Scotland’s Historic Year and the Zeal of the Missionary Men

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, February 12th 2014

This is Scotland’s great date with destiny. The biggest moment in 300 years of history. So how are we doing versus the hype and expectation?

There is an echo chamber in large parts of public life which so far most of the Yes/No debate has amplified. There is the trench warfare of various tribal positions and the numerous one-way conversations with people talking past one another. And just as problematically, in some of the radical shades of opinion and institutional Scotland, there is a potent disconnect from the realities of everyday life, as the former invokes an ‘abstract’ vision, and the latter peddles its latest fads and buzzwords.

There is the reach of conservative Scotland which covers many opinions which would baulk at such a description. This entity can be described as the belief in the status quo of public life, our institutions, arrangements and values. It is comfortable with the current state of professional Scotland – whether it is in law, medicine and health – as well as across the public, private and voluntary sectors. It is firmly of the opinion that we have stopped the market vandals at the border (Tories, outsourcers, consultants); it doesn’t believe that such a thing as professional self-interest and producer capture exists, and has chosen to buy the self-validating stories these groups present about their version of ‘the good society’.

If you think this is a tad unfair look at the openly expressed opinions of Sir Harry Burns who just announced that he is standing down as the Government’s Chief Medical Officer to become Professor of Global Public Health at Strathclyde University. Burns has talked the talk these last few years, invoking all sorts of magic silver bullets to deal with our appalling health record, and even managing to convince a few radicals such as Alastair McIntosh that he was on the same side.

How does Sir Harry describe the Scotland he has left after eight years as Chief Medical Officer? He says that we have turned the country round, that we need to recognise this and celebrate it. In one of several outgoing interviews in ‘The Times’ he stated that ‘Scottish successes in tackling smoking, drinking, obesity and violence were attracting worldwide attention’, and went to say, ‘If we keep on telling people they’re useless, they’ll believe you … We shouldn’t be negative. We are looked upon as a country which has grasped the issues’.

Burns goes on to expound that the way to deal with some of the intractable, inter-generational challenges and aid social progress can be found in the likes of Sir David Brailsford, cycling coach and Team GB’s successful Olympics cycling team, saying that:

The principle behind it is the same as won the cycling team all those gold medals … Small changes in a lot of areas deliver a big change in overall performance. Those incremental changes will lead to a big change in infant mortality. This kind of improvement science is catching people’s attention. (The Times, January 23rd 2014)

This is the wisdom of one of the brightest minds of professional Scotland, one of the guardians of our ‘good society’, someone continually cited by our political classes whether Nicola Sturgeon or Health Minister Alex Neil. Part of the appeal to some of Burns and others is the language of the missionary man, invoking an older, certain Scottishness, but this has surely become disconnected from contemporary Scotland, the systems they lead, and wider outcomes.

Professional Scotland is lost. Our country, to point out just a few inconvenient facts, is one of the most unequal places in the developed world. The difference between our wealthiest households and least wealthy is 1:273, the life expectancy gap between a child born in the East End of Glasgow and the city’s prosperous suburbs a staggering 28 years, and in land ownership, we have one of the most unequal concentrations on the planet.

None of this registers in the world of Burns and professional Scotland, so convinced have they become by their own mantras. They still believe in the world of elite and expert driven, benign motivation. Whereas before this was all coloured in a kind of vague progressive-liberal-social democratic rhetoric, now it draws from the latest American gurus (such as bloviators like Malcolm Gladwell and Richard Florida), and the current fads of behavioural sciences (the ‘nudge’ view of the world being a good example).

The Relevance of Values, Voice and Power

What Burns never touched upon in his valedictory interviews were the key issues of social change: values, voice and power. That’s because professional Scotland is profoundly uninterested in this crucial troika. They believe their values are the right ones, and they have voice and power to continue guiding us to safer pastures with themselves happily at the helm.

They don’t want Scotland in its public debates to turn its curiosity to these areas. What actually are our values in a society disfigured by inequality, poverty and exclusion? Why have the champions of ‘the good society’ who have managed most of our public bodies for several generations, so conspicuously failed to advance a more equal, fairer Scotland?

Then there is voice, ‘the missing Scotland’ of the half of our nation which is disengaged from public life, politics and wider society. Does not that tell the lie on Scotland as this land of benign authority and centre-left culture and politics? For decades this exclusion and political apartheid, has gone uncommented upon as our social democracy for the professional classes has trundled on. It has sadly taken the contest of the independence debate for parts of our country to wake up to this inconvenient truth and what it says about ‘us’.

Finally, there is the thorny question of power: who has it, why and who doesn’t. There is the challenge of institutional power: from the failures of corporate Scotland (RBS, HBOS) to that of wider society (Rangers implosion, Catholic Church sex scandals). Mainstream Scotland was caught asleep at the wheel while systemic abuse of power and robbery went on a scale which beggars belief. Yet just like the  ‘Restoration Britain’ of Cameron and Osborne, we are continually told that everything is alright now, and that all these calamities were the act of lone gunmen: Fred the Shred, David Murray, Keith O’Brien.

This is the proscriptive public Scotland around which our independence debate is meant to become ‘Scotland’s historic decision’. But it is one played out to the backdrop of a society and public conversation where the substantive questions of values, voice and power, have been historically kept out of public scrutiny.

Take a couple of examples. There is in numerous places a welcome revival of the radical imagination (Common Weal, National Collective, Radical Independence Campaign etc.) which has brought a much needed energy, dynamism and disruptive power to this debate. Yet it has also brought an element of unreflective socialist nostalgia in places, along with radical delusion, which doesn’t help us deal with issues of values, voice and power.

After the impressive Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow last November, I was walking down Argyll Street and in front of me, were two men, in their mid-50s, and one said to the other as I passed, ‘Of course it makes sense that Scotland can become the world’s first democratic socialist country’. I cannot remember if I felt more amusement than bemusement at hearing this timewarp from the Scotland of yesteryear.

Another reflection shows our limited debate, both in public and private. Last year I wrote a ‘Scottish Review’ essay on the self-preservation society of Scotland, its sense of entitlement and absence of self-reflection. It spawned a significant response, including government advisers, ministers, MSPs and interested parties getting in touch and mostly saying, ‘this is what we talk about in private, but cannot go public on’.

The attempts to dismiss my argument were fascinating. One public figure whose judgement I respect commented to me that one of the people I had named had asked them, ‘what they had done to annoy me?’, and when I replied ‘Nothing. They are a serial quangocrat and we need to talk about that’, my friend replied, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’. Another person texted me saying, ‘I don’t think it clouds my judgement that they are my friend’.

There is a link between Scotland as the first democratic socialist nation in the world perspective and the rationale of benign authority: both are based on the denial of the expression of power. On one side, there is an ‘abstract’ Scotland: the Venezuela of the North, in many arguments, independent, self-governing, northern, Nordic and proud. On the other there is an entitlement Scotland ranging from my serial quangocrat to the professional classes and ‘chumocracy’. Both don’t really like dealing the messy reality of the lived experience of Scotland, invoking instead their grandiose, distanced plans, blissfully unaware of how things actually happen.

This debate has to move on and the independence debate if it is going to aid social change has to be part of it. Values, voice and power – are the three central dimensions of what kind of Scotland and what kind of society we want to create and live in.

Doing this requires calling time on the mantras of professional Scotland, of talking about the gridlock of large parts of public life and public bodies, and the chumocracy which means that for many of our elites who they invite on to various boards are the same people they invite around regularly for dinner? There are conflicts of interest, incestuousness, and inability to renew, self-reflect and self-criticise in all of this.

Scotland is slowly becoming more democratic, in that our elites and institutional opinion is weakening, but they won’t fully leave the centrestage without an effort, and aiding this entails bringing the hidden Scotland out into the open and shining a light of scrutiny and debate on it. What better time to start than Scotland’s historic year of decision: 2014?