Scotching the Myths of Modern Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 7th 2017

Cultures and nations live by myths. This has been so since the dawn of civilisation and has never been more apparent in recent weeks, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London that have so dominated the first half of 2017 in Britain and the UK general election.

The popular slogan invoking the spirit of the Blitz and World War Two – ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – embodies how the British like to see themselves when under pressure. There is stoicism, a determination to continue with everyday life, and a quiet patriotism that is more about what makes people proud of this country than feeling superior to others.

This of course is part of the foundation story of Britain of the UK standing alone in the past and future – apart from Europe – and drawing from a seamless thread of uninterrupted British history. Never mind the facts. It doesn’t matter that there was an English Civil War in the 17th century, that the UK only took its name in 1801, or that its current legal name (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a mere ninety years old, defined in law in 1927 after Ireland left in 1922. All nations and states have similar stories, selective memories, and deliberate remembering of some things and forgetting of others.

The same is true of Scotland. Through most of its history, certainly since the union, Scotland has defined itself as a land of egalitarianism, popular sovereignty, and progressive education seen in the idea of the democratic intellect. None of these concepts have ever been defined in detail (with apologies here to George Davie), instead remaining vague and abstract, and divorced from the practices and acts of society.

Modern Britain is in many respects held back and trapped by its myths. Across British elites there is a profound belief in British exceptionalism and the view that by language, history and tradition this is a unique and precious country that offers something no one else in the world does. This, until last year included the notion of being a ‘bridge’ between Europe and America, now increasingly discredited by the phenomenon of Brexit and Trump.

Scotland’s conceits might not be of this level and projection, but our country is shaped by myths too. There is a belief that Scotland’s progressive values, nationalism, and civic traditions are much more robust than elsewhere, and certainly than the rest of the UK. And that in this we can offer to the world some lessons in how to govern and live that could have more impact than a nation with five million people might normally expect.

While there are constancies, there have also been different contexts. Thus, Scotland as a distinct, semi-autonomous nation that never disappeared as a legal or social entity, used to have hesitancy, even difficulties, in telling stories about itself as a nation. There was the British imperial project to buy into, ‘North Britain’, and then the British welfare ideal, all of which parts of Scotland signed up to – wider entities into which Scots could invest themselves, even lose themselves in, and on occasion not even see themselves as Scottish.

The Scotland of the last fifty years has been a reaction to this. Many felt there was a need to reclaim Scottish traditions, memories and folklore, break out of the marginalising of all things Scottish (such as culture and history) overturn the silencing of so many areas of public life, and challenge what William McIlvanney called the ‘pop up’ version of our past – which could only invoke various isolated incidents bereft of context. There was liberation and discovery in this journey. We had to normalise ourselves.

Maybe we have come to the end of this experience. Scotland has done this so much in the last couple of decades that it has omitted as much as it has included. In this process of reclaiming, there was an emphasis on telling ourselves what amounted to an internalist account of Scotland, one which ignored the wider context and externalist influences.

It is true that in the last decade plus, Scottish historians have studied the brutal realities of Empire, slavery and the stolen wealth which much of Scotland was based upon. But this has chosen to ignore the context in which Scottish capitalists and elites operated at home and abroad, namely, understanding the character of Scottish capitalism and business, the development of the economy, and how such groups and activities operated in a system of imperialism and Scotland and the UK in a world system of exchange based on exploitation.

This wasn’t always so. In the 1970s, as Scotland came to terms with debating self-government in modern times, a set of conversations also emerged which attempted to put Scotland’s economic and social development in an international perspective. Thus exchanges between the historian T.C. Smout and the Marxist theoretician Immanuel Wallerstein attempted to define how Scotland’s economy developed post-union and how it sat in the world capitalist trading system. This addressed the nature of Scotland’s economic growth, the role of domestic elites, the impact of indigenous development, and the relationship between elites here and in the rest of Britain.

Forty years on the richness of such debates seems far-removed from most of our considerations and something we could learn from. Scotland’s experience cannot be understood in isolation, or just by referencing the usual totems: the decline of Empire, religion and welfare state. Nor can we understand our past, merely by a straight reporting and uncovering of ‘facts’ from history. Instead, that past needs to be put into an analysis of what happened in this country in relation to economic development and the brutal and high speed transformation of the country in the 19th century. And for that we have to talk about global capitalism.

We cannot just continue to tell ourselves the same old hoary myths, many of which are now getting past their sell-by-date. David McCrone in his just published 700 page ‘The New Sociology of Scotland’ attempts to offer an analysis of society, social change and power. Yet while there is much to be impressed by, the volume concludes by choosing to reinforce myths, rather than challenge them.

Thus, McCrone poses that ‘Margaret Thatcher turned out, unwittingly, to be … the midwife of Scottish Home Rule’, which may seem unexceptional to many, but is the commonsense version of recent decades, and one which needs to be exhumed and challenged. Worse, the Scottish Parliament is presented as ‘the creature of civil society in Scotland designed in the long, dark days of opposition in the 1980s and 1990s’ –one of the comforting stories told by that selectorate ‘civic Scotland’ to remind themselves and everyone of how special and enlightened they were.

Dare I say it but one of the contemporary conceits of too much of our modern land is that, through all the decades of rediscovery, dissent and discussion, we have experienced, somehow we have reached the conclusion of our story. It is in these accounts a happy ending with the re-emergence of a self-aware, self-governing, independent Scotland at ease with itself. Cue curtain fall and audience applause.

There is a problem with this. The Nationalist Scotland take has invoked its own Whig history: of continuity, linear progress, and pre-ordained destination. The nation’s stories never end or reach a completely tidy conclusion. There is in these areas no such thing as ‘a settled will’ and nor should there ever be.

We haven’t reached the end of the story with the rise of the SNP, the independence debate, and Scotland’s semi-detachment from the rest of the UK. We have not exhausted the challenge we need to undertake of modern Scottish myths, conceits and folklore, or the reassuring, selective stories we tell ourselves about who we are now, never mind, the neverending remaking of the past.

These stories have to be messy, disputatious, diverse and filled with counter-stories and counter-voices. Too often in our history part of Scotland, both in its elites and wider populace, has internalised an official account of who we are, and then held to it, irrespective of inconvenient facts.

Thirty-six years ago an exhibition, film and book was published around the theme ‘Scotch Myths’. It attempted to look at culture, and in particular, film, television and ‘sign media’, and understand them through the legacy and overhang of tartanry and kailyard, which was seen as emboding the worst of sentimental, parochial Scottishness. It was a cathartic, even liberating moment, but also one which replaced one set of problem assumptions with another. It believed that tartanry and kailyard (think of Tom Nairn’s ‘tartan monster’) had carried all before them, suffocating out other cultural traditions.

Modern Scotland could do with a modern ‘Scotch myths’ which takes on the mythologies and folklores which characterise so much of life. This would examine the limited nature of democracy and participation, despite the existence of the Scottish Parliament. It would address who our public services really serve, and how the idea of ‘the public’ is manifest within them, when education, health and law often seem to be run for the benefit of many of those employed in them.

We would address the limits of equality and social justice in a land which has a huge historic tradition of bitter discrimination against Catholics and prejudice against Irish immigrants, and which, like every society, isn’t immune from contemporary racism and bigotry.

Most importantly, we would put the stories of Scotland in a global and internationalist context which recognised the role of Scottish capitalism and business, not just in Empire, conquest and slavery, but in a world system of trade, power and privilege, which served well elites here and in the rest of the UK.

Maybe this is an overstatement, but this is as important as the current union versus independence debate. Indeed, is critical to informing it. For unless we know who we are, where we came from and where we are today, there seems little prospect of us identifying an appropriate and relevant roadmap for the future. We need to encourage and give space to today’s myth-busters, rather than the rather numerous myth-reinforcers.

Scotland’s stories of rediscovery can and should never end, but they also aren’t just about us, but our contribution to wider humanity. ‘Stop the World Scotland Wants to Get On’ used to be an old SNP slogan about Scotland reclaiming its international place as an independent nation. We could use it and invoke it to place our stories as part of understanding our small part in the greater canvas of what it is to be human.