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.

It’s not just the foreign press, packing Gladstone’s gilt salon to hear Alex Salmond and your man present the SNP – though Scotland does seem the one class act in an election as depressingly hidebound as it is important. Think of those scores of German Literatur-wissenschaftler confronting the present cultural scene: Alasdair Gray juggling with realism and fantasy, Gait’s ‘theoretical histories’ and Carlyle’s semiotics, the perfectibilities of the Enlightenment and the grand maps of sociology. Or Kelman’s characters attempting to tap into a universal consciousness from the diurnal torments of poverty, insecurity and mindless routine. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s landscapes of revolution, Edwin Morgan’s unabashed Modernism and internationalism, Sorley MacLean’s simultaneous fight for his language and for a humanist socialism. It’s not so much a matter of individual writers – and these are only a few – as of a milieu and a particular stance, predisposed towards the ideological, the political, even the religious, in ways which suggest no southern parallel.

The trauma of 1979 has had a similar effect to ‘1898’ in Spain, when the loss of the colonies provoked a salutary and unsentimental re-examination of the values of the country. Cairns Craig, academic, critic, publisher and computer-man, wrote: ‘Instead of political defeat leading to quiescence, it led directly into an explosion of cultural creativity, a creativity coming to terms with the origins of the political defeat and redefining the nation’s conception of itself. The Eighties have been one of the most significant decades of Scottish cultural self-definition in the past two centuries.’ And in that decade three major scholarly ventures – the New History of Scotland, People and Society in Scotland, and the Literary History of Scotland, 19 volumes in all – duly took off. These projects were undertaken in a situation which gave sentimentality and the celebration of traditional national peculiarities little scope. But they signified that the various episodes of national development that Tom Nairn had seen Scotland dodging in the 19th century were suddenly swallowed in concentrated form.

Just how distinctive the resulting discourse is became plain to me on reading Noel Annan’s Our Age. Here was a stylish narrative – of the English clerisy – which I recognised, and had contributed to in a marginal way. But another narrative was loping alongside, identifying characters in Annan’s story – Reith, Sandy Lindsay, Patrick Geddes – but reading them from a different angle. ‘You look at Europe from the other end,’ says the Assistant Commissioner to Mr Vladimir in Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Something similar goes for the Scots, particularly now that the Commissioner is turning in performances like the Birmingham Six, and the old decencies seem perilously contingent.

To take one actor in Annan. John Buchan – in some ways a key figure of politics and culture in 20th-century Scotland – appears as a straightforward inter-war Tory, a somewhat archaic consensus-monger tainted by Appeasement. Seen from the north, he is much more complex: poacher, businessman, fabulist, spy, people’s remembrancer and shape-changer, the nature of whose true loyalties remained obscure right up to his death. The man who wrote the preface to the first volume of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry, and also told the Commons in 1932 – much to his own party’s embarrassment – that if the Scots wanted home rule they should have it, fits into no Clubland category.

If Buchan’s identity was veiled in the Sixties, ‘Our Age’ was firmly saddled up, and a notion of ‘social citizenship’ was imposed on a broadly homogeneous Britain; ‘Scotland’ seemed remote, even irrelevant. Nationalism was a creature of the Rose Street twilight – ‘the chip on the shoulder, growing and growing’ (Rayner Heppenstall’s words?) – scowling against the modern world. ‘Homogeneity’ was a function of imperial and wartime pressures, and a marginalisation of the Scots’ interpretations of their own past. Even when Scots history ‘broke through’ it seemed largely thanks to the jolt given by the work of Chris Smout and Harry Hanham: a Cambridge Liberal and a New Zealander.

Part of the problem was the shattered nature of Scottish historical explanation, alternately cosmic and dwarfish: emblematic in the fricative genius of MacDiarmid coupled to the impossibile public performer. Some huge construction was obviously around, yet its great design was unachieved, its putative components either grotesquely overblown or parochial, located in some limbo, as Nairn put it, ‘between Milne’s Bar and the Absolute Idea’.

Something of this seemed present in the work which, more than any other book, provided the title-deeds of the cultural revival: George Davie’s The Democratic Intellect, published by Edinburgh University Press in 1961, was fallible as a history of Victorian Scottish universities, but an eloquent restatement of the deductive basis of the Scottish intellectual tradition assaulted by Buckle and Mill in the 1860s and seemingly surrendered without a fight. What has been occurring in Scotland since Davie wrote – in imaginative literature as much as in history or criticism – has been the reconstruction of philosophic explanation in the ruins of empiricism. Davie’s account is classically liberal in his sense of the autonomy of ideas – suggesting the style of that last of the literati, Mark Pattison – but if we reify Scottish wissenschaft with the political history of the place we can go far towards accounting for the power of present intellectual developments.

One element of this is straightforwardly political. The 1707 Union didn’t mean the cessation of Scottish politics, but a type of dualist division in which much political activity – particularly in the educational, legal and religious spheres – was settled by Scots in Scotland, until the mid-19th century. The institutional and ideological breakdown which struck after the autonomy of the Kirk broke apart, in 1843, paralysed the cultural milieu for fifty years, while not destroying its fundamental formation.

Thereafter, Scotland was bound into the Union, not by any fundamental shift in political culture to create a ‘British’ identity, but by a complex political sub-system, rooted in the creation of the Scottish Office in 1885. Operated by civil servants and skilful fixers recruited from the national bourgeoisie, this juggled ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ loyalties and commitments, largely by keeping a substantial amount of decision-making within the public sector. Agriculture was the first to receive the treatment, then the country’s congested urban housing. After World War One, when the over-expanded heavy industries of the Clyde Valley slipped into endemic crisis, the Scottish Office’s remit was gradually extended into the economic field.

At various stages in this process, administrative devolution provoked demands for a legislature. Agitation within the Liberal Party, headed by the Young Scots Society, brought the prospect of a parliament in view in 1913, as part of a home-rule-all-round settlement. This vanished with the Liberals, to reappear with the Independent Labour Party. Even Ramsay MacDonald, in his National Government persona, rambled back to his political infancy as Secretary of the Scottish Home Rule Association, and got some support from his minder, John Buchan. Although the Tories steered clear of such commitments, the shift by 1939 towards autonomous economic decision-making, in the hands of such cultural nationalists as Walter Elliot (who coined the phrase ‘the democratic intellect’), was such that the parliament idea again surfaced.

Enter Labour. In the Forties almost obsessively centralist, yet ushered into power in Scotland by Tom Johnston, a classic étatiste devolver. For a couple of decades Labour’s formula was not participative democracy but equality of access to employment and social welfare. But the Scottish element in this was a powerful and ‘national’ Scottish Office, and ‘Scottish’ nationalised industries like the Hydro Board. The misfit between these two tendencies produced the classic middle-class nationalism of John MacCormick’s Scottish Covenant Movement, and a thrawn Labour disengagement from anything which savoured of home rule, but over time the cumulative weight of the ‘Edinburgh end’ was bound to amplify demands for legislative control.

Elsewhere in Europe such a bipartisan drive towards autonomy – political and bureaucratic – would have been used to propel the reconstruction of local capitalism: the ‘bourgeois regionalism’ of Catalunya, Lombardy or Baden-Wuerttemberg. Indeed this nearly happened, with Edward Heath’s ‘Declaration of Perth’ in 1968, in favour of a devolved parliament. But in Scotland the private sector was no match for either Labour centralism or the rapacity of the City of London. The first fearfully complicated Labour’s attempt to devolve authority in the Seventies, ending in the disaster of the Referendum; the second swallowed most of Scotland’s manufacturing enterprises in the mid-Eighties. Rule by the sort of Secretary of State who could produce some sort of consensus by phoning up his cousins in steel or shipping ended when George Younger left the Scottish Office in 1986. The timid careerism of Malcolm Rifkind was overborne by Mrs Thatcher’s attempts to justify the feral behaviour of the City by reassembling the Scottish tradition in her own image.

It was inevitable that the demolition of the ‘social citizen’ ideal would strengthen the drive towards the participatory notion of civil rights that underlay self-government. This was further intensified by the assault on the ‘British’ nationalised industries. But what gave Thatcher’s megalomaniac project the true quality of hubris was the fact that its intellectual recklessness – itself a characteristic product of the Anglo-Scot on the loose, Madsen Pirie or Norman Stone – collided with a Scots conviction that we did at last know where we were, and where we wanted to go. The information revolution had managed to coincide with the cultural renaissance, without playing into the hands of the large concerns, and in tourism, the media, financial services, ecology, the intellectuals discovered that they weren’t redundant when it came to the process of industrialisation. In most 19th-century states, and indeed in contemporary Quebec or Eastern Europe, constitutional change – with its cast-list of poets, historians, lawyers and priests – preceded industrial change. The same could be said for 18th-century Scotland. In the late Eighties Alasdair Gray’s ‘Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Republic’ seemed, with half a glance at Norway or Quebec, manageable; Thatcherland, and its more benign variants marketed by Owen and Kinnock, could be avoided.

So here we are, like Jock MacLeish in Gray’s 1982 Janine – a bad night behind us, but keeping our balance and hoping that we won’t fall off the stage again. And balance is necessary. There is an outside chance that if the British Labour vote collapses, and the Labour vote in Scotland starts to crumble in the SNP’s direction, the SNP could get a majority of Scottish seats and force a constitutional crisis by withdrawing from Westminster. But it is more likely that the process will be a two-stage one, with the crucial operation being to knock the Conservative Party right out of Scottish politics, by removing their last MPs. This is rough on one or two decent men, and makes a mockery of the ‘first past the post system’, as it will remove representation from almost a fifth of the Scottish nation. But such a ‘revolution’ is the essential requirement of a ‘strong’ devolution settlement – towards which, it must be said, the livelier elements in the Constitutional Convention are moving.

This leaves open, of course, the question of what we are going to do with our autonomy. Can there be much future for a devolved parliament with limited powers over the economy and none whatever over defence and foreign policy? This sort of divided authority can really only operate in a Britain not just broken up into smaller units but accustomed to some kind of balanced federalism. But is there any enthusiasm in England for regional government? About as much, I doubt, as there is among the Scottish talents on Labour’s Front Bench for serving on the Calton Hill. My hunch is that the first Scottish parliament, elected by PR, will see a Lib-Lab coalition pursued by an SNP opposition. Then it will be our turn, and we’ll be in the Quebec situation, steering for the status of a small, greenish nation state with crotchets about sustainable growth, disarmament, distance learning and civil rights. Slippery slopes are exhilarating places. Wheech!