Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Book review

Review: The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution. Voice, Class, Nation, by Scott Hames

Ben Jackson


Daniil Vnoutchkov

| 8 mins read

The chronology of devolution has been obsessively picked over in Scottish public culture, but there remain sharp differences of opinion about its causal drivers. These differences often reflect contrasting disciplinary or vocational identities. For artists and writers – and the community of scholars who study them in literature departments or art schools – the tale often told is of the failed devolution referendum of 1979 sparking a Scottish cultural revival, which in turn created a renewed sense of national autonomy that mobilised civic activism and drove the eventual creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999.

In contrast, historians and political scientists emphasise the more mundane arena of electoral competition and political parties, with the rise of the SNP in the 1970s pushing the Labour party to endorse a limited form of self‐government for Scotland, a promise that was initially lukewarm, but became more whole‐hearted during the hard years of Thatcherism.

'The Dream' and 'the Grind'

Scott Hames calls these two accounts respectively ‘the Dream’ and ‘the Grind’ and the aim of his book is to demonstrate that, in isolation, neither of them is quite right. Instead, he argues, Scottish politics and culture intersected and interacted at a fundamental level. Devolution, Hames points out, was legitimated in Scottish political argument not merely as a constitutional or technocratic fix to state structures, but as an elemental claim for the recognition of Scotland's cultural distinctiveness.

Hames amasses a formidable range of evidence in support of this contention, weaving together historical and literary sources to produce a brilliant book that both gives an original new account of the campaign for devolution and raises difficult, but productive, questions about demands for greater Scottish autonomy today.

Indeed, there is so much going on in this book that it is hard to summarise it in a short review – Hames spans history, politics and literature with aplomb and shows how each of these fields has much to gain from the other.

Roughly speaking, Hames delineates parallel cultural and political developments in the 1960s and 1970s that then become closely intertwined during the 1980s. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the politics of devolution was largely reactive– aimed at halting the insurgent SNP and reinforcing the pluralistic credentials of the British state. Hames provides a shrewd reading of that most unliterary of texts, the 1973 report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution, which recommended various options for greater self‐government for Scotland and Wales. Hames notes that the Royal Commission primarily saw constitutional change as a means of managing ‘national feeling’ in Scotland and thus of fortifying Britain by affording some official acknowledgement of Scottishness within the British constitutional system.

While the machine politics of devolution played out in the 1970s, Hames observes that fresh perspectives were emerging in the Scottish cultural scene, resulting in a fractious but important clash between a more traditional style of revivalist literary nationalism – ultimately indebted to the poet Hugh MacDiarmid – and an emergent new style of cultural nationalism that reflected the liberalising currents of the 1960s, and was exemplified in the 1970s periodical, Scottish International. For Hames, the writers around Scottish International opened a new space for national debate in which Scottish identity became construed less as an elite project of literary revival and more as an existing vernacular working class culture.

One of the major contributions of Hames's book is that it examines the debates in the numerous Scottish small magazines of this period, exploiting rich source material that has so far not been adequately appreciated by scholars.

Overall, Hames shows that the advent of devolution in 1999 did indeed owe something to cultural activists and intellectuals, who mobilised this rhetoric of Scottish identity and helped to shape the Constitutional Convention's outlook, but did so in alliance with (rather than against) a Scottish elite who had been shocked into a more nationalist stance by the impact of Thatcherism.

Scottish 'culture'

This is a book that makes many telling points about recent Scottish cultural and political history and deserves to be widely discussed. Two issues in particular struck me as worthy of further debate. One is the definition of Scottish ‘culture’. While Hames notes that this term can have various meanings, he moves fairly rapidly to seeing the invocation of the term in the 1980s and 1990s as chiefly signifying a broadly working class vernacular form of national identity, which he also identifies in key literary texts of the period.

But it's possible that the attention to literature here obscures other influential strands of Scottish culture that might be detected in more philosophical or political registers, notably in discourse about the national educational, legal and religious institutions that were famously preserved after Scotland's union with England and Wales in 1707 and which have been subsequently mythologised as imparting a distinctively ‘democratic’ ethos to Scottish civil society.

Hames acknowledges this strand of Scottish nationalism, but downplays its importance. However, I wonder if, for example, the anxiety of the 1988 Claim of Right about the survival of Scotland as a distinctive society referred to the erosion of Scottish institutions just as much as to the pressures on the working class conception of Scottish culture highlighted by Hames. The preponderance of university lecturers, civil servants, lawyers and religious leaders in the Steering Group that authored the Claim certainly provides some suggestive evidence in that regard.

Influence of 1980s debates

A second and more fundamental question, implicitly raised by Hames himself, is whether in fact the logic of the nationalist mobilisation of the 1980s and 1990s was always likely to lead to a more full‐throated commitment to Scottish independence.

Opponents of devolution have always believed this, as have many supporters of independence, and Hames's book gives us reason to think that the rhetoric and language of the home rule movement always exceeded what could be delivered by a devolved parliament within the UK. On Hames's telling, the case for devolution was about the politics of recognition more than anything else – the desire to accord appropriate democratic status to Scottish identity.

Viewed from the perspective of current Scottish politics, there is undoubtedly great force to the idea that devolution was more of a way‐station than a final destination for many of the cultural figures and activists who urged it forward. Yet it still remains unclear if the Scottish electorate will in time come to share that view. For that reason, as Hames suggests in the conclusion of the book, Scottish nationalists might now benefit from delving more deeply into the complexities of Scottish identity rather than accepting at face value the rhetoric that they have inherited from the debates of the 1980s.

The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation, by Scott Hames. Edinburgh University Press. 336 pp. £24.99

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  • Ben Jackson

    Ben Jackson

    Ben Jackson is Co-Editor of the Political Quarterly journal. He is also Professor of Modern History at Oxford University.

    Articles by Ben Jackson