Colin Kidd muses on relations (if any) between the near unanimity of the literary world and the actually existing historical world in his review of Scott Hames’s new book The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation published by Edinburgh University Press
In the independence referendum of 2014 a majority of voters ungratefully – worse perhaps, unconsciously – parted company from the literary intelligentsia which had for several decades presented itself as the mouthpiece of an oppressed Scottish people. Scotland’s writers, critics and poets were ranged near-unanimously on the side of independence. Such unnatural unison in the literary sphere attracted comment. Why were these colourful and anarchic free spirits marching in a disciplined, regimented fashion to the beat of Scotland’s new establishment? Whatever happened, it was asked, to counter-culture, to the pose of dissent, to the cut and thrust of debate and disagreement – even to mere discussion? Instead of the promised national conversation, we had what was billed at the time, and after, as a festival of democracy; that is, a celebration of the authentic voice of the demos interpreted by a mediating class of writers, PR men and activists. On referendum day itself, it transpired, the actually-existing people of Scotland dared to think otherwise, and voted accordingly.
Politics is, of course, a messier business than culture. Or rather, when politics is included, along with the other stuff of life – family, religion, shopping, DIY, sport, fashion, gardening, pets, food and drink – in a more rounded conception of culture, then the culture of everyday life in Scotland proves to be altogether more complicated – and recalcitrant – than the high-cultural elite imagines. Those benighted philistines not blessed with the artistic temperament wonder how everything gets paid for. Who pays the bills? Who ultimately funds the Scottish Arts Council subventions? Who pays the pensions? And in which currency? Such surly low-mindedness is unhelpful: a brake on genius, and an obstacle to literary achievement. Perhaps these actually-existing Scots don’t deserve to have witnessed – if indeed they noticed – the cultural renaissance which has flourished in Scotland since the flawed devolution referendum of 1979.
To be sure, literature is not a mere reflection of the society in which it arises. History and literature inhabit very different worlds, not least as academic practices. Historians are trained to reconstruct context, not to award points to individuals or collectivities in the past on the basis of their proximity to modern-day standards of aesthetic, ethical or political correctness. Literature, on the other hand, is subject – just as much as theology – to wishful thinking. Aesthetic considerations, moral imperatives and virtue-signalling intrude in shaping responses to the past, to a degree which appal the artisan-historian. This is why interdisciplinary studies can be so fraught, such fields becoming terrains not so much of fruitful collaboration as of disabling friction. Take the troubling case of Scotland’s inter-war culture. Academics in the interdisciplinary field of Scottish studies find it difficult to unknot the awkwardly tangled phenomena of the 1930s: a flourishing Scottish Renaissance in literature that was – objectively – read by very few Scots at the time, and which made scant impact at the ballot box. How is the perspective of literature – a perceptible, if not glorious, reawakening of language, literature and nationhood among Scotland’s highbrows – to be reconciled with unwelcome historical facts from the inter-War era, including middlebrow indifference, a numerically tiny readership, and no electoral victories for the SNP?
But shocking conjunctures of this sort are not only visible in the 1930s; they are part of our very recent past – and present. Scott Hames is a Lecturer in Scottish Literature at the University of Stirling, and firmly attached to what he calls The Dream; but he is also alert – unlike so many colleagues in his discipline – to unwished-for dissonance, not least The Grind, as he terms it, of Scottish politics in the raw. Hames’s tantalising subject is the curious, ungainly interplay since the late 1960s between the Dream and the Grind in the making of modern Scotland. Hames is playing a riff on an old and well-worn theme in Scottish literary criticism: the trope of doubleness, with the Dream and the Grind standing as surrogates for the polar twins of Literature and History. Although Hames himself desires to reach the ultimate destination of a healthy, independent nation, he experiences car-sickness on route; the ‘political leveraging’ of Scottish literature leaves him particularly queasy. He is troubled by the vexing problem of representation: the relationship between the intelligentsia – first pro-devolution, then pro-independence – and the people the former claim to represent. How do we distinguish between the generous act of a literary vanguard – in the absence initially of a Scottish Parliament or Assembly – giving voice to the people and a continuing paternalistic ventriloquism, between representation by a cultural elite and pompous usurpation? There are also worrying consequences for literature and criticism. Hames considers the difficulties of plotting faced by James Robertson in his great panoramic condition of Scotland novel, And the Land Lay Still (2010), where he struggles to represent a nation shuffling by myriad slow routes towards gradual self-realisation. Insidious dangers lurk in the ambition to voice the nation. Are we perhaps in danger of reading Scottish literature ‘by the terms of a self-congratulatory circuit of representation’? And do such obsessions not impose a constricting corsetry on writers themselves? Hames invokes the sceptical voice of Janice Galloway: ‘Who wants to write about nation all the bloody time?’ Well, quite.
It wasn’t always like this. Hames’s book traces the transformation of a niche counter-culture of small, fiercely independent literary magazines, their crews and, significantly, their squabbles, into a monolithic intelligentsia which by the late 1980s and early 1990s presumed to speak for Scotland as a whole and for the cause, at least initially, of a Scottish Parliament. Things were different in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when warring groupuscules were the norm: a common front in Scottish literature was not so much an ideal abjured as an idea uncoined. Old-style cultural nationalists of the MacDiarmidite stamp deplored the petty Poujadiste materialism of the SNP. They also vented their ire at a new magazine Scottish International which was denounced for its rancid cosmopolitanism, for its non-approved brand of literary experimentation’, and, on crassly sectarian grounds, for its links with the Catholic Chaplaincy at Edinburgh University. Hames traces fractures in this bohemian milieu. The inter-war Scottish Renaissance found its continuators in Duncan Glen’s Akros and in Scotia (or Scotia Review). On the anti-MacDiarmidite wing – the counter-culture to the counter-culture – were Scottish International and Lines Review, which under Robin Fulton’s editorship broke with the auld nostrums. However, things changed dramatically after the pochled devolution referendum of 1979. Scottish literary intellectuals decisively jettisoned their former ‘baggage’, the MacDiarmidist inheritance of Scots linguistic revivalism. Instead of attempting to revive the historic Scots of Dunbar synthesised with relics of the Doric, an alternative politics of language emerged, one which acknowledged the realities of the new urban demotic. The efforts of Tom Leonard and James Kelman to give voice to a downtrodden underclass meshed with anti-Thatcherite politics. By the late 1980s vernacular class resistance to Tory rule blurred into an assertion of cultural difference, and blended too with a constitutional argument against a Westminster government which lacked a mandate in Scotland, the so-called democratic deficit. In the 1980s the practical demand for a Scottish parliament captured a new intelligentsia – no longer purist MacDiarmidites – associated with magazines such as Radical Scotland, Chapman, the new Edinburgh Review, and Cencrastus (notwithstanding the last’s MacDiarmid-inspired title).
In the interim, Hames’s dialectical history traces the emergence of devolutionist politics, focussing largely on the Labour party. This is, as he tells us, a ‘grubby saga of electoral expediency’. Harold Wilson imposed devolution on Labour in Scotland, out of cold calculation of the danger the SNP posed to the party’s interests. Devolution meant, initially, nothing like an aspiration to home rule, but was tokenistic, a means of containing the nationalist genie. As far as most mainstream politicians were concerned, national feeling was to be managed and massaged. When in the 1980s the desire for a Scottish parliament became the cause of a new literary intelligentsia, Scottish politicians had successfully ‘canalised’ national feeling into a symbolic form unthreatening to the coherence and integrity of the United Kingdom.
Here Hames unmasks another set of ignoble ironies. The supposedly edgy literary counter-culture of the late 1980s had converged with ‘a channel for “dissent” endorsed by nearly all of the Scottish political establishment’. What was proclaimed to be free – the new-found literary voice of an oppressed Scottish working class – was articulated in collusion with the country’s civic middle-class establishment. But just because this elite’s machinations bore an unambiguous anti-Tory inflection does not make it any more convincing as an authentic mouthpiece of the people. Literature was operating as ‘a vocal surrogate for democracy’, but for a democratic cause which had itself been hijacked by a caste of anti-Tory notables. The democratic deficit, it transpires, was not only external, in Scotland’s vassal-like relationship with Westminster, but internal to Scotland.
If we fast forward twenty years or so, Hames argues, ‘the critical and creative endeavour called Scottish Literature was, by 2014, often difficult to separate from the political project with which it is entwined.’ Nevertheless, while Hames’s register tends towards the cynical in his appraisal of Scotland’s political classes, the tone is less quizzical in his discussion of the literary scene. He accepts the intelligentsia’s idealism at face value, indeed draws attention to its political naiveté, but shies away from other potential factors – including peer pressure and cynical careerism – which might have shaped its group-think. Nevertheless, Hames is clearly left uncomfortable by what he calls the ‘pervasive boosterism of Scottish life’. When will our docile writers break free from the herd? Will any of them dare to talk Scotland down?
Nevertheless, I think some of the fog is lifting. Brexit has changed the political weather, as it has changed so many things. Although the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum was unwelcome to a majority of Scotland’s people, it has provided a welcome pluralist corrective to the notion that the Scottish people might possess a unified national will. There is, it seems, no settled will (or anything like it) even on existential questions. Instead Scottish public opinion is now fragmented four ways, among Indy-Remainers, Indy-Brexiters, Unionist-Remainers, and Unionist-Brexiters. High-minded purism becomes self-defeating. In a future independence referendum, Indy-Remainers will need to woo a smattering of both Unionist-Remainers and Indy-Brexiters to forge a new majority for independence, whether inside or outside the EU. It takes all sorts. Nations are not as monolithic as nationalisms imagine them to be. Far from being embodiments of each nation’s supposed will, they are, as historians recognise, sites of contestation for the various groups and interests which they each comprise.
Moreover, while Scotland’s literary intelligentsia has for the past century equated the health of Scottish culture with its integrity, homogeneity and freedom from anglo-contamination, historians – and a few plucky literary scholars – have begun to realise that the homogeneous nation-state is a quirk of history. Humanity does not come packaged, like convenience food, in sealed, self-contained units. Things are messier. Cultures fuse and overlap in haphazard ways. That is why empires, dynastic agglomerates, unions and confederations are just as common in history as straightforward nation-states. And cultures themselves are rarely neatly contained within borders. Hybridity and bi-lingualism – sometimes multi-lingualism – are the norm, not the exception. A double tongue, MacDiarmid’s jibe notwithstanding, is no curse. Arguably, indeed, to be a Scottish Briton is to be doubly favoured, unlike the unusually monocultural English, because allowed to participate in two cultures, to possess two compatible identities, to be both Shakespeareans and Burnsians. The real curse from which our literary intelligentsia suffers is the mote in its own eye: the assumption that there is – and that there should be – a clear one-on-one correspondence between culture and nation, between culture and state. This is the curse of essentialism. Hames’s book – rich in ideas, albeit densely-textured in the mode of modern criticism – is not in itself a remedy for the ills that plague our literary class. But we are now at least aware of the symptoms.