Bill Jamieson: Gray paints a fairer picture for us

Bill Jamieson: Artist and writer Alasdair Gray has caused a stir, but his remarks deserve consideration
Bill Jamieson: Artist and writer Alasdair Gray has caused a stir, but his remarks deserve consideration
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A COUNTRY is more an idea than a place. In the aggressive advocacy of Scottish nationalism there seems an undue emphasis on place over idea. In the fusillade of criticism directed at Scottish author and painter Alasdair Gray I detect an evident and serious loss of place.

Mr Gray has set the cultural heather ablaze in recent days. In an essay he referred to English people appointed to top jobs north of the Border as “settlers” and “colonists” who come here to advance their careers and move on.

Alasdair Gray - painting his mural in the eaves of the church on Byres road / Great Western road ... Pic Donald MacLeod 1.10.03

Alasdair Gray - painting his mural in the eaves of the church on Byres road / Great Western road ... Pic Donald MacLeod 1.10.03

Progressive worthies in Scottish arts have recoiled in horror. “Shocking”; “odious”; “ugly” “bigoted”, “narrow-minded nationalism” – even apartheid South Africa has been invoked to describe Gray’s remarks. Leading composer James MacMillan strode into the blazing inferno this week, urging artists to be wary of “fanning the flames” of bigotry.

Let us all agree that there is no place for bigotry; that considerations of merit and appropriateness should be paramount in the selection of candidates for positions in Scottish life, and that these positions should never be closed to applications from outside Scotland.

Let’s also, this being the season of goodwill, spare comparison of Mr Gray’s views to apartheid South Africa. He has not, to the best of my knowledge, proposed restricting the movement of English people into Special Areas, still less herding them permanently into bantustans.

What he has done is to remind us, if rather more bluntly than some of his own admirers would wish, that Scotland is more than a place. It is an idea.

Our writing, our language, our values, our history, our culture are not identical to those in the rest of the UK. There may be features that we share and enjoy in common. But Scotland is not England. To approach appointments in Scottish life and letters as if these were identical to and requiring no differentiation from appointments in the English regions is a misjudgment. And there are dangers in allowing appointments to our artistic and cultural institutions to be approached as if they were indeed little more than short-term staging posts to something better elsewhere, an en passant opportunity to add another notch to that (hired) gun.

It is in the assertion of difference, this insistence on the distinctive, that our cultural institutions have a duty of care. Without this commitment the defining characteristics of our language, history and culture are put at risk. They will be at particular risk of being subsumed in that greater cause to which too many in Scotland’s cultural elite are now indissolubly wedded: the promotion of universalism with its common values, shared beliefs and a mantra of diversity that hides a darker truth: uniculturalism.

Our plays, our music, our writing become subservient to the extent to which they re-iterate and echo the sentiments of this progressive omniculture: a one-size-fits-all cultural Babygro.

One big, happy melting pot? Unfortunately, what might start out wishing to be an appetising broth ends up as an inedible mush, pronounced to be good for us and ladled down our throats at every opportunity. Through the constant assertion of “inclusiveness” we lose the will or the means to resist.

This mind-set is now well-entrenched. Allowed free reign, it cannot but pose a present and direct threat to those very features that give our arts and literature distinctiveness on the world stage.

There is a third reason why I believe Alasdair Gray’s critique does not deserve the scorn heaped upon it. We should be more mindful than we are of the doctrine that choosing an outsider to senior positions in Scottish life and letters is always an appropriate and efficacious thing to do. There are occasions of course when the external candidate has commanding talent and attributes so that not to make such an appointment would be perverse. And there are occasions, too, when an outsider is necessary to catalyse compelling and far-reaching change.

But I have seen many examples in the business world – and in my own newspaper industry over the years – where the appointment of external candidates has proved a less than happy experience – both for the individual and the company.

In my own case I made a serious misjudgment when returning to Scotland of having under-estimated the differences in Scottish life, politics and values in my period away. Having worked in England – most of this period in London – for more than 30 years I would now be considered pretty well de-racinated. I never lost my pride in being a Scot. But I did lose sight of what Scottishness was and what it was “about”. It took me several years to re-discover and re-connect and I don’t suppose even now that the process of re-assimilation is complete, even assuming that it will ever be so. How much more difficult for someone coming to Scotland for the first time, who may innocently assume that the running of a cultural institution is no different from elsewhere in the UK. What an awakening lies in store.

The attacks on Alasdair Gray have made wider reference to concerns over a general “anti-Englishness” in our culture and an aversion to those coming from England to take up positions in Scotland. In the vast majority of cases no such hostility is evident though collective anti-English sentiment is not hard to come by. There are also signs of a growing anti-Scottish sentiment in England.

Both are two sides of a twisted coin and to be regretted. But what I suspect stirs greater anti-English feeling than hostile taunts about Scots and Scottishness in English pubs and bars is the blank indifference and lack of interest in England to Scotland and Scottish affairs – in particular the independence referendum. It is just this indifference – a revealing statement in itself – that makes the point about England not being Scotland, and vice-versa.

We are not some loft conversion or conservatory extension to England up north. We are different. We are something else. And we should recognise this in the public appointments that we make, not only to our arts and cultural institutions but across the board. That counsel should always be applied with thoughtfulness and an openness to exceptions. But we have a history to honour and a distinctive culture to respect. And it’s in the defence of these that I say: Vive Alasdair Gray; Vive la difference.