Scottish cultural commentator Joyce McMillan - YouTube, fair use
It has been an unprecedented political year, and 2017 will also be full of high drama – globally, across Europe, in the UK, and nearer to home in Scotland.
Politics isn’t everything. Just as important is culture – a word used and over-used, seemingly about everything and everywhere, but difficult, and sometimes impossible to pin down and define.
Culture when we forensically examine it can mean so many things. It can describe individual growth and enrichment. It can be about a group or community’s way of life. It expresses the activities of consuming culture. And finally, it is also used to define the way groups and organisations act and the codes and practices which shape them.
The many facets of culture and the propensity not to define them can be seen in our nation. We have a politics which is meant to be all-encompassing, but often evades detail and substance. Reinforcing this is a widespread characteristic of not wanting to define Scottish culture – for fear of ghettoising and marginalising.
This is part of a universal trait about identity and culture – one which can be seen in debates on women’s writing and studies, or regarding lesbian and gay culture – and indeed any aspect of human life which challenges or isn’t part of the mainstream.
When writing ‘Scotland the Bold’ I asked a number of prominent writers and thinkers what Scottish culture meant to them. Many refused – some for the reasons above. The cultural critic and commentator Joyce McMillan offered the following insights:
I think all living cultures are in a constant state of dynamic change, and can – should – never be ‘defined’, although they can be sketched at any given moment. There is nothing unusual about Scotland in that respect. We simply have to fend off the danger of metropolitan perceptions which would prefer Scottishness to be a non-threatening dead culture, a quaint piece of exotica pickled in nostalgia. Fortunately, Scotland’s artists are having none of that.
It is a great quote, filled with light and insight. Yet, in its clarion call against pathologising or sentimentalising Scotland, McMillan states that ‘there is nothing unusual about Scotland’ and its culture. Yet, unusualness and uniqueness are central to the Scottish condition. We have been for three centuries that strange entity: a stateless nation. We gave away our political sovereignty in the age of absolutism to preserve our nationhood. And we committed ourselves with enthusiasm and energy to the British Empire and imperial project, and now feel semi-detached from the sad remains that are left. That seems quite a unique experience.
In this experience much is being re-examined about our past, but much, too much, is still left unsaid. This includes casting a critical eye on the different strands of culture in our nation. This scrutiny has been missing too much from how we have understood past eras, institutions and politics, let alone given due prominence to the disparate voices and traditions which have made up this nation.
There are notable exceptions to this. David McCrone’s outstanding ‘Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Stateless Nation’ published twenty-five years ago was an important breakthrough. There was the cultural studies work post-1979 of the ‘Scotch Myths’ school of, amongst others, Cairns Craig and Colin McArthur. And from non-academia, there has been Carol Craig’s provocation ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’.
Scotland remained a nation and political entity post-1707 because of the deal that was done in the Acts of Union. They preserved the institutional autonomy of the nation, and in particular, that of the Kirk, law and education – ‘the holy trinity’ which underpinned and contributed to preserving Scottish identity – but one which was elite based and controlling, and with limited democracy, accountability and scrutiny.
The rhetoric of these dominant bodies was often inclusive – the democratic intellect, the Kirk General Assembly as the surrogate parliament of the nation – but the practices were often oppressive, claustrophobic, and about the maintenance of a rigid system of social control throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries. This overhang continued long into the 20th century. One example amongst many is that when nationalist campaigner Wendy Wood addressed the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1961 she was the first woman to do so since Lady Liverpool in 1931.
I have called this public culture ‘undemocracy’ and the practices it has given rise to ‘unspace’ – the dominance in so many parts of the country of institutional authority, opinion and voices. This may be, and indeed is probably true of nations the world over, but there is, a unique Scottish experience post-1707 of all-pervasive authority. There was pre-1707 as well, but its practice becomes more explicit and increasingly problematic, the nearer we get to modern times.
The unspace of old – of ‘the holy trinity’ – was often punitive and could invoke fear, foreboding and even retribution. It had legitimacy and reach in what was at the height of the Kirk a moral order which mobilised large swathes of the nation, and which reached into men and women’s souls, and produced a kind of internal inferiorism, altering how they saw and acted in the world.
Its slow demise is one of the main stories of post-war Scotland – a land increasingly secular, less deferential to traditional authority, and which has changed dramatically as an economy and society. This is one of the long tails which produced the independence referendum, for with these changes, the liberal unionist establishment which controlled many of our elites has seen its power wane and the charactertistics of remaining institutions shift to being less attached to the maintenance of the union.
Yet, if the indyref was a product of a new opening, it also looks, as we mark the SNP being in government for coming up for ten years, that this set of changes has marked an important transition, the scale of which is only coming into view.
It looks as if as we leave the world and contours of the old unspace that we may be entering into a new kind of unspace. For as we have shed the clothes of the old Labour dominance and nomenclature, it looks like we may be entering a new age of orthodoxies and groupthink.
Thus we have a parliament and political classes who see politics as about them and accruing power, who engage in centralisation, standardisation, and scooping up institutions and responsibilities. ‘Social justice’ is the mantra of everything, but no goodies are taken away from the middle classes and affluent. Meanwhile, dull Boardism defines much of public life: of safety first placemen and women sitting on the deep state of networks of patronage. In short, much of this looks like the old Labour Scotland but with new ownership and titles on the front shop. Scotland has gone through some kind of peaceful revolution, but basically many of the same tenets, conceits and even personnel are still running things in exactly the same way.
Britain’s politics and public culture have eroded and corroded to the point of travesty and tragedy. There are the deceptions and lies which now form the mainstay of British government. There is the cumulative effect of the disinformation of the Murdoch Empire that is now set upon even more enrichment and reward with the full acquisition of Sky. And there is the frightening aspect of where the UK positions itself geo-politically: divorcing itself from the European Union, still fanatically committed to Atlanticism come what may and the advent of Trump, and without any real diplomatic strategy or strategic allies across the world.
Such times and high stakes necessitate that we talk openly and truthfully about Scotland: the place and limits of politics and politicians, and about the trajectory and make-up of our many cultures. Some of this will entail embracing inconvenient truths to the ruling party and the dominant values of our time.
A Scotland earmarking on greater self-government and the prospect of independence cannot be a land where we are expected to keep our mouths shut, and just pray it will all be alright on the night. Some pro-indy cheerleaders argue, indeed expect, that loyalty and silence in the cause of the greater cause is the right approach to get us over the winning line. But this is entirely the wrong way of thinking of politics and culture, for the Scotland of the future, in its hopes, fears and contradictions is being made now. A diverse Scotland which turns its back on unspace doesn’t start the day after independence. It either starts in the here and now, or it never does.
There is still a lack of confidence about large parts of Scottish culture. There is a feeling of fear and incorporation, alongside an anxiety about its fragilities and sustainability. Writing after the announcement of the threatened closure of the ‘Bella Caledonia’ website (now reprieved), the playwright David Greig said on twitter that Scotland could be reduced to ‘a regional culture’ and that ‘we make hardly any films or TV’ as an example. Joyce McMillan then asked why so many Scots ‘defer so instinctively to London government?’
There are many weaknesses about our culture, but Scotland isn’t going to be reduced to a region. More critical are the pressures of living in the same media and public space as the London media, and the propensity of some to worry that Scotland could somehow be wiped out or erased as a nation doesn’t help anyone. It isn’t going to happen, but we do need to talk about a lot of difficult and more tangible things: a lack of alternative spaces, the death of the old media, an absence of new media models, and a lack of pluralism in much of public life.
This brings me back to cultural accounts of Scotland. The studies I mentioned were part of a cultural reawakening and flowering – and became along with many other political and intellectual interventions – part of the official story of Scotland of recent times: that we were a distinct, autonomous, different society.
We need a new set of political and cultural interpretations for the present and the future: ones which are as daring and challenging in their way as the McCrones and ‘Scotch Myths’ were in their day. McCrone has his successor volume out later this year: a huge tome entitled ‘The New Sociology of Scotland’ which is perhaps aspiring to be the final word on the subject. Yet, the stories of a nation never stop and never reach a destination. They are part of what French philosopher Ernest Renan called ‘the daily plebiscite’ which contribute making a nation what it is.
What would these new stories address? For a start they would recognise that there is no single story or endpoint in Scotland’s journey; they would disrupt the political and cultural orthodoxies which have emerged post-1979, and welcome and encourage new dissent, note our missing voices and perspectives, and not believe that somehow everything in our garden is progressive and rosy. There have already been some important first steps: Scott Hames questioning of the conventional wisdom that artists reimagined the nation post-1979; Eleanor Yule’s work on the spectre of cultural miserablism in film and fiction, and the counter-critique of Neil Davidson on everything from bourgeois nationalism to the limits of ‘the Edinburgh school’ of academia.
And so it should be. The radical voices of yesteryear become the new class of today. The heretics become incorporated, and their counterblasts muffled. Maybe we can eventually accept that in the multiple voices and accounts of our country, there can never ever be a ‘settled will’. The story goes on and we should champion this, not resist it.