

So isn’t it time to throw off the cultural doubts, anxieties and cringes, and just accept that modern life isn’t rubbish (as some left-wingers claim), but filled with a mosaic of contradictions and paradoxes which make our lives richer and more rewarding?

What would a Scotland which relaxed a bit and felt more comfortable in its skin look and feel like? Might it take the edge off some of our artistic and cultural imaginations? Could it ignite or dowse the ‘creative spark’ which has burned bright these last few decades? Or might it allow a wider palette and range of voices and forms to emerge, less insular, and more outward focused? We could even invent a stirring clarion call for such an adventure: ‘Artists of Scotland, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your cultural cringe!’.