The ability to talk the same language is gone. More and more, we’re divided into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation, because what binds us together is the pictures in our heads. But if those people are not sharing those ideas, they’re not living in the same place.
Despite its obvious relevance, the above quote was not made with reference to Scotland. Rather, it concludes a documentary about the notorious rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley — The Best of Enemies. The film suggests that part of the tribal nature of contemporary American politics stems from the confrontations between the two men captured by ABC as part of their coverage of the Democratic and Republican Conventions in 1968.
It seems a bit far fetched to compare the culture war that has pitted liberal and conservative forces against each other across the Atlantic with the constitutional divide in Scotland. While certain Scottish commentators and celebrities are fond of fetishising political divisions (overwhelmingly based on social media) such hysteria is extremely parochial in its lack of self-awareness.
Yet to expect such narratives to have substance is to miss the point. In a traditionally deferent and loyal nation Scotland’s moment of schism did not involve high profile political violence, widespread riots, war, and sexual revolution, as it did in America. But there are still common factors at play.
That the view from either camp of the other is at once so sinister and in many ways so similar, reveals a great deal. The Tories and their dark star, the SNP and their one party state, cancel each other out. Two nationalisms, claiming old lineages (but in many ways relatively young formations) have created an oppositional morass which a great deal of debate must wade through before it can begin to be made comprehensible. In Scotland, while the real political character of independence itself remains unclear, the constitutional debate serves as a rough marker where class politics usually resides. Nuance is the greatest casualty of this monumentally unproductive way of thinking.
As in any culture war the vanishingly slim terrain of accepted party political discourse is in large part to blame — it remakes itself in the from of ever greater entrenchment within the wider public realm. Who would want to become engrossed in a partisan politics condemned to the dreary incanting of small differences? The longer this goes on, the less likely either side is to reach their ultimate goal — whether that is independence, or a sustainable and popular version of re-union.
In the meantime obvious absurdities are the order of the day. The crassness of a great deal of what gets said in Scotland stems from a starting point that all opponents are wedded to their favoured constitutional obsession and are therefore easily discounted. Elaine C Smith and others have pointed out that ‘Scotland is an argument’. An argument reduced to such crude and ultimately meaningless categories as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is pointless. People switch off.
As Scotland’s under-resourced and visibly precarious media begin to fix their gaze upon Holyrood for the coming election, it’s worth asking how we might move beyond this stasis. If we can accept that the problem is, on a whole number of levels, cultural, then its solution must be cultural too. Those of us advocating further constitutional change will necessarily have to do most of the heavy lifting by starting to move beyond the comfortable terrain of party politics, with its hard loyalties and certainties. If independence is ever going to happen, a broader process of national revival and exploration must be reconvened. The country’s recent past provides a clear indication why.
The partial but compelling narrative, that Scotland’s writers and artists succeeded in filling the vacuum where a nation might have been post 1979, remains potent. While it’s probably too early to work out what the impact of the independence referendum on culture will be, there is not much to suggest that the nation’s artists and cultural institutions might once again move into an imaginative space left vacant by the failure of political change. This significant contrast was observed by Scott Hames in May 2015:
Scottish cultural figures are increasingly a caste of deluxe pundits, discussing many of the same political questions, in largely the same language, as politicians, journalists, bureaucrats and the rest of us. A certain ‘leading’ distance seems to have collapsed, but not (I think) because Scottish writers and artists are any less engaged or imaginative or ‘radical’. It’s simply that mass-movement and electoral politics have swept into the pro-independence terrain formerly dominated by artistic voices, largely erasing the boundary between ‘the politics of Scottish culture’ and ‘Scottish politics in general’.
It is widely understood that the decades after Scotland’s first referendum on devolution saw a growing sense of cultural confidence, and of a broader civic revival in the face of political stasis and alienation. Today, there is little evidence that a new generation of artists will emerge emboldened and able to interrogate the public life of the country. Instead, the political half-life of a devolved parliament provides a narrow focus that serves to exclude a great deal.
The recent loss of William McIlvanney and Ian Bell in such quick succession saw public mourning redolent with generational significance. This new silence reminded us of an era when writers were in the vanguard of Scotland’s political adventures. Without such bardic figures, the tribe all too easily becomes disoriented, its collective memory recedes and we are all diminished. This is because a nation does not exist in merely institutional form (while most national claims to distinct origins are farcical at best, damaging at worst). What does matter, however, is the quality with which the national community is imagined.
the political half-life of a devolved parliament provides a narrow focus that serves to exclude a great deal.
The difference, when properly considered, is obvious. No SPAD would ever have thought up a line as risky as McIlvanney’s ‘mongrel tradition’. No government prospectus for independence could get to the heart of the matter as brilliantly as Bell’s eve of referendum observation that to be stateless was to be ‘homeless at home’. No radical activist could have imagined a Scottish republic and its place in the cosmos starting from an artefact upon which ‘as many fingers had gripped hard/as hopes their silent race had lost or gained.’ More recently, while the SNP took decades to redefine a concept of Scottish identity, Kathleen Jamie managed it in a few stanzas.
Obviously this is not to deny that Scotland is also a nation of numbers and facts — A&E waiting times, GDP, educational attainment and so on. It is all these things and, like any society, it is full of contradictions. This, I think, is at the heart of the matter. Where a politician sees contradictions they must be smoothed over. An artist or writer, on the other hand, sees a potential dialectic, a drama, a knot to be untangled. One approach offers the possibility of seeing the place anew, while the other is insistent in its repetition of the successful present. This is why a Scottish Government still intimately intertwined with its big brother in the south, must resort to binary categories. The governing party talks of its successes and its aspirations, but trapped in the rhetoric of its ‘strength’ all of the weaknesses and failings of Scotland are neatly bracketed as reserved. It talks of ‘two cities’: one is northern, full of pan-demographic happiness and good times, the other is dark, ‘out of touch’, ethnic and distant. There is no room for Edinburgh’s Muirhouse (nor for that matter the remarkable story of London’s Focus E15) in that picture. Strength is not complicated, but nations are.
The primacy of party politics creates a troubling dynamic in which the imaginative force of committed art is easily constricted by the more mundane world of a given political programme. That said, various forms of campaigning and radical politics can offer platforms that artists are bound to cleave to. Yet in doing so they risk becoming the after party, the consolation prize, the entertainment, a free morale boosting bonus to a cause. The assumption behind such a relationship: that imaginative work is easy, enjoyable and self affirming, belies the acute personal risks involved in any creative process, but also the risk that comes from sticking your neck out, especially in a small country.
Of course such oddities are themselves a product of the constricted public sphere that Scotland has been made to thole. Culture is seen as part of a narrative of Scottish success and so is seldom heard within the wider language of priorities in lean times. In some areas the problem is obvious — such as the ongoing scandal of a virtually non-existent national film industry. In others, it is more subtle — the lack of critics, new publications, or spaces to open up the possibility of broader public engagement with culture. The rentier economy is not conducive to risk, creativity, or experimentation. A media structure already collapsing from neglect is now inhabited by two mutually exclusive audiences, cleaving to narratives that have grown incomprehensible to each other. It cannot see beyond the culture war. Add to that austerity and a Scottish Government content to allow crucial players like the Arches to fall by the wayside (while propping up T in the Park) and you have an inadequate basis on which to build a renewed cultural life for a nation. The defensive strategies of devolved government are about reproducing the same Scotland in the present. A politics about the future, and with it new forms, new ideas and the potential for revival, cannot take root.
The lack of structures for a greater bandwidth of cultural production (and the public debate that feeds) are deeply damaging. Work will still be created, but the costs involved are far more likely to be individualised, making participation dependent on the ability of individuals to take career breaks or self-fund and publish their own efforts. Political commitment, far from tapping into a seam of shared solidarity and collective effort, has become a reminder that the arts, in a deeply unequal society such as ours, have only a rhetorical claim to intrinsic value. Creativity doesn’t pay but it can easily be bought. Simultaneously, across culture and media, a vast informal economy has emerged online. While this creates the illusion of mass participation in reality access to resources, support and new platforms have rapidly diminished.
Scotland has been too silent since the referendum. It has foregone the saying of much that is of importance while it allowed the reverberations of 2014 to fill the void.
It may well be that Scotland is no longer capable of such efforts. Does our brave new world of disruption, migration and abstraction have any place in it for old tribes, let alone old bards? In a world where technology has given so many a voice, can we continue to value those who are obsessively dedicated to quality as a collective project?
It would at least be worth trying to find out. Edwin Morgan delighted in the idea that his work might wake Scotland up from its conservative, insular, sleepwalking. As a poet who identified with an avant-garde, he paid great heed to the original meaning of that term — a group who go ahead of the main body to seek out and test the strength of the enemy. Today the need for an avant-garde, for multiple exploratory projects, is greater than ever before.
Scotland has been too silent since the referendum. It has foregone the saying of much that is of importance while it allowed the reverberations of 2014 to fill the void. It has seemed anxious and voiceless — full of the cultural orphans of an older generation that took us within touching distance of an imagined destination . Reversing the current trend and returning to a point where Scotland’s subversive cultural and intellectual vitality is what marks us out, rather than the partisan concerns of our still stateless system of governance, is, in my opinion, the most pressing priority now facing the nation. The opportunities this offers: to share the ideas and pictures in our heads and potentially inhabit the same place, are invaluable.
A starting point in that process would involve creating structures that allow people in Scotland a fighting chance of being able to tell stories about where they come from, and to be able to live some form of half decent life while doing so. That seems to me like the only credible approach we now have if we want to place writers, journalists, thinkers and artists, where they really belong —at the forefront of Scotland’s ongoing struggle to understand its place in the world.