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12 March 2022

The politics of Scotland’s bookishness

The country’s official embrace of literature reveals much about its comfortably stuck political culture, cosily immured from an increasingly illiberal world.

By Scott Hames

Nicola Sturgeon loves books. It says so on her Twitter bio, with her picture against a wall of colourful hardbacks. It could be an upmarket bookshop, but it’s actually the First Minister’s home library, easily recognised from newspaper profiles and internet sleuthing. (Scottish authors have been known to squint at these shelves in search of their own names.) It’s hard to recall a leading politician whose personal brand is more strongly invested in bookishness and reading. I don’t mean the consumption of books, but reading in its most mindful and exalted form. This tasteful pastime is about the enriching qualities of literary experience, quite different from the image of Gordon Brown devouring information (and then churning out books of his own). Sturgeon’s kind of reading represents moral attentiveness and curiosity, the tact and connection of the evening book group, and has nothing to do with facts or phrase-making. The current UK government has a number of crowd-pleasing authors on the front bench, but none would look half as comfortable discussing poetry at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, or interviewing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The virtues of reading are also key to the government Sturgeon leads. There is a First Minister’s reading challenge, a nationwide project to “develop reading cultures” and encourage reading for pleasure. The signature social policy of Sturgeon’s government, the “baby box” introduced in 2017, presents every newborn in Scotland with a free crate of “essential items, such as clothes, nappies and books”. Bundled in with the stories, muslins and footed leggings is a specially commissioned poem by Scotland’s then Makar (or national poet), Jackie Kay. With more than 200,000 boxes now delivered to new parents, “Welcome Wee One” is probably the most widely read Scottish poem published this century. Kay also wrote a lyric to celebrate the opening of the new Queensferry Crossing, a gleaming bridge over the Firth of Forth. Whether steel or cotton-based, weaving poetry through these forward-looking infrastructures is an apt symbol for Sturgeon’s progressive vision.

Being governed by an Ali Smith fanatic is nothing to grumble about. It’s depressing to compare the ruling passions of other national leaders, or indeed the place of literature in public life. There is an “unprecedented surge of book bans” sweeping across school libraries in the US, with classic works by Toni Morrison and Harper Lee suppressed in “an assault on student reading”, according to the Times. Texts exploring racial justice and gender identity are a prime target: in Hungary, the Viktor Orbán regime actively suppresses LGBTQ-themed books, imposing restrictions on where and how they may be sold. In the UK, too, the “creep of far-right rhetoric and conspiracy theories into mainstream politics” is well advanced, and university English departments field regular media enquiries chasing phantoms of woke madness. (No, Shakespeare has not been cancelled.) A Yale professor recently went on television to explain why books are good, “refreshing our minds and allowing us to be citizens”, and not a threat to American national cohesion. The need for such homilies tells a grim story of its own. Against this backdrop it’s easy to feel smug about Scotland’s enlightened literary scene, a sturdy shield against culture war rather than its battlefield. As Britain’s columnist-in-chief entered the sewer of Jimmy Savile smears, Scotland’s most coveted blurb-writer posted a glowing appreciation of the new Douglas Stuart novel.

Drawing these comparisons from inside Scotland’s bookish bubble feels a bit like an outdoor hot tub in winter, marvelling at the icy darkness while impervious to the storm. This sense of cosy apartness goes to the heart of the nation’s political culture, and tells us something about the role of literature – or at least the image of literature – in maintaining a comfortable temperature. This is not a critique of the First Minister’s bookishness or book-related policies, but an exploration of their political meaning in adverse conditions. The prominence of its book culture can tell us a great deal about Scotland’s untimely high liberalism, and its future in an increasingly illiberal world. Under the tasteful digital PR, Scotland’s cosmopolitan self-image embodies a set of mid-20th century dreams whose lustre has been artificially protected by devolution – the set of governing arrangements Sturgeon has pledged to end.

[See also: Who speaks for Scotland?]

If we revisit the growth of self-government that made Makars and baby boxes possible, we find that the nurturing social democracy Sturgeon stands for is the result less of Scottish progress than British conservation. As Neal Ascherson has observed, since 1999 devolution has allowed Holyrood administrations, both unionist and nationalist, to “barricade the welfare state – higher education, free social care and the Scottish National Health Service above all – against the tide… washing away the British postwar social settlement south of the border”. Holyrood’s nationalist government is the inheritor of pre-Thatcher Britain’s most progressive impulses and its accompanying rhetoric of transformation. The work of David Edgerton highlights how the UK’s post-1945 “developmental state” focused its vast powers on “building a new national future”, with a completely revamped economic and social model.

Scottish nostalgia for this sweeping futurism is a slippery presence in nationalist thought. Ben Jackson shows how left-wing Scottish nationalism effectively incorporated “the romance of the British Labour tradition” in the 1970s and 1980s, above all in the work of the novelist William McIlvanney. We find clear echoes of this complex at SNP conference today, with soaring pledges to end child poverty, vanquish educational inequality and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 (five years ahead of England). But within the open-ended dynamic of devolution, these big-ticket promises are more about aspiration than delivery, inviting voters to travel hopefully on the indefinite journey towards independence. Lacking the muscle (or borrowing powers) of Whitehall, the Scottish government uses image and ethos to conjure a future it mostly can’t actualise. We are closer here to “cultural development” than the heavy lifting of the developmental state. Progress is measured by cultivating the right values and humane capacities: not change itself but the desire to dream well. It’s an attitude embodied by the novelist Alasdair Gray’s stirring 1980s devolutionary credo, “work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation”. No slogan has been more influential on Scotland’s bookworm governing elite, but this optimistic vision is strongly coloured by Gray’s own fond memories of the early welfare state, all free spectacles and orange juice. The author of Lanark was a committed nationalist but his hopes for Scotland often reflect his own experience of a British social democratic dream made real.

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Not all of Scotland’s favoured imaginings are its own. The First Minister’s official residence directly overlooks Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, the traditional home of Scotland’s largest book festival, just down the street from the headquarters of the national kirk. New Town bibliomania chimes with Presbyterian notions of Scotland as a people of the book, a nation of universities and mass literacy that is miles ahead of England. But its vocabulary of hope draws less from the national tradition than from postwar internationalism, and lofty schemes to globalise the freedoms and dignities of liberal democracy. The Canadian literary scholar Sarah Brouillette has examined the rise and fall of this dream in her study Unesco and the Fate of the Literary (2019). Brouillette shows how postwar cultural planners “conscripted literature into the project of supporting liberal cosmopolitanism”, viewing translation and the encouragement of national literary expression in former colonies as a contribution to securing world peace. This is the very apex of high-liberal cultural policy, conceived on a global scale, but if we fast-forward through the neoliberal age, today Unesco “largely treats high literature as a commercially self-sustaining leisure product for wealthy, aging publics and unlikely to do much for people living in impoverished conditions”. Its developmental value is now mostly about literary tourism and the monetisation of iconic authors such as Shakespeare, Goethe and Robert Burns.

Hovering between these visions we find Scotland’s official bookishness today: an image of affluent concern, prizing literary experience as a pleasurable investment in one’s own moral and imaginative growth. The French Marxist critics Étienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey describe these literary mores “as a bourgeois sociolect, through which those in positions of relative power seek to justify their status” by claiming a superior humanistic insight. But the decayed material supports of this sociolect – state spending on the supporting infrastructures of an enlightened public sphere – “leave literature with a far less assured place” in transmitting cosmopolitan values. This whole conception of literary value will struggle to survive neoliberalism, Brouillette argues, and is “likely to continue to crumble along with its key foundations: a robust system of higher education and liberal democracy”.

But lucky Scotland occupies an exceptional niche in this system, a haven of social democracy umbilically attached to a world leader in neoliberal austerity, sharing in the spoils of international money laundering. And in the warm bath of devolved Scotland, the value ascribed to higher education and liberal democracy has never been higher, more hopeful, or more “national”. This is partly the consequence of SNP priorities (above all, free university), but also reflects the central position of cultural policy in earlier devolved administrations. In 2003 – a year before appointing Edwin Morgan, the nation’s first Makar – the Labour-Liberal Democrat executive led by Jack McConnell declared its ambition to “place culture at the heart of government”, including an “express requirement that all government departments consider how cultural activity can help them meet their aims”.

[See also: Why Scottish nationalism is simultaneously safe and stuck]

But this was a perilous promotion, and the literary critic Cairns Craig presciently noted “the threat of a culture of compliance” as the Holyrood government moved towards incorporating arts policy into wider strategic aims, thus devaluing cultural functions “of critique, of opposition, of refusal, of challenge… The arts, it seems, produce only harmony and inclusiveness.” Would the disputatious arts sector, held to blaze the trail for Scottish political autonomy, now find itself dominated by home-grown governmentality? In 2005, an independent cultural commission recommended a cross-cutting focus in which all branches of government took an active role in supporting Scottish culture and leveraging its value in their own areas of responsibility. Much of this architecture remains intact under SNP administrations (2007-present): arts funding gained political traction and “profile” while losing a degree of autonomy, and the result has been an awkward convergence of cultural and political management, magnified by the overlapping elite networks of a small country.

It is sometimes hard to distinguish the vitality of Scotland’s literary culture from the priorities of its dominant party. In the pre-devolution heyday of James Kelman, Janice Galloway and Irvine Welsh, Scottish writers were often presented as the shock troops of a silenced polity: sharp, tetchy, unclubbable. In 1996, the New York Times Magazine cooed over “The Beats of Edinburgh”, reporting that “in Scotland, writing is a form of protest by the alienated, a subversive act”. Today, Scotland’s literary culture has almost the opposite valence: a team effort in compassionate capacity-building, in which writers and government share the same grant-funded priorities. It gets boring, but there’s nothing sinister in the slack promotion of kindness, and it’s not surprising that poets and novelists seldom bridle. Viewed in bookish terms, the ruling party aims to strengthen the salutary values of prize-bait literary fiction: empathy, inclusion and respect for otherness. The aim is to prefigure the sort of caring, idealistic society worthy of the struggle for independence, and projected as its outcome.

At times it feels as if the whole ethos and terrain of “the literary” has been incorporated into the nation’s official PR, and there are few signs of dissent. Some argue – especially on the unionist side of Scottish politics – that the cultural sector has been “captured” by cuddly nationalism. But it’s more the case that hegemonic Scottish nationalism has come to articulate itself as culture, an enterprise of imagined harmonies and self-actualisation. Projecting the First Minister as the peer of Booker Prize-winners hints at the realisation of the nation’s own creative potential for open-hearted prosperity and international esteem. Here “culture” operates as the “domain of reconciliation”, in which the nation’s inner conflicts can be finessed into manageable accord, preparing the “consensual ground for the state form of representative democracy”, as David Lloyd and Paul Thomas put it in Culture and the State (1998). Where statehood is still an aspiration, we might expect to find a particular emphasis on growing the nation’s capacity to absorb its own social frictions, perhaps with a calming hour at the local book festival.

Viewed in a longer historical perspective, Scotland is adapting Victorian book-religion for the age of government-by-caring-vibes. In a period of faltering religious faith, Matthew Arnold constructed the school subject of English literature as a unifying national creed, refining middle-class taste while quelling social unrest. The study of literature must “save our souls and heal the State”, wrote one Oxford professor of this newfangled subject. Serious reading would also make for good liberal subjects, writes Terry Eagleton in his critique of this faith, to “rehearse the masses in the habits of pluralistic thought and feeling, persuading them to acknowledge that more than one viewpoint than theirs existed”. If this was a defensive endeavour in Victorian Britain, a patch-up job as the dawn of mass democracy threatened to tear the social fabric, Scotland’s version is powered by hope rather than fear – or a hope that pushes fear outside and away. Many of Edinburgh’s leisured book-launch attenders look forward to independence as a cosmopolitan European state, while shutting out of their minds (and national identity) the howling winds of populist derangement all around them. These are as richly evident in Scottish Facebook groups as English or American ones, and growing in strength on the reactionary fringe of the independence movement. Official bookishness hints not only at what Scottish nationalism is aiming for, but what it instinctively turns away from.

As its leading icon, Sturgeon embodies the “idealisation of literature as a potent site of noncommercial humanistic social formation”, as Brouillette puts it, neatly highlighting the overlap between the SNP’s governing ethos and last century’s arguments for why books are good for you. Notions of class are inseparable from cultural distinction, but Sturgeon’s evolving image shows the transmutation of nationalism from its 1980s alignment with anti-Thatcherism and class protest to a repertoire of high-liberal virtues – notionally classless and anchored “above” the field of social conflict. This is close to the antithesis of William McIlvanney’s sense of Scottishness, but the performance of these dignities can be dramatically compelling. Their shining moment came in last year’s Scottish election campaign, with the resplendent First Minister facing down a London street fascist and confidently declaring “you are a racist, and the Southside of Glasgow will reject you”. I cheered the viral video like everyone else, but it was a discomfiting encounter with what devolved politics usually excludes, or rather brackets aside as someone else’s problem.

Scotland’s endless constitutional debate has maintained lofty democratic ideals at the centre of our cultural politics, and inflated the moral grandeur of liberal cosmopolitanism in the period of its decline. But it’s not easy to see how that cosy and confident inner realm will find amenable “outside” conditions in which to grow, develop and sustain itself in the darkening 21st century. The nation’s introverted high-culture feels profoundly but rather comfortably stuck, and its literary scene carries an aura of exhausted optimism rather than early-days risk taking. To actually achieve independence, severing the structures through which it has effectively expanded and preserved British social democracy, Scotland and its artists will need to confront the deepening illiberalism of the environment in which cosmopolitan mantras are actually tested. It’s only outside the hot tub of devolution that better nationhood would find its meaning and its limits.

Scott Hames is the author of “The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation” (2019).

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