Review: Nation and Culture at #dundeelitfest


Of Scotland’s cultural festivals, Dundee Literary Festival clearly isn’t shying away from the referendum debate. To open this year’s proceedings, event organisers teamed up with Five Million Questions – an established series of independence debates hosted by the University of Dundee – to present a panel discussion and Q&A on the subject of ‘Nation and Culture’.

The goal of the evening, as its excellent chair Scott Hames (editor of Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence) explained, was for the public to get their voices and questions heard. To that end, each panelist spent five minutes introducing themselves, their work, and their perspective on the referendum debate before the floor was opened to questions and comments.

First to speak was David Robinson, a former Scotsman journalist who began by explaining that he “was a nationalist once, but not for long” – a teenage British nationalist, who snubbed French achievements when visiting a pen pal in Paris and boasted about the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, only to discover that his pen pal had never heard of either. That small-minded offensiveness, as he called it, was short-lived – but his British identity was not.

Suggesting that Alasdair Gray might describe him as a ‘settler’, having come from England to live in Scotland for 27 years, he said he was more British than Scottish, and he slammed suggestions that ‘British’ could become a geographical term like Scandinavian or European, saying that would mean it isn’t a serious identity. On independence, he said he couldn’t see anything coming of it other than a narrowing of identities, discarding all but Scottishness and Englishness.

He was followed by Christopher Whatley, a well-known professor of Scottish History at the University of Dundee in the process of re-writing his book, Scots and the Union. In doing so, he says he’s struggled with the question: why this relationship with England? He questions what has held the Union together over so long, given that it proved unpopular in Scotland in 1707.

His answer was two-fold: first, that the creation of the Union had powerful rationale, despite what people in Scotland felt emotionally; and secondly that unionism was deep-rooted, older than 1707, and that Scots in the 14th Century had dreamed of a united Britain.

He said it was “best to be at peace, not at war” and there were things that Scotland and England can do better together (while insisting that wasn’t a campaign endorsement). He claimed that Scotland and other small, independent nations had striking differences, pointing to the Baltic states in particular; those, he argued, had been subject to cultural suppression, whereas Scotland has known nothing of the sort. For most Scots, he said, the Union has been fairly benign.

The closing comment of Whatley’s introduction was an expression of disappointment that neither side of the referendum campaign had used history in making their case. He contrasted the historical and pragmatic cases for independence, and said practicality “is not what builds nations”. When I challenged him from the audience, suggesting a cultural argument could be made based on the future rather than the past, he said he didn’t know “how you build a culture from nothing”, but found cultural movements for a new Scotland, such as National Collective, exciting.

Artists are international. Creatives aren’t prepared to have culture or its meaning dictated to them, and they aren’t part of the establishment”

Whatley was followed by an equally high-profile figure, Jim Tough, Chief Executive of the Scottish Arts Council and Executive Director of the Saltire Society. He focused on language, noting that much has changed since the Saltire Society was established in the 1930s, with Scots, Doric, Cumbric, and Gaelic increasingly recognised as the ‘voice’ of Scotland and its peoples. Language and social class are intertwined, he said, and breaking down those class barriers would be key to creating a fairer country, whatever Scotland’s constitutional status. But “culture isn’t tidy”, he also emphasised: growing up in Scotland, he enjoyed music and film from the US and the rest of the UK without it infringing on his Scottish identity.

Crime writer, playwright, and occasional comic book writer Denise Mina spoke next, starting her speech with something akin to a disclaimer. “The nature of a referendum is that everyone gets a say and nobody is wrong,” she said, urging participants in the debate not to start out adversarial. Her greatest hope, she said, is that the debate itself can “change culture in the way we speak to each other”.

“Artists are international,” she pointed out – claiming she herself has a blindness to accents. Creatives aren’t prepared to have culture or its meaning dictated to them, and they aren’t part of the establishment. She also pointed out there’s “loads of culture in Govan; it’s just not recognised as culture,” with the recognition of culture as class-specific, and often gendered.

Later in the debate, she said “moderates have to get militant” and there needs to be a “moratorium on Yes/No” so that the general public isn’t put off from engaging in the debate. She said people have disproportionate degrees of investment in this debate, to whom it’s become about winning an argument they’ve been having for a long time.

The final panelist introduced was Calum Colvin, a self-proclaimed practitioner of painting, sculpture, and photography, who made a brief presentation showing cultural images from his childhood, like a picture of Bonnie Prince Charlie on a tin of shortbread and a still from Disney’s Rob Roy – as, he says, “we didn’t get taught Scottish history, we got Rob Roy”.

His own works, when he presents them, feature a satirical edge; one portrays the Massacre of Glencoe with the Campbells and MacDonalds swapped out for Campbell’s soup tins and McDonald’s hamburgers. “This Disney portrayal of our culture has always fascinated me,” he said, talking about Scotland’s “false history [that] we’re only now beginning to delve deeper into.”

We didn’t get taught Scottish history, we got Rob Roy”

In response to a question about feeling Scottish in an independent Scotland, Whatley offered that “national identity is strongest in opposition”, pointing to vast celebrations across Scotland in 1859 – the centenary of Robert Burns’ birth – as an example of what he described as nationalist cultural surges within the Union. Consistent questioning about the nature of nationalism eventually pushed Whatley to opine also that the debate is not about nationalism, but about the most efficient forms of governance. Saying he personally wanted to see a federalised Britain, he suggested the most important thing to keep in mind while voting was that, either way, “we have to live with our neighbour south of the border”.

Conventional politics rose its head briefly on only two occasions: the first was one audience member’s mention of Westminster’s Immigration Bill, which she characterised as “a disaster for this university”; and the second was when Mina let loose an unchallenged scare about private sector pensions. No panellists lingered on either subject – Colvin lamented that the economic argument is never-ending, and distanced himself from it.

So, the panel continued to focus on identity and nationalism. One particularly bizarre contribution from the audience was the claim that “British nationalism is working quite well”, while Robinson tackled another question by talking about how “identities come sometimes from very strange places” and that “Britishness is impossible to define”.

The most incisive question (besides my own, of course) came from a young woman towards the back, who asked about the franchising of 16 and 17 year olds in the referendum. As most panelists touched on their childhoods at some point, she wondered how they thought they’d have engaged with the referendum debate as kids.

Colvin only responded that he grew up as a Labour supporter, with the SNP widely seen as “a mad, fringe party” – but today, and suspecting others feel the same, he said he doesn’t recognise the Labour Party any more. Politics has changed since their childhoods. That comment drew the debate to a close – and the audience moved into the foyer for much needed complimentary wine.

Connor Beaton
National Collective

Photograph by Stephen Stills.