On Wednesday 16th August Andrew O’Hagan was invited by the Edinburgh International Book Festival to deliver a keynote lecture on the future of Scotland. O’Hagan argues the question is now beyond nationalism but about the country’s potential as a progressive, enlightened, international country of the future. The Fountain is pleased to publish an extract from the beginning of the keynote.
Scotland Your Scotland
The vanity of each generation is to believe we are living through the greatest period in history. Each generation imagines it is germinating a brand new world, that the times are glorious, that their period is the most interesting ever to occur, that earthly progress would turn around now for a thousand years and their names would be written on water. The Romans believed it, and their civilisation is now a heap of lovely ruins and a dead language. And yet there are good reasons to trust that the 21st century will indeed be a time of times, a period for the ages, as we proceed toward new formulations of what it means to be human, of what constitutes a society, of what characterises a culture and what makes a nation.
My ancestors came to Glasgow from Ireland with soil on their hands. They soon replaced it with engine grease, but not before they had fought themselves clean with the local culture, and I enjoyed a Scottish childhood in which 400 years of history was inscribed at the level of daily life. In the town in Ayrshire where I grew up, the Catholic church was adjacent to a blue hut in a field, a hut that lay dormant for most of the week. But on Sunday morning, about 2 minutes before 10 o’clock Mass, the hut would thump into life, a big bass drum at the centre, as the local Orange Band embarked on its weekly rehearsals. You could see the funny side of that, and, in time, the blue hut was replaced by a library, which carried books by people for all over the world who feasted on the different kinds of loyalties that make a world. My Glasgow grandparents weren’t just poor, they were Victorian poor, subject, when I examine the records, to privations and self-defeats that would’ve made Charles Dickens blush. Yet we had added to the country that took us in by helping building a Labour movement at the centre of it. Even in my post-industrial childhood in the 1970s and 80s, the old arguments died hard, yet only at the end of it, and after a few harsh doubts of my own, did I realise a modern Scotland had been born around us. We were immigrants, after all, but now we had inside bathrooms and national healthcare and jobs. It took a while for some of us to get over the grief of the journey, and we hadn’t the literature yet, to soothe or express it. But that came in time, the poetry and the prose, the drama and the art, and the Scotland I’d always known in my head and in my day began to exist in the literature of our country.
The title of this lecture is ‘Scotland Your Scotland’, tipping a hat to that famous essay of 1941 by George Orwell called ‘England Your England’. It was a brave essay at the time, characteristically unflinching in naming those parts of the national character that should be named. At the time of writing it, Britain was facing the greatest threat to its existence since the Norman Conquest: wolf-packs of German U-Boats surrounded the coast, bombs whistled overhead, yet Orwell trusted that the fighting spirit could still endure a few incendiary home truths. The English were a ‘sleep-walking people’, he said, and ‘smutty’ and ‘snobbish’. He said they were ‘hypocritical about their empire’; ‘they are insular’. But, for all that, Orwell observed that the English nation, for all its promotion of class differences and proud stupidities, ‘is bound together by an invisible chain’, even if it was ‘a family with the wrong members in control.’ I grew up hearing jokes about the perennial Scotsman, the English, and the Irishman, jokes that in our house had a 66 and 2/3rd chance of scoring a direct insult. But national stereotypes used to be more fun, or so it felt, and the reason that we have always had such resourceful comedians in this country is that we generally find our misfortunes to be more diverting than our triumphs. (Quite handy that, as it goes.) Entertained by our own kitsch, remorseless about our own vanities, it is not accident that Scotland fostered the best variety theatre in the world. There were comedians in our house, and in the house next door, and my late father spent his last moments on earth trying out new material. ‘You told a lie on Radio Four last week,’ he said to me.
‘A lie?’ I said. ‘On Radio 4? I don’t think so.’
‘You did so,’ he said. ‘You told them we had no books in our house when you were growing up. That isnae true. There was one; it was green; it sat on top the fridge for ages.’
‘That was the Kilmarnock Telephone Directory,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t count.’
For years, in Scotland, my Scotland, I felt that England was all the better for having Scotland attached to it, and vice versa. I’d grown up with a strong sense of solidarity and had a natural Leftist belief in the commonality of these islands, of a joint commitment to decency and shared destiny, presenting a united front up and down the land against barbarian elements, which first meant, for my generation, Margaret Thatcher and her notion of ‘no such thing as society’. It was in my veins, that belief in land-hopping progress: such magical thinking always seemed to me to be sewn into the literary imagination of Scotland. We are a thinking people, quite literally — we had an intellectual Enlightenment based on the notion that strong philosophy could outwit suspicion any day. Scottish intellectual life, furthermore, has been distinctive in its dedication not only to speaking its own mind, but of entertaining opposites to its own certainties, dealing in the places where extremes meet and where contradictions come alive. It is no accident that the great progenitor of the myth of human opposites living in one body, Robert Louis Stevenson, grew up in Heriot Row not ten minutes from here. No coincidence that the thinking mind, in Scotland, is a brain not addled with conventional wisdom, but speaking truth to power, as Robert Burns deathlessly does, and where power changes, so will the mind criticising it.
I grew up loving all that, and feel it is germane to our situation now. More than any parliament or studio, a literary festival, this one above all, is therefore not only the ample but the perfect place for a rumination about the nation. Once upon a time, reading Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, I imagined the seas around us could come alive and speak truths about our existence as old as the rocks. There is a moment in that book when St Columba raises his staff and summons the snakes out of the sea, and they rise, these talking beasts, live from the depths of Iona Sound, to tell him who he is. In every corner of Scotland, and in the seas that mark us, it is magic realism of that sort that is the order of the day. Not old certainties. Not opinion polls. Not fears and the fear of further fears. Not isolationism. Not trolls. Not what you used to say or what your mammy said that time. Not Reporting Scotland or Newsnight. Not Donald Trump or the Chief Whip or that guy who used to play the pipes outside the Playhouse. Not previous convictions, or pension funds, or old school ties or something I wrote before. Newness in thinking is like loyalty in love: it doesn’t just exist because it was there before; you have to create it fresh every day.