Margaret Curran MP has come in for some stick in these columns for being venally closed-minded when it comes to her nationalist political opponents. Nonetheless her piece in today’s Hootsmon has much to commend it in its broad and staunch defence of the international aspect of Scottish culture. As she says, the mounting success of the Festival(s):
“is not just in the people they bring to Scotland …but in the ideas and vision that take root during plays in theatres around the city, late at night in the Fringe, or in the marquees of the Book Festival.”
On a more general approach to culture, she goes on:
“The referendum, on both sides of the debate, is about imagining a different future, and art helps us to do that. From Burns to Robert Louis Stevenson to Liz Lochead – they have all used their experiences in Scotland to say something bigger about the society we live in; things that help us to look up and out.”
Thus far, I am nodding in vigorous agreement—and imagine most of my nationalist colleagues are too. But it’s when she takes issue with Alasdair Gray’s deprecation of who dominates our arts establishment and links it with an assertion that Alex Salmond thinks that Scots “succeed if they outperform England” that we part company because both are glibly taken out of historical context. She may rightly cite that English culture is peppered with Danes, Spaniards and Welshmen—and is all the more robust for that.
But what is missing in this era of new Scottish enlightenment when the Cringe is largely a thing of the past (and the 1999 (re)opening of Parliament largely served as its unofficial funeral) is the deformation of the Scots’ national psyche by three centuries of cultural colonialism of North Britain by an English culture whose ego and self-belief knew no bounds until empire and economy collapsed during the 20th century. Only then did Scots stop beating their children for daring to speak Lallans and discover alternatives to being force-fed received BBC pronunciation in every radio and TV broadcast.
By dismissing Gray’s comments, Ms Curran rather throws the cultural baby out with her international bathwater. If the English cultural nomenklatura were dominated by Danes or Spaniards, as its Scottish equivalent has been for centuries by English, then someone in London would soon be raising the point, if only as a matter for debate. Having gone through a Scottish education system for 16 years and emerged pig ignorant about my own culture, I have spent the last four decades trying to rectify that. It’s a joy to celebrate its revival from John Burnside through 7:84 to Black Watch.
That early thin gruel left me allergic to anything to do with Scottish Country Dance music, Andy Stewart, Harry Lauder and unable to listen to Robbie Shepherd’s Take the Floor on BBC Scotland . Such limited fare was all I heard as ‘Scottish culture’ while I was growing up. It did not fill my soul. My nationalism is rooted in a violent reaction to such kailyard as all that we Scots were capable of. Epiphany for me didn’t need to be highbrow—McMillan’s music still leaves me cold—but Connolly, Taggart and Runrig did much to start filling my native cultural void.
In all of this, I imagine I was not alone.
So when Ms Curran has a go at His Eckness for measuring us against England, I fail to see her point; who else would we be likely to measure ourselves against; they are the dominant force on these islands and we have just tholed three centuries of their cultural colonialism. Because—let’s face it—the English are as culturally unaware of others as the Americans are of them, especially when it comes to distinguishing between their own interests and the welfare of mankind.
For whereas the Scots—with the exception of a tiny minority of blinkered jingoists that every country harbours—are constantly absorbing English culture, the braying backwoodsmen on Westminster benches represent a cultural myopia from which the cosier Home Counties still suffer. Ms Curran may not have discussed the Colourists or Charles Rennie while sipping a nice Amontillado apéritif in East Grinstead or Chipping Norton—but she’d mostly get blank stares and short shrift if she tried.