Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun was an opponent of the 1707 Act of Union, whose saying that ‘if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation’ has been taken to heart by Scottish Nationalists. Since taking power in 2007, the SNP has been determined to seize control of the cultural heights in Scotland, or perhaps that should be re-phrased as the cultural foothills.
For little that is memorable in the arts, popular music or literature of Scotland has emerged as the SNP has sought to nationalise culture. Pupils taking English literature exams are now required to answer at least one question on a Scottish writer. Grants are often available for projects, however threadbare or exotic, as long as ‘Scottishness’ shines through. Nicola Sturgeon’s government devotes a lot of attention to ensuring that the universities reverberate to her Scottish-themed agenda.
Boosterism for a staid cultural scene got positively embarrassing during the long-running referendum campaign from 2012 to 2014. A normally restrained theatre critic Joyce McMillan lost the plot in 2013 when she wrote:
‘Scotland’s creative community is now a tremendously confident body of men and women, who – in the everyday detail of their work – know and understand the world-class achievement of Scottish writers, artists and musicians, over the last half-century, in reimagining their own culture, and in taking their place on the world stage.’
A different MacMillan, the classical composer James, sees things rather differently. He believes that highly politicised cultural figures have a vested interest in promoting a Scottish kleinstadt, a claustrophobic intellectual atmosphere in which writers are judged by their contribution to various nationalist shibboleths and not according to any canon of critical merit. He set out these views recently in The Spectator, upsetting nationalists who can’t evade the fact that he is easily the most important Scottish composer in modern times.
He acquired his breakthrough as a result of his talent finding an outlet in the institutional world of British music. But if this sphere is effectively Balkanised, then any Scottish prodigies of the future might find the road to recognition and professional success blocked off, unless that is they bow to political expediency and redirect their work to suit State orthodoxy.
Not a few Scottish writers now effectively trade in nationalism, building careers by defining the literary personality of a hopefully soon-to-be ‘ free’ nation. One of their main outlets is the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It is easily the biggest in Britain, lasting for 16 days , and occupying the largest open space in Edinburgh’s New Town, Charlotte Square.
It seemed to be a hopeful augury when it was announced that the former BBC journalist Allan Little would be the new chair of the Book festival from 2015 onwards. He was someone who had long experience of reporting in highly restrictive countries where books have sometimes been at the centre of the struggle to enjoy free expression.
However, a look at this year’s programme indicated that he had gone native, following in the footsteps of Scots like the journalist Neal Ascherson, who reported on upheavals arising from clashing identities only to endorse a shrill and defensive nationalism back home.
The sizeable Scottish part of the festival has easily been dominated by writers who, arguably, have set aside an independence of spirit, preferring instead to trade in ideas that are fashionable in Nicola Sturgeon’s new political order.
The First Minister was even there herself, hosting Scotland’s new poet laureate or makar, Jackie Kay. Much was made of the poet being the victim of a racial attack over thirty years ago. There was little acknowledgement that Britain is widely recognised as a country where there is widespread racial tolerance and upward mobility for non-whites. Of course, there was no mention of anti-Englishness, which enjoys near-official sanction with Sturgeon issuing threats about a British Prime Minister daring to set foot in Scotland and the social media or cybernat wing of the party pouring anathema on the rest of the UK, often in lurid terms.
Scotland’s leading nationalist actor, Alan Cumming, has done his turn, perhaps revving up publicity in advance for his return home in July by blaming the Brexit vote on ‘stupid English people’.
The American-based performer will do anything for Scotland except live there. The same goes for the novelist Irvine Welsh, who performs at the end of the book festival.
In his 2015 novel A Decent Ride, Welsh has a character declare: ‘Scots, once again are realising that they are back at the centre of the world’. If this occurs through promoting writing that extols nationhood and identity, then this may be the surface impression. However, it is likely to be a brittle and ultimately provincial world where absorption with ‘Scottishness’ fails to be the formula to create literature that travels well. Quality Scottish work is likely to emerge more easily outside the hothouse conditions of state-sponsored cultural nationalism.
The Edinburgh literary fortnight should be an arena for the cross-fertilisation of ideas, for debate and argument about some of its main themes, ‘The Scotland we’re Shaping’ and ‘The Scotland That Shaped us’. Instead, tired themes are trundled out such as ‘Scotland’s solidarity with other ‘progressive’ and struggling peoples. This has been an idée fixe for Liz Lochhead, an earlier official poet of the nation . She has been a tenacious opponent of any Israeli performers appearing at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2014, along with the prominent novelist Alasdair Gray, she demanded the cancellation of the hip-hop show ‘The City’ unless the company from Jerusalem publicly disowned Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The show only ran for 1 performance after a mob of protesters successfully closed it down.
Scotland’s Middle East dimension was to the fore at the book festival thanks to a new volume by the SNP politician Kenny MacAskill in which he justified his 2009 release of the Libyan convicted in a Scottish court for blowing up a Pan Am jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. As minister of justice he had for eight years responsibility for the Scottish prosecution service, but his book argues that the case against the man found guilty for the act, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, is flawed (though advancing no new evidence to support this claim).
Remarkably, there is only one unequivocally pro-Union voice speaking at the book festival, 85-year-old Tam Dalyell, who is seen as a totem of the old British order.
Events have been occurring beyond the festival that reveal the angry impatience with criticism from holders of the nationalist world view. The archaeologist Neil Oliver, a popular television host of British-focused historical programmes, announced that he had decided to quit Twitter due to the intensity of the hostility he was getting from cybernats. Leading journalist David Torrance had taken the same step beforehand for identical reasons.
Last Friday, it was announced that Stephen Daisley, one of the few original talents visible on the Scottish media landscape, had been suspended from writing by Scottish television (STV) where he had been digital politics and comment editor . Daisley was unconventional because of his readiness to defend Israel and offer thoughtful views on America and because at times he criticised the pretensions of the SNP . He had been defended in the past by the author J.K. Rowling, but the broadcaster decided to silence him after coming under very public pressure from the SNP MP (and ex-BBC journalist) John Nicolson that his views were unacceptable.
Someone with more conventional views on Israel is the high-profile historian Sir Tom Devine who is being interviewed by Allan Little himself on the well-worn theme ‘Scottish identity in danger’. Last Tuesday, interviewed by a journalist from Al Jazeera, he defended the militantlly anti-Israeli followers of Celtic football club known as the Green Brigade. The next day around one hundred of these ultras distracted attention from a terrific 5-2 win for the home side in Glasgow against Hapoel Beer Sheeva (a team with Palestinian players) by waving Palestinian flags and shouting anti-Israel slogans.
Devine asserted that they were showing solidarity with what he claimed to be fellow victims of unjust rule: ‘People who are Irish nationalists will always tend to support independence movements that they believe to be based on historical justice’.
I was one of 600 people who attended the only Israeli event at this year’s festival, Shalom, a celebration of the diverse roots of Israeli culture, but this was not before running the gauntlet of a baying mob of protesters.
The Edinburgh Book and wider festival prides itself on being avant-garde and sophisticated. But it can be craven and provincial as shown by the way it trundles out well-worn themes about Scotland somehow being misunderstood, downtrodden and a victim of imperialism.
It gets substantial funding from both the Scottish Government and Edinburgh Council, run by a Labour-SNP coalition. But there are few critical encounters and genuine debates. The event is playing a major role in creating a new cultural establishment that is subservient to nationalism. In other words, doing away altogether with inter-island cultural unity and bringing closer the political partition of Britain.
Readers in the rest of the island may feel a sense of ennui about the shrivelling of a plural cultural spirit in Scotland. But I have news for them. Sometimes it is influential English politicians who promote this backward turn. Thus, last month Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who is head of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee at Westminster, swung the body behind the idea of turning the BBC 6 O’clock news into a Scottish programme separate from the rest of the UK.
It was actually fellow member John Nicolson, the very MP instrumental in silencing the freethinking Daisley, who talked him and the Tory majority into Balkanising the BBC news. Not for the first time the pro-British majority in Scotland find that it is blundering politicians in southern England who can sometimes pose the greatest danger to the Union!