JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 26.12.09
IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME, and a traditionally snowy one at that; time for a bit of cultural nostalgia and political stock-taking, particularly on the tenth anniversary the global celebrations of the new millennium. A few days ago, one London newspaper chose to mark the occasion by choosing ten iconic figures of the past decade, real and fictional, good and bad; and an interesting bunch they were, ranging from Osama Bin Laden to Britney Spears.
The arts writer and broadcaster Mark Lawson, though, chose to write about Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling’s superstar boy wizard, with his low-key swotty glamour, and his strangely archaic boarding-school setting, all gothic architecture and access by steam train. He noted, in passing, just how many of the great British heroes whose image recurs in popular entertainment around this time of year – Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, as well as Harry Potter – were actually created by Scots; and it’s easy enough to think of other examples, from John Buchan’s Richard Hannay to Kenneth Grahame’s Toad, fast-driving king of the Thames Valley idyll.
It’s a sharp observation, and one that’s worth mulling over, as we in Scotland reflect on ten years of devolution, and look forward to yet more change. For if there’s one thing that’s clear about the current political scene, it’s that the politics of union between Scotland and England remain deep and complex, and are not going away any time soon. In the past week alone, we’ve seen a major row over the SNP’s exclusion from the planned series of television debates among mainstream party leaders; and a minor one over the views of Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, on how sterling interest rates would be determined following Scottish independence. And this kind of prickly debate and renegotiation can only intensify, with the likely arrival of a new Conservative government at Westminster, and a referendum bill at Holyrood.
So as we enter this new period of constitutional uncertainty, it seems to me a good idea that we should strive, this time round, to be ever more fully aware of the cultural density and richness of the bonds we are renegotiating, and of the strange forces that can be unleashed – with a truly Potteresque whoomph! – when we change the structures that support them. Last time around, many Scots were taken aback, and even distressed, by the force of the sudden cultural backlash against the new Scottish Parliament, during its early years. After the initial euphoria of the opening, in 1999, there was a period of cruel emotional let-down and self-laceration, in which hideously snobbish and dismissive things were written about MSP’s, their calibre, their accents, their clothes and their weight. Some of this came as a rational response to the mismanagement of the Holyrood project, and the protracted row over the new parliament building.
Some of it, though, was a profound and visceral backlash, from middle-class Scotland, against the unfamiliar sight of Scottish decisions being taken by a parliament of ordinary-looking modern Scots. We were used, at the deepest level, to being governed by a parliament that was “other” to ourselves, and that we had been trained to regard as “better”; larger, more commanding, better spoken, less provincial and – in its heyday – the beating heart of the greatest empire the world has ever seen. And the fictional British heroes created by Scots, often at the height of that love-affair with imperial Britain, reflect the depth of admiration, of aspiration, of yearning and even of desire unleashed in many able Scots by this promise of access to the great British stage.
J.M. Barrie in Kensington Gardens, Kenneth Grahame in the Thames Valley, Conan Doyle in his fictional version of Baker Street, even post-modern J.K. Rowling, wryly acknowledging the enduring strength of the old British boarding-school narrative – all of them reflect the exhilarated, dream-come-true sense of coming from the periphery to the very centre of the world. And the heroes they create are projections of all that that journey means to them; which is why only outsiders can create such heroes, observing and idealising the detail of the culture they represent with an eager, lover-like intensity.
And of course, all that is coming to an end, now. The Empire and its glittering opportunities are long gone. Westminster has blotted its ancient copy-book, making Holyrood shine by comparison; and the love-affair with Britishness was always a middle-class thing in Scotland, often passed on – as throughout the Empire – by ardent schoolteachers, to that minority of children who had ears to hear the beauty of Shakespeare, or of Tennyson. It never penetrated Scottish popular culture; and it never wholly devoured those powerful strands of distinctively Scottish literature and thought that have gradually reinvented themselves, over the last century, to create a new, post-modern Scottish voice in world culture.
But we would be fools – at Christmas or any other time – to deny the intensity of the cultural ties that have bound our two nations together, and the depth of the emotions that can still be aroused by apparent threats to them. These are not, of course, arguments against independence. In some sense, the very complexity and archaism of the ties that bind us to England makes it the more important that we unravel and examine them, and make clear decisions about how to express them in the 21st century; this, I think, is what SNP politicians mean when they talk about the enduring “social union” between England and Scotland.
In a wider sense, though, it’s worth remembering that just as love makes the world go round, so it’s the yearning for the “other”, in a political and cultural sense, that fires up aspiration, that drives change, that creates great art and ideas, and gives birth to new times. Scotland’s affections may be shifting, now. But it’s the power to both to love ourselves, and to love what is not ourselves, that keeps any nation or human being alive; and if we can remember that truth, from our long history on this island, then our future will be brighter and richer for it, and more open.