Up the Scottish (Co-operative Wholesale) Republic!

Christopher Harvie

A few years back I was having lunch in Soho with a London publisher, trying tactfully to find out why a book of mine – about Scotland – cost so much and never seemed available in Scottish bookshops. I cited an Edinburgh firm whose handsomely-produced list seemed ubiquitous in the north and also quite affordable. ‘Ah,’ said my host, ‘but X is only worried about where his next Chinese carry-out is coming from,’

We cultivate literature on a little Egg Foo Yong? It seems we do. Later the London publisher, now ingested by the statutory multinational, required a reprint, and I found myself updating my text. Over seven years, nearly forty new titles had been added to the bibliography, most of these published in Scotland. The old rubric ‘place of publication, except where otherwise stated, is London’ no longer applied.

In 1968, one of the editors of the London Review of Books cast a cold eye on notions of Scottish national revival, citing Pierre Trudcau on ‘Quebec libre’: Trudcau had said the place was likely to be ‘too culturally anaemic, too economically destitute, too intellectually retarded, too spiritually paralysed to survive’. Quebec was not perhaps an inspired choice. Even in 1973, when René Levesque visited Edinburgh, the rapidity of the province’s progress away from Canada could not have been anticipated. Industrially backward, politically conservative, defensively étatiste, it seemed in the Sixties to be everything Karl Miller claimed – and not all that far removed from the Scottish situation. Yet within a decade it was to provide proof that a reformist intelligentsia could create its own economic and political dynamic.

Miller’s position was, at the time, broadly representative. In Scotland even in the Seventies nationalism divided rather than united both intellectuals and electorate; the outcome of the referendum of 1 March 1979, though skewed by the frostbound horrors of the ‘winter of discontent’, reflected a situation where independence never polled more than 20 per cent – and support even fell as the SNP vote increased in 1974. This conflict is no longer around. Outside of that sad remnant, the ‘Scottish business community’ – of which more in due course – it is difficult to find anyone who will dissent from devolution, and a sizeable minority see it only as a staging-post to independence. Up to 1990 this could have been put down to an essentially personal hatred of Mrs Thatcher, but the blander unionism of Mr Major seems to be proving even more unmarketable. Beneath the ritual knockabout of party politics, a consensus has emerged which has slipped away from the commonalities of ‘Britishness’. Moreover, this reaction is considered rather than emotional.

Anyone observing the state of Scottish politics today has to be aware of the degree to which the country has recovered, not its ‘character’ (which suggests the awful semi-racial feyness of slim Thirties volumes), but its history. Pace J.G.A. Pocock’s recent piece ‘Deconstructing Europe’ in the London Review of Books, this is altogether weightier: history could be the tourist brochure or the liturgy of the marginalised, but in this case it seems to be the necessary map, though the country it shows seems significantly detached from ‘Britain’, or in Neal Ascherson’s rechristening, ‘Ukania’. To that group no longer embarrassed at calling itself the Scottish intelligentsia, the cultural opportunities now available in and from the country are simply so much more fascinating than anything achievable down south; moreover, in the last productive decade such ramifications have taken on a European aspect, which slips into no categories known to the London literary world.

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