Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature

By Ian Brown; Alan Riach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
Arcades – The 1980s and 1990s

Michael Gardiner

The decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s was as significant for Scottish literary history as that from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s. Like the 1920s–1930s Renaissance (the ‘First Renaissance’), the period saw a crisis of representation accompanying a rethinking of national aesthetics. It is significant not only because of ‘how many’ writers and ‘how important’ they were – but also because the period reframed issues concerning the form of the canon and Scottish literature’s scope, purpose and autonomy. It would be misleading to say that a politico-constitutional crisis caused national literary rebirth in the early 1980s, but a crisis did trigger long-building tendencies, accelerated by the First Renaissance and then the breakdown of the post-war British consensus in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In particular 1979 can be seen as a watershed date, since the country now faced not only the failure of the devolution referendum but also a government which made a virtue of deafness to national issues. A new ‘Britishing’ period emerged, but without the cohesive pride of Blitz, the Welfare State, or industrial expansion. The new administration faced a downturn while maintaining a combination of monetarist control over public finances and a popularising of social-Darwinist metaphors in business; unemployment more than doubled between 1979 and 1983, and social inequalities became broadly acceptable for the first time since before the war. Not only Wales and Scotland, but England’s industrial north and rural edges felt disenfranchised, and even Londoners protested through the Greater London Council, and more than ever the UK state seemed less a form of representation than an oligarchy of financial management. National contexts became increasingly distinct from, and opposed to, those of the UK. As Scottish literature enjoyed a revival, Britain as an idea was collapsing more rapidly than at any time since the eighteenth century.

Culture was behind this process; indeed after 1979 the UK government became notably uncomfortable with the term ‘culture’ itself. A favoured term was ‘heritage’, which recognised only established values, and fitted the unwritten UK constitution, for which every value is a repetition of what seems to have come before. Fault-lines then formed between ethnic continuity as

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