The Tartan Straitjacket

May 3, 2015 at 5:01 pm (Rosie B, scotland)

I can’t say I’ve been keeping much of an eye on Scottish culture and if the outward looking artists she’s talking about are J K Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith she’s talking popularity rather than quality, but I found this article by Gillian Browditch interesting. The whole National Collective project, when a bunch of artists got together to call for independence so at the same time they could be against the establishment (Westminster) while doing the work of another establishment (SNP’s Holyrood) did strike me as a little bizarre.

I do note the writers that really did make their mark on the world stage – Boswell, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, John Buchan even, Spark – left Scotland and wrote about other places and for other places as well as their homeland. The exception is Walter Scott, who really invented Scotland for Europe, and as well as being a pioneer in Scottish folk studies was also a convinced Unionist from his home in the Borders.

Narrow cultural focus will tie us all in a tartan straitjacket

From Gillian Bowditch Published: 3 May 2015

“The kindest interpretation was of a small nation coming to terms with itself in the face of the relentless march of globalisation”, says Bowditch

It is just as well it is nearly over. The way things are going you’d be pushed to get odds of more than 10-9 on the Scottish National party taking 60 of Scotland’s 59 seats. It’s only a matter of time before the Sturgeon surge defies political gravity and Scottish politics enters a fourth dimension.

As it was, Ipsos Mori produced a poll last week which, if translated into seats, would give the SNP the whole of Scotland, wiping out Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories. In the past, such a result would have had pollsters overhauling their methodology or wondering whether someone had tampered with the water supply.

Polls are a snapshot not a forecast, but they can identify trends and the trend for a nationalist monopoly, six months after a resounding “no” vote in the independence referendum, appears to have reached its zenith. A similar pattern is to be expected at the Holyrood election next year.

Of course, the chances of the SNP turning the whole of Scotland yellow are slimmer than the likelihood of the royal baby being christened Nicola. Undecideds, the level of voter turnout and the extent of tactical voting will all play a role, but we are now looking at a scenario where if Labour lost three-quarters of its Scottish seats, it would be spun as a triumph.

The political consequences will be significant but the cultural consequences could be seismic. Scotland has been through many iterations over the past 60 years; from cultural cringe to Scottish exceptionalism, from a crisis of confidence to a surfeit. Each phase has been dissected, analysed, picked over and then, just when we thought its ghosts had been laid to rest, revisited, exhumed and revised. We have conjured up the past and bejewelled it with a retrospective conceit.

Returning home in the 1990s after a decade of living in London, the Scottish obsession with identity struck me as faintly unhinged. The kindest interpretation was of a small nation coming to terms with itself in the face of the relentless march of globalisation. At worst it seemed to represent a particularly corrupt form of nostalgia. Our writers and artists always seemed to have one eye on the rear view mirror.

In the days of Labour’s central belt hegemony, the kind of privation humanity has spent centuries struggling to escape seemed to be preserved, lauded and endlessly reproduced. From Ralph Glasser’s Gorbals memoirs to the work of Jeff Torrington, and James Kelman to Irvine Welsh, the view of Scotland that was promulgated was that it needed a good boil wash. In the work of Peter Mullan, Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsay, Glaswegian grot was exported around the globe.

In the early years of the 21st century, something rather wonderful happened: there was a cultural renaissance in which Scottish artists no longer felt the need to examine and re-examine the Scottish condition. Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin and JK Rowling were wowing global audiences. Janice Galloway won international acclaim for her book on Clara Schumann. Artists such as David Mach, Alison Watt, Douglas Gordon, Martin Creed and Jenny Saville were finding their way into international collections. Composers and musicians as diverse as James McMillan, Craig Armstrong and Nicola Benedetti were hailed abroad. Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Gerard Butler and John Hannah were the hot stars in Hollywood. They were, as in the words of Auden: “Like some valley cheese, local but prized elsewhere.” After decades of cultural dreichness, it was no longer quite so grim up north.

These talents still exist, but their influence has begun to diminish. The generation following in their wake does not shine as brightly. Patriotism has replaced miserablism as the key to our identity. Culturally, we have started to look inwards again.

If I were a young artist, musician or writer starting out in Scotland, I would feel quite depressed about the situation. There is now so much focus, not to mention grant aid, on such a narrow tradition that, unless you fit the cultural stereotype, it’s hard to see where the acknowledgement or encouragement is going to come from. It’s difficult to imagine the Scotland of today throwing up a writer with the breadth and depth of Dame Muriel Spark.

Perhaps at a time of great political change, when nationalism is the predominant force, that is to be expected, but cultural separatism inevitably leads to parochialism. Our heritage and icons are co-opted to the cause. The focus in education in recent years has not been the pursuit of excellence but the pursuit of Scottishness.

While more Scottish literature and history in the curriculum may be overdue, the tartan straitjacket is concerning. Teachers have been urged to find a Scottish perspective from which to approach topics. One told me that under the Curriculum for Excellence, she had to find a Scottish element to the Holocaust — solipsism taken to a whole new level.

It is no coincidence that the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy 2014, published last week, has found the ability of Scottish school children to be in decline. The percentage of S2 boys doing well or very well in writing is now below 50% at 47%, down from 58% in 2012. There is a similar fall in standards for S2 girls, from 70% to 63%. It’s not as though we were at the top of the international league tables in 2012.

We keep hearing from the Scottish government that, with more powers, more jobs will be created and an economic boom will ensue of such magnitude that it will render irrelevant the pesky oil price fall and the deepening deficit that independence or full fiscal autonomy would bring.

But these children are the employees of the future and if less than 50% can string a written sentence together after nine years in the Scottish education system, we have a problem. Economic growth requires a highly literate, educated and productive workforce.

The education minister Angela Constance has now pledged to redouble efforts but this is to miss the point. If excellence is not at the heart of the education system, then no amount of effort will improve attainment. What is happening in universities is just as worrying. Because of the disparity in tuition fees, a whole generation no longer even explores the possibility of leaving Scotland for its tertiary education.

One of the most depressing things about the referendum was the number of Scottish writers and artists cravenly hitching their wagons to the SNP. Last week, National Collective — a pro-independence cultural movement which engaged thousands of people, organised petitions and campaigned — shut up shop. Its key founder has been absorbed into the SNP as “an engagement strategist”.

The nationalists’ programme for government is called One Scotland, but for a truly confident nation we need to let a thousand Scotlands bloom.

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4 Comments

  1. SteveH said,

    I think it is a mistake to directly correlate current the state of art with the current state of politics, as I think the state of art is influenced by the politics of the past. The Simon Cowellisation of British society wasn’t just pop dynamism running out of steam but part of the homogeneity of Thatcherite policy, something which economists in the 80’s were writing about but didn’t actually begin to fully develop until the late 1990’s. The ‘cultural’ affect of the Scottish desire to separate from little England will not be fully felt for a generation. What we are living with now is the product of Thatcher and third wayism.

    “Economic growth requires a highly literate, educated and productive workforce.”

    Not in capitalist terms it doesn’t, it requires the restoration of profit rates and the destruction of value and increasing the intensity of exploitation. Now you could argue that a nation such as the UK, in order to keep its world market supremacy, needs to provide high value services, but that is hardly the argument of the international working class but simply a reflection of the needs of certain sections of capital! And of course, this layer of high value workers will demand the services of low value labour. So a two tiered education system fits perfectly into the needs of economic growth under capitalist conditions.

    “ The whole National Collective project, when a bunch of artists got together to call for independence so at the same time they could be against the establishment (Westminster) while doing the work of another establishment (SNP’s Holyrood) did strike me as a little bizarre.”

    And this article represents the interests of the establishment while attacking a sop called other establishment.

    Ps I call on all ‘decents’ to attend the next (and every) anti Mohammed cartoon festival, someone has to stand up for decent and under siege Western values!

    • Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

      I would not attend an anti mohammad thingy as mohammad is a man mad myth.

      • Jalebi said,

        Man- mad? Are you sure?

  2. SteveH said,

    Glesga,

    When you say “keeping Scotland free from loonies”, do you mean by this that you have personally promised never to set foot in Scotland again, therefore you are actively keeping a loon out of Scotland, i.e. you!

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