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  • The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation by Scott Hames
  • Cairns Craig
The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation. By Scott Hames. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020. ISBN 9781474418410. 336pp. pbk. £24.99

After the referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979, there were those who believed the result close enough (a majority for ‘yes’ but baulked by the government’s requirement of a 60% threshold) to make continued political action worthwhile. New political organisations such as the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly were established and attempts were made to shift the ground of Scottish politics from within the political parties – as in the ’79 group in the SNP. Some, however, decided that politics alone could never bring about a Scottish government: what was required was a revolution in the nation’s understanding of itself. Abandoning politics for cultural renewal, they organised ventures such the Scottish Poetry Library, and publishing initiatives such as the magazine Cencrastus and the Canongate Classics series of Scottish texts. The aim was to re-discover a Scotland that had disappeared from both intellectual and popular consciousness.

It is the successes, failures and limitations of these strategies that Scott Hames examines in The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution. He provides a compelling account of both the nationalist orientation of many Scottish writers from the 1960s to the 1990s and of the detailed negotiations necessary to make devolution possible in 1997. One of the book’s strengths is to remind us of just how fractured the political and cultural terrain of Scotland was in those years. Nationalists – often then dubbed ‘Tartan Tories’ – had to overcome the Scottish people’s left-leaning tendencies, socialists guiltily considered whether devolution was a betrayal of the British working classes, while unionists resisted any version of devolution that compromised Westminster sovereignty.

Paradoxically, the strange case of a country that had failed to take the opportunity to govern itself made Scotland more interesting, even if only by confirming the view of those, like Alan Massie, who thought it a place ‘where nothing happened’. Finding ways to chart that ‘nothing’ became the self-imposed task of a generation of Scottish writers whose formal experiments were to give a new international standing to Scottish writing, underlined by James Kelman’s winning of the Booker Prize in 1994 for How late it was, how late. Hames documents in admirable detail the transformation of the Scottish writer from an [End Page 178] irrelevant outsider (Hugh MacDiarmid, expelled in the 1930s from the SNP, a party he had helped found) to being the self-appointed representative of a repressed culture (Alasdair Gray, Why the Scots Should Rule Scotland, 1992).

The charting of this territory is organised under what Hames denominates the literary ‘Dream’ and the constitutional ‘Grind’. The Dream imagines a possible independence which unashamedly overleaps actually existing Scotland. The constitutional ‘Grind’, on the other hand, slogs out Scottish issues in the context of Westminster-focused party politics, with little interest in any kind of Scottish national culture. The Dream is undeliverable; the Grind will deliver, but only what enables Westminster to retain ultimate control.

Hames acknowledges the influence on this duality of Tom Nairn’s famous essay of 1968, ‘The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism’,1 which insisted that each stage of Scotland’s history is driven by delusion: Scotland’s people have been dominated by ‘the hope of an identity, to which they have clung, obscurely and stubbornly, across centuries of provincial stagnation’ (4). Scotland’s littérateurs are the projectors of a dream Scotland whose main purpose is to allow them to claim to be the only true representatives of the ‘real’ Scotland, even if visible only to themselves. The events of 1979, however, turned this isolation into opportunity: ‘the very emptiness of the assembly half-chosen in March 1979 created a vacuum in which the intelligentsia could claim its kingdom, as inheritors of a thwarted popular mandate’ (103). The backward-looking word ‘kingdom’ is telling. The representatives of a popular revolt are bound to the very United Kingdom they seek to challenge, a fact recognised in the Grind by those who know that, ‘all the “Scottish Voice” is capable...


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pp. 178-181
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