Let's celebrate both the different and common cultural streams across the UK

Let's celebrate both the different and common cultural streams across the UK

by Hugh Andrew
article from Wednesday 5, December, 2018

IN THE INDEPENDENCE DEBATE one assumption went almost unchallenged. It was that ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’ were different countries. 

Fundamental to that view is the unspoken belief that Scottish ‘culture’ and that of the rest of the UK is somehow separate and distinctive. Yet is this really the case? 

We share a common language, a political union which in large part dates from 1603, a common monarchy, and much else besides. 

In literature the UK's bestseller list is also Scotland’s bestseller list. The vast bulk of books read or bought in Scotland are commissioned, edited and published in London. All this is not to belittle cultural ‘difference’. Of course it exists. There was no Gaelic in England. But then even at its height Gaelic was only ever spoken across perhaps two thirds of Scotland. The Highland clearances did not take place in England – but actually the same rural depopulation did. 

The real differences in fact reside within each country and not between them. And that is exactly how it should be. Culture is not a homogenous whole but a richly varied and differentiated strand of experience in which the border between Scotland and England is a remarkably faint line of demarcation. 

Nor need Scots feel any cultural inferiority through this. From the Gruffalo to Ian Rankin, Scottish authors and Scottish writers play a hugely important role in shaping and influencing that British cultural weave. Nor do they do so in the UK alone. That writing, that culture is exported, translated and packaged round the world. 

From selling four children’s books about Mull to China – as we recently did – to being an international celebrity such as JK Rowling (pictured), writers based in, or writing about, Scotland have used the platform of our common culture to conquer the world. Literature is big business and the UK publishing industry is one of the world’s biggest.

But there is another aspect of huge economic importance to Scotland and that is tourism and heritage. Ironically enough, one of the major things keeping cultural difference within Scotland alive against the homogenising trends of modern culture are the English language tourists who come to Scotland because they value the different voices they find there. 

It is ironic that a distinctly Scottish-flavoured voice is strongest in precisely those areas where those tourists go. That link, that sense of multiple voices in one larger country is hugely important to us.

For me as a publisher too there is something that makes me curiously uneasy about a single homogenous cultural monolith. I neither regard myself as a ‘Scottish’ or a ‘British’ publisher, I hope we are a ‘good’ publisher, a publisher who chooses books not according to some shibboleth of identity but according to whether or not they are good enough. 

Many of these books, a great many are Scottish, and it is that UK cultural market that gives them the widest possible cultural platform. Surely that is how it should be – that success is based on quality and not identity?

There is for me no issue, no cultural dichotomy, for me of being a very ‘Scottish’ branded publisher in a UK market. It is precisely the scale and depth of that common cultural platform that enables our books to reach out well beyond our own boundaries and country. 

It is perfectly possible to celebrate both difference within, and the riches of, that common cultural stream from which we all spring.

Hugh Andrew is a board member of Scottish Business UK

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