Scotland's future: independence, culture, and the art of negation

This week, the Scottish government launched its white paper on the future of Scotand. Here, Scott Hames looks at how it approaches the arts.

Scott Hames
29 November 2013

by Johnny Gailey:

Some months ago it was hinted that a lyrical preamble to the White Paper might be commissioned from a writer such as William McIlvanney. A Scottish government source reasoned that ‘to win independence we need prose to inform, but also poetry to inspire’. Well, there is no preamble and no poetry. But the foursquare prosings of this document are unlikely to surprise or disappoint Scotland’s artistic community. The referendum ‘dividing line’ on cultural policy was established months ago in a lecture by the Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop. The White Paper version reads: ‘our approach has been, and will continue to be, distinct from that of Westminster in that we recognise the intrinsic value of culture and heritage, and do not just value them for their economic benefit’. An easy sell to cultural producers, but also a reminder to Scottish artists of their own agenda-setting power – here as rejectionists, not imagineers. Would this be Scottish Government policy, and now part of the prospectus for independence, if not for the artist-led humbling of Creative Scotland in 2012? I doubt it.

There may be no lofty verses, but writers and dramatists have left their mark in other, more bruising ways. Rubbing along with official respect for its ‘intrinsic’ value, culture figures as a resource, catalyst or delivery mechanism, strengthening ‘our social fabric, community cohesion and economic wellbeing’ and supporting ‘better outcomes for healthier, safer and more resilient communities’. Hustling its distinctiveness on the international market, culture will ‘provide an independent Scotland with unique selling points’(ch9).

This stirring prospect is from the same lexicon as the UK Culture Secretary’s widely panned speech in April, which the Hyslop lecture defined Scottish policy against. (Seizing ‘creativity’ as a brand asset of UK GREATness, Maria Miller had argued ‘British culture is perhaps the most powerful and most compelling product we have available to us’.)

Later in the same section of Scotland’s Future, there is a lurch toward honest-to-god romantic nationalism: ‘we value culture and heritage precisely because they embody our heart and soul, and our essence’. The same buttons might have been pressed more delicately; these words set off klaxons in the many persuadables who recognise their Volkish implications. Is the rhetoric of soul and essence merely decorative? Little of the SNP’s record of governing culture can be easily squared with this flourish, and Scotland’s Future promises little more than continuing support to Gaelic and Scots activists.

This noted, many pitfalls have been creditably dodged. Even those passionately in favour of independence seem relieved that matters of identity are peripheral to the official debate, and so they prove in the White Paper. Clueless metropolitan musings on the horror of ‘Bravehearts’ aside, it is the No campaign who cannot stop talking about pride, patriotism and the glories of peoplehood.

The future Scotland of this document is more a place than a culture, ‘here’ rather than ‘us’, and restoring power to that place is its sober and single-minded aim. If it lacks literary afflatus, the White Paper is deft in arguing that it is the practical possibilities of independence that should inspire – in the words of the prosaic foreword, ‘what being independent can deliver’, not what it would mean or express about Scottish cultural identity.

So what would change? As Joyce McMillan observes, ‘of all the areas of Scottish government responsibility, arts funding is probably the one least affected by a move to independence’. With the exception of broadcasting (plans for a new Scottish version or partner of the BBC), culture is already governed, and contested, ‘here’. Even with broadcasting, continuity is the watchword and selling point. At Tuesday’s news conference Salmond joked about tabloid pressure to guarantee the future availability of Strictly Come Dancing. On another level this isn’t funny at all. Dropping Strictly would probably lose more potential Yes votes than a thousand McIlvanneys could ever win. What can be said of such a culture? And if political independence wouldn’t significantly alter it, can it really be worth the bother?

It’s a MacDiarmidish thought, and I found it impossible to ignore the emotional gulf separating this piece of writing from the poems and essays that are, very faintly, its ancestors in the same project. Culturally, the White Paper suggests, statehood would change very little, and the (democratic) need for independence contains no judgment on the Scottish society whose machinery of government would receive an upgrade. For MacDiarmid, of course, the revolutionary transformation of cultural life was the entire point, and no future Scotland compatible with Dr Who-worship, Old Firm cretinism and the wretched mentality of ‘unique selling points’ could be worth the struggle.

What struggle? Few signs of friction or dissent here, past or future. The White Paper steers well clear of the thorny visions and demands of living Scottish artists, and its gentle syllogisms have no truck with the buttonholing logic of a James Kelman (‘Countries should determine their own existence and Scotland is a country’). In an essay from the same collection, James Robertson accepts the tactical sense of not frightening the horses, but ‘actually I think it would be good to see a few wide-eyed sidelong glances and hear a nervous clattering of hooves’. He will be disappointed; the horses are pacified on every page, and can look forward to sequined foxtrots forevermore.

The SNP disowned MacDiarmid decades ago, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the bracing agenda presiding at the birth of this movement. ‘The poetry I want turns its back contemptuously on all the cowardly and brainless staples of Anglo-Scottish literature’, MacDiarmid wrote in Lucky Poet.

“My aim all along has been getting rid of the whole gang of high mucky-mucks, famous fatheads, ... bird-wits, lookers-under-beds, trained seals, creeping Jesuses, Scots Wha Ha’evers, village idiots, policemen ... Commercial Calvinists, makers of ‘noises like a turnip’, and all the touts and toadies and lickspittles of the English Ascendancy, and their infernal women-folk, and all their skunkoil skulduggery.”

Easy to dismiss (with a smile), even easier to condemn (yes, sexist and Anglophobic) – but pause to reckon with the towering impatience with Scotland-as-it-is. The ‘here’ of 1943 is a standing insult, a cultural wrong that needs righting. It should be possible to separate the scornful bravado from valid critique, and to take the latter seriously. With notable exceptions Scottish culture is in a much healthier condition today (not simply because it is more ‘national’ – if it is), and there are hundreds of reasons for the White Paper to be upbeat.

But does the language of passionate rejection – and self-examination – have no place in arguments for independence? The complacency of ‘UK:OK’ as a slogan for the status quo is matched, here, by a sense that louder affirmation (and promotion) of Scotland is the only change required. The recent Scottish novel would suggest otherwise.

The Daily Mail makes an illiterate comparison between Scotland’s Future and a Walter Scott tome. There is a sonnet-sized truth here. As with a Scott novel, bland promises of material flourishing rub shoulders with an indulgent (and, unScott-like, rather colourless) enthusiasm for the culture ‘we’ inherit from the past, whose continuity is valued for its own sake. Deftly incorporated into the new progressive order, even residues of barbarism find their honoured place as vectors of ‘identity’.

The very reasonability of the White Paper plays a similar role, muffling the shrill demands that made it possible. You would not suspect it from this document, but Scottish writers and artists are often credited with paving the way for ‘Scotland’s Future’ in the 1980s, seizing the controls when the politicians proved incapable. Little of their energy, wit or anger is evident here; but the writers know their influence lies outside and against official roadmaps, even when pressing (as many are) for the same destination.

In ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’ MacDiarmid is willing to settle for:

A poetry at the worst adept
In the artful tessellation of commonplaces
Expressed with so exact a magnificence
That they seem – and sometimes are – profound.

Is there profundity here? No; but Scotland’s Future is about cultural governance and infrastructure, the paper rather than the poem. There is little here that MacDiarmid would ardently desire. Count this a success for its authors, whose task was to assuage and to convince. Despite the fudging of romantic and neoliberal visions of culture, the White Paper is more than adept in celebrating what’s ‘here’, that good and natural place for power to return. But it is notably reluctant to dream or to condemn. This muster of commonplaces quietly flatters what Scotland already is, and promises little it does not already possess. Its bullish confidence in really existing Scottish culture is not misplaced, but nor is its caution about the popular appetite for change, even of the most trivial high-stepping kind. If some fresh magnificence is in the offing, it will need Scotland’s artists, and their audiences,­ to reach beyond liking what they already know and are. It will require blank paper and the courage to cross things out; whatever the crosses on the ballots say.

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