Interview with Alan Bissett

 

Alan Bissett is a playwright, author and performer hailing from Hallglen in Falkirk. He has written novels such as ‘Boyracers’ (2001) and ‘The Incredible Adam Spark’ (2005), as well as the documentary ‘Shutdown’ (2009), which explores Bissett’s personal experiences with Scotland’s industrial past. The Scottish artist is a strong advocator of socialist politics and his country’s right to self-determination, while both of these convictions resonate through his work. His latest show, ‘Ban This Filth!’, will be presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014. A couple of weeks ago, I met him at the CCA for a coffee and a long chat about his bid for rector, Glasgow’s legacy of virtuous, leftist politics, as well as more broadly about his views on the Scottish independence.
 
What has motivated you pursue a bid for the rector at the University of Glasgow?
 
I was invited by Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association. One reason is obviously to give a platform to the ‘Yes’ campaign, but more importantly I think I miss the university experience; the air of learning and being around intelligent people, talking about ideas all the time, because writing is a very solitary activity. In that sense, it’s a selfish thing; I get to be back on campus and enjoy that atmosphere. But also when I really stop to consider it, I think I could be an effective negotiator for students’ interests. I obviously have political differences with someone like Charles Kennedy, but from what I gather, he was a pretty good rector and represented the student interests and I look forward to doing that. I’d like to find what students think need changed about Glasgow University and do something about it. So maybe three reasons, one for me, one for the ‘Yes’ campaign and one for the students.
 
Do you feel that your strong convictions on Scottish Independence could inhibit you from remaining an objective representative in certain scenarios?
 
As for my political convictions vis-à-vis independence go, no. If I’m voted in, I’m going to represent all students, whether they intend to vote for independence or not. It makes no difference to me what students’ personal politics are, if they’re coming in saying ‘look there’s a problem on campus with this’ or ‘I think this course is failing’, I’m there to represent that. So in that sense, my personal politics are irrelevant, but also my politics aren’t just about independence. I would be active in pursuing what you could call a left wing programme, the status of immigrants and foreign students on campus, making them feel welcome and included, making sure that asylum seekers have got access to university resources, making a noise about gender equality, obviously Glasgow University has a particular history of the latter. There will also be the issue of management pay, the sort of pay the university chancellors are giving themselves is going through the roof at a time when we’re told that there is no money and staff are experiencing pay freezes, pay cuts. I think in the best sense my politics mean that I’ll be proactive about making changes, but it won’t affect my approach to individual students and their concerns.
 
Some students are thinking of voting for a rector who most likely won’t be able to be present as a tangible representative of the student body. However, Glasgow already has had non-working personalities in that position before. What are your thoughts on this issue?
 
It was the same when I was at university at Stirling, I started university in 1993 and we elected as rector Alex Patterson, from a band called The Orb, who were big at the time. Great band, but he was elected because he was a celebrity and because The Orb were cool at the time, so he was never there. That was the thing about the nineties; it was the age of apathy and irony. I would plead with students to not go for the ironic vote. To give credit to the other candidates, they all seem to have substance, I have no idea of what personal politics of Obree are, but he’s got a very inspirational story, he’s had mental health issues in the past and he’s overcome them and I think for students that is inspiring. I would like to see what his politics are before I judge him as a candidate. Obviously no disrespect to Edward Snowden, he’s a great guy, I can absolutely understand why students would vote for somebody like him, but, you know, he’s not here.
 
Voices of religious students at Glasgow University often seem to go unnoticed at campus; do you feel you would be able to properly represent them?
 
I myself am an atheist, I don’t believe God exists, but still, people have the right to express their faith. I think therein comes a problem when people’s right to express their faith interferes with others’ individual rights to say things, be gay or have an abortion, I can’t support that. There are obviously Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies on campus and they have a right to be heard. I would support that, but I would draw the line at what I would perceive as bigotry. I’m sure Holdsworth has personal integrity and from what I gather he is a supporter of LGBT rights and if that’s the case, I take my hat off to him. I really don’t think there are any bad selections here.
 
You’ve been very outspoken on social media about your attempt at postponing election bid deadlines in order to ensure the presence of female contestants. Could you elaborate on your position in this area?
 
The current selection is all males, I understood their reasons for not extending the deadline, but I think there is a larger picture that they’re missing. Glasgow University is an institution that has become famous for sexism, if they were to bend these rules the gain would be larger than the loss. When I was asked to run we didn’t know who the other candidates would be, so some of the remaining candidates could have been females. Given that all the candidates are male however, I was appealing to the university to bend the rules, or change them to actually ensure equality between the genders. Sixty percent of the university’s population is females and they won’t have anybody representing their gender as part of the selection process. There’s only ever been one [female rector] in Glasgow’s entire history and Glasgow is one of the oldest universities in Britain. We also have an all male selection panel. I think once I get in there, I can actually start tackling these things. For example, when I’m rector one of the first things I’ll try and do is to change the way rectors are nominated to try and ensure there’s always a gender balance, especially in somewhere like the GUU which has had recent problems with institutionalized sexism. I think we would have to see a stronger stance on sexism on higher levels in a situation like that. Obviously sexism is a social problem, it is not simply confined to Glasgow University, or to the GUU, but the latter is the most visible problem, and what happened during that debate was extremely embarrassing. There needs to be a positive change in a right direction.
 
Do you feel that the leftist politics you mentioned before will be in tune with Glasgow University?
 
One of the great speeches in Scottish political history was Jimmy Reid’s opening address to the students after he was made rector in the 1970s. He famously said ‘capitalism is a rat race, but we are not rats, we’re human beings’ and I would hope to have a similar impact. I do feel that Glasgow as a city has a history of radical politics. Conversely, Glasgow also has shameful history; the Tobacco lords created enormous amounts of wealth off the back of slavery during the period of the British Empire. That’s how Glasgow expanded in some ways that it did, but at the same time there is a very strong working class consciousness, because of the things like the shipyards, Red Clydeside and Labour, back in the days when it used to be Labour. It has always been very strong in Glasgow and I think it would be great if the students were to elect a rector who tied in with that kind of consciousness and kept Glasgow University radical.
 
If you do get elected as rector, your term might see Glasgow University enter a fully independent Scotland. How do you feel about that?
 
If Scotland votes ‘Yes’ in September and there are some relevant transitional issues; for example whether Glasgow becomes a solely Scottish university or a British institution, I’m not entirely sure what those would be yet, but I would work to try to make that transition smooth and make sure that students don’t feel that their education is being disrupted in any way. I don’t think it will be, but if students do feel that way, then I would have to deal with that, listen what their complaints are and measure their substance. I would love to be the rector of Glasgow University as Scotland becomes independent. I’m not doing it for posterity however; I believe I would be a very effective campaigner for student rights.
 
Why do you think so many artists and academics are joining the independence movement? Nationalism of any form usually falls short of full-blown support from creative people.
 
I’d argue first of all that the ‘No’ campaign is also a nationalist campaign, because its purpose is to protect what they see as ‘the Nation’, but the difference is that our nationalism is bound up with the struggle for self-determination, whereas British nationalism is bound up with imperial aggression. A lot of artists and a lot of creative people have got behind ‘Yes’, because they see it as a much more positive, inclusive and progressive movement than the campaign to keep the status quo. Because the status quo, as far as I’m concerned, is hideous; we have one of the most class-ridden societies in the world, the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the UK is the fourth most unequal in the developed world. We’ve had right wing government after right wing government, terrible consequences of British imperialism abroad, especially in the Middle East, and now we have sustained attack on the most vulnerable members of our society. I really think we’re entering a stage where the right wing and capitalism is becoming quite frightening. The UK government is now ordering water cannons; the first time water cannons will ever be used on the British streets because they fear there are going to be riots because of the new austerity measures that they’re taking. Now, if they fear the austerity measures will cause riots rather than actually change course, they think ‘okay, how do we fight the population?’ I don’t understand why people want to continue that, let along strengthen it, which a ‘No’ vote will do. So I think most people who are ‘Yes’ voters among artists, creatives recognize that this is a really positive chance to start a country which will stand as a good example for people in the rest of the UK about how an economy and a society should be run.
 
Why do you think some Scotts will vote ‘No’ in the referendum?
 
There are three broad reasons why Scots will vote ‘No’; one is fear, they believe independence is too much of a risk and those fears are being fostered and nurtured by the ‘No’ campaign, the entire purpose of is to sow fear. The other is loyalty, a lot of people feel that their identity is British and that Scottish independence would somehow interrupt that, its understandable, but to think that somebody would disregard the livelihood and wellbeing of the rest of their country people in order to maintain their identity, I find objectionable. The third reason for a ‘No’ vote is the inferiority complex; it has been engrained in a lot of Scottish people that we can’t do it, that were not good enough, that we’re too small and we should just leave it to the big guys down in London. So I think if Scots vote ‘No’ it will be for those reasons and I don’t think there are solid foundations to any of them.
 
What is your ‘doomsday scenario’ for a Scotland voting ‘No’?
 
There will be a slow removal of power from the Scottish parliament because we will be defenceless against that. What they will do is pretend to give us more devolution and that devolution will take form of raising more taxes. That’s more devolution, that’s more power, but with the other hand, they will remove our budget. So they’ll scrap the Barnett Formula, a method by which Scotland is funded, and we’ll have a four billion pound hole in the Scottish economy. Now, what the SNP government is going to do to fill that hole? Raise taxes or cut public services, which then makes the post-no vote SNP government very unpopular, which allows Labour to walk in and occupy all the rooms. They’ve got it all planned out; Andy Burnham, who is the shadow health secretary, has already said that what he would like is to see a UK-wide health policy. Now, that’s quite a euphemism; what that means is removing control over health from the Scottish parliament, because health is now devolved. Scotland will be punished for this rebellion, even if it’s a ‘No’ vote, we won’t be rewarded for loyalty, and we’ll be punished for having the temerity to get this far.
 
What do you think will happen to the Scottish identity, should Scotts vote ‘Yes’ on its independence?
 
I think the psyche of the country will change, we’ll have a lot more confidence that we have lacked in the past, well have a lot more optimism, the culture of blame, which exists in Scotland, will become a thing of the past. If we’re responsible for our own successes and our own failures, we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves so it will force us to grow up as a nation. If we vote ‘no’ then essentially what we’re saying is that we don’t want to mature as a nation, we want to just be controlled, kept and remain stunted. So I think it will force us to become a better democracy. I think that democracy will be greater than the one we have at the moment, Holyrood already has a better and fairer electorate system than Westminster. Because of proportional representation, we’ll see much more of a left presence in our parliament; we’ve already had five or six socialist SNPs in parliament, who have actually called themselves socialists. Obviously, that fell apart because of the whole Tommy Sheridan scandal, but that’s not an inherent problem with socialism. When was the last time a party calling themselves socialist got elected in Westminster? I think there will be a presence for the right, but I think the left will be much stronger, what we’ll see is a battle between the left and centre, the centre being SNP, the left represented by socialists, the greens, hopefully a reborn Labour and Liberal party, who actually remember their values. Again, that mirrors what we have in Westminster, which is a battle between the centre and the right.
 
What does the future hold for a Scotland let free of Westminster’s rule then?
 
We’ll have a better democracy, we’ll have more cultural confidence, we’ll have a stronger economy; we can invest in green energy, because if the oil is going to be used it should be used to plan for what happens when the oil runs out. We will reindustrialize Scotland, Thatcher deindustrialized Scotland and she used our oil money to do it. We’ll reindustrialize Scotland to get Scotts working, create green energy programs, not only so we can use green energy but also export its technology. We’ll have a stronger industry, stronger economy and I think we should start looking at nationalization of industries; keep water in national hands, nationalise the transport networks, oil, and energy, anything that is vital for the survival of the people. Which is again exactly the opposite of what is happening at Westminster, where basically there’s a fire sale of the nations’ assets, it happened with Royal Mail; a knock-down price that’s handed over to the market for no good reason, why? Because it enriches wealthy people, who also tend to vote Tory. So I think in every respect Scotland would be a stronger, healthier nation.
 
Many people worry that Scotland largely separate from British power will become an underdog in the international arena. What are your thoughts on that?
 
I think that’s a good thing, I don’t think large states are necessarily healthy, the larger the state is generally the more aggressive and messier it is. How can you reconcile the various contradictions within one country? I think size is dangerous because with size comes aggression and paranoia, we only have to look at USA, or China. What you ‘re hearing from the ‘No’ campaign is ‘we have more clout in the world stage, we have more presence, we have more power’; that’s a legacy of imperialism. They need to have presence; they need to have more power. Often what they mean by that is the ability to invade other countries, or manipulate economies. I think there’s something to be said for a small stable, state and secure state that looks after its citizens and contributes in a positive way to the international community, I think that’s what Scotland can be.
 
Interview by Michael Borowiec

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