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Tartan Pimps – Scottish Review of Books
by Ian Bell

Tartan Pimps

May 13, 2010 | by Ian Bell

A Unionist might wander at the impertinence of the notion. Who are the individuals who claim their authority from an imagined commonwealth?

Tartan Pimps? The sense of the title, of transactions implied and inferred, is a little puzzling. Politically, this gaudy tartan is shorthand, obviously enough, for those who “compressed their Scottishness into a costume, a comic licence to invoke and revoke an idea of Scotland or Scottishness in the theatre of Westminster as they saw fit”. But pimping?

A clientele with a single urge and an irresistible purchasing power is suggested. This doesn’t sit well with the evidence, plentiful here, that London’s interest in three centuries of one-night stands with Scotia’s darlings was continuous, or often intense. Why pimps, rather than the willingly pimped? Wouldn’t the latter better describe the lass or lad – let’s call him Gor-don, our never-innocent abroad – bartering his pairts?

But the volume is explicit: the word pimps alerts us to those who have regarded Scotland as “a source of political capital”. Here is a country, in other words, considered as a collection of rotten burghs whose votes – scarcely puissant at the Union’s beginning, trivial at its end – are ripe for trading, the coupling facilitated by those for whom procuring has been the very defi-nition of a career. Yet hold on, you think: what kind of alternative career was ever available?

That has been, and continues to be, a degradation distinctive to Scotland. Getting out and getting on – politics, academia, art, the news and opinion media, the big etcetera – has been cast both as heart’s desire, the noblest prospect, and as the course to which there was, and is, no viable, rational alternative for anyone worth a cheque. Talent quits; ergo, what remains is bereft of talent. The talented pimps quit; ergo, Scot-land is home only for the purposes of an allowances claim. “To trimming of roots: see invoice.”

The deal was explicit, and recognised as such, from the moment an old, corrupt parliament voted itself into oblivion. The traffic south (and the trafficking) began instantly. You can mutter over Red Clydesiders accepting the imperial embrace even as the train puffed out of Glasgow, or amuse yourself with all the lairds fitted for dual use by their English-model public schools. The fact remains that the great, grisly game of sale and no-return was always part of the contract. It was the contract.

You can do your own list. I always picture plump, flushed faces at the end of those grisly ‘Scots Nights’ at Labour or trade conferences. In them, origin was a fluttering pulse; their culture – ah, the sweet injustice – just a losing football team and a barrel of porkscratchings. They took pride in their ‘inordinate’ contribution to the Union without once remembering what their bluster said about exceptions and majority rule. They could as well have been the painters thrilled by London’s galleryites, or the writers who needed that metropolitan agent for their self-respect.

But the phenomenon is not, and has never been, entirely out of the ordinary. A Scot aggrieved by London’s corrupting allure, its ineffable presumption, should contemplate a Breton or Burgundian. Her deputy lives large in Paris, administrative centre of the known world, yet takes care to remain mayor (or whatever) back home. That’s how it works.

But Scotland is a nation, not a sub-station: we insist on this. Northern Ireland’s Six Counties must content themselves as a province; the Welsh as a “principality”; Lesser England as an ultramontane origin myth. No us, no here: here is an essential difference, a kink in the usual arrangement, a survival glimpsed beneath the palimpsest. Scotland the nation persists. So the pimping, whether as a grubby career move, an intellectual Clearance, or as a cultural scorched earth policy, rankles. A bit.

Should we worry more, or have we worried enough? Sometimes it’s kinder to ask the departing to shut the door behind them. Is it possible that Scotland has even seen a benefit from the human export trade? If people have no pressing need or wish to stay, why make funny noises about betrayal? Perhaps a layer of complication, of political and cultural muddle, has been shed like a dry skin with each wave of departures. Try this: the birth of the new Scotland investigated in Tartan Pimps was made easier by the absence of from the delivery room of so many spiritual Unionists.

There is certainly a minor sociological phenomenon to be detected in the fact that most of the prominent expatriates in politics, the media and the arts deprecate the nationalist, as it were, thing. A psychological effect is at work when – to grab names almost at random– Gordon Brown, Billy Connolly, Andrew Neil, or Andrew O’Hagan share views on backwaters, pretendy parliaments, cultural cringes, and spot-welded constitutional arrangements.

But that is, as are they, neither here nor there. Tartan Pimps suffers somewhat from being the work of three relentlessly eclectic minds: Mitch Miller, Johnny Rodger and Owen Dudley Edwards. There is nothing that resembles the sort of dull narrative congenial to most of its subjects. The map of the journey travelled to this renewed Scotland is complicated and incomplete. And our writers have a diverting habit of following diversions for the hell of it.

Here, for example, is a longish piece, straight from the kick-off, on Gordon Brown viewed through the prism of his publishing history. Most of us would have dealt with this in short order. Long before he chose to turn an election campaign into the world’s longest obituary, Brown could have been done in a tanner life: Edinburgh University historian-radical becomes able polemicist becomes star of the international blowhard circuit, as captured – since I happen to have this one handy – in Speeches 1997–2006, a long collection of sentimental sound-bites.

Tartan Pimps returns us to the Red Paper and that other pessimistic intellect, Antonio Gramsci. It reminds us that this Gordon Brown was a bigger figure, culturally, than Prime Minister Brown, and that “the book was his site of struggle”. (In contrast to a Sky TV debate). This is the tale of a complex, wide-ranging man who shrank by degrees just to squeeze through the Downing Street keyhole. So he failed himself and he failed ‘his’ people.

A Unionist might wonder at the impertinence of the notion. Who are these individuals who claim their authority from an imagined commonwealth? These days we have that new-fangled notion, civic society, to obscure the relationship between betrayer and betrayed. It remains the case, nevertheless, that the country has no taste for non-aligned minds. Those who do not speak “speak for Scotland”, who do not derive their legitimacy from an acknowledged obligation to one or other idea of the nation, do not speak.

Ideas can take other forms. Thatcher’s very incoherence was a sort of statement. The devolution debacle of 1979 could be considered, meanwhile, as a review, a lousy one, of some very fine preparatory writing. Tartan Pimps is a book about books and here is a review of the book, trying to avoid being a review, that asks a simple question: hands up who can explain the transmission mechanism between a bunch of old texts once read by a few, a very few, and an actually existing Scottish Parliament?

I don’t say there has been no mechanism, nor clear cases of transmission, but I wonder about the connection between popular movements and this sort of elite literature. Osmosis? Chain letters? Rumours?

MacDiarmid, who puts in a guest appearance here, once said something, musing to amuse, about cause and effect in this sphere. He wondered, mentioning Ireland, if a cultural renaissance was not perhaps the necessary precondition for a political rebirth. That thought hangs over Tartan Pimps. It tends to squeeze out satisfying diatribes on all the bastards who sell us out for the sake of their clients. Can it be possible that a national community must be spoken before it can exist, survive, or revive? Hard luck, that, on the reticent.

On the other hand (the one we never use), the book’s treatment of Tom Nairn is odd. Entertaining, but odd, as though it has become possible to celebrate with faint prose. His section occupies the heart of the book, as it should, given that his own writings on the desuetude into which Britishness has fallen still drive the arguments. But the authors – or one of them – find something mockable in Nairn “the Pythagoras of Scottish Nationalism, the man who described it, measured it, then found cosmic significance in the numbers”.

I’m unfair. The Pimpettes give a good primer on Nairn, nationalism-as-theory, and British Marxism’s long, slow march to the self-determined point at which James Connolly commenced, when no one was firing blanks. Their book is history already, rendered while most of the protagonists remain alive, and its account of ferments past may put some innocent voters in mind of Para Handy and the tortoise. Are we off the ground yet? And are our Tartan Pimps-in-waiting, all those bright-eyed almost-unemployed graduands contemplating London and the big etcetera, about to be detained by this story?

Gordon Brown: Tartan cringer?

In reading the book, I attempted an experiment. How many of the living who are mentioned, I thought, still live and work in these parts? How many would? I stopped counting, of course, when I began to wonder what they might do with themselves and their ineffable assumptions after the joyous homecoming. All that media-bubble Westminster talent landing on Holyrood? Stones would weep. But this is not a book, I think, for expatriates. Its range is far wider, and deeper, than that.

Some might say – though I’d wait and see – that by closing certain pages it marks a new chapter. There is a sense of decks being cleared, records set straight (or less crooked), and perspectives established. For anyone seeking to pass a post-imperial exam, the volume is, pleasingly, all over the place. But lurking within the wit and the qualified qualifications, there is a lesson. This: in useful congress with the world, no one needs a pimp.

Mitch Miller, Johnny Rodger & Owen Dudley Edwards

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