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Wealth of the Nation

by Cairns Craig, Edinburgh University Press (2018)

Cairns Craig is a leading scholar in Scottish and modernist literature. He has been Professor of Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen since 2005. Before that, he taught at the University of Edinburgh, serving as Head of the English Literature Department from 1997 to 2003. In the 1980s he was a member of the Advisory Committee and Editorial Board of the literature, arts and cultural affairs magazine Cencrastus. His The Wealth of the Nation: Scotland, Culture and Independence explores how recurrent cultural revival has successfully sustained Scotland as a nation through 300 years of Union. It is an important and ambitious work, and was recently shortlisted for the Saltire Society Literary Awards History Book of the Year.

Craig invokes Adam Smith in seeing the true wealth of the nation as lying in its culture and sees the explanation for Scotland’s survival as lying in the successful accumulation and reinvestment of cultural capital. In examining Scotland’s cultural resilience, he deploys a number of unfamiliar concepts, with which the reader must try to get to grips. The first of these is that Scotland’s sense of itself as a distinctive cultural entity took a ‘xeniteian form during the period of the British Empire, with Scots migrants taking advantage of the opportunities Empire created to take Scotland out across the world, and busily reconstructing the institutions of their homeland throughout the Imperial territories. This influence was strong enough to survive the loss of the American colonies. Scottish thinkers like Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid had a profound influence on the institutions of the emergent United States. The Scots Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and was a key figure in the development of the College of New Jersey which would later become Princeton University.

Scotland’s ‘Imperial nationalism’ continued to project Scotland as an independent cultural entity through the celebration of its writers throughout the Nineteenth Century. Thus, Craig argues:

“In the very period when, according to the standard view, Scottish intellectual life was in decline in Scotland, Scottish ideas were achieving their greatest world-wide influence.”

It is estimated that at their peak the Edinburgh-based journals the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine enjoyed an international readership of over 100,000. In the 1820s, Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review was selling 4,000 copies per issue in the USA, as much as any USA-based publication in the period.

At home, Walter Scott and the dramatist Daniel Terry were engaged in a theatrical reconstruction of Scottish identity which served the needs of Empire. For George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822:

“Scott and Terry created a political theatre in which a Hanovarian monarch could appear upon the stage of Edinburgh to act the part of a Stuart king.”

Craig distinguishes between two contrasting manifestations of nationalism in Nineteenth Century Europe – resistant and projective nationalism. Scotland’s nationalism was decidedly of the latter variety.

“Scotland had no need of a ‘resistant nationalism’ precisely because it was an imperial nation engaged in projecting its national culture to the world. The historical problem of Scotland’s ‘absent nationalism’ in the nineteenth century is a non-problem because far from lacking a nationalism, Scottish nationalism was vigorously engaged on imposing itself wherever Scots had achieved a determining or a significant role within the territory of the British Empire. Scottish nationalism did not need to assert itself within the British state because the ‘world was its field’, and its aim was to make Scotland the spiritual core of the imperial project.”

Craig argues that the trauma of the First World War fatally undermined Scotland’s xeniteian empire and the assumptions underlying her projective nationalism. While the British Empire soldiered on until after the Second World War, the Age of Empires had ended. The Scottish industries which had served the British Empire were plunged into Depression between the Wars. Core areas of the Empire where Scottish culture had taken root were asserting their own independent national identities. The Scottish Renaissance which Scotland’s writers and artists promoted from the 1920s was resistant in character and whereas Scott’s imperial nationalism had indulged a nostalgia for Scotland’s past, the new nationalism was aggressively dismissive of what had gone before – what Craig describes as ‘nostophobic’. Hugh MacDiarmid’s modernist manifesto demanded the rejection of what had passed for Scottish culture since the Reformation.

Craig argues that nostophobia, a pessimistic pre-occupation with the cramping, provincial inadequacies of Scottish culture, became the dominant intellectual discourse in Scotland in the period following the Second World War, with figures as diverse as Edwin Muir, Allan Massie, Alexander Trocchi and the film-maker Bill Douglas contributing to the construct. Perhaps the Strichen runaway Nora Low should be seen as the pioneer poster-girl of the nostophobes? As Lorna Moon she achieved success in Hollywood as a screenwriter for the early talkies and died in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1930.

By the 1970s, nostophobia had achieved its ultimate distillation and, as Craig points out:

“Far from being the minority opposition in modern Scottish culture, nostophobia was, in fact, the ideology of much of the cultural ‘establishment’.”

In an article in the house magazine of Scottish nostophobia, Bob Tait’s Scottish International, Tom Nairn argued that the Scots, liberated from the debilitating constraints of a failed national culture, were well placed to provide the intellectual vanguard of a new post-nationalist world. It is therefore richly ironic that Scottish International’s What Kind of Scotland? conference in the Spring of 1973, at which John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was given an enthusiastic standing ovation, can be seen as marking the exhaustion of the nostophobic impulse. I still remember with relish the censoriousness with which the commissars of internationalism greeted the play’s popular appeal.

Meanwhile, through the efforts of American scholars, as well as Duncan Forbes and George Elder Davie, Scotland’s Eighteenth Century thinkers and their Nineteenth Century successors had become the subject of renewed interest. Craig reminds us that the concept of a ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ only gained currency in the 1960s, and that:

“The ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ did not send out its intellectuals to populate the world – rather, Scottish ideas swept around the world and returned to remake Scotland’s past into an Enlightenment.”

Craig uses the term ‘theoxenia to describe the cultural response to the political hopes dashed by the result of the Devolution Referendum of 1979 – a perspective which is able to combine respect for Scotland’s indigenous cultural resources with a receptiveness to the gifts of gods who come as strangers. He sees Edwin Morgan, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and Ian Hamilton Finlay as leading contributors to this latest phase of cultural revival.

Craig is strongly focused on Scottish literature and philosophy, with nods to art and drama. He engages primarily with the intellectual dimension of Scottish culture. In Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland (1986), another Aberdeen-based academic, William Donaldson, has drawn attention to the important part which newspapers, notably the Dundee-based People’s Journal and the Aberdeen Free Press, played in sustaining popular Scottish culture in the Nineteenth Century. In seeking explanations for the remarkable survival of Scotland as a cultural entity, the roles of the popular press, music hall, pantomime and folk and popular music would repay further examination, bringing figures like William D. Latto, Hamish Henderson, Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Logan, Rikki Fulton, June Imrie, Michael Marra, Elaine C. Smith, Sheena Wellington and Karine Polwart into the frame. A full exploration of the part played by popular media in cultural resilience would also require us to examine broadcasting and the problematic role of the BBC. There is clearly scope for a lot more work in this area.

In a final short chapter, Craig addresses the ambivalence of Scottish politicians towards Scottish culture. The Labour Party and the SNP have both pursued essentially neoliberal culture strategies, seeking to recruit artistic and literary creativity into the service of global capital and enterprise. Craig asserts the value of cultural capital on its own terms as the real basis of a nation’s wealth. In the independence referendum of 2014, it was neither the SNP’s technocratic 649-page white paper nor the worthy and stolid official Yes campaign which pushed support for independence from 30 to 45%, but the explosion of creativity from writers, artists and local activists. The SNP would be smart to learn lessons from that for any future independence campaign. As Craig concludes:

“Financial capital, as was shown in the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland, is no guarantee of sustained independence; cultural capital guarantees a country’s ability to resist dependence, even if, in Scotland’s case, it has not proved – as yet – able to deliver political independence. But without cultural independence a country ceases to exist…”

This review was published in Bella Caledonia on 12 January 2019.