A Very Grey Debate

Looking back on a week of unyielding controversy and debate over Alasdair Gray’s essay on the roles of English “settlers” and “colonists” in Scotland’s cultural life, I am reminded of a favourite quote from the brilliant Hungarian composer and socialist Béla Bartók:

Only a fool will build in defiance of the past. What is new and significant always must be grafted to old roots, the truly vital roots that are chosen with great care from the ones that merely survive. And what a slow and delicate process it is to distinguish radical vitality from the wastes of mere survival, but that is the only way to achieve progress instead of disaster.

As well as his enormous contributions to late romantic and early 20th century classical music, Bartók was a respected and influential “ethnomusicologist” and an ardent Hungarian nationalist. He was fascinated by Hungary’s musical heritage, but also the folk styles of foreign cultures, and sought to document and capture the raw spirit of indigenous music and blend it with a wider, cosmopolitan musical approach. Rather than chaining Bartók’s compositions to the styles of the past, the melodic intrigue and atonality of an under-represented folk culture was essential to his modernist approach, expressing a radical identity politics that sought to escape from the traditional Germanic dominance of Hungarian “high” culture.

Bartók was undeniably what we now call a “civic” nationalist. Like Alasdair Gray, he believed that the people of his nation were best placed to rule his nation – both culturally and politically. His nationalism was not ethnic. He, like Scotland’s civic nationalists, clearly saw ethnic nationalism as a painfully lazy surrogate for a properly developed sense of national identity. His commitment to promoting the native culture of the Hungarian people was inseperable from his socialism. He would travel to tiny villages, revelling in styles liberated from the fetters of a Germanicised Hungarian bourgeoisie. To Bartók, class and national identity could not be easily torn from one another.

So it is with Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Alan Bissett and Scotland’s many other fine left-wing civic nationalists (though Kelman rejects the term). Kelman’s essay in Unstated is, as Andy Wightman has pointed out, far more challenging and worthy of discussion than Gray’s, and features this:

Since the eighteenth century the cultural and linguistic movement of the Scottish bourgeoisie and ruling elite is total assimilation to Britishness where Englishness is the controlling interest. Scotland has its own languages too, and these are ‘living languages’, kept alive by people using them who, generally, are working class. Scottish literary artists have worked in these languages for centuries. Even where the writers are not themselves working class in origin the subject matter of the work is, as we see in some of the writings of Walter Scott or R.L. Stevenson.

This is true. So much of the criticism of the “colonisation” narrative in the Scottish nationalist conception of history is built on a fundamentally restrictive idea about how colonisation can operate. It need not be done by force of arms, although the large English army stationed on the Scottish border in 1705 to ensure the passage of the articles of union is worth noting. It can be done more insidiously, through the acceptance of the colonists’ culture by the ruling classes and, by extension, all those educated within their system. Gray implies this in his essay:

By the 1970s the long list of Scots doing well in the south was over balanced by English with the highest positions in Scottish electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services and art galleries…For 1990 the Labour Council that had ruled Glasgow almost continuously for sixty years hired the best English arts administrators money could rent, and gave them control of Glasgow’s main concert halls, theatres, and galleries.

If Alasdair Gray’s complaint with this was simply that the administrators were English, I would be appalled and depressed at the descent of a great artist into boring xenophobia. But, throughout the essay and other work, he makes it very clear that English people working to build a happy life for themselves in our country can make a welcome and essential contribution to Scottish life. His criticisms are levelled at “colonists”, by which he means those whose work is self-serving to the detriment of Scotland.

As Kelman argues, the problem of Anglicisation is not because Englishness is innately bad, but because the particular Englishness of elite Scotland has traditionally been innately bourgeois. It is, as with the Germanicisation of the Hungarian elite in Bartók’s time, the imposition of a culture that is inextricably linked to the oppression and exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. This is evident in Gray’s distinction between settlers and colonists. Settlers are those, like his examples of Edward Dwelly or Timothy Neat, who embraced the culture that was created by or representative of some aspect of Scotland’s working class. Colonists are those who sojourn up from London, fresh-faced from a life of privilege and elite education, and fit snugly into a jigsaw-hole of bureaucratic managerialism with all the centralising conservatism of Tony Blair’s ancien régime. Gray does not make this explicit, but his personal politics and expressed friendship towards the English as a people leaves no obvious alternative to this interpretation of his remarks.

Of course, the elites that handed Scotland over to Westminster in 1707 were as oppressive and exploitative of their people as those who followed them. This is where Gray’s argument might fall short. It could be said that he ignores the existence of a Scottish elite that is as self-sustaining and conservative as Gray’s “colonists”. One could argue (and somebody should have) that this is a symptom of our own romantic and false notions of Scotland as a fundamentally working-class and democratic nation, as opposed to the equally nonsensical stereotype of England as exclusively right-wing.

But Gray is not talking about institutional Scotland en masse. He largely restricts himself to Scottish culture, which generates our mythically left-wing national identity through its own genuinely left-wing, working-class nature. Our arts and culture are demonstrably more left-leaning than England’s, so the appointment of English administrators has to consider the extent to which they are able or willing to represent this, coming as they do from a more conservative cultural climate. Some can, and Gray sees them as settlers. Some can’t, and Gray calls them colonists.

This is obviously not the analysis being made in the media, in particular The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday newspapers. Their deeply patronising and shallow response to the Radical Independence Conference demonstrated either complete ignorance or unthinking dismissal of Marxian and other left-wing thought, making the tired old accusation of naiveté so often used by neoliberals to discredit ideas that challenge their modern hegemony over public ideology.

Why choose Gray’s essay over Kelman’s to make the subject of such controversy, despite both expressing or implying similar views on the cultural hegemony of Anglicised neoliberalism over Scottish political and cultural life? Because Gray was less clear in his expression, and used the controversial dichotomy of “settler” and “colonist” as an abstract creative device to illustrate his argument. By exploiting this, everyone can scream and shout about narrow conceptions of culture and identity while happily ignoring issues of class and inequality. Kelman is also explicitly opposed to the SNP, and defines himself as “not a nationalist”, so he is largely useless for political attacks.

As our Hungarian friend says, only a fool will build in defiance of the past. Scotland has certainly been culturally and politically colonised in the past. Not violently, but through force of ideas, appointment and education. We have also been dominated and subjugated by an ideology that dominates and subjugates the people of England, America, Germany and Hungary too. In this debate, what are the “truly vital roots that are chosen with great care from the ones that merely survive” that Bartók specifies?

There are undoubtedly aspects of Gray’s essay that we should avoid and challenge. I have used his terms of “settler” and “colonist” throughout this to defend his sentiments, but they are unhelpfully divisive regardless of their validity as an abstract distinction. The English in Scottish life are no more settlers and colonists than somebody from Edinburgh going to work in Glasgow, or somebody from London going to work in Newcastle. By the end of this awkward and confused public discourse, we should all hope that false accusations and real examples of anti-Englishness are consigned to the “wastes of mere survival” and left there.

The truly vital roots of this debate have been the much-needed and justified assaults on the continuing conservative hegemony – Anglicised or not – of our institutions and culture. People of privileged birth and upbringing – and I include myself here – have too many opportunities in Scotland, and people of modest roots and means have too few. It is likely that I will find a stable job, a fair salary and continuing opportunities to engage with national debates like this one purely because of a private education and encouraging parents.

Many of our conservative elite are defensive of this system, and will mobilise to protect it whenever threatened – but their control over the levers of influence and opinion is usually so absolute that such active protection is unnecessary. When Kevin Williamson called for a “social audit” of institutional Scotland, he illuminated precisely the vital roots we ought to be nurturing from a debate that has been a national embarrassment in its paucity of ideas and radicalism. We should establish just how dominated our nation is by people like myself, who have an undeserved and unfair advantage in life, and ensure that such dominance is challenged and, eventually, ended.

What a slow and delicate process it is to distinguish radical vitality from the wastes of mere survival. It has not been a slow and delicate debate. It has been frantic and defamatory. The conflation of Gray’s ideas with the far-right fascist organisation “Settler Watch” was a travesty of journalism. The useful points of the essays, and the many other excellent works in Unstated, have been largely ignored to focus on a bitter debate about an exaggerated and sensationalised anti-English narrative. People have made sweeping statements about other people’s ideas without reading them in the first place (including myself, in the early stages of the debate). A lifetime of profoundly compassionate art, dense with intoxicating magic and gripping realism, has been slandered in the name of a news cycle. We’re better than this.

Every idea has, somewhere within it, the vital roots of progress. Gray’s, though poorly expressed, is no different. If we sideline those roots to indulge in name-calling, we sideline progress itself. Imagine that Bartók – a man who demanded that his family use the Hungarian, not German, names for one another – was alive today. That brilliant humanist, socialist and anti-Nazi would probably have been called a fascist in the pages of “Scotland’s National Newspaper”. The generations of the future, blessed with the imaginative and cosmopolitan joys of Bartók’s music and ideas, would have looked back on such a useless slur with absolute disgust.

Oh, and merry christmas, I suppose.

Rory Scothorne
National Collective 


About Rory Scothorne

Rory Scothorne is a co-founder and political editor of National Collective. He studies History and Politics at Edinburgh University, where he has developed a taste for hard work in the same way that a shark develops a taste for lettuce. Rory is also a perfectly adequate songwriter and musician, but ruins it all by trying to sing as well.