Unstated – an edited collection on the theme of Scottish independence – has already caused what Scots would call a stramash. The uproar began in December, just days before the volume was published, when excerpts of Alasdair Gray’s contribution, ‘Settlers and Colonists’, appeared in the Scottish press.
Gray contended that since the 1970s, English men and women have been over-represented in the upper echelons of Scottish life, in ‘electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services’ and in the arts. The impact was explosive. Gray, a scion of Scottish literature and the author of modernist classicLanark, was decried as a racist in some quarters; in others, he was celebrated as a teller of uncomfortable truths.
Battle lines were hastily drawn. The Booker Prize winning novelist James Kelman – who is also represented in Unstated – came out in support of his fellow Glaswegian. Another west of Scotland writer, the Guardian columnist Deborah Orr, accused Gray of that gravest of literary sins, ‘parochialism’.
The most unfortunate aspect of the furore over Gray’s essay is not that many of those commenting had not read it – although clearly they had not; in full, it is a clumsy piece of writing but far less salacious than the headlines that greeted it – but that is has detracted from what is in the main a prescient and thoughtful anthology on one of the more surprising aspects of life on these islands (Ireland and Britain) right now: the rise of Scottish nationalism.
Next year, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. For the first time since 1922, the United Kingdom may lose a limb. If Scotland does vote ‘yes’ – a rather big ‘if’ given opinion polling – Europe will have a new nation; Ireland a new sovereign neighbour. This is pretty seismic stuff – as the strength of European Commission opposition to an independent Scotland automatically joining the EU attests.
Unstated compromises more than twenty-five essays, poems and reflections on this inchoate political dispensation from some of Scotland’s best known literary figures: alongside Gray and Kelman are offerings from Kathleen Jamie, James Robertson and Tom Leonard. The collection reflects an antinomy at the root of contemporary Scottish cultural life: the country is in the midst of arguably the most significant outpouring of cultural nationalism in a century, as Hames seems to recognise with a nod to Patrick Geddes in his perspicacious introduction, and yet ‘nationalism’ itself remains a rather dirty word.
‘By inclination I am not a nationalist by inclination,’ writes Glasgow-based novelist and playwright Suhayl Saadi in his self-consciously quixotic yearning for a more equitable state. Kevin MacNeil cautions that, ‘(n)ationalism is a poison that heals when taken mindfully and in appropriate measure but destroys utterly when taken in excess.’
Most of the writers gathered in Unstated, though not all, are willing to take a risk a sip from the hemlock cup embossed with the ‘n’ word. Even among supporters, however, the vision of an independent Scotland is hardly romantic; indeed pessimism about the future, inside or outside the UK, runs through much of the collection.
‘The truth is obvious,’ opines Jo Clifford, ‘we are part of a disunited kingdom whose other title really should be Insignificant Britain. Mediocre Britain.’ That the National Health Service emerges as a leitmotif is not as surprising as first appears: the much loved NHS, a symbol of the putative egalitarianism of the post-war generation, is in the process of being privatised by Tories south of the border but remains relatively unscathed in devolved Scotland.
In the early 1990s, sociologist David McCrone dubbed Scotland ‘a stateless nation’, a country without a state but with a strong sense of distinctive culture. Douglas Dunn teases apart this linguistic separateness in a fittingly lyrical poem about Scotland’s ‘three sound tongues’; English, Gaelic and Scots.
Evocations of Ireland often serve to highlight our differences. Inverting Yeats’s famous dictum, Janice Galloway declares that, with the Conservatives in power in Westminster, ‘a terrible beauty is on the slouch.’
Galloway, one of the most acerbic voices to have emerged from Scotland in the last 30 years, neatly sums up the dilemma facing her compatriots next autumn: ‘All we have to lose is what we signified – a jumble of mean-spirited stereotypes, our lost regiments and regimental glories, our status as the last kick of Empire, our sense that somehow we deserve not only less than we hope for, but a smack for getting big ideas in the first place.’
Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. Edited by Scott Hames is out now, Published by Word Power Books. This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 3 February, 2013.