In an age of tribalism and flag-waving, politics is no longer a relevant concept, writes Kirsty Gunn.
“Am I sure I’m making the choices I want to make?” came the voice behind me in the queue for coffee at Euston Station.
I was en route to Manchester to be part of a radio programme recorded at the BBC about life and reality, fiction and fact.
The voice belonged to a young woman who was pondering the various available breakfasts she might have – healthy with juice and fruit or caffeinated with sugar on the side? – and I was charmed and interested by her turn of phrase. I told her so, and we struck up a conversation, about how her words and attitude seemed to sum up a generation that thought carefully about agency and responsibility. Not only in their consumption of goods, as was the obvious case in this particular cafe line – for undoubtedly in the history of Britain there have never been quite so many food options to choose from for breakfast, or any other meal for that matter – but being aware of choice, too, as existing in a widely spread range of ideas and options that take in all kinds of differing ethical and social and individual positions.
And you’ll note I don’t have “political” in that list, because, as my daughters are constantly telling me, and this young woman now, too, “politics as currently presented is just not a relevant concept any more”.
Nothing is as simple or as reductive as the old binaries of black and white, Tory or Labour, Leave or Remain, Yes or No. The polarised concepts put about as part of the 2014 independence referendum already seem outdated; the idea of another plebiscite based on the much the same kind of thinking, even more so. I would like to know if there was a more nuanced sort of discussion going on between Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues that looked beyond those limited arguments pitching the horrors of Brexit against the Elysian Fields of an independent Scotland ... But she would have needed more than a few Millenials around her to have made it so, I reckon. “At first there was quite a lot of interest in what went on in Scotland in 2014,” this young woman in the queue went on to say, “ a sort of tribal thing that affected a lot of us in the UK. But it became quickly apparent that there’s nothing attractive about tribalism.” She gave me a lovely smile. “That’s another challenge for our generation to figure out.”
Thank goodness for the young. I thought that when I was in Dundee last week meeting young writers. They’ve got their own ideas about how nothing in the way we ‘do’ politics, as the older generation now trendily try to describe our social and economic thinking, is attractive. Or useful actually. Who wants black and white? In or out? Scottish or British? It’s ghastly to have thinking reduced in these ways.
I sort of carried on the same conversation when I met with the Scottish-English poet – which is how she laughingly describes herself, with question marks written all over her face and in her voice as she says it – Holly McNish. She, along with Kate Tempest, another performance poet, is known throughout the UK for her rousing, feminist musings on race and motherhood and contemporary society, bringing a whole new sector of society to come to love a form of art that’s often been thought of as too highbrow or fancy. She and Tempest have made poetry fun, feisty, a bit irreverent, a bit “so what?” “My Scottish cousins call me the English one,” said Holly, whose work I’d been introduced to some years ago by Roger Cox of this paper. I was asking her whether, still thinking about that young woman and her coffee, nationality even means that much, despite the latest BBC survey asking people whether they feel Scottish or British and what comes first.
Holly has a spot on Ian McMillan’s The Verb programme, that gorgeous party of ideas shared by writers and artists and theorists that goes out on Radio Three on a Friday night. She curates and introduces her own set of poet-guests on Ian’s show, those whose work she has followed and knows and champions, asking them to talk and read and consider over the air what it means to write poetry in 2018. You might say nationality, identity, for Holly, is both everything – her guests speak in a range of a globally wondrous dialects and idiolects, accents, idioms – and nothing. Because the only thing that matters, really, isn’t who they are or where they’re from or how they speak. It’s the poetry. On pressing her again about the Scottish identity issue, Holly went on: “Well, I’ ve bought a flat in Glasgow now, which is where all my family lives, so yeah, I suppose ...” her voice trailed off. “But I guess for a lot of people in Scotland because I was born in England or whatever ... I’m not Scottish enough.”
Scottish enough, indeed. We need more ideas, more consideration, altogether, of these phrases that we bandy about, and use so irresponsibly. “We, the Scottish people...” All that. A recent BBC survey may have told us that no one is much identifying with Britain anymore – 84 per cent in Scotland identify as Scottish first, 80 per cent in England as English first – but that is only part of the story.
Identity is a complex thing, as poetry shows us, as art does. Britain itself is a concept that needs re-thinking, reframing, in the light of the increasing predations of the multinationals and financial institutions that have us in thrall. Maybe we should be asking about the value of a ‘united kingdom’ in the face of Donald Trump and a rising class of the super-rich with unprecedented powers, instead of simply pitching Union flags against Saltires and asking people how they “feel”. “More than half the people surveyed in Scotland said they felt strongly British (59 per cent),” says the survey,” but only 26 per cent said they felt “very strongly” British.
Who makes up these questions? I can’t think they’re of use to anybody apart from politicians who can frame the outcome to fit rhetoric for yet more nationalist debates. What use have we for inane reality-TV style chat about feelings and sentiment. We need philosophy and debate and some good, strong, agonistic thinking. The minute flags get flown and identity survey percentages get logged onto headlines, complex individual stories become lost and we lose ourselves in petty tribal squabbles. We are what we do, not who we say we are.