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Where Scotland stands? The strange state of the Scottish Left and the cultural assembly of a nation

The Scottish left is in decline and crisis today, bereft of ideas and numbers. Yet a new generation of novelists provide hope of a conversation about Scotland which goes way beyond devolution and embraces genuine self-government.
Gerry Hassan
18 August 2010

The left in Scotland is not in a good state on any level, in terms of numbers on the ground, ideas, the wider environment and its general psyche. Clearly if we were talking about the old Stalin point of how many divisions the Pope has – the Scottish left have very little of an army remaining to call to arms. This sad state of affairs has dawned more upon me in recent years through a number of discussions, and the coming of the Parliament has made the threadbare prospectus of the left more obvious. While recently the significant discussion started by my Jimmy Reid essay posted on Facebook – illustrated some of the left’s worst characteristics.

Let’s start with the Reid piece and work back. Jimmy Reid was an immense and fascinating character; of that no one can be in any doubt. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ struggle was totemic and real, a major point of resistance to Heath, an attempt to build a new left in Scotland, and ultimately, an expression of that left’s failure.

I always had numerous problems with Reid’s politics and public persona. And part of this is autobiographical. When I was a young boy growing up in Dundee in a political household with a Communist father and a feminist and community activist mother, the political voices I heard were Dundonian or from far away. Reid was my introduction to the West of Scotland political left man; until that point the only comparison I had was with Billy Connolly – who to a young pre-teenage boy making sense of the world – seemed a joy to watch.

Connolly made jokes, was filled with light and a risqué naughtiness; to a young lad this was obviously attractive. He was my introduction to the idea of Glasgow’s West End, to Byres Road and much more. But Reid was different. He was earnestly serious, and although he spoke with a lyrical fluency and poetry, it was also filled to my young ears with an over-righteousness and menacing masculinity. Strangely enough my childhood memories of both, are of seeing Connelly and Reid perform on the ‘Parkinson’ show: a strange platform for an introduction to the West of Scotland man.

This in a way is part of my story about why I never identified with the machismo, street fighting man of the West of Scotland and his many equivalents across Scotland. Yet trying to articulate this account brought interesting responses from a number of quarters: that this was ‘a hatchet job’, that I was as guilty of ‘the black and white thinking’ that I was criticising, and perhaps, most powerfully and inaccurately, that I was guilty of ‘presentism’, of judging Reid by the standards of today, setting him up to knock him down.

Let’s leave the subject of Jimmy Reid, complex character that he is and look at the wider picture. The Scottish left in its broadest sense has been the defining political force of this nation, at least from the 1950s until recently with the rise of Scottish nationalism. It once spoke for a powerful political, industrial and cultural community in Scotland, which contributed in numerous ways to the making and imagining of Scotland as a very different political space. And this is in decline and crisis today.

The reality of the left was that for all its high points, increasingly it has contributed little that is positive to the life of Scotland. Wendy Alexander once said Scottish Labour hadn’t had a single positive idea since 1906; she was being a bit hard; there was a bit of a golden period in the 1920s, but she was broadly correct. And then there is the wider labour and trade union movement – who since that false dawn of UCS – have had little to nothing to say of any originality, apart from what they were against: Tory cuts and privatisation and Labour PFI/PPP.

This brings me to Thatcherism, which a large part of Scotland got rightly worked up about. Thatcherism offered a last high water mark of the romantic left mentality, which at the same time was the end of the road for such thinking. This is William McIlvanney, one of Scotland’s most acclaimed writers, on Thatcherism in the 1980s:

Margaret Thatcher is not just a perpetrator of bad policies. She is a cultural vandal. She takes the axe of her own simplicity to the complexities of Scottish life. She has no understanding of the hard-earned traditions she is destroying. And if we allow her to continue, she will remove from the word ‘Scottish’ any meaning other than geographical. (1)

This is preposterous language and thinking of the kind which was very common at the time. We talked of ‘the Englishing of Scotland’ (George Rosie) of ‘what do you do when democracy fails you?’ (The Proclaimers), and imagined a fragile Scottish identity under threat of extinction. We never for once imagined the opposite: that Scottish identity is strong, and one of the problems we face as a nation and culture is our over-obsession with fine-tuning and perfecting our identity. As if this were ever actually possible.

McIlvanney’s quotes matter because they are from ‘Stands Scotland Where It Did’, his 1987 lecture to the SNP Conference. It was the rallying cry for the centre-left against Thatcher in that decade; the counter-story to the famous Thatcher ‘Sermon on the Mound’ speech she gave to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988.

The world of McIlvanney has drawn from and contributed to a mythologizing of Scotland as poor, downtrodden and powerless. This over-emphasised our unity as a political community and nation and at the same time left us feeling that we were a rather pathetic wee lot who couldn’t stand on our own feet. In the same speech McIlvanney can claim, ‘A country as poor as we have been for so long has at least learnt that there are more important measures of a human being than the financial ….’ (2).

Then there were the self-indulgent claims in the late 1980s and 1990s from the likes of McIlvanney and Ruth Wishart that Glasgow was the sort of city where ‘it was impossible to be a yuppie’, while Neal Ascherson writes of their informal tour round Scotland at the time of the 1997 referendum that McIlvanney is ‘the best known novelist in Scotland’, where ‘every smalltown bookshop stocks a row of his books’, and slightly implausibly, ‘his tall, spare figure … is recognised everywhere’ (3).

There is just something too romantic, too believing our own personal self-sustaining myths in this; it is too incestuous a version of Scotland with too little awareness of the need for constructive self-criticism.

Before I get accused of rubbishing the entire Scots left tradition, it had many wonderful people, ideas and spaces in it. I grew up in it; I know that and I know the contradictions, evasions and weaknesses that caught up with us during Thatcherism, but which were there from the outset.

The Scottish left – for all the idiosyncrasies of the Independent Labour Party in the 1920s and the reach of the Communist Party until near the end – became blind to the malpractices of the Labour-dominated political establishment. Part of it became appropriated; part of just decided to remain silent. But in that decision the left lost the right to claim the banner of liberty and freedom in Scotland. Some of it was claimed by Thatcherism, and most by a Scottish nationalist movement firmly positioned on the centre-left from 79 onwards.

A world without that left takes Scotland into uncharted territory, but since 79 the defining voices of Scotland have been as often cultural as political. Alasdair Gray’s Lanark offered a radically different landscape post-devolution, while in the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with McIlvanney, there was James Kelman’s A Disaffection and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, charting the urban dislocation from Thatcherism.

Welsh’s novel and film were ultimately depoliticising, in that they offered escapism and getting off your head on drugs as the only way of making sense of living on an Edinburgh council estate. In the last year, this has begun to change. In the last twelve months, Liam McIlvanney, son of William, has written All The Colours of the Town, a potent exploration of post-devolution politics, media and sectarianism, while the singer-songwriter Momus has published The Book of Scotlands - perhaps the most imaginative work of writing since Lanark – where he explores over 150 parallel Scottish worlds of past, present and future. These range from Alfred Kinsey and Alan Lomax touring the Scotland of the 1950s, to magnificent magic surrealism such as a huge black swan living over Ayrshire. Momus’s work points to an increasing tendency of Scottish writers to depart from the earnest script on offer from McIlvanney senior and the Kelmans of this world, and play, provoke, have fun and explore myths.

And now we have James Robertson’s just-published And the Land Lay Still. This is an important work from an important writer, beautifully crafted and conceived, and an attempt at a state of the nation novel, such as we have not had for decades. Wonderfully, he pulls it off, concocting a narrative which weaves back and forward between the Scotland of the 1950s and today. And he pointedly asks, reflecting post-devolution uncertainty:

But what was the cause? It’s easy to remember what they stood against: Thatcherism, London rule, the destruction of old industries, the assault on the Welfare State, the poll tax. But what were they for? A Scottish Parliament of course. But now they have it, what is it for? Forget smoking bans and other worthwhile legislation, what is its primary function? Maybe it’s for saying, Look, listen, this is who we are. And maybe that is no insignificant thing, and the purpose of the Parliament is to say it again, over and over. What can be more important, politically, than to know who you are and what you are?

And the Land Lays Still is a fascinating contribution to our story, mixing the old stories of Scotland’s past, of the drunken blether, with who we are today, how we make sense of our journey, and address our future. It even includes the momentous moment in Scottish culture of the first mainstream fiction openly gay character, Mike Pendreich. Something it has only taken Scottish fiction until 2010 to achieve (4).

I have hope in the Scotland that I live in for so many reasons: my background, my parents’ innate hopes, the fact we finally got ‘our’ Parliament, and because the British state is crumbling in front of our very eyes. And the emerging stories coming from people such as James Robertson, Liam McIlvanney, Momus and many more, show a nation that wants to express itself, have a dialogue and conversation, and embrace a genuine self-government and self-determination which goes way beyond devolution.

It is just that I am not sure the Scottish left as it is currently constituted has much to offer this.

 

Notes

1. William McIlvanney, ‘Stands Scotland Where It Did?’, in Surviving the Shipwreck, Mainstream 1992, p. 246.

2. Ibid, p. 248.

3. Neal Ascherson, ‘Some Poetry, Pipers and Politics for the People’, Independent on Sunday, September 14th 1997.

4. Many thanks to the writer and campaigner Bob Cant who made this point in a Facebook discussion about James Robertson’s novel.

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