Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination (1314-2014)
Edinburgh University Press, 288pp, £19.99
Acts of Union and Disunion
Profile Books, 192pp, £8.99
The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum
Biteback, 384pp, £14.99
The battle has been joined and it is growing more bloody by the moment. It took the unionist establishment in London quite a long time to notice how real the prospect of Scottish independence was becoming. Now, after a fusillade of speeches, comes the heavy attack: George Osborne and Ed Balls are united in telling the Scots that they will stop them keeping the pound if Scotland goes its own way.
This is clearly a long-prepared response to so many Scots being undecided and to the rate at which, recently, those undecideds have begun to fall more into Alex Salmond’s Yes camp than the Better Together, pro-Union one. It is brutal and will feel like bullying. The Scots don’t react well to bullying, as the polls show; nevertheless, there are few things more unsettling than not knowing what currency your pensions and wages will be paid in.
Some of us have been arguing for several years that Salmond is one of the most formidable politicians in the UK and that London has been remarkably slow to wake up to the mood in Scotland in the 21st century. Things are changing but there are many “what ifs” still unresolved. If Scotland votes for independence in September what, exactly, will happen to the 2015 general election? There are no contingency plans for what to do about Trident. And suddenly a common currency across the main island of Britain is under threat.
Plenty to think about and not much time. For those willing to educate themselves quickly, however, there is now a wonderful range of books on the subject.
The most straightforwardly political and carefully researched of these is The Battle for Britain by David Torrance. The writer, a meticulous political journalist, picks his way through the echoing labyrinth of recent developments in Scotland. He devotes generous space to the questions of currency, economic performance, pensions, defence and foreign affairs. Like Iain Macwhirter’s Road to Referendum, it’s an essential primer.
Torrance is best on the detailed politics. For most of the book, he manages to do something that has become almost impossible – he maintains an impartial tone. Only at the end, when he offers two rival versions of the future, can I detect any kind of bias: he suggests that if Scotland votes to stay in the Union it will not be the end of the matter, and at the same time his vision of an independent Scotland is, by and large, a benign one. Although Torrance is Alex Salmond’s biographer, unionists can trust this book as much as nationalists can.
He is least convincing when explaining the underlying, passionate urge that has driven the rise of nationalism – the poetry, if you like, behind the policies. This is an important deficit, particularly when addressing southern Britons. On the whole, the modern English disdain nationalism. It isn’t much talked about and is largely looked down on as a dangerous perversion, fit only for foreigners and the unbalanced extreme fringes. Patriotism, in the sense of a generalised love of the land, or broad approval of the political dispensation, is still an acceptable watery substitute, though even this is draining away.
But the nationalist phenomenon is beginning to look almost as normal in the contemporary world as modern English secularism. Scotland is not unusual. From Russia and Ukraine to Egypt, China, Japan and Argentina, nationalism remains a powerful force. Even inside the EU, a project designed to send nationalism quietly to sleep, it is stirring: in the Nordic countries, and in Hungary and Bulgaria.
What are the most important aspects of nationalism that the English could do with being re-educated about? First, it is a mighty force. Its emotional power to mobilise and upend should never be underestimated. Second, it is a force that is hard to control, a political impulse notoriously unaware of its proper limitations – which is why it became unrespectable in the first place.
Even inside the SNP, there is an uneasiness about the word “nationalism”. It is not the Scottish Nationalist Party, remember; it’s the Scottish National Party. I long ago lost count of the times I’ve heard friends intending to vote Yes to independence insist, “I’m not a nationalist: I’m in favour of an independent Scotland.”
Part of Salmond’s achievement – the key, I’d say, to all he has achieved – is to have distanced the SNP from the dark nationalism of the 20th century. He has wrenched it away from its bigoted history as part of Scotland’s old anti-Catholic mindset. He has muted its rhetorical Anglophobia and loses no opportunity to laud the English as good friends and neighbours.
Salmond’s SNP makes much of its Sikh Indian, Pakistani and Polish supporters; it would be hard to imagine anything further removed from the “blood and soil” views of some of the old Nats I knew in Scotland 30 years ago. Radovan Karadzic would feel profoundly uncomfortable in the SNP.
This has allowed support for independence to move well beyond its old heartland. Some of the most vocal groups in the debate backing the Yes campaign are from what we might call civic politics: mostly left-leaning but politically uncommitted. And this has helped extend the appeal of the case for independence deep into the arts and literature. Most of Scotland’s leading writers and many of its major performers are lined up on Salmond’s side of the argument.
As the poet and academic Robert Crawford’s excellent Bannockburns, a survey of nationalist thinking across Scottish literature, makes clear, this is not an insignificant point. Poets may no longer be the world’s “unacknowledged legislators” but the cumulative impact of the literary (and cinematic) imagination on our sense of identity remains central. Scots can turn to their formidable national poet Liz Lochhead, or the novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. In Kathleen Jamie, they have one of the sharpest poets and essayists writing in Britain; in James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still, they have a novel of ideas about the struggle for independence.
If you want to understand, in a single volume, the emotional energy behind this year’s drama, go first to Robertson. He has the cadences of Scotland’s greatest 20th-century novelist, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, welded to a panoramic understanding of British politics and history. Among contemporary Scottish writers, his is the most ambitious intervention.
Most of the leading names of the past century were on the pro-independence side: Gibbon; Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s first modern national poet; the Highland novelist Neil Gunn; and, towering over all, Hugh MacDiarmid – communist, fascist and Anglophobe but also one of the most formidable geniuses of modernism.
Of the SNP’s founders, MacDiarmid is the one about whom the party feels least comfortable talking. Yet his power is that he never lost sight of the proposition that nationalism must be “for” something. The answers MacDiarmid gives may seem profoundly out of date in the 21st century but the questions he poses are not. The SNP, however much it emphasises equality, neighbourliness and moderation, poses classic nationalist questions. There seems little point in asserting an independent national community if it is going to mimic all the other national communities clustered around it. The point of independence is surely to do something different.
In the collection of essays Acts of Union and Disunion, Linda Colley gives us many historical and geographical reasons to question the present British status quo. We talk about Britain being “the island nation”; but did you know that our archipelago is made up of more than 6,000 islands? You knew that England accounts for the lion’s share of the UK population; did you know that its numbers had grown hugely over the past few centuries? In 1801, 54 per cent of the UK’s population lived in England; now, it contains over 53 million people, more than five times the total number of inhabitants of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. “This growing demographic disparity,” Colley explains, “is one reason why support for Welsh and Scottish devolution or independence has increased.”
Her most powerful writing is about the distinctions and divisions inside England: “England is bottom-heavy. In wealth, status, power, population, and in key cultural terms, it is heavily weighted towards the south. The prime archbishopric of the Church of England is in Canterbury in Kent. Traditionally, the most prestigious English universities have been Oxford and Cambridge. British army officers are trained at Sandhurst in Surrey, while their naval counterparts train at Dartmouth in Devon. Then, of course, there is London . . . a pathological swelling on the face of the nation.”
Whereas, seen from Scotland, England can appear an enormous undifferentiated mass, the great cities of the north of England (and, indeed, their landscape) are much closer in terms of experience to the cities of Scotland than they are to London or to the tellingly titled “Home Counties”. This has a direct relevance to the earlier question: what is independence for?
The people of Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle – never mind Birmingham and Manchester – in general have voted for the post-1945 Labour welfare settlement more consistently than the Scots have done. The fundamental challenge Salmond throws down to the London establishment is to ask whether, by voting through Westminster, social-democratic Scots can ever get a government of which they approve. It’s a good question, as Labour struggles in the polls. Yet the same question faces swaths of England. There is no great gulf of values separating Liverpool from Dundee, or Leeds from Lanarkshire.
My only criticism of Crawford’s book is that by defining the Scottish question from medieval times onwards as overwhelmingly one of “freedom”, he risks underestimating the importance of more conventional politics – the “for what?” – in all of this. Is national freedom for peasants in the Middle Ages, tied to their feudal superiors, in any way relevant to the modern condition? Freedom is clearly a good thing; but it is only a starting point. It is the lever for change, the entrance gate to a different society.
Crawford shows how, again and again, two medieval epics – John Barbour’s Brus and Blind Harry’s Wallace – were reprinted and subtly diluted until Wallace became a bland representative of British liberties, celebrated by the Victorian boys’ novelist G A Henty. Yet in the earlier accounts when the commoner Wallace confronts the aristocrat Bruce and berates him for betraying Scotland because, in essence, he prefers his own Anglo-Normans to his fellow Scots, there is already a class element to the story, even a proto-republican one.
So questions of class (or “fairness”, as we now call it) cannot be avoided. Crawford’s great scoop is the influence of James H Whyte – the American enthusiast for Scottish nationalism who edited the magazine The Modern Scot in the 1930s – in creating a more modern, pluralist version of nationalism opposed to his friend MacDiarmid’s national Marxism, and thus indirectly influencing Alex Salmond and today’s SNP. Alasdair Gray, misunderstood over his “settlers and colonists” remarks (distinguishing between the positive and negative contributions of English people living in Scotland), follows in the pluralist Whyte tradition; so do websites such as Bella Caledonia.
And so we have this new nationalism: well behaved, impeccably monarchist, politically correct and eager, always, to please. It’s a social-democratic, Borgen nationalism of a kind that would have had MacDiarmid spitting tacks.
What Scots are going to have to decide in September is whether this milky alternative is worth the risk of legal separation from the rest of the UK. It’s a big question that just now seems to be collapsing into a welter of competing scare stories. Whose national indebtedness is the scarier? Which is more likely to be controlled by monster-sized banks, Edinburgh or London?
And yet, in fact, everything is driven by national consciousness. It can’t be dodged. Not this year. I named some of the writers who have thrown themselves into celebrating Scottishness. But where are the alternative celebrants for Britishness? Who are the great poets, novelists and thinkers reviving the Union? All I see is a yawning gap. There are postmodern metropolitan writers describing the multi-ethnic experience you get in London. And the beginnings, perhaps, of a Northern Renaissance – Simon Armitage, Philip Hensher.
But Britishness itself? Where would it even start, geographically or imaginatively? Linda Colley, like others, proposes an English parliament and a written constitution, but we are talking of a deeper and livelier sense of identity than that. Are the British generations left with nothing more than yet another celebratory programme about the First World War? Institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy and even the BBC have already been reimagined for Scottish circumstances, so they won’t do. Like many others, I was much moved by the opening ceremony for the London Olympics but it was, in its 1945-welfarist way, as nostalgic as any kilted Bannockburn gathering.
In 19th-century Britain the urge to explain and define Britishness (and, to an extent, Englishness) was almost uncontainable, from Tennyson and Kipling to H G Wells and the libertarian suffragettes. The 20th-century wars produced an upsurge in what we might call emergency nationalism, in which writers, artists and film-makers co-operated. The English patriotic consciousness of J B Priestley, Low, Ealing Studios and John Piper seems, from this distance, the last chorus of that “auld sang”. South of the Tweed, people have been insouciant about the power of nationalism for too long; they may be running out of time.
Scots who have the vote this September will be thinking about economics, individual leaders, welfare payments and security – but they will be thinking also, inevitably, about what nationalism means at the start of this new century. Around Europe, there are once again plenty of bad answers being given to that conundrum. The Scots, however they vote, have been looking for better solutions. Kathleen Jamie was chosen as the winning poet in a competition to celebrate the Battle of Bannockburn. Her poem, which Crawford refers to but does not quote, is the most inclusive and least threatening answer to the challenges of identity politics I have ever come across.
It begins by celebrating “our land”, which belongs “to none but itself” and in which the Scots “are mere transients . . . Small folk playing our part”. It ends:
“Come all ye”, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.
It’s hard to imagine anything more opposed to the “wha’s like us?” jingoism of an earlier Scottish nationalism. Those English who see what’s happening north of the border as nothing but greedy, welfare-state-driven chippiness need to look further.