All societies need outsiders. Those people who consistently and creatively point out uncomfortable truths, and who highlight the limitations of conventional thinking in ways that large parts of mainstream opinion want to avoid. Scotland is no exception to this universal reality.
Often such outsiders are uncelebrated; often dismissed as troublemakers and oppositionalists who refuse to compromise and get with the programme of institutional life. Such was the situation with Leigh French, the writer, cultural provocateur and activist, who died two Sundays ago at the tragically young age of 54. Leigh was the main figure, editorially and intellectually, behind the group who produced the publication Variant
For over 15 years – from 1997-2012 – Variant
established an informed, forensic critique of the cultural landscape in its widest sense in Scotland and its place in the international order. In so doing, it produced a detailed intellectual deconstruction of what passed for mainstream, official and orthodox thinking and practice.
had a generous, wide-ranging sense of the targets it should focus on. One was the instrumental, insider class waffle of 'the creative class' that reduced arts and culture to an offshoot of economic development and capital accumulation. Not surprisingly, Creative Scotland was another regular object of criticism – the original idea for which originated in New Labour's take on a 'creative class'.
Anyone involved in the intellectual and public life of Scotland could find themselves the object of a Variant
critique. In the post-1997 environment, when Labour won a UK election and legislated for a Scottish Parliament, I organised a three-day conference in Glasgow around the Tron Theatre and a host of surrounding cultural spaces. Called The New Scotland
, the six-page Variant
essay located this intervention (not completely correctly) within New Labour modernisation and reactionary politics. The piece was savage, but deeply thoughtful and took seriously the role of ideas in life; in its critique it was, as it often was with Variant
, a deep-seated compliment.
was a free publication with its production costs covered by a small annual grant from the Scottish Arts Council (later Creative Scotland): a hand it bit so relentlessly that eventually the funding dried up. In its 15 years, Variant
informed and gave space to a generation of emerging writers and thinkers, contributing to a wider knowledge of cultural production, practice and ideas. This helped sustain a loose network of radical ideas and outsiders who felt that mainstream Scotland had little regard for their perspectives.
leaves an important legacy and a valuable set of lessons. Another publication that received much more generous Creative Scotland funding – Scottish Review of Books
– felt like a narrow male club of writers,and left behind a negligible legacy. Scotland needs more enterprising projects like Variant
and it needs more people like Leigh.
Scott Hames, an academic at Stirling University, summed up Leigh's writing as 'meticulous, unappeasable, seemingly fearless'. In the words of Hames, he was also deeply human and a mix of many qualities:
In person, I found him surprisingly mellow: open and patient as you stumbled toward your own view, and tried your best to keep up. The fierce intelligence was also calm, softly spoken and quietly generous. Always with another book to suggest, another potential project to discuss. Conversations never really 'ended' and there was no finishing the kinds of practice and reflection Leigh and those closest to him made their own.
A Scottish revolutionary voice: Neil Davidson
Upon hearing of the death of Leigh French, I could not help but think of the example of Neil Davidson, who died in May 2020 aged 62. Neil came to academia late in life through left-wing politics and the Socialist Workers Party, and produced some of the most original takes on Scotland, Scottish nationalism and capitalism. One tribute at the time of his death called him 'self-taught and one of the foremost Scottish public intellectuals of his generation'.
His first book, The Origins of Scottish Nationalism
(1999) laid out the case that nationalism as it is now known was not something rooted in the long ago past, emerging from the myths of Bruce and Wallace, and invoking the Declaration of Arbroath. Instead, it was a fairly recent phenomenon in Scotland and a creation of the circumstances of unionist Scotland. Such a historical analysis goes profoundly against the grain of an essentialist, romanticised Scottish nationalism which now reclaims past struggles in feudal times through rewriting history which Davidson's thesis comprehensively debunked.
This work was followed by Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746
(2003), which won the Deutscher Memorial Prize and Saltire Society Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Award. It explored the key transformations in late 17th- and early 18th-century Scottish society: how elites gained from the dramatic change of a country at the periphery of the world economy becoming an integral part of the core global capitalist economy. Union was a key part of this but so were the unleashed, domestic forces of change. This shift saw Scotland's capitalist class accumulate enormous economic wealth, while producing huge dislocations across society.
His subsequent study, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?
(2012), saw Neil widen his canvas and address the historical realities of bourgeois revolutions, and in particular, English, American and French examples. He looked at the concept of 'bourgeois revolution' pre-Marx in the ideas of the Reformation and Enlightenment, and subsequently reinterpreted by Marx and Engels and a new generation of Marxist thinkers. It is a tour de force of a book that deserves to be widely studied and analysed.
Neil Davidson and Leigh French were not well-known in their lifetimes, beyond relatively small circles, in a society where many people have not heard of most writers – let alone intellectuals. Yet it goes beyond that, with the lack of intellectual recognition to both being nothing short of a scandal; the Saltire Society being an honourable exception with Davidson. Despite the originality of his writings, Davidson, like Tom Nairn before him, was never awarded a professorship at a Scottish university.
The examples of Davidson and French offer us a glimpse into the character of Scottish public and intellectual life. They reveal something about the nature of society, who we are, our collective values, and home truths about the narrow bandwidth of much of what passes for public discourse.
Maybe one day the institutional forces of Scottish academia, civil society and establishment bodies, such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), will take more seriously genuine, enquiring, intellectual inquiry and thinking, and the importance of dissenting, challenging voices.
I knew both Leigh and Neil, knowing the latter more and getting to know him well in the years after the 2014 indyref, where we would talk about various projects, questioning the extent of radical Scotland through the ages, none of which we brought to a proper conclusion.
For all the heat and noise of the 2014 referendum and emergence of new voices and spaces, the dissolution of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1991 and then implosion of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 2004, has had an impact on the effectiveness of radical voices, divorcing them from matters of class, inequality and wider society, and mirroring the retreat of a large part of 'the left'.
The tradition in Scotland of difficult outsiders is one that we have to recognise and nurture. Yet, despite this, we have too often in too many places not recognised the difficult voices within our midst or listened to them properly.
Who could really argue that the cultural environment of Scotland would not have been better served if more centrist voices had engaged with the critiques of Variant
? If they had, they would have understood the ideological assumptions and baggage of the language of 'the creative class' instead of parroting uncritically the latest insider jargon.
Scotland would be a more dynamic, pluralist, vibrant community if there were more examples of the likes of Variant
, Leigh French and Neil Davidson, and more platforms prepared to invest time and commitment in being generous, open and challenging. We desperately need such spaces that express a culture of self-determination which I have previously called an 'independence of the Scottish mind'.
Asking difficult questions in these dark times is needed more than ever before. Across the world, what passes for liberal democracy is under attack. Political authoritarianism is on the rise and right-wing populists are prepared to embrace political demagoguery and opportunism, which deflects from the failed economic project of the right. To top all of this, the spectre of fascism has re-emerged on the right in the mainstream body politic in the USA, France, Italy and Hungary for starters.
Liberalism, and being tolerant and respectful, is not enough to save humanity and the planet from its current crises. Leigh French and Neil Davidson were uplifting examples of the limits of mainstream Scotland, with its paucity of pluralism and the power of conformity. If we could learn one thing in Scotland it is to value, treasure and listen to the political, cultural and intellectual provocateurs – the difficult, often problematic outsiders.
In this, Variant
, Leigh French and Neil Davidson have not just left a rich legacy and critical practice, but a set of signposts for how we ask difficult questions in the present and future.