We don’t need more Scots in the arts, we need new Scots

How did you mark Wallace Day?

Yes, there’s an annual celebration of Elderslie’s favourite son and it took place over the weekend.

While you were trudging through the aisles of IKEA or more happily marching at Pride, people with full-body tattoos of Robert Burns sat in Hope over Fear T-shirts watching Braveheart for the 879th time and tearfully belting out Scots Wha Hae.

If it strikes you as odd that we have a day of rejoicing for someone who slaughtered thousands of soldiers from a country we are now in a union with, remember that certain states of the American Deep South still mark Robert E Lee Day.

The cult of William Wallace is mostly harmless tea-towelry for tourists but it also functions as a cover for Anglophobia, a blood-soaked warrior who died 700 years ago serving as a romantic touchstone in the prosaic margin-tinkering of 21st century Scottish politics.

So accommodated are we to the optimistic and outward-looking politics of Nicola Sturgeon that we can sometimes forget the narrow, insular nationalism that still stalks the undergrowth.

We got a reminder this week from Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s makar or poet laureate. She told an arts magazine: “I think it’s a great pity that there’s a shortage of Scottish people working in the National Theatre of Scotland. It’s just a shame, you know. I’ve nothing against any of the people that do work there. I just wish there were some more Scots, some more people with a Scottish theatrical culture.”

The artistic director of the NTS, Laurie Sansom, was born in England as was his predecessor Vicky Featherstone.

For Lochhead, the answer to what ails Scotland’s cultural institutions lies in nationality. The NTS doesn’t just need more resources or more staff or more creative excellence. It wouldn’t be enough for it to be bolder or more radical or to take more risks. It needs mair o’ wir ain. Native-born Scots, the assumption runs, have access to essential cultural knowledge to which the outsider is not privy.

Were a prominent English writer and vocal supporter of the Conservative Party to call for more English people in England’s cultural institutions, no one can doubt what the response would be. But Lochhead is a card-carrying member of the SNP, whose decision to join the governing party while serving in her public role was defended by Alex Salmond. Now the usual suspects have leapt to her aid and diagnosed “self-loathing” in those vexed by her remarks.

The echo of an earlier episode of cultural chauvinism reverberates. In 2012, that narrow glade of the political landscape known as Liberal Scotland tut-tutted at Alasdair Gray’s crude national distinctions in his essay ‘Settlers and Colonists’. He detected two kinds of English “invader” of Scotland: The “settlers” who integrate and accept the hyphen and the “colonists” who “look forward to a future back in England through promotion or by retirement”.

But the most troublesome part of his thesis was not his separation of the sheep from the goats; what remains of Anglophobia in Scotland is low-level and deprived of political power. More deserving of our concern was his pronouncement that “these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people”.

Confidence in their own land and people.

There are, pace those with “Saor Alba” in their Twitter profiles, many ways to be patriotic about Scotland. Lochhead’s and Gray’s exclusivist regard is small and mean and unSturgeon but in continuity with the nationalist tradition of old. “The rose of all the world is not for me,” wrote MacDiarmid, himself not averse to ethnic nationalism of the Caledonian or continental varieties. “I want for my part/ Only the little white rose of Scotland/ That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.” Shared histories and fluid identities, a globalised economy where labour crosses borders billions of times a day, the creeping impossibility of parameters physical and cultural — these are the inheritances of liberalism and they are anathema to those who long for the familiar geometry of their own rose garden.

Something has always stuck with me. Something a uni mate — James, Manc, could never quite decide if he was fit or not — said to me. It would have been late 2006 or early 2007 and the SNP was heading for its first ever victory in a Holyrood election. I used to go through political phases something terrible and I was smack-bang in the middle of my Alex-Salmond-is-the-best-thing-since-fried-bread turn.

“The difference between England and Scotland,” James pronounced, whipping the bait down at my feet, “is that we don’t vote for our nationalist party.” Stupidly, I would bite more often than not and rebut the notion that the SNP was that kind of party. And besides, in some former Labour heartlands outside London and in the north, the BNP was doing quite well with the white working class at that point.

Since then the SNP has become even less susceptible to ethnic nationalism, with an influx of former Labour voters many of whom think Siol nan Gaidheal is a Gaelic railway sign. Scratch a Scottish nationalist in 2015 and most of the time you’ll find a political sovereigntist; someone who believes in the democratic principle that government should represent the people and the votes cast.

But sometimes — not often, sometimes — when you scratch a Scottish nationalist you find something more troubling. This usually begins with talk of “culture”, “pride” and the national “we” and ends in the practised resentment of the perpetually aggrieved. Ethnic nationalism is vividly problematic but its Hillhead cousin cultural nationalism is more insidious. It says the country is threatened from within. We are on our knees, serfs before the dominant British (read: English) culture. If only we had more confidence in our own land and people.

The cultural nationalist has a loud, and more often than not, subsidised voice but they are few in number and diminishing. Three important voices rejected Liz Lochhead’s comments last week. The Scottish Government told the Herald: “Liz Lochhead is entitled to her own opinion but is it not one we share.” Pat Kane flourished, as only he can, about “Scots in the world, and Scots with the world inside them.” We identify our cultural allies, counselled Joyce McMillan, “not by looking at their birth certificates, but by experiencing their work”. Are Kane and McMillan, two of our most clarion voices for cultural exploration, “self-loathing”? Is the Scottish Government?

Scotland is not England and increasingly it is not Britain either. We have our own story to tell but it is one that intertwines with the stories of people across borders and continents. Our narration is far from omniscient. The Scottish psyches — those who think there is just one should reread their Stevenson, Hogg and Spark — are no more indecipherable to someone born in Watford than they are to someone born in West Kilbride. Indeed, the perspective of the incomer can yield interpretations too distant or too obvious for us to grasp. As others see us, and all that.

One of the under-acknowledged benefits independence offers is an influx of new people and new stories. Scottish culture is a mongrel beast, a never-quite-reconciled tension between the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxon. Asian and east European influences will soon be as intrinsic to our cultural topography as the path cut by the Irish Catholic immigrants. Independence will bring fresh flavours, to mix and blend and clash, and we will still be Scotland but we’ll be something bigger yet. We will have all the roses of the world, not just our own pallid flower.

Scottish culture needs more Scots but those it needs have yet to set foot on our shores.

Originally published on STV News

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