There is a well-founded reason for Hamish Henderson’s notorious discomfort at the notion that his most salient contribution to Scottish radicalism might one day become the national anthem. National anthems, so the poet held, were destined to become dirges — weighted down by their own significance — established, important, impotent.
If Alex Salmond’s preferred choice of ‘Freedom Come a Ye’ as the song of state is not in line with Henderson’s wishes, the appropriation of the muckle sang by a group of young Scottish communists for the title of their first book might have, strangely, landed a bit closer to the bard’s intent.
The ‘Roch Winds’ referred to make a recurring appearance throughout the text. The aim is not shirked from — like the decolonisation of Africa and the struggle against Apartheid that Henderson juxtaposed with Scotland’s hand in the imperial game — real universalism is uncompromising by definition. This ‘roch wind’ is not a lightsome breeze of civic respect, it’s the tempestuous storm of revolution. In the authors of this volume’s account, it is Scotland’s aversion to the rough winds of tumultuous change that are problematic.
This taut polemic uses an arsenal of potent verbiage to slaughter every holy cow in Scottish public life. In a country as small as Scotland this is a welcome undertaking. It even managed to pre-empt Holyrood Magazine’s ‘Holyrood Baby’ project: which is encouraging legislators in Edinburgh to consider all the interventions they might stage to improve the lot of a child born into poverty. For these authors, this essentially Blairite political culture in Scotland – that sets out to find smart solutions to deep structural inequalities must be challenged and overthrown. For these young Marxists it is the rich, not the poor, who are at the root of the nation’s ills. This is the most controversial, but also the most compelling taboo that they set out to break.
These cherubic fragile creatures have created the strangest of books. But they have done so in a manner that is, perhaps ironically, more in keeping with Scots intellectual traditions than many of the writing of the prominent nationalists that are the object of so much of their derision.
It’s an approach harks back to the array of eccentric “wild men” of early Scottish nationalism but also to an era when communism was just as significant a current in Scottish political thought as nationalism or social democracy.
Like these figures of yesteryear (as a collective) they take on multiple often contradictory personae. This book clearly does suffer from what often comes across a slightly painful collaborative effort. Certain satirical passages are a bit overwrought.
But the real quality of this book, like all good polemics, will be seen in the sparks it creates. Will it be a curious tribute to the fllytings of the past century by three over-read PHD candidates? Or will it become part of a vital recall mechanism for a Scottish left that risks becoming permanently obscured by the bland managerialism of devolved politics?