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Why Gray was wrong to use the word settler

ALASDAIR Gray is not anti-English: my well-known taste for stating the obvious is hereby exhausted.

The artist who gave us the injunction that we should work as if living in the early days of a better nation isn't built that way. Even Gray's lapidary motto was adapted, I think I'm right in saying, from the work of a foreign poet, one Dennis Lee. Are we counting Canadians as foreign? If so, Scott Hames, the Stirling lecturer and editor of a volume to which the novelist has contributed some supposedly incendiary remarks, is also in the frame.

Gray, a professional watcher of words, could have been more careful, for all that. Or perhaps less subtle. Of a contribution to Unstated: Writers On Scottish Independence, edited by Hames, the author of Lanark observed last week: "I do include in the essay that I thoroughly approve of settlers, but I might regret colonists."

There it was, then: anti-Englishness. It popped up just after some crime statistics had been misinterpreted to show that assaults on people from below the Border have increased. They haven't. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, points to a 17% fall in such attacks over the last year.

The fact is not enough, and never is, for those wedded to the notion that Scotland's racism towards English folk lurks behind every gesture and utterance. The possibility that creepy violent types are creeps first and Scottish second is not often discussed. Anti-Englishness is far too handy a cudgel to be laid aside in the political struggle with Nationalism. But it has nothing to do with Gray's argument.

In the Hames book, he says this: "The appointed director of Creative Scotland" (Andrew Dixon had yet to announce his resignation) "is not Scottish, admits to knowing nothing of Scottish culture, but says he is willing to learn. Ain't Scotland lucky?"

You could call that churlish. You could dismiss it as petty. But along the way you could admit that it was, where Dixon was concerned, just a statement of fact. You could also add that any number of Scotland's cultural institutions have seen the need to import leadership from England and beyond. Then you would be left with a big question. If all real art is both local and international, is this state of affairs right or wrong? Was Gray being parochial, or alighting on a real issue to do with the origins of creativity and the ownership of culture? Explaining himself last week, he said he had been "using the words with great care". No doubt he was. I can understand, I think, the distinction he was trying to make. I have lived in a colony all my days, and have never cared for the privilege. But I can also understand why a lot of people, especially among the 13% of residents born outwith Scotland, wouldn't see things as Gray sees them.

Mark Cousins, former cineaste-in-chief at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and maker of one of the great histories of cinema, was among the first to react. His Tweet ran: "As a NIrish person who's lived in Scotland for 30 yrs, I've always felt so welcome. Until, that is, Alasdair Gray's recent remarks."

I used to know Mark. He won't mind, I think, if I recall that a lot of his affection for Edinburgh and Scotland came from the fact that he was and is "a NIrish person" who saw his share of Troubles and found things better here. But try going around the province calling people settlers. It has a certain resonance. Besides, though it didn't fit the headlines, Cousins isn't English.

He felt the sting of Gray's remarks, nevertheless. How would 8% of us, born in England, feel towards the distinction between settlers (welcome) and colonists (Go Home)? It wasn't so long ago that nationalism was being tainted by Settler Watch and Scottish Watch. The latter was put out of business by Mike Russell, then chief executive of the SNP. That politician, now Minister for Education, was born in Kent, it should be needless to add.

Gray might have been exercising "great care", but settler is a word with freight. Some prefer "white settler". Back in the 1980s, working on another newspaper, I would sometimes see letters, comically angry letters, from Siol nan Gaidheal (Seed of the Gael). For light relief you could study communiques from the Scottish Separatist Group, a clique apparently dedicated to giving republicanism a bad name. The "Seed", in contrast, had clear views on blood nationalism.

These days it is a self-defined "Scottish Cultural & Fraternal Organisation". Its diehards still find time to complain, though, about "the dismantling of our indigenous social structure" and the "white settler phenomenon". They proclaim the "defence of The People, the Land, and the Cultural Integrity of Scotland". Should I draw you a map of where the argument can go?

Gray wasn't talking about any of that. If I understand him, he was saying that immigration is a fine thing, and that immigrants are welcome. He was objecting to the idea that Scotland is a cultural outpost on the colonial CV, that hiring policies in the arts represent a colonial relationship. It might even be true. But given the high road to London that has been the noblest prospect for one sort of Scot, what does the fact signify?

You could point out, for one thing, that the most industrious and ingenious colonialists are those Scots, often veterans of London politics and the London media, who fight their good fight for the Union. Are they culpable for leaving and acquiring allegiances? I could name names. But then I would have to tell you why Sir Sean Connery's conquest of Hollywood is an inspiration for nationalists, or why Scots should have every right to head arts organisations in every corner of the world.

Gray was being specific. The pity is not that he mentioned colonialism, but that he used the word settler. Why is it better than likely that the next head of Creative Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and all the other festivals, will have been born outside Scotland? Would we impose quotas, a birth qualification, a test? There is an issue, nevertheless. It has to do with Scottish culture, who makes it, and for whom.

The parallels with the argument over independence ought to be clear enough. Neither in the arts nor in politics will a conflict be settled by allegations of bad faith or accusations of anti-Englishness. I don't expect Unionists to recognise the point, however.

The Canadian Dennis Lee published the nine poems of his Civil Elegies 40 years ago, just in time to inspire Alasdair Gray. Two years later, Lee published a piece titled Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing In Colonial Space. In part, it was an attempt to explain why the poet could no longer write under the colonialist influences of Britain and America. In the end it meant, said Lee, "assuming that what is for real can be claimed by a Canadian in the language of his own time and place".

But what is excluded, and for what reason, when you claim your voice and your liberation? All of Canada's whites were colonists once, and some of them were Scots. Or is someone from Toronto or Quebec ineligible to head Creative Scotland?

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