Review Essay:Writers on Scottish Independence
The contributors to Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence are broadly in favour of political independence but nervous about the possible consequences of a resurgent nationalism. Many insist on the importance of Scotland's taking responsibility for her own situation. Some see independence as a political question, others in terms of cultural confidence. The former would judge independence by Scotland's subsequent political and cultural transformation; the latter more likely to treat independence as an end in itself. There is a particular tension in the book over claims that the Scots are naturally more predisposed to communal feeling than other nations.
Described by its editor as an attempt 'to stand back from both o/cial campaigns on the independence question' (p.12), Unstated collects twenty-seven contributions by Scottish writers, mostly essays but also two poems, reflecting on the meaning of independence in anticipation of the 2014 referendum. Two of its contributions have already achieved notoriety: Don Paterson's attack on Creative Scotland, published ahead of the rest of the book in the Herald newspaper, having sounded the charge which culminated in the resignation late last year of Andrew Dixon, Head of Creative Scotland; and Alasdair Gray's distinction between settlers and colonists which was headlined by a Scotsman journalist in quest of a stooshie. In her own essay, Denise Mina expresses concern about the simplistic and adversarial nature of contemporary political discussion: 'Who bothers to read forty thousand words in print when someone will give us the gist of it, adamantly, on Twitter?' (p.154). Much of the commentary on Gray's essay bears out this fear. Yet with only one small-minded exception, the contributors to Unstated take the opportunity to explore complexity and nuance [End Page 129] rather than engage in polemic. The result is a thought-provoking book which will be of great value for critics and teachers of Scottish literature in search of contextual material, and as a documentary record of attitudes towards the current debate for future historians.
If the views expressed on the question of Scottish independence (although largely absent from current political debate and media commentary) are unlikely to change anyone's mind, that is perhaps because they will not come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with political and cultural discussion in Scotland since the 1979 referendum. The broad coalition of civic interests which campaigned for devolution in the 1980s counted among its supporters a broad swathe of what we might call Scotland's intellectual class: writers, artists, activists, academics. The ideological ambition of the movement was always concerned to link the question of political autonomy with democratic renewal and social reform, and the stress laid on civic as opposed to ethnic nationalism signalled strong anxieties among both liberals and leftists about the possible reactionary consequences of a populist nativism. Douglas Dunn's poem 'English: A Scottish Essay' was written before the present referendum debate began, but the lines:
Best, though, to know your past, then call it quits,For if you don't you'll Balkanise your brainOr Irish it with history's inhumaneSerbianisms(p.67)
suggest the continuity between the worries of the earlier movement and the concerns of the volume under review. What Scott Hames describes in his introduction as 'the conservative political process we call "devolution" — no more or less than an effort to re-legitimise the UK state' (p.7) has fostered a renewed sense of disenfranchisement and disenchantment among those intellectuals who had previously imagined a place for their own radicalism in a newly democratic devolutionary politics. Kathleen Jamie gives a clear statement of this experience of disillusion: 'I'm sure there was a natural energy and a civic and artistic energy 20 years ago which has dissipated; a Scottish collectivism I don't sense much any more' (p.116). The aspirations and concerns set out in Unstated suggest the survival of those frustrated hopes from the 1980s and 1990s.
Which is to say that the contributors are broadly in favour of independence, [End Page 130] but on the condition that we must think hard about what that word might actually mean. If, as Leigh French and Gordon Asher argue, ' "Independence" [. . .] functions as a utopian category into which people pour their desires, hopes and aspirations' (p.78), this rhetorical vacuum has come to serve a defensive Scottish National Party (SNP) strategy to 'dilute the meaning of self-determination to the point at which it becomes acceptable to the majority of the current Scottish establishment' (Allan Armstrong, p.28). Hames notes the 'qualified distrust' of the o/cial party of nationalism among the writers he contacted (p.6); we might expect this from Labour Party supporters, but James Robertson professes himself a lifelong supporter of independence when he expresses his disbelief that 'the word from the leaders of the political party whose raison d'e"tre is independence is that, actually, it won't make a lot of difference' (p.168). This sense that the current referendum debate has been characterised by a failure of vision and imagination comes up repeatedly in the volume, suggesting that there is common ground beneath the feet of liberals concerned about the extent to which the political process has become detached from its cultural or moral basis, the republican left for whom independence without even deeper constitutional change would remain a compromised Home Rule, and those possessed of a more apocalyptic wish for a different future because 'politics — all politics — has failed us' (Margaret Elphinstone, p.74). Most contributors remain within the post-romantic tradition in seeing the specific role of art and literature in terms of imagination rather than persuasion. Robertson is an outlier in arguing for a debate based on competing constitutional visions: 'works of informed imagination, built by people with vision, skill and knowledge' (p.166). For the most part, imagination here means something more like the courage to vote for the strange and uncertain over the familiar, what Janice Galloway calls 'a leap of faith' (p.94), suggesting that the independence modern literature seeks to achieve from politics risks negating any properly political imagination.
Most of the contributors express some degree of concern about the consequences of nationalism, which suggests that Jamie is representative when she writes: 'Like many Scots, I can clearly distinguish between independence and nationalism, and I wouldn't be voting for nationalism' (p.117). Articulating this distinction, the contributors echo much of the Scottish literary output of the last thirty years: preoccupied as it is with the ways individual identity is constituted through multiple and overlapping forces and constrained [End Page 131] by the claims of group belonging; ambivalent at best to the claims of the past on the present and hostile to the forms of linear historio-graphical narrative; attentive to the tension between giving voice to silenced experience and the political imposition of identity on difference. For James Kelman: 'Any form of nationalism is dangerous, and should be treated with caution' (p.121); 'Borders, and indeed the very idea of nation, fill me with ambivalence', writes Jenni Calder (p.44). One of the most striking features of the volume is the reconciliation of so many different voices to the inevitable risks they associate with the political expression of cultural nationalism. There is a strong undercurrent which suggests that the real story to be told is of the failure of the Labour Party to fulfil its political bargain with its more independently-minded allies within Scottish civic society in the wake of devolution. Several contributors state this explicitly: 'The success of nationalism is a consequence of the failure of the Left' (Ken Macleod, p.131); 'Where the organised Left used to be, there is a black hole', agrees Suhayl Saadi; 'the nation-state with all its inherent paradoxes and flamboy-ant nonsense, currently seems to be the only possible bulwark' against the divisions created by capitalism (p.174). But other advocates of radicalism reject the compromises entailed: French and Asher argue: 'Focusing on nationalism [. . .] homogenises and flattens our multiple, complex and mutable identities, thus masking oppressions, repressions and exploitations centred on them' (pp.81-2).
Douglas Dunn captures nicely the imperative not to found an argument for independence on the idea of the redress of historical wrongs: 'The past's an interesting cadaver; / But let it rot' (p.64). For the most part, contributors follow what has become the dominant social scientific model, seeing nationality as a distinctively modern form of social bond, and so not the expression of archaic historical difference; indeed, their ambivalence about the idea of nationhood may reflect their uncertainty about the consequences of modernity more largely. So where history is invoked by contributors, it is never as the basis for political decision, but tends to play the role of the nightmare from which we must shake ourselves awake. Repeatedly, the authors insist that independence means assumption of moral and political responsibility. If anything, this is the dominant note of the volume, from John Aberdein's 'there is a fault that lies across the land, but it is our fault, not Westminster's' (p.20), to Christopher Whyte's 'what matters is, not complaining what was done to us, but working out what it is up to us [End Page 132] to do [. . .] The uprooting of the Gaelic-speaking peasantry, the savagery with which industrialisation came about and the persisting levels of poverty in Strathclyde are not ills inflicted from outside' (pp.193-94). Such sentiments bode well for the arts after the referendum, suggesting a public role waiting to be played which goes beyond the deflationary wish that 'we should try the best we can to avoid giving way to despair and keep hope alive in our hearts. [. . .] art has a role to play in that' (Jo Clifford, p.54). But it remains to be seen whether such sentiments — 'But perhaps it's time for Scotland to get off her knees, stop snivelling, and prove that she's got the balls to determine her own future' (Magi Gibson, p.97) — can amount to more than mere exhortation, and can generate a literature of independence that can successfully blend moral or cultural criticism with adequate historical understanding.
Indeed, the major faultline in the book emerges between those writers who approach the question of independence primarily in cultural terms, and those who see it more politically. This is not Hames's 'major junction' (p.5) but rather a fork: one road leads to myth, hence back to nationalism; the other to criticism, and so, perhaps, to an independence worthy of the name. For the former, nationhood is conceived in terms of endogenous development; hence the idea that we might measure the nation's spiritual health, or as our more enlightened age prefers to call it, cultural confidence. From this viewpoint the outcome of the 2014 vote will be an index of Scotland's level of spiritual development: moreover, as 'confidence' here is doing some remarkable heavyweight rhetorical lifting, its further uplift post-independence may have real effects amongst the populace, contributing to the alleviation of problems of health, addiction and mental illness. This persistent and infuriating elision of the figure of the national psyche with that of the individual suggests that an independent Scotland may at least keep sceptical literary critics, if not psychiatrists, in business for some years yet. For the alternative group of writers, more politically-minded, confidence is not a force in and of itself, nor is the referendum vote likely to be mistaken for genuine cultural change. This means that the test of independence will not be the referendum vote itself, but the political transformation that may or may not follow in the wake of popular assent; it is a viewpoint that also makes for more stimulating, self-reflective essay-writing, implying that the task of the writer of truly independent mind is not moral exhortation (take courage!) but critical and conjunctural analysis. As suggested in [End Page 133] the opening stages of this review essay, the best imaginative work in Scotland has been doing this for years; there are in this collection some fine essays to set alongside that earlier work. One sour thought: should the 2014 vote not produce the outcome favoured by the contributors to Unstated we will need this mode far more urgently. The very strength of consensus among the cultural and intellectual class represented here suggests the risk of a renewed crisis of national self-understanding, should the result of the popular vote not coincide with the drift of their own views.
Indeed, the question of independence as renascent responsibility raised in the volume induces awkward tensions when it comes to some of the key contemporary Scotch myths. Was Scotland's cultural identity suppressed and distorted in the wake of Union or was it Scotland's distinctive institutions that kept national spirit alive? Jenni Calder, striking the responsibility note, argues: 'We are asking people to make decisions about the future in the context of a vast historical and cultural deficit, for which we cannot blame Westminster — Scotland has proudly insisted on controlling her own educational system' (p.40). But for Gibson, the mythic status Scottish education had acquired was one of the key elements that fostered her own sense of national identity: 'I was taught to be proud of Scottish education' (p.98). Which is it to be — the fact of the independent institution rather than the nature of the education provided, the historical forgetting enshrined in curricula and attitudes to language, or the myth of democracy and excellence? For the writer seeking to distinguish between nationalism and independence, this double bind is itself a problem of democratic inheritance: too good an understanding of history may threaten to corrode the principles of communal identification, the mythic sources of social solidarity. In his 'Introduction', Hames alludes to the putative substitution of cultural for political self-expression in narrative accounts of Scottish national development (p.2). The disjunction between Calder and Gibson above suggests a new approach to that problem. If a myth is a symbolic resolution of a contradiction which cannot be achieved by reason or in reality, we might see the idea of Scottish cultural revival as covering a deeper social wound: the acquiescence of past generations in a political settlement which now comes to seem problematic, or more abstractly, the traumatic presence of genuine historical differences of attitudes, values and modes of political identification, within the unified continuity presumed by and imposed through the idea of national tradition itself. [End Page 134]
The contemporary myth most evidently at issue in the book is not, however, the cultivation of that elusive sprite, national confidence, but the idea that Scots are either ancestrally, or currently, possessed of a stronger sense of collective or communal feeling than the other islanders to whom they have been bound by history. 'There's evidence that Scots are predisposed to communality' claims Gerda Stevenson (p.187), without actually presenting any. 'The notion that Scotland is a more left-wing or progressive country than England is a delusion', counters Ken Macleod, 'arising solely from its recent decades of dependence on state funding' (p.132). The Scottish and English, Galloway believes, have 'different political make-ups' (p.91); but for Allan Armstrong: 'Radicalism is not some innate feature of the Scottish people' (p.29). Of the various suggestions made in the volume for the historical source of this imagined difference in cultural values between the Scottish writers and their vision of England, Aonghas MacNeacail's is the most archaic, hence incredible: it stems from the 'prevailing influence of the Scottish clan system', having survived its feudal overlay of 'a reactionary hierarchical structure'. His own example troubles this argument: if a sense of 'identifiable, if informal, pattern of mutual obligation' (p.137) can still be felt in small, isolated and self-su/cient communities in the present, might such a moral sense not be better considered a product of the social situation, rather than of ethnic inheritance? More plausible, because drawn from living memory, is Bob Cant's recollection of growing up in a community in which 'the values that people lived by were determined by an authoritarian church. These communities were self-contained and people from five miles away were perceived as foreign' (p.46). Religion is the cultural form given least serious attention by contemporary intellectuals, often treated only as blight: here, Stevenson echoes the distaste of earlier generations of writers for Presbyterianism; and one wonders whether Galloway's call for 'a culture with a moral rather than a monetary core' (p.94) can be achieved within a future Scotland conceived explicitly by Saadi, and tacitly assumed by others, to be 'a systematically secular entity' (p.176). Modern Scottish literature has long dwelt on the memory and myth of parish community, felt as a dysto-pian force of social control from which the solitude of writing provides an escape route, but also as the distant memory of lost social unity. (Note that political — mediated, representative ^ democracy is missing from both sides of the equation.) A major challenge for those contributors who see political renewal enshrined in the figures of smallness, of locality and of leaderless or [End Page 135] mutual participatory democracy is to distinguish these ambitions from the artistic folk memory of bad community. Indeed, a number of writers expressly see a collectivist future as a threat to their own independence; only Paterson goes so far as to seek to place future artistic subsidy by the state (unsurprisingly, a common concern in the book) into the hands of an artistic elite.
In stressing the absent figure of religion, I am not following Eliot and arguing for its essential connection with any substantial culture. But if the cultural contribution to be made to the political debate over independence in Scotland is to remain self-critical, we must recognise that the ideas of literature and of culture assumed by almost all of the contributors to Unstated are, as they will freely concede about nationalism, historically-specific. The difference between the political and social values of today's Scots and their predecessors needs to be aired out clearly; and so does the possibility that the critical intellectual culture in which the writer could claim a vanguard privilege ('Artists are often inclined to sense the nature of things coming over the hill' writes Alan Bissett (p.37), adopting the role of a latter-day Leavis) can no longer be taken for granted. Journalists get short shrift in contemporary Scottish literature ^ a symptom of the fragility of the novelist or poet's jealously guarded independence. However, another question intrigues me. The independence debate was always going to be one-sided. The imperfection of the current political and economic situation seems both visible and real; both the threat from and the gains to be won by constitutional and political change must remain to a large extent hypothetical. Imagination must weigh on both sides, but with the addition of reality, the scales seem to point in one direction only. Hence the association of independence with radicalism tout court; and the writers collected together in Unstated, whatever their doubts about the outcome, are united in suggesting that change must be better than the status quo, if only we feel confident enough to recognise it. Like MacDiarmid's beloved principle of extremism, one wonders if this enthusiasm for the radical may itself be the result of self-definition against the whiggish Southron individualist. Compared to MacDiarmid's insistence on the need for a total national spiritual revolution, the merely political change on which the contributors ask us to stake our hopes seems relatively modest. But if they were confident in the outcome, would they need to stress confidence so much? Both what I have distinguished as the cultural and the political approaches presented in Unstated [End Page 136] meet in asking us to put aside issues of party and personality, and to treat the 2014 vote as a test of Scottish readiness for the hard task of renewal. Yet if the matter was to rest on belief in the perfectibility of human institutions, the inertia of tradition may yet pull in the other direction from the one urged by the voices collected in Unstated.
Alex Thomson is a Senior Lecturer in Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of books on Derrida and Adorno, and is currently editing Memories and Portraits for the New Edinburgh Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson.
1. Page numbers for quotations from Unstated are given in parenthesis in the review text. [End Page 137]