|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
We are deluged by facile arguments and factoids designed to 'manage' the Scottish question, or to rig the terrain on which it is contested. Before we get used to the parameters of a bogus debate, there must be room for more honest and nuanced thinking about what 'independence' means in and for Scottish culture. This book sets the question of independence within the more radical horizons which inform the work of 27 writers and activists based in Scotland. Standing adjacent to the official debate, it explores questions tactfully shirked or sub-ducted within the media narrative of the Yes/No campaigns, and opens a space in which the most difficult, most exciting prospects of statehood can be freely stated.Its declared intention, then, is to raise the level of the independence debate. Its immediate effect, predictably enough, has been to lower it further, with a somewhat uncharitable and highly selective reading of Alasdair Gray's contribution being met by a prickly response from Kevin Williamson and Mike Small. [Update: more here.] But that's only to be expected, and in the longer term the book bids fair to meet its publishers' hopes and vindicate its editor's efforts, undertaken 'for the sake of curiosity and in the interests of posterity'.
The current independence debate is -- beyond its widely deplored and even more widely indulged tetchiness, pettiness, and point-scoring -- a bit artificial and accidental. There's been no recent surge of sentiment for independence. Scotland is having an independence referendum in 2014 because the SNP won a quite unexpected majority of seats in the 2011 election to the Scottish Parliament, and was committed to calling a referendum if it had the power to do so.
More than likely, the SNP never expected to have to deliver on this so soon: the electoral system was set up more or less deliberately to prevent any one party being able to govern on its own, and in any coalition negotiations the referendum plank would have been the first and easiest to break. As it is, they're stuck with a massive distraction from the job that made most of their supporters in the 2011 election vote for them in the first place: being a fairly popular and competent governing party in the devolved parliament.
But you play the hand you're dealt. To have the future of the state a topic at all is something. Unstated is an attempt to seize the opportunity for a serious conversation about what kind of society we want. It's not in itself that conversation: each of the contributors wrote without knowing what the others were saying, or indeed who they were. No claim is made that the 27 authors represent anyone but themselves.
That said, it seems to me a fair enough sample of Scottish literary life. Of the 27, I counted 15 who would give a definite Yes to independence. Only two of the others -- Jenni Calder and myself -- give a definite No. The rest I've marked as ambiguous, or answering a different question. (The splendidly cross-purposed contributions of Douglas Dunn, Tom Leonard and Don Paterson are in themselves worth the price of the book.)
On this reckoning, a majority of writers here would vote for independence, and most if not all of these would hold out for a more radical polity and settlement than that offered by the SNP. (As would, I think, most of those ambivalent or against.) This distribution of opinions is pretty much the exact inverse of where the wider public stands at the moment. Whether this indicates that the writers sampled are ahead of the curve or just out of step remains to be seen.