Allan Massie: Outburst exposes author as ‘cultural nationalist’

Writer and Artist Alasdair Gray. Picture: Robert Perry
Writer and Artist Alasdair Gray. Picture: Robert Perry
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IT is offensive to refer to English people living and working in Scotland as ‘colonists’. Alasdair Gray should know better, writes Allan Massie

ALASDAIR Gray is one of our finest, most inventive and imaginative novelists, but he is sometimes given to the sort of utterances that may lead others to think he is also a silly old buffer. His recent outburst about English “colonists” who take up positions here in Scotland, especially in the arts, and then move on to work elsewhere, is pretty ridiculous, all the more so because there are plenty of counter-examples of Scots moving south of the Border to top jobs in England – before returning to Scotland. It sometimes seems to me, for instance, that even today, what used to be called Fleet Street is stuffed to the gills by journalists trained on this newspaper or on that one at the other end of the M8.

I don’t know whether there is more anti-Englishness here than there used to be, but one of those condemned by Alasdair Gray was Vicky Featherstone, the first director of the National Theatre of Scotland. One might criticise some of her work – I agree with those who complained that she had neglected classic Scottish plays, though I’m sorry that this criticism left her feeling “really, really upset” – but the general consensus is that she did a good job in getting the fledgling National Theatre to fly. In any case, throughout her tenure, one of the two principal theatres in England – the Royal Shakespeare – was being directed with great success and to general acclaim by Sir Michael Boyd who, though born in Northern Ireland, was educated at Daniel Stewart’s and the University of Edinburgh and made his name as Director of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. I don’t recall any suggestion that this background unfitted him for leading the RSC.

Art, like scholarship, may be national, but, when it is good, it is also international. Alasdair Gray is himself a case in point. He is thoroughly Glaswegian, thoroughly Scots (with, as I recall, an English mother), but appreciation of his work is not restricted to Scotland. One of the first of our fellow writers to applaud him was Anthony Burgess, a Lancashire man of mixed English, Scots and Irish ancestry. He thought Lanark a great novel and included it in a list of the 99 major modern novels. Whether you agree or not, Burgess’s point is clear. Art has nothing to do with the petty idiocies of nationalism.

It is to the credit of the SNP that its leaders have, for the most part, eschewed such idiocies. Alex Salmond will tell you that Scottish Nationalism and the desire for independence have nothing to do with Anglophobia; indeed he proclaims himself an Anglophile. Not all his followers are so sensible, but in general the SNP has been distinguished by its moderation and decency. Those of us who have no wish to break up the United Kingdom and who intend to vote “no” in the referendum should have the grace to recognise this and the sense to be grateful for it. Likewise, nationalists should recognise that most English people who come to work and live in Scotland like the country and its people and make a worthwhile contribution to our society, economy and culture. It is offensive and stupid to call them “settlers” or “colonists”.

Throughout the centuries since the Union there has been a coming and going between Scotland and England, and it is at least arguable that Scots have had more influence on England and English culture than the other way round. The ethos of that most remarkable of organisations, the BBC, was established by a son of the manse, its first Director-General John Reith, and that ethos was informed by Scots Presbyterianism. That successive governments have been irritated by the BBC is the result of Reith’s craggy insistence on its independence, and if the characteristic flaw of the BBC has been self-righteousness leading to complacency, that too is typically Scottish, the BBC having enrolled itself in the ranks of the Elect, or, as Burns preferred to call them, “the unco guid”.

Where appointments to senior positions in the arts and public life are concerned, things are not likely to change even if we vote for independence. Alex Salmond assures us what he calls “the social union” will survive political disunion. Consequently, when posts are advertised, applications will continue to come from England as well as Scotland, and often of course from other countries too. Sometimes the best-qualified and most suitable applicant will be a Scot; sometimes not. In some areas this matters a lot, in others a bit, in some not at all. Sport offers an example. Both the SFA and the SRU have appointed non-Scottish coach-managers. Neither Berti Vogts nor Andy Robinson, a German and an Englishman, may have been accounted a great success, but nor were the Scots who preceded them, or in Vogts’ case, followed him.

Other things being equal, it may, in the fields of art and culture, be desirable to appoint a Scot to head national organisations, but then other things are rarely equal. If you are a fervent cultural nationalist, considerations of Scottishness may in your opinion outweigh all else; otherwise not. In any case there have been countless English people who, coming to live in Scotland, have made a great contribution to our cultural life. Did anyone, for instance, ever do more for music in the north-east of Scotland than June Boissier, born in the Isle of Wight and daughter of the headmaster of Harrow School. Marrying David Gordon, the future Marquess of Aberdeen, she made Haddo House an outstanding cultural centre. I don’t think she would have liked being described as a colonist or settler.

There is an intelligent case for political independence, though it doesn’t convince me. But an independent Scotland which favoured the anti-English policies with regard to public appointments that Alasdair Gray appears to favour, or even advocate, would be a poorer place. How far would they be taken? Would they apply, for instance, to university posts? Political nationalism, when it takes the civic form espoused by the SNP, is worthy of respect. Cultural nationalism is always dotty, and often nasty.