Undeclared Republics: Scotland’s Artistic Independence

“Oxymoron was ever the bravest figure, and we must not forget that disorderly order is order after all.”

— G Gregory Smith, Scottish Literature: Character and Influence

Peoples of the world: turn your attention to Scotland. Look, you can see me waving.

As some (though frankly, not enough) are aware, 2014 will see the country I call home determine its own future. At the culmination of what has already become a very bitter campaign, Scotland will vote in a referendum to decide whether it will remain part of the United Kingdom, or declare itself a distinct, independent nation — with everything that implies. The stakes could not be higher.

Thus far, from the perspective of anyone but the most abject cynic, the campaign has been inspiring and depressing in equal measure. Within our borders, debate over Scotland’s possible futures has been more intense, widespread and passionate than at any other point in my lifetime. Yet it cannot be denied that the Scottish people’s overall reaction to the most significant decision in over three centuries has hardly been one of mass hysteria. Cats and dogs are not, as yet, living together.

Even in such interesting times, the thick skull of political apathy has barely been dented, nevermind cracked; if this is history in the making, then many seem to be distinctly underwhelmed. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that the cause of this lies with the political class which has done so much to turn a matter of highest principle into a grubby, unedifying party-political grudge match. With the fate of a nation on the line, the official fronts of both sides — career politicians, all — have given in to their worst impulses as a matter of routine, and voters have grimaced accordingly. By contrast, the most original, intelligent and humane discourse on the issue has almost entirely emanated from voices lacking any party affiliation, and in particular from the Scottish arts. Recognition of this fact may have fuelled some unexpected recent developments.

This November, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which comprises the bulk of the pro-independence campaign and has a ruling majority within the Scottish Parliament, will publish its much-anticipated White Paper, intended to be the full case and the final word on why Scotland should pursue its own self-determination. On 13 July, an interview in the UK Observer newspaper with First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond — would-be national liberator and professional fat bastard — came garlanded with a surprising detail concerning the document: the SNP plan to recruit the assistance of Scotland’s finest writers in putting it together.

Annoyingly, no one’s asked me yet.

“I believe in this document and I also believe in its importance for the Scottish people and people beyond our shores,” Salmond said. “I want it to resonate down through the ages.” As quoted in the Guardian, a ‘Scottish government source’ explained further: “Inevitably, the document will be long, informative and redolent of civil service expertise and attention to detail. However, there should also be a precis or interpretation, written for the people and designed to capture the imagination. It would seem appropriate to see this composed by one of Scotland’s great literary talents. To win independence we need prose to inform, but also poetry to inspire.”

According to these reports, by far the most popular choice within the SNP upper echelons is William McIlvanney, who is — being sympathetic to independence, as well as widely regarded as our greatest living novelist — an obvious choice. (Full disclosure: Mr McIlvanney was also the Best Man at my parents’ wedding. I have met him, I believe, all of three times, the most recent of which was when I was about 13. If you believe this constitutes bias, so be it). While comments could be found from a number of talking heads who were broadly enthusiastic about the whole notion, there was, curiously, no word from McIlvanney himself. It’s possible that this was the first he heard of it.

If so, then it is bad form, to say the least. Putting his name and the White Paper together in a public context, before any official agreement has been made would seem to put McIlvanney in an impossible position. This would certainly be a strange move on the SNP’s part, if its wish is to gain the writer’s favour. Still, making McIlvanney an offer he cannot refuse, as it were, would not be uncharacteristic of Salmond, who often gives the impression of having been a Corleone in a previous life.

If McIlvanney does choose to fulfill SNP’s latest wheeze, I have no doubt that it will be thoughtful, lyrical and entirely worthy of one of Scotland’s best writers. I would not presume to tell him what course of action he should take (though perhaps, in private, giving our illustrious First Minister a clip ’round the ear might be considered eminently justifiable). Sure, there are doubts and qualms to be articulated, but when given the opportunity to help change one’s country, and maybe to help shape what exactly it changes into, anyone could be forgiven for weighing the options carefully.

I do not necessarily disagree with the great and growing number of voices who yearn for the touch of poetry in their governance. I believe art is transformative, and if all goes to plan, we will soon be a nation transformed; it seems only fitting that one should celebrate the other.

Yet the arts in general and, I would argue, the Scottish arts in particular, does not require the endorsement of its government; the government, by the same token, no matter what orientation it may take, should not seek the endorsement of the artists it governs in quite so shameless a manner. The SNP, nor any other organization, for that matter, need not fear that artists will somehow miss the fact that history is being made. It will respond accordingly. It always does. Perhaps that thought is what injects a little fear into those who might seek to corral the literary herd.

Though we try not to dwell on it, the people of Scotland are aware of how we are seen in the world, and though we may not admit it, we do care about how we are perceived. It’s hard not to care, when so much of that perception is reflected back at us; there can be few souls in Scotland unaware of Sean Connery, or Groundskeeper Willie, or their status as our unofficial ambassadors. Occasionally I get irritated by this, but then the Armenian part of my brain pipes up and reminds me that another chunk of my heritage is best known in the Western world by the name of ‘Kardashian’… So I count my Caledonian blessings.

The point is, Scottish politicians do not represent us to the world; it’s a downside of officially having no nation to represent. However, even if circumstances were different, they would not be dramatically so; we are represented by our cultural figures, not our political ones, and that is unlikely to change within the foreseeable future. To take a sad recent example, the late Iain Banks will always be known to this world in a way that Alex Salmond can only dream of. And part of me, the part that gives a damn about the artist’s place in society, thinks that is exactly as it should be. Art is bigger.

Nevertheless, old questions beckon. We spend a great deal of time and intellectual energy debating what link, if any, does and should exist between art and politics. The more pertinent question is: What might happen if such a link was severed? We cannot and must not leave the business of articulating our own country to anyone so poorly equipped as politicians. The story of a nation demands more.

“The power of imagination opens horizons. Our democracy has become staid and provokes apathy amongst a distrusting population. The artist seeks more. Whilst a political class pushes policy and lectures to an increasingly unlistening audience, our artists offers his viewers thought. Through words and metaphor, other times through paint and material, they engage an audience in a quest for personal discovery. We each look at our world differently and reach individual conclusions when given space to consider. The politician asks his people to empower him, the artist asks his people to be empowered.” (‘Manifesto: Imagine a Better Scotland’ National Collective.)

Let us be clear: the story of a nation is not that nation’s history. Its history, by and large, is a series of murders, births, movements of money, the signing of pieces of paper which invalidate or alter previously signed pieces of paper, and so forth. The story of the nation is told by the people of that nation, primarily to each other. After frantically whispering amongst ourselves for a while, an edited, sanitised version of the story may be presented to the rest of the world, in the hope the suckers will buy it. In either case, the story is, hopefully, a narrative which does not contradict the facts, but is also greater than their sum (and which also make sense, which mere history never does).

It is the meaning we choose to impose on the chaos, the reality we attempt to bring to life. And of course, the story never ends: it merely runs out, with a sense of anticlimax, when it reaches all of us, sitting in the present day. Now read on, it says, dot dot dot…

When Victor Hugo was writing Les Miserables, his publisher apparently expressed some polite hesitation over the novel’s extensive interlude describing the Battle of Waterloo. Understandably, the publisher wondered if one of France’s most devastating military defeats might be a bit of an unpopular subject for 19th century French readers. Hugo told his publisher not to worry: in his version, “we win.

This, in extremis, is how the story of a nation is written. Obviously, Hugo did not write an actual military victory for Napoleon, nor did he change the events of history, but he made the battle part of an epic narrative, the heroine of which was France herself. As Hugo demonstrated, those most affective at weaving and manipulating the story of a nation are the artists that nation produces. They write the story, and also become a part of it.

Bearing all that in mind, the temptation for such a writer to look further in our national story, to imagine the next chapter, and perhaps write it ahead of time… I judge no one who is unable to resist that temptation, particularly when an SNP government invites them to do so.

Of course, talent breeds ego, which artists should, and usually do, have in abundance. Artistically minded egotists have, throughout history, often taken it into their brilliant, broken minds that reality can be controlled as easily as their art, and perhaps, through the application of their godlike creative powers, one might become the other.

In 1919, Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian Symbolist poet and bald fascist sex field, angered by the Italian government’s refusal to annex the city of Fiume, promptly decided to do it himself, seizing Fiume with around 2,600 motley followers and declaring himself ‘Duce’. The constitution which followed, the Carta del Carnaro, was a bizarre mixture of anarchist, syndicalist and proto-fascist ideology, which designated “music” as the fundamental principle of the state. The so-called ‘Italian Regency of Carnaro’ lasted about a year.

D’Annunzio was a poet determined to write the story of a nation, even if he had to found it himself; he was also a nutcase. Nevertheless, his tale illustrates the pitfalls of mixing the volatile elements of art and politics with insufficient care. The story of a nation can start wars, bring down or raise up governments, create or topple empires — it can even define good and evil, if you let it (though there are probably better places to look for such definitions). The story matters. And, though not in the way D’Annunzio envisaged, art may alter the reality which inspired it. The story might come true.

The artistic response to the possibilities of independence has risen simultaneously with a wider campaign for Scottish nationalism which explicitly transcends the pettiness of party politics. The SNP, for decades keen to portray itself as the only game in town, no doubt regards this with mixed feelings. The campaign for Scottish independence is indeed greater than the SNP, but it would prefer nobody pointed it out. Meanwhile, the pro-independence voices within the Scottish arts have allowed their imaginations far freer reign than any political party would dare allow.

Key amongst these voices is National Collective, a self-described organisation of ‘Artists and Creatives for Independence’, which has, with fresh eyes, raw talent and unconventional thinking, enlivened and improved the quality of the independence campaign immeasurably. Building a new cultural nationalism to compliment its burgeoning political equivalent, National Collective and other organizations like it has established its own independence of mind and spirit, benefiting both its members and the country at large in the process.

While the arts produced by Scotland, like those of almost every country, are far too varied to be truly summed up by most grand, sweeping summations, there has always been a powerful, undeniable strain of political engagement within our artistic spheres. The most obvious and overlooked example from recent history is probably the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, for much of the 20th century the preeminent Grumpy Old Man of Scottish letters, who managed the neat trick of being thrown out of both the as-it-then-was National Party of Scotland (for being a Communist) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (for being a Scottish nationalist). This should illustrate just how unique MacDiarmid’s own nationalism was, informed equally by politics and poetry, and how ironic it is that he should now be admiringly quoted by nationalists of all stripes.

MacDiarmid, to put it lightly, could hardly have cared less about the endorsement of any government that did not match the idealised (and entirely personal) Scottish republic, which forever haunted his life, his dreams and his poetry. Nevertheless, MacDiarmid is endlessly quotable, but more importantly he’s dead — a fact that many in Scottish politics and literature no doubt treat with a sense of relief. If wee Hughie heard Mr Salmond blithely cribbing bits of his verse, as he is prone to do, MacDiarmid’s rage would likely shake the Scottish Parliament to pieces. Much of the Scottish arts scene could learn something from MacDiarmid’s contempt, or from his faith in the power of his own art, alone and unsullied.

“Scotland is no paradise, partly because it cannot imagine itself being one. So ingrained are some of the most negative aspects of the country that it is difficult to imagine a time without them. But we must try to imagine a country where sectarianism and racism and resentment belong to a past which has been given up. Where male and female identity are broken down and rebuilt in a better form. Where the new Scottish stories are better than the old ones.” (Dominic Hinde, ‘Extending the Realm of the Possible’, National Collective)

Weirdly, understanding Scottish nationalism is a lot easier if you’re familiar with the science fiction of alternate universes. If so (and if not, just what were you reading in high school?), then you will understand the concept of endless variations on a single theme, whether tiny or monumental in nature, inhabiting infinity with their neverending, ever-evolving, uncontrollable multiplicity. This, for lack of a better comparison, can be taken as a model for what goes on inside the minds which constitute the Scottish nationalist movement. Each one dreams, big or small, of a different Scotland — what the poet Douglas Dunn referred to as our ‘undeclared republic’. And while their dreams may have many things in common, there is always enough variance to keep their imaginings unique, and to keep the debate entertainingly provocative.

None of this will be news to most international readers: I mentioned Victor Hugo earlier. Is Hugo’s France the same as Balzac’s? Is Mark Twain’s America the same as Chuck Palahniuk’s? Almost certainly not. They may share borders, and landmarks, but the truth is, we have as many national identities as personal ones.

Since you ask, I do have a Scotland of my own; a Scotland which exists inside my head. Like most of our imagined republics, it is a mixture of qualities which are as old and permanent as Scotland itself, and elements which are strangely, delightfully alien to our everyday status quo. It is an escape from stereotype. It is something new. I’ve designed my own flag, but something tells me the world isn’t quite ready for that yet.

I visit this Scotland sometimes, in thought and dream and sometimes on paper. I owe far more of this version of Scotland the art and the imagination than I do to the grey, tedious reality I so often occupy. And I know, no matter what the eventual result of the independence referendum, no matter how radical or conservative our future might turn out, no matter what unimaginable transitions and transformations may yet await us, the Scotland that rises from it all will not be the one in my head. That’s kind of the point.

But that doesn’t matter. Because I know I will never stop fighting for my Scotland, nor will I ever stop considering myself a citizen of the republics we build out of dreams. Art is the only place where such visions can even begin to approach reality, and for that we should be eternally grateful, as well as mindful of the role the artistic imagination plays in the story of our nation. Scottish politics is, at its common worst, a place of dead and dying dreams; art, Scottish or otherwise, is a place where dreams cannot die.

“If you wish to gain an idea of what revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to acquire an idea of the nature of progress, call it Tomorrow. Tomorrow fulfils its work irresistibly, and it is already fulfilling it today. It always reaches its goal strangely.”

— Victor Hugo, Les Miserables