13 January 2012

Is "the thistle of Scottish political drama" flourishing?

Two shows on the telly, apparently unconnected. The first, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was broadcast on BBC Alba the other night, while two episodes of the second, Borgen, were shown on BBC4. The Cheviot was written by John McGrath and performed across Scotland during the 1970s by the 7:84 theatre company. Unfortunately, the play hasn't been made available on iplayer to view again, for those who missed it. By contrast, Borgen is a Danish political drama from the folk behind The Killing, focussing on the struggles and machinations of Birgitte Nyborg, a political leader in Denmark's proportional electoral system just before and in the aftermath of a general election. 

So what is the connection? I've been thinking lately about Scottish political drama, whether on telly or on stage, and both Borgen and The Cheviot speak to that interest in their distinct ways.  "What is it that makes Scotland a place with such a fertile soil for the thistle of political theatre to flourish?" asks Oran Mor's David MacLellan in a blog for the National Theatre of Scotland. Serendipitously, MacLellan also starred in the 7:84 production of the Cheviot. The piece was written in anticipation of an event held in the parliament in the middle of December past, discussing Scottish theatre and politics. MacLellan's piece is brief, and I didn't attend the subsequent discussion, but is worth briefly examining for the highly characteristic (and in my view, profoundly flawed) account of Scottish social class it promotes. Its general features ought to be familiar to most of you.

MacLellan's takes it for granted that Scotland is a fertile site for political theatre, and offers an account of why he believes it to be so.  His basic thesis appears to be that political theatre would be inhibited by a dominant bourgeoisie, envisaged as individualistic, selfish, thirled to authority and clergy (blame the Episcopalians!). Social class in Scotland, suggests MacLellan, is like a stick of rock. If you chip off the thin, shiny gloss of the middle classes, you discover within a rich, telling seam of working class authenticity. And insofar as there is a discernible bourgeoisie in Scotland, it is self-involved, sparrow-sized, and inauthentic. He writes...

"Class differences between Scotland and England could hardly be more pronounced. Scotland is essentially a working class country where the terms yeoman or gentry have no resonance. Our middle class has historically always been very small and, if it multiplied to some extent during the 19th century, the strangulated vowels of Kelvinside and Morningside are testimony to its collective insecurity. Scratch the average middle class Scot outside Edinburgh’s New Town legal fraternity and you will find within a very few generations a product of the working class. Add to this largely proletarian stew the seasoning of Calvinism, where the individual may converse with God on equal terms without the mediation of Bishop or priest, and you have the beginnings of an audience receptive to ideas, who share a view that there is such a thing as society and who have a personal, ethical and political interest in its outcomes."

I was immediately reminded of Christopher Whyte's notion of the "textual invisibility" of the Scottish middle classes, as enthusiastic producers and consumers of fictions in which they are not represented, their significance denied, minimised, marginalised. We needn't look too far to find recent political examples of this curiosity at work. Quoth Whyte...

"One may posit a demand on the part of the Scottish middle class for fictional representations from which it is itself excluded; a demand, in other words, for textual invisibility. This would connect with the widespread perception of the Scottish middle classes as 'denationalised', as less Scottish in terms of speech and social practice than the lower classes. The task of embodying and transmitting Scottishness is, as it were, devolved to the unemployed, the socially underprivileged, in both actual and representational contexts."

One is immediately struck by how hackneyed and implausible MacLellan's account of the Scottish bourgeoisie is. The "legal fraternity in the New Town"? In terms of members of the Faculty of Advocates, and of the High Courts, we're talking about around 1,000 people at most. Only a handful of those could afford to stay in the stately Georgian homes in the New Town, or derive from families who've been in the law for generations. That's the "unscratchable"  bourgeoisie in a nation of over 5,000,000?  It's an absurdity.  Interestingly, such simple images are, I find, familiar stock-stuff.  In the Ken Stott adaptation of Ian Rankin's The Black Book, Inspector Rebus investigates, amongst others, a patrician Edinburgh MSP Daniel Raeburn.  I haven't read the book, but on the telly, Raeburn is played by David Robb, who specialises bourgeois characters running from the suave to the stern; barristers, army officers - and in his youth, the ill-fated Germanicus in I Claudius (1976). A privileged scion of the New Town, Raeburn cuts a respectable, stuffy figure, boasting an ambitious, cold-eyed and haughty gin-wife, and bears no discernible resemblance to any contemporary Scottish politician I can think of. He is a hackneyed  echo of some pre-1997 Tories perhaps, but difficult to envisage in Holyrood as is.

So what makes something like Borgen possible, but a Scottish equivalent difficult to envisage? Denmark, a country of five million people, with a unicameral national parliament, seating 179 MPs is not obviously more interesting than Scotland.  Perhaps it is a question of Holyrood lacking the political maturity required to envisage counterfactual alternative stories and a perceived lack of drama in the histories which have actually unfolded since 1998, discouraging pieces like the Blair-Brown inspired The Deal (2003) or the New Labour spin-inspired The Thick of It from Armando Ianucci. Put it another way. What sort of character could a dramatic, fictional First Minister be? What sources of narrative, of tension, corruption and struggle might one identify in the Scottish political landscape?

Could it be that one of our problems - encouraged by the theory being propounded by MacLellan and those who share his opinion - is that we don't talk about Scottish elites these days, their incestuous connections, throttled by the suffocating assumption that everyone is basically decent and well-intentioned? How can one develop a political theatre, when we're all pretending to be Jock Tamson's bairns, and our humanitarian banalities serve mostly to obscure from us the extent to which our egalitarianism is a fond, self-serving fantasy? How can one critically engage through drama with questions of who holds power in Scotland, if the producers of the dramatic refuse to see Scotland's bourgeoisie as anything but proletarians in none-too-convincing costumes, a small cast of peripheral characters with background parts, non-speaking roles and little influence? To put the argument at its most provocative, surely, contra MacLellan, the really interesting question is why contemporary Scotland doesn't have political drama (in both the institutional and, arguably the broader senses), and what we might do about it? 


  1. I think Scotland does do political theatre but it's politics in a much wider sense - The Steamie, for instance.

    There's also increasing use of applied theatre by local authorities.

    What we don't have is the formal "high politics" drama such as the Thick Of It or Borgen (which I really must watch) or the West Wing. I think it's partly because, independence aside, Scottish politics is intensely managerial.

  2. Is it not also to do with what sells?

    Scottish political theatre is going to have a pretty narrow audience.

    Also, I don't think there is as big a link with the elite and people in Scottish politics (assuming you're referring to the upper classes and aristocracy.)

    I think if things keep on as they are there might be more material for dramatic reproduction in the future though.

  3. Groundskeeper Willie13 January 2012 at 14:58

    All this talk of class politics reminds me of the story John McGrath used to tell against himself.

    Seemingly he called in to a petrol station in a remote Highland village.Striking up a conversation with the elderly proprietor who was filling the tank of the Volvo estate car he expained that he was just off to his holiday cottage for a short holiday. The old chap noticed a 7:84 sticker on the car window. McGrath explained that it was the name of a theatre company that he was the director of and that the name was chosen because 7% of the population of Scotland held 84% of the wealth.

    'Is that so?' said the old chap. 'Well there's no need to fucking boast about it'.

  4. Lots in there LPW. Just on the elite issue, back in August, Kenneth Roy (in the Scottish Review) picked up on Joyce McMillan talking about an 'elite' governing England. See


    Said Roy

    'There is not the slightest evidence that Scotland is, or will be, less dominated by elite captures and clique styles than the body politic as a whole. The elite exists in any society and it is likely to be more pronounced in a small society than in a large one.'

    I think you are right and I think Roy is right: as he points out, Joyce McMillan is in fact a very elite figure herself, popping up all over the place in Scottish public life.

    Some of the more enthusiastic Serb patriots speak of a gene for 'martyrdom' among the Serb people; their Scottish equivalents seem to think there is a gene for democracy and equality among Scots - a Tamsonizing gene that makes us all one.

    None of this matches with the Scotland of the real world. You mention advocates - I remember being at a book launch in the Signet when a friendly aristo indicated a bunch of sleek advocates passing in to a quiet room and saying 'they'll be fine no matter what'.

    To paraphrase Yeats, Scotland may get her 'freedom' but we non-elite Scots shall still break oor shortbread in oor tea (which shall be well and truly oot, as it always has been)

  5. We could always copy this as a genre;


    Made me laugh anyhow.

  6. The Scottish middle class is much less visible than its English equivalent... no Cambridge footlights alumni, no Clive Anderson-esque legal/media transformations, no Joanna Trollope Aga-saga writers. A pile of generalisations, admittedly, but I'm sure you get the drift.

    My conclusion is that the balance between McGrath's 7 and 84 may well still be the same, but the leverage and influence of the 7 in Scotland, is much less than amongst the UK's ruling class, ie SE England and the Home Counties in particular.

    Personally, I'm from working class stock and through luck and education found myself in a middle class profession. After twenty years of trying to fit in, I've given up and have reverted to a Connolly-esque parody of my teenage self. Scots idioms are liberally sown in my speech, but the veil is thin and I am shown up for the Uncle Tam that I undoubtedly am.

    MacMillan's view resonate with me, through familiarity, but I might feel differently if I was a Marquis or a Rt Hon.

  7. I think the proletarian-under-the-skin idea is a wee touch of Glasgow-centrism being projected onto the body dramatic. Glasgow, historically, has had a relatively small middle class, and there is a tendency here to assume that this is somehow more democratic. Said middle class often exhibits working class characteristics to blend in - e.g. Donald Findlay singing the Sash (or maybe Jack McLean playing his moothie - but I think I'll give Jack the benefit of the doubt). This is pretty common in societies where there is a small or non-existent middle class. I once did a university paper on dialect in Andalucía - which, for a long time, had practically NO middle class. Many Andalucians (unless Church-educated) from a monied background spoke the same dialect as the farmworkers and factory workers they employed. It's as if Michael Forsyth were to greet you with "Hullawrerr, pal. Hooz it gaun?" The isolation of the middle and upper classes led them to adopt the argot of the proletarians and peasants - partly as "camouflage", partly trying to identify with their region. In Glasgow, I would argue, this tendency still has a certain presence and the patois of the proles possesses a degree of covert prestige ("Ooh, the banter!"). The greater population of Glasgow tends to favour this attitude in the media and onstage. While the Glasgow middle class is growing, it still "knows its place" in a strange inversion of more common social norms. Edinburgh, with its traditionally larger bourgeois population is regarded by many Glaswegians as somehow "inauthentic" because of this. A broader view, of course, would no doubt reveal some very Scots surnames among the supposedly Anglified and/or imported middle class of Edinburgh, but this does not fit with Glaswegian preconceptions. The irony is that the existence of a large middle class provides the impetus and the opportunity for working-class people to advance their socio-economic position by providing an accessible step-up. It's pretty difficult for most working folk to imagine themselves, or their offspring, becoming Lords and Ladies or industrial magnates. It's not so incredible to imagine them getting some Highers and going to University - but there's no point in so doing if there is an insufficient pool of middle class job opportunities. With the greater wealth and fairer social use of that wealth which I anticipate Independence will bring, Glaswegians may finally dislodge the proletarian chips on their shoulders and we'll maybe start to see a more varied and well-rounded Scottish drama at the same time.

  8. But isn't the idea of a political elite about people who get into those positons of power because they were born into a social class or into particular circumstances which made it easier to either gain power or inherit power than others? You could certainly argue that is the case in England with all the rich private school educated cabinet ministers etc. Not many normal working class people there eh?

    You really couldn't say that of Scotland though, could you? Either of previous Scottish Executives or of the current Scottish Government. I first met a lot of the current Scottish Government at the Govan by-election in 1988. Alex, Mike, Nicola, Roseanna, they were there practically every day. John and Fiona were also there a lot. At that time only Alex was elected. There was no realistic prospect of any of them ever having their hands on the reigns of power. They were certainly not part of a politcal elite except inasmuch as most of them were on the SNP's NEC. Now of course you could argue that they are part of an elite in the sense that they are not just the SNP leadership but the leadership of Scotland. But they didn't start out with any advantages in that respect. Indeed choosing to join the SNP was a serious disadvantage for anyone who wanted to get ahead in politics in those days!

    Incidentally I think one of the funniest pieces of political drama I have ever seen was the Rab C Nesbitt episode based on the Govan by-election. I remember it ending with a big car cavalcade and Rab saying Christ the only thing worse than the SNP when they lose is the SNP when they win. Quite apt though we have learned to dial it down a bit since then.

  9. Ooh, the elite. It reminds me of the Chewin' The Fat sketches where the main character would state "I'm from Anstruther!", and everyone would tug the metaphorical forelock!

  10. It occurs to me that any political drama in Scotland would have to be a comedy. It couldn't be played straight.

  11. Thanks for the replies, folks. As you will have discerned, the post touched on a number of things without presuming properly to analyse them: interesting to hear your responses. What relation between political "elites" and social class? What between social class and theatre production? Particularly enjoyed your well-taken point about the social geography of this Bobelix. I entirely agree, and it was remiss of me, to have entirely neglected that aspect.

    Am curious Indy. You argue "that any political drama in Scotland would have to be a comedy. It couldn't be played straight". If you have a moment, I'd be exceedingly interested in hearing why you think so?

  12. I don't know why I think that really. I have heard Elaine C Smith say that pantomime is the most distinctively Scottish form of theatre there is. Even though technically it's not of course. I just think we have a tendency to express ourselves through comedy more than through serious drama. And there is a pantomime element to our politics as well isn't there?

    Even if you look at something like In The Thick of It - it's about New Labour and set in London but it's written by a Scotsman and Malcolm Tucker is played a Scotsman, as a Scotsman. Which in itself is interesting because would he be as funny if he wasn't Scottish? If he was played as an English character would people see him as a monster I wonder rather than this character who swears a lot and is permanently frustrated but essentially harmless?