The late Alasdair Gray is widely believed to be the author of the unofficial slogan of Scottish nationalism: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’ In fact, the line was paraphrased from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee, who wrote in his 1972 poem Civil Elegies: ‘And best of all is finding a place to be / in the early days of a better civilization.’ To be fair, Gray never tried to disguise where the expression had come from. ‘I have always attributed it to [Lee],’ he once said. ‘But people started quoting it as if I had invented it’.
In The Literary Politics Of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation, Scott Hames — a lecturer in English Studies at Stirling University — examines how Scottish cultural luminaries like Gray have shaped our national political discourse, both consciously and unconsciously, over the past half century.
Central to Hames’ thesis is a demystifying attack on the official, idealized narrative of Scotland’s ‘journey’ towards Home Rule. The creation of Holyrood in 1999 wasn’t just an organic, grassroots response to Thatcherism aimed at reviving Scotland’s lost democratic structures, he argues. It was the product of a much grubbier process of institutional horse-trading, whereby British politicians — mostly associated with the Labour Party — ‘managed’ demands for Scottish autonomy in order to shore up the UK constitution and ward off a growing electoral threat from the SNP.
Hames builds his argument around two distinct but routinely conflated concepts: ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Grind.’ ‘The Dream’ represents the commonly accepted biography of Scottish self-government: ‘a story of cultural vanguardism in which writers and artists play the starring role in the recuperation of [Scottish] national identity, cultural confidence, and democratic agency.’ ‘The Grind’ is much more prosaic. It explains ‘the longer, thinner history of devolution as a shrewd saga of electoral expediency’ and legislative manoeuvring, starting with Harold Wilson’s 1969 Royal Commission on the Constitution and ending with the 1998 Scotland Act.
Hames charts the interplay between Scottish literary culture and the national movement during the 20th century, from Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘neurotic self-construction’ in the 1930s and ‘40s through to James Kelman’s experiments with ‘authentic’ Scottish vernacular in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The key moment of convergence occurred at the height of the Thatcher revolution, he argues, when Scots voted consistently against the Tories but remained powerless to block Mrs Thatcher’s sweeping social and economic reforms. In the absence of effective political leadership, the responsibility for articulating a distinctive democratic landscape, liberated from English Conservative rule, fell to writers and artists like Gray, William McIlvanney, and Liz Lochhead, all of whom were influential supporters of devolution in the run-up to the 1997 referendum.
Hames thinks this is how and why ‘The Dream’ took root and ‘The Grind’ — the thankless procedural slog that ultimately made Holyrood possible — drifted from public view. The idea that constitutional change was driven exclusively by cultural factors, and not by the less glamorous reality of Westminster machine politics, became the core foundational myth of devolution; a myth that is literally embedded in the north-facing wall of the Edinburgh parliament building, in the form of twenty-six decorative panels bearing quotes from Burns, Scott, MacDiarmid, Gray, and other Scottish literary greats.
Intriguingly, according to Hames, this myth was cultivated by a small group of left-nationalist thinkers centred around Radical Scotland magazine in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Through their writing and activism, journalists and academics like Chris Harvie and James Robertson sought to promote the belief that Scottish culture was inherently anti-Conservative, with the aim of permanently ‘dislocating’ Scottish opinion from the Anglo-British right.
Their efforts paid off. The Radical Scotland strategy was ‘highly effective in prying Scottish politics away from Westminster and [constructing] a political space in which Tories would have no choice but to concede devolution or be seen to “repress” Scottishness,’ Hames writes. ‘This went as far as openly “othering” Toryism as incompatible with the authentic national desire for self-determination.’
By the end of the 1980s, the ‘language of class politics’ had elided with a more traditional, nationalist emphasis on cultural differentiation and the image of a supposedly ‘proletarianized Scotland … dispossessed by Thatcherism’ had become central to the Home Rule cause.
This book does two things very well. It demonstrates how close the relationship between Scottish nationalism and Scottish literary culture has been since at least 1979. (Writing shortly before the 2014 independence referendum, the novelist Alan Warner even suggested a No vote would signal ‘the death knell for the whole Scottish literature “project” — a crushing denial of an identity that writers have been meticulously accumulating’ for decades.)
And, against the romanticizing tendencies of the Scottish left, it convincingly argues that Holyrood is in many respects a deeply conservative institution, built to regulate Scotland’s democratic instincts rather than unleash them. ‘It was the densely networked and overlapping professional circles of “Civic Scotland” who were directly empowered by devolution,’ Hames concludes. Those circles might be good at ‘extracting political rent’ from the parliament’s ‘collective symbolic capital’, but they’ve never run Holyrood in a particularly radical or imaginative way.
That said, Hames’ analysis is frustratingly incomplete. He doesn’t offer a detailed picture of Scottish society beyond the country’s political classes or its cultural elite, nor does he place the campaign for devolution in a clear economic context. As a result, the combined influence of the trade union movement, the voluntary sector, the Church of Scotland, and Scottish public opinion itself in sustaining calls for a Scottish parliament over three decades, in the face of prolonged Westminster neglect, is largely overlooked. Moreover, the strategic debates that took place during the 1980s over how best to achieve Home Rule seem almost completely divorced from the dramatic economic trends — rising unemployment, rampant inflation, and rapid deindustrialization — that characterized the decade and, arguably, made such debates necessary in the first place. This feels like a serious omission, not least because Literary Politics is billed as a major new critical account of Scotland’s devolutionary history.
Hames also overstates his otherwise persuasive critique of the post-1997 ‘Scottish consensus.’ He’s right to say that Scotland’s current political leadership has ‘successfully turned a rhetoric of mongrel resistance to [British] non-democracy’ into a ‘corporatist governing ethic’ at Holyrood, based on vacuous ‘Team Scotland’ sloganeering. But that slightly misses the point. A standoff between Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson is brewing and another independence referendum is on the way. Politically speaking, Scotland is more unsettled today than it was before Holyrood was established two decades ago: devolution has undermined, not reinforced, the long-term stability of the British state.
None of that should detract too much from what Hames — a Canadian — has achieved, however. The Literary Politics Of Scottish Devolution is one of the most original and arresting studies of Scottish political culture written in the last ten or fifteen years. It is a powerful deconstruction of the political myths that made modern Scotland and a compelling reassessment of Holyrood’s — frequently miscast — institutional origins. Hames challenges the mainstream chronology of Home Rule just as the Edinburgh parliament enters its third decade. This book is disillusioning, but in a good way. No doubt Alasdair Gray would have approved.
This article is a review of The Literary Politics Of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation by Scott Hames. Read the original piece here.