Scots Myths (5) – “Either Scotland or the UK” or The Fallacy of the Zero-Sum Game

The more sharp-eyed followers of this blog will have noticed that in the background of the photograph of my poetry performance debut here the blackboard announces the appearance of Lesley Riddoch. This was in fact on the same night, and provided an interesting exercise in several ways.

The first was a good opportunity to hear in person some of the arguments for Yes in the independence referendum campaign; a second was an exercise in personal restraint, patience and courtesy being good for the mind and soul. (Nicola Sturgeon might try it, especially in televised debates.)

Having said that, it was testing to those virtues to hear Ms Riddoch say some things which were just plain wrong – “there is not a single opt-out school in Scotland” (while speaking in Thornwood, which just a mile or two from Jordanhill) and “Sectarianism is not a problem in Scotland outside Glasgow” (explained in terms of “No Catholics = No sectarianism”, which is what they might think in East Belfast.)

Lesley Riddoch featured those parts of her book Blossom which refer to culture and the Scottish sensibility, and what was most striking was the binary nature of her vision: everything was framed within an “either/or” framework. Her two examples were those of cultural sector funding, and the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

The second of these seems to be mostly a grievance against the curatorial polices of the gallery’s management, which could certainly be solved by measures well short of independence. These could include reforming the governance of the gallery or sacking the director, and maybe replacing them with someone more like, well, Lesley Riddoch, if that is what is wanted.

But the funding issue is more worthy of examination.

Her issue was that funding bodies are more inclined to favour events and bodies which represent establishment  or British rather than Scottish culture: in evidence, she called the case of Gaelic and folk music. Her case was that even where budgets are controlled by Scots, these favour non-Scottish culture disproportionately.

This appears to misinterpret several important points. The chief of these is an assumption that culture is only defined in terms of that which receives subsidy.

This is the cultural equivalent of the social policy fallacy which defines ‘community’ as ‘somewhere that has community workers,’ ignoring the strength of functioning and middleclass communities. Examples include when Jordanhill School was faced with local authority takeover in 1990s, or when the people of Milngavie objected to the extension of the treatment works which provides Glasgow with clean and safe drinking water. Mobs with pitchforks and torches in Southbrae Drive or at Bearsden Cross are a fearsome sight indeed.

Likewise with the case of music and culture: a lack of public sector subsidy for local and voluntary events and companies can be a sign of the strength of the cultural scene rather than the opposite.

For example, a quick visit to the Scottish Community Drama website shows its vigour and extent, while that of Creative Scotland appears to show that it receives no public subsidy from that source.

Likewise, it is a mark of the local strength of folk culture that it survives and thrives locally solely on the merits of its local support. Scotland is an especially good example of this: uniquely Scottish folk music includes a non-portable instrument in the piano, which firmly roots it in the church hall and village dance, as opposed to being based on itinerant (and frequently paid) musicians.

In short, it is quite wrong to assume that if there is no public subsidy for the arts, it is being discriminated against and will therefore suffer the agonies of suppression. Scotland is not, after all, Iraqi or Turkish Kurdistan.

The true position is not that the “approved” (in this case, British) culture squeezes out the “popular” (Scots) culture. On the contrary, these co-exist and indeed support each other: again the SCDA website shows actors and dramatists of UK prominence among its current and past patrons, and that winning productions have covered a vast range of Scots, British and international plays and playwrights. The fact is that there is space for both community arts and the subsidised sector, and that Scottish culture is richer for the presence of both: culture is not a zero sum game.

To take a further specific example, we can look at the career of one theatre director: Sir Michael Boyd. No doubt he is one of the people denigrated by the likes of Alistair Gray (quoted by Lesley Riddoch) as a “settler” –  born Belfast, educated in London and Edinburgh (and Moscow), trained at Coventry and Sheffield before serving at the Tron, Glasgow from 1982-96, and going on to the RSC in London and Stratford. His career can be judged in two ways.

One is that Sir Michael has been a self-interested English careerist, exploiting his opportunities in Scotland at the Tron as a springboard for his own British-determined ends and at the expense of Scots directors. The other is that he has committed himself to a wide range of theatrical settings and used these to explore and develop his art, sometimes in Scotland and sometimes in England.

In the end, it is a matter of our personal political views as to which of these views we take: whether we look for the merit of work such as Boyd’s in its (and his) national origin, or in its artistic achievement.  The difference is that between a nationalist and a theatre-lover: the former sees the presence of an English director as the displacement of a Scottish counterpart, while the latter sees the value of creating something with a value greater than the sum of its parts, and bringing its benefits to Scotland and beyond.

The same applies  to politics. It would be easy to trumpet the virtues of the nations of the UK working together by quoting the foundation of the NHS, when  Bevan applied the principles of the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as his native Wales. However, just as important in his work as Minister of Health and Housing was the second part of that portfolio, and the influence of John Wheatley, born in Ireland but who was brought up in Braehead and politically ascendant in Glasgow Corporation.

His great achievement was of course the popularisation of Council housing, which was founded on his own breakthrough proposals as published in 1913 in Eight Pound Cottages for Glasgow Citizens. As Minister of Health in the first Labour government in 1924, he paved the way for the transformation of working class housing across the UK, which was taken further in the reconstruction for which Bevan was responsible in the post-war years.

The outcome was that the ideas and policies of a Scottish pioneer and a Welsh minister became the achievement of UK governments, and hundreds of thousands of families across the whole country had modern homes and secure tenure, in many cases for the first time ever.

And it cuts both ways. In 1967, the UK Parliament, responsible for law in England and Wales, passed  the Sexual Offences Act, which legalised homosexual acts between consenting adult men. However, it required a further 13 years before Robin Cook introduced his amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980. Nonetheless, in this case, Scotland had benefited from the cross-pollination arising from proximity to its more liberal and progressive neighbour.

A more recent example is afforded by the Tory Party in government. In 1996, Professor Hugh Pennington headed an investigation into the outbreak of e. coli centred on Barr’s butcher shop in Wishaw.  His findings and recommendations for new food safety procedures were accepted by Michael Forsyth, then Secretary of State for Scotland and put into force as regulations. Forsyth then took these same recommendations to the UK Cabinet and argued successfully for them to be similarly adopted as regulations for the rest of the UK, with a result of preventing much risk of illness and death by food poisoning, benefiting not millions of people but tens of millions.

A final, and crucial, instance of the positive effects of seeing beyond the either/or binary perspective is that of the influence of not only politics but also politicians. There can be no doubt that the flow of individuals between Scotland and Westminster has made them more influential than they would have been had they stayed home.

The Labour Governments 1997-2010 boasted Scots in all of the great offices of state: Prime Ministers Blair and Brown, Chancellors Brown and Darling, Foreign Secretary Cook, Home Secretary Reid.  Earlier John Smith had served as Trade Secretary in the Labour government of 1970s; earlier still, the first Labour Prime Minister (and a Scottish Home Rule enthusiast) was Lossiemouth’s Ramsay Macdonald. The Tories had fewer MPs but again these punched above their weight: Rifkind (Foreign Secretary), Lang (President of the Board of Trade), Ancram (Northern Ireland Secretary) and more recently, the Liberal Democrats have had Danny Alexander (Chief Secretary to the Treasury.)

These are of course in addition to those who have brought their talents and a Scottish perspective to the Cabinet table as Secretary for State for Scotland:  historically such figures as Tom Johnston, Willie Ross and Bruce Millan, and then George Younger, and of course Donald Dewar and in the post-devolution era, Helen Liddell and Jim Murphy.

It is unlikely that the achievements of such a varied list would meet with full approval as successes by any single readership: however, what is not in doubt is that all of these have made their mark, and that this has been good both for them and especially for Scotland’s standing in the UK and the world.

This picture is also reflected in the further and wider element of the success of Scots in the United Kingdom: their presence in UK elites.  One needs only to see their influence in the media and journalism (e.g., Jeremy Isaacs, Andrew Neil, Kirsty Wark), the law (e.g., Helena Kennedy), the arts and literature (e.g., Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Neil MacGregor,  David Tennant, Billy Connolly, William Boyd, C J Sansom) and the military (in form of the numerous generals, admirals and air chief marshalls) to appreciate how much Scots have gained individually from the UK, and how both Scotland and the UK as a whole are better off because of their successes.

As Orwell showed us in his masterpiece Animal Farm, another UK hybrid (penned in Scotland at Barnhill on Jura), the mind is shackled by binary thinking: “4 legs good, 2 legs bad” is in essence the flaw which ensures that the animals’ ambitions will never be realised. In the same way, the dogma of UK or Scotland serves little sensible purpose in either culture or politics.

Finally, a further footnote demonstrates the mutually beneficial nature of the union. One of Lesley Riddoch’s contentions is that the Scottish mentality is one of being inhibited by undue deference, which she ascribes to Scotland being a “nation of tenants”. In other words, a nation of owner-occupiers would be much more self-assertive and confident. We can be sure that Michael Forsyth and every other follower of Margaret Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy policies would agree wholeheartedly, although these were rejected as “unScottish” at the time.

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