AFTER Alasdair Gray’s attack on English people ‘colonising the Scottish arts’, Dani Garavelli discovers a majority only too happy to acknowledge the input of outsiders in our cultural melting pot.
THE 1990s were a savage time to be English in Scotland. It’s difficult to recall now the level of vitriol those who moved north of the Border or bought holiday homes were subjected to. But, at the very time Mel Gibson was crying freedom in Braveheart, there was a war of sorts raging across the country.
Groups such as Scottish Watch and Settler Watch, which intimidated southern incomers and the Scots who sold their properties to them, were at their strongest. English people were being attacked on the streets, their very accents a provocation to national pride, and houses were being daubed with anti-English slogans. Such direct action may have been the handiwork of a handful of hardliners, but the sentiments filtered down into mainstream opinion. In a TV documentary The Englishing Of Scotland, George Rosie examined how people who hailed from south of the Border were “dominating” universities, charities, art galleries and research institutes, while a recruitment leaflet from the SNP student wing riffed on the famous quote from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: “Some people hate the English... but I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent culture to be colonised by.”
Since then, many would argue, a very different Scotland has emerged; a more confident, outward-looking Scotland which does not define itself in opposition to its neighbours; a Scotland which opens its doors to anyone who wants to make their home here; a Scotland where Diwali and Ramadan are celebrated alongside St Andrew’s Day and where belonging is more a state of mind than a coincidence of birth or parentage. Set against this background, it’s hardly surprising that Alasdair Gray’s essay – one of more than a dozen published in Unstated: Scottish Writers On Independence – has provoked such widespread dismay. Entitled Settlers And Colonists, it seeks to categorise English incomers as one or the other. As anyone who has been following the debate now knows, it takes exception to those who live here for a short time and then move on, portraying them as on-the-make colonists exploiting Scotland for their own ends, to the detriment of Scottish culture.
The media – and Scotland on Sunday in particular, after we broke the story last week – has been accused of distorting Gray’s views. For the avoidance of doubt, I, like my colleagues, have read the full essay and –while it raises some interesting questions – I still believe the language in which they are couched to be reckless and inflammatory. Many in the arts world have leapt to Gray’s defence, insisting he doesn’t have an anti-English bone in his body. But it is difficult to believe a writer of his calibre and standing could have used such loaded words inadvertently; or that a lifelong left-wing nationalist could have commandeered the terminology of the right without realising the impact it would have or how it would be exploited.
Even if you take the position that Gray intended to redefine the terms (he says he thoroughly approves of “settlers” – those Scots who, in his new definition, commit to the country for life) the reaction his words provoked have exposed a rich seam of insecurity and anti-Englishness within a section of the nationalist movement. Some of those involved in the Yes campaign have not only endorsed the essay’s central theme – that too many of the country’s cultural institutions are run by outsiders – but have proposed radical solutions. Last week, one – Kevin Williamson, founder of publishing company Rebel Inc, who shared a platform with SNP leader Alex Salmond at the launch of the Yes Scotland campaign – was calling for a “social audit” of figures at the helm of “institutional Scotland”. He tweeted: “Who are these people? Who do they speak for? What class, demographic, ethos?” At the same time, outgoing director of the National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone, whom Gray specifically named as a colonist, was talking about the anti-English invective she had experienced here.
All this is deeply offensive to those from outside who are living and working in Scotland. Imagine being Sarah McCrory, who arrived from London four weeks ago to take on the role of director at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. “Thanks for the warm welcome and the outdated views. #Alasdair Gray,” she tweeted.
But Gray’s vision is also upsetting for natives who see Scotland as a country defined by its inclusivity. Figures such as historian Tom Devine and composer James MacMillan have distanced themselves from Gray’s view, and many other figures in the arts world are dismayed.
“The thing I have always liked about Scotland, the thing that makes me proud to be a Scot, is the way we embrace other cultures,” says Borders-based novelist Doug Jackson. “There’s not that dark side you get in some parts of England. I just don’t think we would ever want that and yet the language of the debate we are having with two years to go is poisonous.” Other Scots want to have the opportunity to live and work in England and recognise the degree of reciprocity that entails.
More pernicious still, is its potential to fuel the English backlash in the run-up to the independence referendum. Earlier this year, the British Social Attitudes survey reported that resentment against Scotland’s position had increased since devolution. And you don’t have to dig very deep to see the impact the debate is having on ordinary people. “Is it true that Scottish people hate us?” my eight-year-old (English) niece asked on her last trip north – a potent, if unscientific, insight into the way more aggressive expressions of nationalism can be interpreted as hostility.
For me, the essay’s insularity and preoccupation with perceived injustices from the Giles Havergal and City of Culture era has disconcerting echoes of the year I spent in Wales in the late 1980s at a time when Meibion Glyndwr was burning holiday homes and the country’s obsession with its own language and heritage made it a forbidding place for outsiders.
Anti-Englishness is already a problem here. Police figures released last week showed the number of racist attacks on white people in Scotland rose by 25 per cent in 2012, with many of the victims believed to be from south of the Border. The fear is not only that Gray’s intervention, and the response to it, has exposed a strand of Scottish nationalism which is still insular, monocultural and protectionist, but that it will fuel it; that 20 years after we thought the discussion about identity had moved on, we will be forced to fight the same old ideological battles.
Not everyone feels like this; there are those who – while distancing themselves from Gray’s choice of words – believe his essay has thrown up issues which bear further examination. Author Julie Bertagna says the debate, though limiting and reductive to begin with, became more constructive as the week wore on. “I was re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson and his reference to ‘the Scots accent of the mind,’ ” she says. “His idea was that, for Scotland to be the vibrant nation we all want, we need to draw talents and ideas and energy from all over the globe as he did, but that’s not enough really for us to thrive. It’s about us drawing on the world globally, but with a ‘Scots accent of the mind’. I can’t see Scotland as a forward-looking nation if we alienate people, but it’s about balance. You want the right balance of talent from outside [and inside] Scotland – a melting pot of energies and visions.”
Many people genuinely believe that balance is out of kilter; some put that down to inferiorisation (an innate sense that Scots are not good enough) others to simple mathematics. “There’s plenty of Scots who go down to England for a while to make money and then come back,” says Alastair McIntosh, an academic and land reform campaigner. “This is where the question of proportionality comes in. We are talking about a 10 to one demographic imbalance. If you get a few Scots on the make going down to England, it’s a very dilute process, but you only need only a few people from England, proportionately speaking, coming to Scotland and you get a swamping effect. In my view, it’s imperative that anybody who is working in a senior position with Scottish cultural issues should understand what Scottish culture is about.”
The problem with this is it assumes a universally accepted definition of Scottish culture. In fact, Scotland is a tribal land made up of lots of competing cultures; add to this the impact of immigration from Italy, Ireland, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and it’s quite a complex picture. The concept of Scottish identity is equally fluid and will mean something quite different to a Gael and a Glaswegian. A native Scot of Italian or Asian extraction, for example, may not be able to define what pibroch is, but does that make them less authentically Scottish?
McIntosh is a thoughtful, considered man; a co-founder of GalGael (literally foreigner/native), an organisation aimed at rekindling a sense of belonging in Govan, you cannot imagine him fanning the flames of bigotry. But even he is ambivalent about the role artists from outside Scotland are playing in efforts to reinvigorate the area. “It’s very difficult to talk about this because these people are my friends and I admire the work they are doing, but most of the public artwork going on here is not being headed up by artists who are from this community. Local people feel as if they’re having it done to them.
“The artists concerned are deeply committed, they want to do their art in hard-pressed communities yet there’s something out of balance where there’s not more of the local talent involved. And the effect of that is it doesn’t get the depth of traction it should have.”
It’s difficult to know how to tackle these problems beyond eradicating poverty. Certainly, the notion of a social audit gives McIntosh “the heebie-jeebies”. Supported by Settler Watch in the 1990s, limits on English immigration echo today’s UKIP’s stance on Islam. Is a limit on what jobs English people are allowed to do any less unsettling? “It does smack of social engineering,” says Jackson. “Do we want to see people being given positions on merit or do we want to have a position where talking with an English accent is a barrier to advancement?”
If we limit the number of English people – or insist they at least have a demonstrable affinity to Scottish culture (in what form, it is hard to say) in order to take on leadership roles – aren’t we potentially depriving ourselves of international talent? And what about the world beyond the arts? Gray made clear he believed the arts were symptomatic of a wider malaise. Why should someone who works in business or finance or even education have to demonstrate any affinity with the Scottish way of life – whatever that might be – in order to take up a post here?
At the time when the “settler” debate was at its height, Mark Nutall and Charles Jedrej, a sociologist and anthropologist respectively, researched the issue, and found that, far from exacerbating the country’s problems, incomers were often revitalising their communities. That was more or less the point historian Tom Devine was making last week when he said the vibrancy of the current population was due, in part, to “the English factor”.
Surely a healthy, self-confident country should be able to acknowledge the contribution of outsiders who live there – either fleetingly or long-term – without recourse to loaded terms such as “colonist” or “settler”. Or is this insularity and narrowness really what Gray had in mind when he urged us to work as if we lived “in the early days of a better nation”? «
The full text of Alasdair Gray’s essay Settlers And Colonists can be read at www.word-power.co.uk