Alasdair Gray is a towering cultural figure at one level simply because he is a polymath whose output is unparalleled in its quantity, scope and quality.
As an artist, writ large in the Oran Mor murals or small in his print and post card productions, he is a true successor to the visionary artist and poet William Blake, to whom he is often compared. As well, he is a prolific author, who has written not one but many acclaimed novels and stories, notably Lanark, which the Guardian described in 2008 as ‘one of the landmarks of 20th century fiction’. Alasdair is also a playwright, an essayist, and importantly, a political theorist with useful things to say regarding potentially escaping the cul de sac in which humanity presently finds itself trapped.
In this post, it is in this last capacity that I wish to consider his work.
Small nations can work well
Winston Churchill famously said that ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ And in the circumstances of 1945, this remark was perfectly accurate. After all, Churchill and his Tories were routed in the first post war World War 2 election by Clement Attlee and the Labour Party, who went on to create the welfare state and the National Health Service. But that was then, and this is now.
Fast-forward to today, and 62 people own as much wealth as half the world’s population, and money and politics have become two sides of the same coin. The western democracies have become naked oligarchies, and governments exist in 2016 only to serve the interests of global corporations. And corporations, by their own internal logic serve only the interests of their shareholders (and latterly, of their CEOs), thereby guaranteeing the kind of short term thinking that we simply cannot afford in a time of ecocide and environmental collapse.
What is to be done?
There are no blanket solutions to these conundrums, unfortunately; only initiatives that can nudge us collectively in a better direction, and to my way of thinking such initiatives are today a moral imperative. We do not inherit the world from our ancestors, but rather, we borrow it from our children (said to be an American Indian proverb).
Scotland has a unique opportunity to successfully reinvent genuine democracy in a small, English speaking country, thereby becoming an example to the world, and, very importantly, to the English speaking nations. But reinventing democracy won’t come easily, as the events of 2014 have proven.
Alasdair wrote the following passage (in ball point pen on a sheet of foolscap) to support Songs for Scotland 2, and in answer to this question: ‘why do small nations work well?’ These are his words, published here for the first time, although you can easily read expanded versions of these ideas elsewhere in his literary output:
“The ancient Greeks lived within a group of small nations. Some were democracies where most citizens voted on communal actions; others plutocracies, where the rich made all the main decisions; and some tyrannies, where one main party boss was in charge. The Greeks were the first to debate which of these worked best; and one conclusion they reached was that the bigger the nation the more likely it was to be ruled by the rich or by a tyrant.
Before 1990 two systems of government dominated the world: single party tyrannies, which claimed to be communist; and capitalist tyrannies, which claimed to be democratic. When the communist system collapsed in the USSR, in 1989, and China began trading like other capitalist states, an American sociologist, Francis Fukuyama, announced that history as we have known it as a story of continuous national warfare had come to an end! The triumph of capitalism meant there were no longer grounds for wars. Fukuyama has recently announced that he was wrong, and that Denmark (population roughly five million, like Scotland) is a good example of a country where the elected government is ensuring a safer and more just life for most of its people.
Certainly anyone who could choose where their children would grow up with the best chance for a good life, without inheriting much wealth, would choose a democracy like the Scandinavian ones, or Netherlands, or New Zealand.
The US and UK governments, by contrast, take it for granted that readiness for nuclear war is essential to their existence.”
Scottish civic nationalism
The corporate media incessantly attacks ‘Scottish nationalism’ as a blood and soil ideology which seeks a Scotland ‘only’ for the ‘ethnically Scottish’ (whatever that is); when in fact, the idea of Scottish civic nationalism as advanced by Alasdair Gray, and others, is about returning to democracy’s ancient roots. In its purest form, as in ancient Greece, the demos of a small polity engage collectively in running their common affairs. Voila – democracy! Like most really good ideas, this is breathtakingly simple stuff.
And where it’s all gone wrong, especially since the Thatcher era, is in the fusion of money and power inside a mega state centred in London, which has made our British government in 2016 ‘the best democracy that money can buy’. ‘Our’ government in Westminster exists solely to serve the financial interests of global corporations in the banking, resource extractive, and warfare industries. These are its only interests.
Walter Scott also memorably expressed this idea, about the user friendliness of compact nation states:
‘When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns – But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon.’
Walter Scott (1771-1832) Mrs Howden in Heart of Midlothian
For true democracy in Scotland, our seat of government must once again be here so that we’ll be able to peeble them wi’ stanes when they arena gude bairns. The patrician Sir Walter may have thus inadvertently coined the best ‘peoples’ definition’ of what a democracy must be to be truly successful.
The first time I met Alasdair, in 2014, over a spot of lunch at the Ubiquitous Chip off of Byres Road, he remarked that Scottish independence would not by itself guarantee that this country won’t end up being governed by a cabal of millionaires (or billionaires); but it at least allowed for the possibility of genuine democratic governance. Stated another way, Scottish independence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the creation of a true democracy – but a necessary condition it most certainly is.
Clare Patterson recently posted an insightful article about Alasdair on Bella Caledonia. She wrote that over his decades long career, Alasdair has consistently remained true to his collectivist principles, in part by engaging in a kind of democratic praxis in which his art and politics have become fused; and thereby his personality has become rather oddly imprinted on his native Glasgow, both in the mental furniture of Glaswegians who may have encountered their first literary images of Glasgow in his novels; and also visually, in his murals scattered through the city’s west end.
Highly principled, when Alasdair was offered a knighthood he turned it down, quipping that ‘there was no money attached to it’. And while as a working artist he has certainly created an impressive oeuvre of one-off works (paintings, portraits and special commissions); his collectivist principles are again displayed in his long standing efforts to distribute his art as limited edition prints, so that his work doesn’t become merely the privileged preserve of an elite few.
It’s worth adding that Alasdair is well pleased that we are creating tee shirts featuring his Is Scotland a Possible Nation? image, as a kind of ultimate democratic and collectivist expression of his art.
Please support us! We are aiming to create a collaborative cultural event to honour Alasdair Gray. It won’t be the work of one of us, or of a few of us. It has to be the work of all of us.
[First published on Bella Caledonia on 11 September 2016]