Commentary by Christopher Silver
This weekend, cinemagoers across the U.K and all over the planet will head out in droves to see Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated epic film Dunkirk.
Regardless of the director’s intent, it remains inevitable that the film, and its stirring subject matter, will become a key reference point as Britain once again seeks to extricate itself from the continent.
Indeed, this process is already underway.
So it was unsurprising to see a Telegraph op-ed cite the film and proclaim: ‘Britain stands alone against Europe. We need a Brexit plan we can all get behind.’
The ground had already been prepared by Penny Mordaunt’s invocation of the “Dunkirk spirit” in the wake of Brexit last year, when she noted:
‘When Britain stood alone in 1940 after the defeat at Dunkirk, we were cut off and ridiculed. True leadership sometimes does feel isolating. Yet we have never suffered for it. We are resourceful; we are well connected; our brand is strong in the world.’
This sentiment has its own parallel across the Atlantic – with Donald Trump’s echo of the isolationist “America First” movement that sought to steer the US away from involvement in a European conflict against fascism.
As it happens, the “Dunkirk spirt” and the associated finest hour myth that it gives rise to overlooks the fact that British propaganda at the time continued to pitch the war’s events as an international struggle against Hitler, even after the fall for France.
The great effort to ‘stand alone’ was already internationalised, because it was a direct rebuke to the deil tak the hindmost policy of appeasement.
All of this will do little to temper the excitement with which Dunkirk will be used to validate British nationalism as it reaches a peak of excess. Mass-media has that rare capacity to become a part of the historic process itself: any subtle message it contains easily gets lost due to the sheer spectacle it provides.
In Scotland, this experience is familiar. Whether or not there was a tangible “Braveheart effect” accompanying demands for devolution in the 1990s is debatable. But the enthusiasm that all nationalities experience when Hollywood alights on a national story or myth and seeks to make it universal, cannot be denied.
Today, the role of film and narrative art in national life, and the crucial question of how it gets made, flags up a big part of the problem underpinning the current state of Scotland.
It’s not a lack of material. Those looking for a Scots inflected World War Two epic, need look no further than Allan Massie’s A Question of Loyalties, set in Vichy France.
The novel delves into the complexities of what it means to be true to the motherland, in a world that has a habit of turning such easy affinities into impossible dilemmas. But the idea that such a novel might find its way onto the big screen seems improbable, if not impossible.
There is a bigger question that films like Dunkirk poses for Scottish nationalism, at a moment when it is considering how to chart its future course.
More than any formal bureaucratic life, the nation is primarily an imagined construct. It exists, fundamentally, in certain shared stories that the majority of the nation are prepared, in very broad terms, to subscribe to.
The idea of a new nation, shaping its destiny from scratch, projecting internationalism, determined to live as part of a whole continent, is a great yarn. There are ample rich cultural and historic sources to draw upon. But it will probably never be told to a mass audience. It will therefore struggle, as it clearly has done over the past year, to enter the popular imagination.
In Scotland the telling of stories, both big and small, is becoming an increasingly tough act to pull off.
As the Scottish Government undertakes a series of ‘Culture Conversations’ to work out its culture strategy over the coming years, a simple solution ought to emerge.
Giving people the economic space to fail at making things, without risking dire harm and deep indebtedness along the way, has the capacity to unleash an enormous wave of potential. In cultural terms, that is the telling difference between the pre-devolution era and the current situation.
Step forth a great irony: Scotland in the 1980s, in the iron grip of distant Tory rule, was a demonstrably richer place in cultural terms than it is today.
Though it might seem blasphemous to say so, the flourishing of alternative and grassroots culture in the 80s and 90s was in no small part facilitated by that great unspeakable aspect of the Thatcher revolution – its deliberate creation of mass unemployment, and the funding of this policy through welfare schemes.
For starters, students could claim housing benefit outside of term time (when they weren’t receiving a full grant) and the notion that they had to toil alongside formal education was yet to take hold. If, on graduating, they ended up out of work, the demands of the welfare system were far less onerous and held up far more favourably in relation to average earnings than they do today. Personal debt and housing costs were yet to spiral out of control.
As a result, it was much easier to wing it, to experiment. Perhaps the clearest example of how such policies benefit the arts was the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which allowed any artist or writer with a business plan to receive 40 pounds a week for up to a year. With that guaranteed income they were afforded the time to hone their craft.
Countless established figures in contemporary Scottish culture: the generation that are now at the peak of their creative prowess, directly benefited from this programme. But without some kind of equivalent today, we can already see the beginnings of a lost generation on the horizon.
The glittering prize of the critically acclaimed, Oscar-bagging, blockbuster may seem a world away from such a policy. But that is to underestimate the way in which the commercially “successful” mainstream is always linked to an “unsuccessful” alternative. For example, it is widely understood that the world renowned screen culture in Denmark exists due to the presence of a large, well-funded and sustainable system of state subsidy, which in turn gives rise to the nimble, smaller, innovative arm of the industry.
Today Scotland finds itself in a political situation where new work about the nation’s predicament ought to abound. Rule-defying pockets of creativity aside, this has not been the case. As a result, this strange moment of forced departure, this longing to be part of something more than an ever-diminishing little Britain, could well be accompanied by a deafening cultural silence.
A sound cultural policy requires an acceptance that economic freedom is the only basis that allows people to create. Scotland remains a country that still prioritises the commodification of art, culture and education. If we don’t change that, the space to think bigger and to tell epic, universal tales, will be lost.
The stories we tell ourselves are wearing thin. They must be renewed, or the whole project of building a distinct country called Scotland will surely ebb with it.
The film Dunkirk is, by all accounts, a brilliant and complex feat. It ought to remind us, despite the excited squeals of the Brexiteers, that there is no right or wrong story about the nation to be hallowed and sealed off: the greater plurality on offer, the better.
If Scotland doesn’t provide a sharp boost for inspired visions of what its past means and what its future might be over the coming years, it may never escape the fate of being locked into someone else’s disaster. Worse still, it won’t really deserve to.