Robert Somynne: The World Is Your Smokie

NatWilliams

“Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?

Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliché corner

To a fool who cries ‘Nothing but heather!’ where in September another

Sitting there and resting and gazing around

Sees not only the heather but blueberries”

Hugh MacDiarmid

BBC2 recently aired a historical drama called 37 days. The programme dramatised the run up to the First World War, demonstrating the numerous blusters and miscalculations of the military and political castes of the European imperial powers. This is not my main target in this feature but it does provide an opening theme, that of the danger of existential paralysis. It is when a nation ceases ‘to be’ in its fullness, whether to itself, history or the rest of the world.

During the opening credits of the three episodes I experienced what is now a frequent spasm of rage on behalf of Scots. For when the nations and their elemental capital scenery were being faded back and forth to dramatic turn of the century Viennese music, Scotland is inevitably left out. Indeed in the whole series the British Empire was referred to (as we know it was regularly) as England. As if the fondly thought of province of Scotlandshire was simply a training ground for brave but tragic lads from poor neighbourhoods who were used for the wars English plutocrats irresistibly desired to fight.

The prospect of an independent Scotland is not only the chance to affirm the fact of national existence. Moreover it is the chance to present this existence to the rest of the world outside the historical and cultural prism of British imperial memory. A new Scotland would not need to work within the confines of ‘punching above one’s weight’. A phrase betraying a language that exposes the nonchalant ease in which imperial misconduct is substituted by jolly cultural adventurism. For an independent Scotland would not live off the cultural proceeds of a time past but acquire a new sense of itself as an active and responsible member of the international community.

Many friends I have spoken to have said and written that they quake with horror when confronted with an outside world that either doesn’t know they exist or can’t really identify the difference between a UK mired in shame and a freakish addiction of pomp and ceremony in place of real cultural and societal progress. But I have also come across many friends from Germany, Hong Kong, Kenya and places far and wide that have such a relentlessly positive view of Scotland that it begs a question. Has any nation had the same positive economic prospects post-independence alongside such global goodwill to supplement it? I would posit none have. And this surely should bode well for the future and give confidence to those in favour of the return of sovereignty to the Scottish people.

But it is also a call not to waste that good will. For a nation whose elites first bartered her sovereignty for ill designed economic and military gain and who benefited indisputably; Scotland enjoys an accurate perception of nation that is warm, welcoming, talented and most importantly, creative.

Already this year I have enjoyed visiting music, food and arts and crafts festivals in numerous cities and towns in Scotland. Events such as Dundee Literary Festival, Inverness Poetry Workshops run by the Gaelic Books Council and groups like Creative Edinburgh, Love Fife and Food From Fife. And like many, I’ll be looking forward to the Tradfest when it gets started on 29 April. These are recent examples of a Scottish civic culture that has always been indomitable, bearing the aspirations and will of local people whom had been deprived of an effective democratic voice for so long. This year has seen an increase in the number of organisations engaging with local people and an emboldening of the sense of what local people in Scotland can do. All that is required are the national institutions with full powers to support, recognise and embody it.

There is also the potential for renewal and bolstering of connections with Europe and Scandinavia. But what about links to the outside world? The world has waited a long time and Scotland is ready to join the family of nations.

Many in favour of union would state that being in blessed captivity has never prevented Scotland and her citizens from expressing themselves or exporting talents and creativity. Yet these objections fail to acknowledge the terms on which its cultural expression takes place. Surely now is the time for Scottish artistic skill to be presented to the world free of the echo or pretensions of empire. A nation and its artists who can say “yes, here we are” – “no, we do not rule the waves” – “but, we can build a boat together.”

It is the chance to detach from the outmoded model of the British state and spread out into the global community. Often it is mooted that 40% of Scotland’s overall trade is with the rest of the UK. But it is never questioned whether this is good because it is the established fact or whether it is bad as it shows being held captive in the union has forced Scotland to limit its ability to reach into diverse markets of its own accord. Why is that 40%, with the artistic capital contained, not spread out amongst the rest of world which is brimming with cultural vigour and excitement?

Where are the photographic exhibits documenting the different approaches to local mobilisation and ownership in a rejuvenated Scotland and Latin American nations? Where is the modernist architecture, with the wisdom of Patrick Geddes inscribed on the side, adorning districts in Malaysia and Johannesburg? The avant-garde Scottish theatre in St Petersburg tackling matching issues of rural isolation in both countries? Or the rhythmic shivers of the Gaelic fiddler and harpist in a Shanghai bar at midnight?

Through cultural dialogue (I make the point of not saying power) a new Scotland can engage with the wider world on ideas of greater democratic accountability, consistency in human rights, promotion of diplomacy and peaceful accord, economic development that is both dynamic and democratic to the local unit, community ownership and enterprise over automated industry and machine-like corporatism. And finally, authentic local culture and an authentic blending of cultures through artistic dialogue which in itself can be a new form of diplomacy.

To conclude we can refer back to the idea that through meetings like the Commonwealth Games, the British State uses clout based on past ‘glory’ to push forward a vision of itself a powerful and an ‘influence’. I am reminded on a visionary of the ‘liberal’ empire. The man was Thomas Babington Macaulay the high prophet of C19th Liberalism whose mantra was free trade, parliamentary legislation (yet not full democratic representation, funnily enough) and free press. On leaving the House of Commons he gave an address to his constituents in Leeds before he popped off to India to make enrich himself and ‘do good’ to the natives. Below is that address he gave.

“May your manufactures flourish; may your trade be extended; may your riches increase! May the works of your skill, and the signs of your prosperity, meet me in the furthest regions of the East, and give me fresh cause to be proud of the intelligence, the industry, and the spirit of my constituents!”

4 February 1834

The message is still fundamentally the same when artists in favour of union, wherever they may hide, speak of our cultural power. On the face of it, the quotes may not show what a ravenous intent clever Tom had for the Raj. What Macaulay envisaged was British manufacturing and crafts would be used as weapons or cultural and economic conquest. Cultural dominance rather than dialogue. If I may humbly turn the words of such men upon themselves we must have a new address with cleaner motives.

May your songs be sung, may your poems be written, may your knowledge and goodwill multiply. May the fires of your art and the signs of your creativity join with others so that they know you exist and exist in dignity and peace. Give your fellow citizens inspiration to work tirelessly not for conquest or silver, but for the prosperity and meaning of all.

Robert Somynne
National Collective

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About Robert Somynne

Robert Somynne is a poet and playwright from South London writing with a background in history and politics. He graduated from York University in 2010 and has spent several years travelling Scotland, England, Italy and Hong Kong. His writing explores the complexities of nationhood, ethnicity and childhood memory.

There are 10 comments

  1. phil horey

    You said it all when you said we could ‘build a boat’ . what a rowing boat? or something slightly bigger? tell that to the thousands of people who will lose their jobs in the shipyards and related industries. And when the economic reality falls and the arts are the first to suffer cuts where will you go then..

    1. Robert Somynne

      Dear sir, if you consider the paltry way in which shipping in Scotland has been handled by WM you would not be so hasty to imply Scottish industry would falter under new conditions. As for the article – it is my firm belief that Scotland’s artistic and industrial capabilities will be enhance working with global partner outside the constrains of poor policy making in London.

      1. phil horey

        I have worked in the shipbuilding industry in England many years ago and watched it decimated almost to extinction while the clyde yards were kept afloat against a global backdrop of cheap construction from the far east. Its not just the yards I worked in but the suppoort industries awell which crumbled to nothing. Now if you think Scotland gets a bad deal ,take a trip to the north east, Belfast, Merseyside, Barrow and what used to be Vosper Thornycroft and speak to the people there.
        If Scotland gets independence then those orders for future ships on the Clyde will go south or there will be such an outcry from the rest of the uk. Speak to the people whose livelihoods are at stake on the Clyde and tell them ‘dont worry you might be on the dole but its Ok because Scotlands artistic capabiliies will be enhanced’.
        What is this blind belief that the rest of the Uk and the world for that matter will bend over backwards to help Scotland post independence with grants jobs shared currency. There is a global recession and people protect their own first.

        1. Richard Gibbons

          England is overcrowded, 53 million people in an area a quarter of the size of France. Westminster knows this and that’s why they are looking after the few in the South East where the money and the votes are. What do you want Scotland to do, just sit back and continue to suffer in solidarity with the North? We’ve already done that over the past 40 years and all we ever get back is managed decline. You talk about Scottish shipyards but there are twice as many people employed by Nissan in Sunderland than the entire shipbuilding industry on the Clyde! BAE Govan is being stripped out with a loss of 800 jobs by the end of next year, that will leave just one yard at Scotstoun. Scotland has given itself one chance to break from this insipid marching decline, to re-establish a proper democracy and have governments with policies we actually voted for. Problem you have in England is there’s no fight left in you and that’s why you are here complaining instead of taking your own politicians to task. Scotland’s moving on, deal with it.

          1. phil horey

            I am here as it happens and have been most of my life. More jobs were lost in the yards down south , So deal with that first. The decline in shipbuilding is all part of the global industrial shift to the far east. Deal with that. the only ships we build now are naval vessels of which almost all come to Scotland.. I dont want those people to lose their jobs. It was Nissans choice to build in Sunderland were they suffered horrendously due to yard closures. you would be happy with the same on the clyde and Rosyth. Ailienating ourselves from the mass market of 60 million in the uk will not bring any more prosperity to us. We already have a much higher quality of life up here. Things will nevr be perfect. Deal with that!

          2. Richard Gibbons

            An utterly confused response. The only thing Scotland will be alienating will be poverty, unemployment and hopelessness. Sounds like you’ve resigned The North to that future. No thanks.

          3. phil horey

            An end to unemployment ! where are the jobs going to come from ? poverty will follow when they dont materialise. We are in a global recession. have you no idea what that means?

        2. Craig McLaren

          Let’s stop comparing the Scottiah shipyards to other areas of the UK which have also been blighted by the Westminster “punch above our weight” government and have a look over the North Sea to what Norway builds.
          You are a NO, we get that. You call folk who disagree with you fascists. You’re lucky to even get a reply. Have a great day.

  2. Richard Cain

    “May your songs be sung, may your poems be written, may your knowledge and goodwill multiply. May the fires of your art and the signs of your creativity join with others so that they know you exist and exist in dignity and peace. Give your fellow citizens inspiration to work tirelessly not for conquest or silver, but for the prosperity and meaning of all.”

    What a wonderful paragraph, like a modern-day affirmation the Declaration of Arbroath. I can see that being inscribed somewhere one day. Perhaps on the wall of Holyrood?

    1. Robert Somynne

      Danke! ;) It struck me that we need words that will enter the hearts of people. Imperial slogans were used to create the false sense of glory and deference. We need passages of justice that call back to and enhance past declarations of hope and determination.

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