The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Writers of a Better Nation?

The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, and Nation
Scott Hames
Edinburgh University Press, 2020

How well I remember Scotland in the 1980s! Scunnered by the failure of even a majority vote to establish a Scottish Assembly, snookered by the Cunningham Amendment, gubbed in the first round of the World Cup, gutted and filleted by Thatcherism, disillusioned by repeatedly voting Labour and getting Tory ... only the writers and artists remained standing, to produce a body of self-confident work that firmly established the nation on the global cultural map. Together with dedicated political and civic activists they in due course lifted its spirits to the heights of gaining its own Parliament. They accomplished a devolution – or independence -- of the mind and heart, well in advance of its political achievement.

I remember it like this, of course, because I wasn't there. I was in London, reading all about it in the columns of Neal Ascherson and the volumes of Tom Nairn. Now and again I'd browse a journal or pamphlet from the Scottish literary or political edge. Scotland from afar seemed to have a more democratic, more socialist and more egalitarian spirit than England – particularly the South- East of England – and this consciousness showed through in the culture it had inherited as much as in the culture it now produced. And since I moved back in the early 1990s, the same story has become received wisdom, not least among writers and artists.

According to Scott Hames's new book, the real story is a bit more complicated than that. So much more complicated, indeed, that it's hard to summarise. If he's missed a magazine, a literary feud, a Commission or a Report, it's not for want of looking. The discussion is sometimes dry, the narrative always engaging. The savagery of the spats he disinters from the archival peat-bog is eye-opening. Hames contrasts 'The Dream' of literary nationalism with 'The Grind' of political procedure (characterised in this case more by friction than motion). Two features stand out, all the more because in retrospect they're often overlooked. The first is how radical an aim devolution seemed, and how bright it shone in the literary imagination. The second is how conservative – how conserving -- a manoeuvre its implementation was, driven far more by the need of the British state and the Labour Party to 'manage national feeling' than by the SNP, whose votes were read as fever-chart symptom rather than political challenge.

In focusing on the cultural and the political, Hames avowedly and explicitly omits the economic and the social. This is fair enough in its own terms, but it's liable to leave the reader's inner vulgar Marxist – if they, like me, they have one -- sputtering. The oversight, if we can call it that, is overcompensated in the novel whose analysis gets a chapter to itself: James Robertson's And the Land Lay Still. It's the most ambitious Scottish realist novel for decades, grand in scale and scope and an immersive read. Ranging from the late 1940s to the early 21st Century, the novel interweaves family sagas and stories of personal individuation with political and parapolitical history to tell one overarching epic: the growth of national consciousness.

And therein lies one problem with it. It's as if at the back of every honest, decent Scot's mind is a relentless yammer of 'You Yes Yet?' Older generations are permitted to die in the old dispensation, shriven by their invincible ignorance, but those who live in the light of the new have no excuse. If they step off the path to nationhood they sink in the slough of self-loathing – as the two major pro-Union characters, an alcoholic police spy and a Tory MP undone by a secret fetish, in the end do.

Robertson conducts a large and varied cast through a long time and a complex plot with great skill to a most satisfactory click of closure. But, Hames argues, the difficulty of integrating the characters' lives with a political history that mostly consisted of tiny conventicles and ceilidhs in literally smoke-filled rooms and debates in widely unread periodicals, and that now and then took public form as 'set-piece' events in parliaments and streets, can defeat even the best novelist – even though Robertson was himself on those marches and in those rooms. It's a problem familiar in science fiction: one reviewer cited refers to Robertson's 'info-dumping', a term from the lexicon of SF criticism.

Hames's final chapters deal with Scots, the language, in relation to Scots, the people – and 'people' too is ambiguous, referring as it can to the nation as a whole or to 'the people' as opposed to the elite. Here Scots is an abrasion almost as raw as Gaelic, and more widely felt. At the risk of rubbing it, here's how it went. Centuries ago, Scots was an official language, known as Inglis. It was used at Court and in courts, in poetry and prose. For readers outwith Scotland, you wrote in Latin like any other literate European. After the Union of the Crowns and the Treaty of Union, the United Kingdom conquered a third of the world, and English replaced Latin as the de facto lingua franca. Scots was pushed out of administrative, then everyday upper-and-middle-class speech. Its several dialects became the language of the working poor of town and country. (Except in the Highlands, where the people were schooled and regimented straight from Gaelic into Standard English, which of course they spoke in their own distinct way.)

In the first Scottish literary renaissance, MacDiarmid and others sought to revive Scots as a national language, which they called Lallans or (because of the fusion of Scots dialects) 'Synthetic Scots'. This produced some great poems, but in polemic and reportage it can come across as as affectation. Fights between the Lallans-scrievin old guard and the younger, more outward-facing literary intelligentsia flared in the 1960s and 1970s. But some new writers found another aspect of the language question, and one that far from being esoteric was central to everyday life, at least in the Central Belt. Modern vernacular Scots is different enough even from Scottish Standard English to separate the home and the school, the working class and the middle class. That difference could literally hurt, could smart and bruise, from the classroom tawse and the playground clout. At the same time, and very much as part of what Nairn excoriated as the conservative 'tartanry' of the proud Scot, the Scots language appeared in print as a quaint rustic dialect, in English spelling spattered with apostrophes, from Burns Night to the Broons patronised to within an inch of its life.

Now here I do remember personally, from the 1970s. Seeing for the first time urban West of Scotland demotic speech rendered phonetically in print, in Lament for a Lost Dinner Ticket by Margaret Hamilton, and 'Six Glasgow Poems' in Tom Leonard's Poems (1973), was a mental liberation. Almost as much, for me, as seeing for the first time Highland English dialogue accurately conveyed, in the children's novels of Allan Campbell McLean. The release came from not being patronised or mocked. Only that!

Not a lot to ask, you might think, but this modest request was seldom met with comprehension, let alone satisfaction. As an issue with which to elide class hurt with national grievance, it packed a wallop. But only, or mainly, on the individual level. In a country and at a time where upward social mobility is closely connected with further education and a change in language, the typical agonies of the intellectual of working-class origin growing away from their roots and the socialist of middle-class origin separated by accent and vocabulary from the class they most wish to speak to (or, problematically, for) are widespread enough to make these private pains a social force.

Scotland's peculiar development, however, has meant that Scots has very little chance of becoming the national language. Stranger things have happened, but... Naw. More likely, and well under way, is its official celebration as one of several languages spoken in Scotland. This provides gainful employment to some, and bewilderment to schoolchildren who speak what they think is English, but which they are now taught (in English) is another language, Scots.

As Hames suggests, this linguistic and social devolution within the devolved polity serves to defuse any class and national charge that spoken Scots still has, and offers its speakers symbolic representation in the place of – or at least, quite independently of – any actual power. The identity politics of a section of the working class is assimilated to the identity politics of the nation, to which its characteristic manner of speech is supposed to lend authentic voice. What this contributes to the material condition, let alone the social and political self-confidence, of the working class within Scotland is another matter entirely. All those years after Trainspotting, it's still shite being Scottish.

Like the devolution settlement as a whole, this uneasy arrangement leaves a lot of unfinished business. Looking back on the Scottish 1980s that I saw only from a safe distance, I have a wry suspicion that somebody was running a Gramscian strategy through those smoke-filled rooms. That self-effacing Modern Prince has yet to have their share of glory. Be that as it may, the smoke-free Scotland of 2020 cries out for an analysis of likewise Gramscian canniness. Scott Hames's book is avowedly not it, but points towards that, and beyond to an unknown 'utopian' future wherein we speak for ourselves.


The eighties saw me made redundant twice, and my belief in the Labour party fade and die.
England was always going to vote Tory, therefore if I wanted to live in a socialist country I'd have to vote for secession.
Forty years later? How right I was.

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