The Scotlands of the Mind
The Scotsman, April 2nd 2011
We once prided ourselves on being a learned nation, a place which gave birth and sustenance to serious ideas and debate.
This is a story which still informs much of our sense of ourselves, but is increasingly at odds with reality. In the last decade, what have been the books which have defined and shaped modern Scotland that have enriched our culture? I would like to leave aside the world of Scots fiction which has had a particularly fertile and rich last decade, in part because the relationship between fiction and ideas is a more complex and elusive one than non-fiction.
If we look at the world of Scots non-fiction there is a profound lack of books on politics, ideas and policy which have been original, brave or that marked out and identified a new area or direction.
There are exceptions and they are all interesting and tell us a lot about Scotland. First, there is the Scottish history renaissance with writers such as Tom Devine, Chris Whatley, Michael Fry, Catriona Macdonald and Richard Finlay producing a series of pathbreaking books.
Second, there is the world of the serious football book. Such books sell, allowing publishers to spend money and reflect on society in a way politics used to. There is a wide range of titles which have provided original, well-written accounts, with Archie Macpherson and David Ross especially noteworthy, along with a host of beautifully produced club histories.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly are the alternative Scotland perspectives. This includes the powerful voices of Andy Wightman’s compelling ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers’, a history of land and power, and Alistair McIntosh’s ‘Soil and Soul’, which tackles some of the most timeless issues about what it means to be human, to live and care for this planet, and addresses our own responsibility in this.
There are books such as Bill Duncan’s ‘The Wee Book of Calvin’ and Momus’s ‘The Book of Scotlands’ which are modern day classics, mixing magic, surrealism, humour and play in accounts which use Scots archetypes, traditions and history to be deeply subversive. The Momus book, published by a small German based publisher, is the sort of work that will be read decades from now when people want to understand the psyche of early 21st century Scotland.
This tells us quite a bit about the state of the nation. For one, the exhaustion of the political mainstream and the professional, institutional classes in Scotland. They may seem on first examination to be totally dominant. Yet they are in fact threadbare in ideas and stretched by their constant command and control of so much of public Scotland.
This can be seen in the hollowing out of the once great left and right traditions which were once so powerful. The same is true of the nationalist tradition in terms of ideas and intellectually. There has been no equivalent of ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’ or the nationalist ‘The Radical Approach’ which we saw in the ferment of debate in the 1970s, or even in the 1980s with the ecumenical home rule journal, ‘Radical Scotland’.
It is true that some of our older sages from earlier decades: Neal Ascherson, Chris Harvie and Tom Nairn have contributed new thoughts and books, but these are a pale imitation compared to their earlier works. That’s not surprising; Nairn’s ‘The Break-up of Britain’ is a timeless book whose central thesis thirty years later is as potent as it ever was. Ascherson’s ‘Stone Voices’ was in places deeply pessimistic, while Harvie is a fascinating character, filled with ideas, but desperately needing a structure to nurture his constant explosion of thoughts, observations and schemes.
Then there are the omissions. There is a general silence and lack of investigation of power, institutions and elites – Wightman exempted. And then there is the maleness of so much of this. ‘The Red Paper’ brought together 29 men and no women: how revealing of Gordon Brown. Years later, Owen Dudley Edwards brought together 15 male contributors and not one woman to give a supposedly representative take on ‘A Claim of Right for Scotland’.
This still goes without comment in much of Scotland, including what passes for radical thinking. A revealing case was the eccentric book with the dreadful title published last year, ‘Tartan Pimps’ which was supposed to address the books which made devolution. Apart from the fact that when studying Gordon Brown’s publications it missed half of them, there was the overwhelming male nature of all of it. Only three women contributors were cited at all: Marinell Ash for her ‘The Strange Death of Scottish History’, while Alice Brown and Nancy Drucker had walk-on parts for their work on ‘The Scottish Government Yearbook’. And of course this exclusion and marginalisation of women went completely unacknowledged!
Then there is the world of gender and sexuality. There has been a significant increase of books and research on gender and womens’ experience, but nothing on Scottish men as men, and apart from Bob Cant, silence on sexuality and the Scots. There is surely a burgeoning need for writing and books in these areas given they have a wider resonance about our culture and society.
There are two ways of looking at this, one pessimistic and one positive. The former would stress that we live in an increasingly philistine, superficial public culture, one where our politics is increasingly debased and hollowed out. The lack of serious non-fiction titles it can be argued less reflects the grip of a conservative, anti-ideas culture, and more the economies and pressures of publishing, which won’t fundamentally be changed by the kindle and e-books.
The more positive is to affirm the continued existence of Scots curiosity, imagination and dreaming in many of these accounts, and in particular in the world of alternative Scotland. These are timeless Scottish characteristics, indeed timeless human characteristics, and while they don’t find much expression in the mainstream, they are flourishing in the margins.
The Scottish sense of discovery, questioning and wondering about life and the universe, which has given so much to the wider world, still exists. Just don’t go looking for it in Holyrood or the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections!
Mainstream Scotland, in our politics, academia, policy and public discussion, seems incapable of having serious, reflective conversations about ideas which move beyond managerial jargon and the kind of clichés beloved of consultants.
We need to get the politicians, civil servants, decision makers and opinion formers to recognise that the mainstream account of Scotland is exhausted, discredited and close to collapse. The good news is that the Scots have not lost their invention and imagination. What we need to do is encourage, nurture and recognise its value, voice and spirit.