Literature | Politics | Britain
The Canongate Wall forms the northern edge of the Scottish Parliament building, at the very foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Embedded in the wall are 26 decorative panels of Scottish stone with inscriptions that gather a kind of pebbledash pantheon of modern Scottish literature, including Robert Burns (twice), Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh MacDiarmid (thrice), Hamish Henderson, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray. The first version of Gray’s stone—bearing the unofficial credo of devolutionary nationalism, ‘work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation’—misspelled his first name, and had to be re-made. But the ‘vernacular’, hand-crafted particularities of the wall make errors of this kind seem forgivably natural.
No element of the design places democracy on a solemn neoclassical pedestal, or encourages hushed reverence for governing power; indeed, the human faults and frailties of parliamentarians are a running theme. In pride of place, the left-most stone quotes Mrs Howden from Scott’s Heart of Midlothian: ‘When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns—But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’Lunnon.’A firm reminder, in demotic Scots, that the parliament is accountable to the local voices and dissenting energies of its immediate lifeworld. Far from monumentalising their power, the wall reminds MSPs of the socially limited character of their role.
This patchwork of stone and script—including several Gaelic inscriptions, works by English authors, and religious texts—might be held to embody the ‘diversity of voices’ the building exists to represent, and yet it would be impossible to read the wall as democratically reflecting the nation. Of the twenty-six panels, twenty feature quotations by men. There are four authorless proverbs and songs, a Psalm, and just one stone featuring the name of a woman, the songwriter and communist mill-worker Mary Brooksbank. All the named authors are white.
If we pursue this thought, and think critically about the imagery of national representation, the Canongate façade begins to take on a rather different countenance. Its oblique planes and irregular surfaces might even begin to suggest handholds and footholds: potential means of scaling the outer skin of Holyrood, perhaps to seek another point of entry, from an angle discouraged by the confident architecture. That thought is close to the impulse behind this book.
How have writers and intellectuals shaped constitutional change in Scotland? Tracing the “dream” of cultural empowerment and the “grind” of electoral strategy, Scott Hames sets the influence of magazines such as Scottish International, Radical Scotland, Cencrastus and Edinburgh Review alongside the fiction of William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, A. L. Kennedy and James Robertson to provide a radically altered picture of Scottish devolution
A few weeks prior to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, Colin Kidd argued that ‘Scottish literature is for the SNP not a frill, but a matter of central concern’:
For [First Minister Alex] Salmond, literature is a kind of QED: Anglo-Scottish differences in diction, lilt, sensitivity and worldview prove the grand truths of nationalism. He has argued, plausibly enough, that it is impossible to mistake the differences between a Scottish novel and an English novel. Novels, he believes, reveal fundamental differences in the values and ethos of Scots and English.
In the summer of 2014 one did hear such arguments, among many others. And yet few prominent Scottish writers who supported the campaign for independence would accept this firm equation between literary Scottishness and the demand for statehood, as though one predicated the other. The modern SNP is noted for its ‘acultural’ nationalism, placing far greater emphasis—particularly under Salmond’s leadership—on economic powers, and confining to Burns Night its appetite for literary inspiration. Indeed, Cairns Craig notes with regret ‘that there is probably no nationalist party in the world that has been less focused on mobilising culture as part of its political strategy than the SNP’, despite Scotland’s bounteous possession of ‘cultural wealth’ ripe for the purpose.
But the minimal presence of programmatic literary patriotism is only one part of the story. There really has been a complex and pervasive intermingling of Scottish literature and politics over the past few decades, with far-reaching consequences in both domains: for how we read (and over-read) the politics of Scottish writing, and for how we conceive the place of cultural and literary ‘identity’ within the project of Scottish nationalism. That is, broadly, what this book is about. In sketching its purview, we must begin by amending Kidd’s history: it is precisely in the absence of an official literary nationalism that Scottish writers and artists have claimed—and been burdened with—special ‘representative’ clout.
This is particularly the case in the post-1979 period on which this study is mainly focused, but is also evident in earlier debates. Jack Brand’s 1978 study of the National Movement in Scotland found, in Christopher Harvie’s paraphrase, ‘that although literature may have mobilized members of the party elite—and was interesting for this reason—the intellectual trend in Scotland had really been away from nationalism towards socialism. Paradoxically, Brand argued, this aided SNP organization. Political mobilization did not conflict with an existing scale of literary values—or with literary nationalists throwing their weight around’.
This too was only half-true: there were plenty of bellicose literary nationalists in the 1970s, many spoiling for a fight with Scotland’s ‘deracinated’ political class, but they kept a wary distance from the SNP. For some, this was indeed an expression of socialist distrust of ‘bourgeois nationalism’; for others, the SNP weren’t nationalist enough (or indeed nationalist at all). But such debates occurred at the fringe of Scottish politics. They only gained purchase in the political mainstream following the failed referendum on a Scottish Assembly held in March 1979. While the SNP vote crashed following the 40 per cent rule debacle, Harvie continues, ‘the 1980s saw a nationalist stance become general among the Scottish intelligentsia. [...] The orthodoxy now is that the revival in painting, film and the novel, in poetry and drama—staged and televised—kept a “national movement” in being.’
This ‘orthodoxy’ has an extensive history of its own – Harvie was writing in 1991, at the height of its influence and plausibility – and is less a neutral historical description of how things transpired than a mobilising narrative constructed within the diffuse, campaign-like process and milieu it describes. As Jonathan Hearn observes, ‘members of the intelligentsia have an interest in treating Scotland as an object of concern, study and discussion’. The political utterances of literary figures such as William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and Alasdair Gray are thus located by Hearn within a broader ‘network of intellectuals, academics, artists, writers, journalists and media figures through whom the ideas of the [self-government] movement were constantly being articulated and re-articulated’ in the 1980s and 90s. The ‘committed’ (and preferably outspoken) Scottish writer was a key and prominent contributor to the pro-devolution social consensus which so strongly conditioned the critical reception of their art.
Intellectuals and constitutional politics
This presents a certain dilemma, for literary critic and political historian alike. Few of the key scholars and commentators cited in this study have remained aloof from the events and investments at issue, but (once acknowledged) this does not diminish the interest of their reflections and analysis. On the contrary: post-war Scotland is an enormously rich and well-documented case of what Michael D. Kennedy and Ronald Grigor Suny call the ‘mutual articulation of national discourses and intellectuals’. As we shall see, a whole constellation of writers, journalists, artists and thinkers embraced their role ‘as constitutive of the nation itself’ during the period this book examines, with several overtly committing themselves to (re-)establishing ‘the very language and universe of meaning in which nations become possible’.
The majority of these figures remain active in Scottish cultural debate, so it is with a degree of unease that I take up a critical stance on their work of several decades—work which I respect, whose political motivation I largely share, and the fruits of which have undoubtedly benefitted me personally. Nonetheless, there must be a space for critique ‘within-and-against’ nationalist intellectualism, if any of its liberating and clarifying energies are to be realised within the scholarly fields it helped to consolidate.
Kennedy and Suny observe that ‘intellectuals face a double risk when enveloped by the nation. On one hand, as patriots, they lose their credentials as critical or independent. On the other hand, as critical intellectuals questioning the very “authenticity” of the nation, they are either ignored, marginalized, or cast out altogether’.
Analysis of their role in the discursive reproduction of nationhood ‘is likely to draw hostility from “true” nationalists’, as many historic examples attest, but I am optimistic this study will be received in a spirit which lives up to the finer moments in the history it traces. To be clear from the outset, this study is not an exercise in debunking Harvie’s ‘orthodoxy’ or exposing the self-interest of its proponents. It is a critical exploration of what this story—the story of ‘cultural devolution’ prior to the 1998 Scotland Act—means to us in devolved Scotland two decades later: as an historical account of how and why the Scottish Parliament came to be; as a paradigm guiding critical practice in Scottish literary studies (and cultural studies more generally); and as a political narrative presenting the meaning of devolution in culturally expressive terms. But what is ‘cultural devolution’? As a handy starting-point, we might take the writer and activist Kevin Williamson’s forthright claim that ‘Scotland’s musicians, singers, poets, writers and artists had paved the way for the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament. They had reasserted their sense of Scottish identity, and their democratic aspirations, and from 1999 Scots had a political structure which could begin to convey the democratic wishes of the Scottish people.’
Scott Hames is Lecturer in Scottish Literature at the University of Stirling, where he is the director of the MLitt in Scottish Literature. He writes widely on Scottish writing and cultural politics, with a focus on questions of language and “voice", and co-founded the International Journal of Scottish Literature
I will often refer to this story as ‘The Dream’: a story of cultural vanguardism in which writers and artists play the starring role in the recuperation of national identity, cultural confidence and democratic agency. It contrasts sharply with the less inspiring story I will call ‘The Grind’: the longer, thinner political history of devolution as a shrewd and sometimes grubby saga of electoral expediency, characterised less by stirring visions of democratic rebirth than ploys of cynical circumspection (such as a Royal Commission on the Constitution appointed to do, or rather to recommend, as little as politically possible). Tellingly, it is the establishment of Harold Wilson’s Royal Commission in 1969—not any electoral breakthrough for Scottish or Welsh nationalists, or any of the constitutional novelties of the 1990s—which is commemorated in the new stained-glass tribute to UK devolution in the Palace of Westminster. This book explores the difference and interaction of these parallel stories—one determinedly Scottish, the other inescapably British—with an interest in tracing moments where one seems to illuminate, puncture, or redeem the other. My aim is to critically examine the conflation of these narratives and processes, and the consequences which follow for Scottish literary history and criticism; not to throw stones at what the Canongate Wall seems to signify, but to examine the logic of its construction.
The Dream and The Grind
A few weeks before the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the novelist Alan Warner predicted that ‘a No vote will create a profound and strange schism between the voters of Scotland and its literature; a new convulsion. It will be the death knell for the whole Scottish literature “project”—a crushing denial of an identity that writers have been meticulously accumulating, trying to maintain and refine.’
In the years following the No result, a number of less circumspect writers followed Warner’s logic through to its conclusion. In his poem digesting the outcome, ‘Naw’, Stuart A. Paterson takes the result as a self-cancellation of national honour, paradoxically ejecting the voting majority from any rightful claim to be ‘Scotland’s fowk’:
The hail world’s gan baith quair & peerie,
Ah cannae jist jalousie at a
Hoo Scotland’s fowk have votit Naw. ...
Yon whae wid chant the tribal sangs
O pride o whaur they maist belong
Maun wheesht & sing nae sange at a—
They have nae richt. They votit Naw.
But who is ‘they’ in this bleak conclusion, and how is it related to the Scotland on whose behalf the poet sings? In its performance of vernacular presence and vitality, the poem evokes an earlier condition of national health and pride, and a sense of ‘we-ness’ (the poem argues) formally disavowed in 2014, but also anchored ‘beyond’ the fickle tides of public opinion. These quair unravellings can easily be traced back to contradictions within the paradigm of ‘cultural devolution’ which emerged after 1979, which has powerfully shaped how subsequent Scottish writers conceive (and defend) their role. But we should not be too hasty in busting the vanities of a supposed literary vanguard, whose special status as ‘voices’ and ‘representatives’ of Scotland was either can- celled by direct plebiscite in 2014, or revealed to rest on a ‘higher’ conception of peoplehood untestable by the electoral machinery.
Though it includes detailed readings of novels and poems, this book is not primarily concerned with detailed close readings of literary texts. Rather, its focus falls on the role adopted by Scottish writers and critics as public intellectuals, cultural guarantors, and media mouthpieces of a national ‘we-ness’ no vote could overturn. We are concerned here with the political leveraging of ‘Scottish literature’ (considered as a critical project as much as a creative endeavour), operating beyond its own bookish sphere, and intervening in public affairs with a specific ‘national’ weight and social authority. This enquiry almost immediately reveals the co-constitution of a ‘revitalised’ Scottish literature and Scottish democracy since 1979, and clarifies a number of the interlocking claims sedimented in the imagery of the Canongate Wall. Casting a critical light on these connections, I do not set out to disprove the ‘cultural devolution’ thesis but to trace both its power and its limitations.
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