I had been hoping to back off on the politics for the festive season, get out the mulled wine, wish everyone whether nationalist or unionist, flat-earther or chelsea tractor pilot alike good cheer for the festive season, and revel in the warmth and humanity of the season. I had even decamped to England where they ‘do’ Christmas rather better than we Scots in terms of both public and private festive warmth. But ’twas not to be.
Because, the Torygraph has a piece from Jenny Hjul that rubbed me up the wrong way because it rolls out some hoary old chestnuts around the discussion triggered by Alasdair Gray. Now Jenny—or anyone else—is entitled to their opinions. And, as someone who lives in the capital and earlier used to contribute regularly to the Hootsmon, hers is an articulate voice worth considering, despite the fact that most of what she wrote had me spluttering cornflakes before para 3.
Alasdair Gray is, as Jenny observes, a member of “the cantankerous old guard” and, in my opinion, long may he remain so. He has earned his place in that Scottish firmament just as Ken Clarke, Dennis Skinner, Margaret Thatcher and Alf Garnet qualif for the English equivalent. Actually, what he is saying, IS pretty cantankerous—but also drags points into the limelight that deserve debate.
To categorise English people who take up senior arts posts in Scotland as either ‘settlers’ or ‘colonials’ does approach the boundary of racism. Professor Tom Devine, a cultural heavyweight with whom I do not lightly cross swords, thunders in the Herald: “I think Mr Gray shows a disgraceful attitude. We have got to remember that the current Scottish population is so vibrant because of the English factor.” Ian Dean Burns and Hannah McGill both appeared on Scotland Tonight ill at ease taking an icon like Gray to task but nonetheless agreeing he’d gone too far.
But what is his reprehensible act? Gray, making the comments in an essay in a book called Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence, has said this row leaves him mystified. He distinguishes the settler from the colonial by describing the former as those who come here, absorb Scottish culture and go on to make a life here, whereas the latter simply use whatever stint they serve as a stepping stone on their career and soon move back to England.
Unfortunately for Alasdair, that latter pattern is common among more than just senior art administrators and futile to avoid, except at job interview stage. He singles out Vicky Featherstone as being guilty of that after eight years here—a judgement I find severe, given what she did with Black Watch, a seminal Scottish play. In international terms, the Traverse carries more creative cachet than Dublin’s Abbey, so we are not in agreement on that either.
But the furore about provincialism and racism thus created has obscured some significant points, most especially the ‘nasty nat’ overtone so rampant in Jenny Hjul’s piece. There are estimated to be over 400,000 first-generation English ‘settlers’ now domiciled in Scotland and I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t regard them as generally welcome.
As with most people who move seeking the prospect of a better life, ‘settlers’ tend to exhibit gumption, which does not always go down well with all locals. I witnessed this with Gastarbeiter in Germany and immigrants in the States; a small section of the population—usually the less successful—resents outsiders ‘taking their jobs’. But most people in Scotland are simply curious about outsiders and open to new ideas that they bring. I certainly believe that to have been the case in the arts.
What I think Gray was raising as a question was twofold: how many ‘colonials’ are simply job-bagging for their CV and to what extent are such people excluding local talent from jobs they could have filled. The number of senior posts in the arts filled by non-Scots in Scotland certainly validates such a question being asked, even if it in no way justifies any kind of witch-hunt of non-natives.
Gray’s ‘colonial’ phenomenon is palpable in many aspects of Scottish life outside of the arts. Whereas the relatively canny banking culture displayed formerly by RBS and BoS brought an almost Swiss reputation for reliability to Scottish bankers, the piratical irresponsibility of Fred the Shred and fellow Halifax colonials who exploited and then trashed that hard-won reputation has caused immense damage.
Look at any up-market housing development across our Central Belt. For the many families making friends to share the excellent quality of life here in Scotland and whose children will be indistinguishable from any old guard’s sprogs, there are always a few up here promoted to some corporate stepping stone who shield their children in private school, rail against the weather and the distance to London and are relieved to move back south on a further promotion within a matter of months.
We must see past the poorly phrased argument that Gray made to understand any terms of debate how we develop our own arts management talent to compete on the world stage for posts anywhere—not just in Scotland. We must also examine the extent to which we tolerate the kind of carpetbagger to whom a posting to Scotland is seen as exile—to be tolerated and in no way a positive cultural opportunity.
So when Jenny Hjul and Tom Devine—both, I am sure, convinced of their objectivity in this debate—see “disgraceful anti-Englishness” or echoes of repressive apartheid in this, hauling out the old chestnuts of ‘nasty nats’ and quoting racist incidents against the English, it cannot go unchallenged. Though much was made of supposed statistics showing increased racism this flies in the face of recent experience and was debunked by the Scottish Government.
More important is to deflate this straw man of an entire phalanx of ‘nasty nats’ out there. Eejits exist in all camps; few are under control. In my challenge to the many negative and simplistic arguments put forward by unionists, I may qualify as a ‘nasty nat’ myself—I have been blocked on Twitter by Tom Harris MP, whom I hold in high regard. But, along with the great bulk of fellow nationalists on social media, I have been as courteous as I have been robust, swallowed a couple of deserved portions of humble pie and treated arguments with which I had little sympathy as much with good humour as with scorn.
Many of us grow tired of NOT being racist—of presenting what we believe to be solid arguments why Scotland as an independent country is both a normal and a desirable state of affairs—and being pilloried as one anyway. But we want an open discussion—with all scots, regardless of origin. The sole qualification is residence here. And, though there is clearly no way to enforce such a thing, a committed permanence to that residency would seem a stronger endorsement of right to participate. For the avoidance of doubt, all those mentioned above qualify.
But Alasdair Gray’s key point—that there are career carpetbaggers among us and we might wish to consider what effect that is having on the development of native talent—is worthy of discussion without descending into anglophobia or scaremongering about any renewed Settler Watch. The Scottish culture scene is indeed robust, in a manner not seen in centuries; the English among us are making key contributions to that.
But one thing is clear to me: if London’s arts establishment were as dominated by Americans as ours is by the English, questions very like that raised by Gray would have long since raised heated debate. It is not racist to query people’s commitment to this country’s arts. And, since no Poles, Pakistanis or Italians head our arts establishments, it would be disingenuous not to couch the question in terms of the English, who do.
But if, instead of presuming divisive intention, we could now move on to discussing just how different our arts management is here (c.f. the Abbey in Eire), then we might bring something both useful and positive to this debate.