Scotland’s Literature and Scottish Independence

Last Saturday, in its Review section, the Guardian printed the views of a few Scottish writers on the Scottish Independence Referendum taking place on September 18th this year. Most of them seemd in favour of splitting from the UK.

Alan Warner, while in favour of a “yes” himself, pondered on the implications of a “no” vote. Think on this: if there was a no vote, has there ever been another European country where a “progressive” – and to use two pompous words – “intelligentsia”, has united in a liberation movement, yet the majority has finally voted against the aspirations of this movement? With a no vote, a savage division will suddenly exist between the values of most of our writing – past and present – and the majority of our people.

Leaving aside the question of whether inclining to yes is necessarily progressive does he have a point? While the tradition of the country has been to strive towards literacy it is undoubtedly true that reading has declined in my lifetime – as it has elsewhere in the UK, and beyond. Many Scots nowadays do not read and – as Warner himself acknowledges – probably don’t care that those who cater for those who do are “progressive” and favour yes.

But does it necessarily follow that a no vote will negate the whole Scottish literature “project”? Warner sees independence as a liberation from the internal war in the Scottish psyche that has raged since the Act of Union. (I presume he means being on the one hand Scottish but with no institutional focus for that identity and on the other not “really” being British as by sheer force of numbers English attitudes/attributes overwhelm all others in the UK.)

Might it be, though, that it was precisely that lack of institutional focus that fuelled Scottish literature? That, in the absence of a country to call their own, Scottish writers clung ferociously to what they saw as their distinctiveness? Would that same imperative not still apply in the event of a no? Might it even become more important?

It is at this point that the promises of the no campaign are relevant. All three main UK parties say that Scotland’s Parliament will be granted greater powers in that event. (Those of us with memories of the 1979 devolution referendum might greet that with a hollow laugh.) Even in the minds of younger voters these powers can by no means be guaranteed. There hasn’t been a Bill to enact them. Even if there had it is an established tenet of the informal UK (lack of) constitution that no parliament can bind its successor. Consider the return of a Conservative Government in the General Election of May 2015. Can we seriously believe they will cede power away from themselves? Will Scotland’s relative insulation from the creeping privatisation of the NHS and the dismantling of the education system down south survive a no vote? Even under a Labour Government the Barnett Formula (under which Scotland is granted a slightly higher sum per head of monies from the UK Treasury than elsewhere in the UK – but this takes no account of government spending on things like defence and procurement) will most likely be abandoned. Hard(er) times may be ahead – as, of course, they may be if the vote is yes.

Later in that same Guardian Review in a companion piece (the website contains an extension compared to the printed version) Colin Kidd reflected on the link between literature and nationalism in Scotland stating that for the first two hundred years of its existence the union was unquestioned and largely uncontroversial. [If that was so might it have been due to the fact that any questioning was beside the point? Until universal adult suffrage – which, don’t forget, did not arrive until less than one hundred years ago – what mechanism existed to attempt to alter the union? (Apart from rebellion; and that option didn’t work out too well for the rebels.) Efforts to change things were understandably channelled into extending the franchise.]

Kidd also says the great unionist novel doesn’t exist but he adds Nor, surprisingly, has a lost nationhood been the dominant subject of the modern Scottish novel. The morbid excesses of Calvinism provided a far more meaty bone to gnaw, from Scott’s Old Mortality and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the early 19th century to James Robertson’s ingenious updating of these themes in The Fanatic (2000) and The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006).

I haven’t read Old Mortality but the others I have and they certainly do address nationality; in Hogg’s case prototypically so (and I might add bang in Kidd’s “unquestioned” period.) As I wrote to the Guardian once before and I alluded to above; what struck me on reading his Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the early 1990s was the doppelgänger concept as a metaphor for the Scots psyche. Probably since the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 that creature has not known what precisely it should be, neither wholly Scots, since the country lacked an institutional focus, nor indeed British, notwithstanding the attachment some Scots may have felt to the Union – Britishness was to a large extent hijacked by the overwhelming bulk of England and English concerns in the so-called United Kingdom.

This crisis of dual identity was of course memorably explored by another Scotsman, Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the tradition of doppelgänger literature still looms large in Scottish writing.

I suspect a no vote (which is the most likely outcome as I write) will see that fissure in the Scots psyche sustained, if not exacerbated.

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