Alasdair Gray has caused quite a lot of ripples with his article, eh? Culture and the arts, are major battlegrounds for consciousness and identity. Yet at present, writings in the Scots Leid undergo a “negrofication”. An understanding that works such as Kelmans or Welsh’s are quirky, cross-overs from parochial culture – the one of amateur writers and small plays in draughty churchhalls, unworthy of proper theatre space. Scotland has an international reputation in the arts, the Edinburgh Festival is renown the world over and to perform at its spin off, the Fringe, is the goal of many an up and coming. Yet what is promoted at the Festival is rarely classic Scottish works, while the city of Edinburgh is all tied up in a tartan bow for the benefit of the tourists. We need to create our own art, art which speaks to us, that can give us something to chew over about ourselves.
Any talk of “colonisation” in relation to Scotland by someone well kent and well loved wasnt exactly going to go down a storm with the establishment media now was it? Even if it wasnt entirely unexpected, the scale of the vitriol that has poured out is quite telling – although it should be noted that the substantive issues that Gray raises in his article go unaddressed. Those who would defend him from media smears are themselves smeared, and the smearing goes on and on until it is all nice and blurry. Scotland is one of the oldest colonies of the UK state and one of the most integrated. We must wave goodbye to the colonialists while welcoming settlers who enrich and fuse with our country rather than directing it.
The issue here is a trilateral relationship between the UK state, England and Scotland. Wales and Northern Ireland have similar, but not the same dynamics, but it is the Scottish relationships that I know best and will comment on here. We are heavily intermarried with the English, much of our trade is with the English, we travel frequently to England. English people, although meaning no malice, see Scotland as an extension of England – primarily because they identify themselves as British, not English.
Few in England see themselves as anything different from the UK state. To many English, England is racist, white and narrow-minded, whereas Britain is multicultural, international and loves all the countries of the UK equally. They live in the Britain. They are British. It is a non-statement. Asserting that you are English, on the other hand, is provocative. In Scotland, although assuming a British identity is not unusual, stating that you are Scottish does not have the same implications.
Those from England who accept high level jobs in Scotland – where they are in a position to influence the direction of the country – culturally or in any other sphere, come with the belief that they are directing a section of the UK. The assumption that UK concerns are Scottish concerns, or that what may bubble up from grassroots innovations are of less importance than those which can be syndicated from the UK neuters Scottish development.
What marks a settler from a coloniser is their ability to respect and value a tradition which is different to their own. And to understand that their worldview is not a universal one, but one shaped by their own experiences – that others have different collective experiences which gives rise to a different collective perspective. Colonisers on the other hand, assume that we are one – that the perspective they have is the perspective that is shared by the upper echelons and should consequently be the dominant discourse.
Much of this discussion tends to assume an understanding that the “English settlers” understand that they are “English settlers”. Personally, I think that understanding only comes with time. English people who move to Scotland at first believe that they are moving to a different region of the UK rather than moving to a different country. Settlers come not as colonisers, but neither do they come with the full appreciation that they are settlers. They do not initially imagine that its a different country, but with time and integration they come to understand and respect that Scotland has a culture, a history and a tradition, that they are now a part of. In the initial phase, many such settlers are feared, not because they are English, but because they are not. They consider themselves British and as such give rise to a unstated fear of continued colonisation.
Neither do many colonisers come with the full appreciation that they are colonisers. They live and work in the country but not as a settler, for their initial assumption of Scotland as a region of the UK does not diminish. When their children are in private schools, their contact with the very different Scottish education system is limited. At the upper end of the housing market it looks much the same as the English equivalent. Their working environment little different to the offices they inhabited in London. They never become a settler because they never consider themselves as having left their country, merely living in a different part of it.
Settler or colonialist is a mindset, but it is one shaped by the influences that come to bear on those who leave England to come to live in Scotland. We must welcome those from England who settle in Scotland, but at the same time we need to be empowered to assert our own individuality as a geographic and cultural entity. To not have our history marginalised and our culture downgraded. We must ensure that when we invite those of other countries to take their place within ours it is formed the understanding that it will enrich our culture to fuse it with theirs, and that we value international input from beyond our shores which can develop our own and give it new perspectives.
A whole scale import from a dominant culture is something that we should take care against. Not only for our own sakes, but for the sakes of future settlers who can continue to find in our country the unique perspectives that have shaped us, to inform their own relationships with us – not as a constituent part, but as an entity which is separate yet related. A narrow hold over a culture and a refusal to let it be shared and developed is narrow nationalism, but preserving our traditions so that they may be reborn anew – the Italian ice-cream parlours of the West Coast and the Pakistani restaurants of Glasgow, are testimony to a fusing of cultural traditions. But Italians and Pakistanis come with an understanding that we are a different country, and one to be respected.
English settlers into Scotland are to be welcomed, but it is the UK colonial mindset, which is to be carefully guarded against. Within the Arts and the cultural institutions which bind us, it is something that we must be careful against. For although economics determines reality, the conceptions of that reality need an outlet. We need to share our experiences and have them talked about, for we can never overcome colonialism if those who are charged with giving our collective conciousness voice are demeaned in favour of the playing to the colonisers’ tune.
And we must speak of this openly. The colonisation of Scotland must be named as such, without doing so, we risk falling into their trap – of becoming parochial, taking snide swipes at “The English”, of promoting the “Scottish Cringe”. For in culture, as in all else, we must take our power back for only then can we adequately share it with those who would value it.