Scotland as an Idea and Place of Substance

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, December 29th 2012

It has been a tumultuous year, across Europe, the world, and in its own way for Scotland.

It was the year that the independence referendum was agreed, of the collapse and rebirth of Rangers FC, and the continued decline of the British establishment and public trust in it.

At the year’s end, the Radical Independence Conference brought together a new generation of twentysomething activists, Creative Scotland parted company with much of the arts world (and lost as a result two of its senior figures), and Alasdair Gray started a controversy about ‘colonisers’ and ‘settlers’.

Two observations stem from the above. The first is that the public life of Scotland does not in many places do, or feel comfortable with, seriousness and substance. The second is, as Bill Jamieson eloquently wrote last week, the importance of the notion that Scotland ‘is more an idea than a place’, and the tensions inherent in these differing interpretations of Scotland.

The lack of substance in much of public life can be seen in the frequent way that many debates descend into spats and insult. This is true of lots of significant public figures, who you think would know better, including wordsmiths of Scottish cultural nationalism, and prominent political figures of British nationalism.

In many interventions there is a laziness in how the English language is used, but something more is apace. There is Gray talking of ‘colonisers’ and ‘settlers and James Kelman commenting that the English are ‘in control’ of Scottish culture on one side. And on the other, Alistair Darling poses independence as ‘the road to serfdom’ and Gordon Brown sees it as reducing us to the status of a ‘British colony’.

Earlier this year there was the Ian Davidson/Isabel Fraser ‘Newsnight Scotland’ standoff, which got all hot and bothered, but was originally meant to be a debate on the meaning of sovereignty if anyone can remember.

There is something about many senior Scots – political, cultural, and those in public life – shying away from reflective, substantial discussions, and taking up insults or trench warfare. This is nearly always counter-productive or ineffective, for the psychological dynamics of insulting someone rarely changes an opinion, and more often than not, reinforces existing prejudices.

While some make generalisations about Scottish character and pathologise difference, as important a factor is the thinness of much of what passes for public debate. Behind the Gray controversy were numerous other simmering conflicts; the Davidson-Fraser exchange started off about the power and legitimacy of the Scottish and UK Parliaments.

Bill Jamieson’s article placed the Gray episode in a wider cultural context: the faultlines between Scotland as an ‘idea’ and a ‘place’, and that there is a set of shared knowledges, intelligences, histories and stories, always changing, that contribute to the glorious difference that is being Scottish and living in Scotland. And that this has to somehow be taken into account in how our public bodies make decisions and make appointments. Scotland cannot and never will just be a postal address.

This argument invokes the French philosopher Ernest Renan’s famous 19th century essay, ‘What is a nation?’ in which he dismissed the claims of race, dynasty, language and geography. Instead, he argued that a nation has a ‘soul’, ‘a spiritual principle’ which undergoes a ‘daily plebiscite’ in how it actively chooses and selects what it is and what it remembers and forgets.

The Gray episode, Ian Davidson, the Johann Lamont ‘something for nothing’ speech (both it and many of the reactions), the coming of the independence referendum, all ask what does Scotland choose to remember and to forget. Do we want to tell ourselves comfortable stories which play to our worst conceit of ourselves? Or can we articulate some home truths about the nature of the union, our society, and what we have done and allowed to happen in our name?

There have been many Scotlands, and there will be many more in the future. There was elite Enlightenment Scotland, the land of ‘North Britain’ and assimilation, ‘Red Scotland’ forged in industrial power and militancy, and its counter-story, anti-red ‘Tory Union Scotland’ which feared the power of the mob. Now the ‘Labour Scotland’ of the 1950s and 1960s which saw Scottish Labour as a party of the future seems to have run out of steam; while many are still unsure of ‘Nationalist Scotland’ and its charms, prepared to trust it on Scottish identity and interests, but unsure of its commitment to social justice.

Scotland is a continual, never-ending idea and set of conversations, whether it becomes independent or not. There will always be tensions between publically funded cultural organisations and artists, and between monocultural and multicultural Scottishness. And there will always be debate about Scotland as a political and economic entity and the pull of sharing these isles with the world city and powerhouse of London.

We do though need to have some basic ground rules of debate, and critically, we need to encourage substance and depth in discussion. That requires mutual respect; a sense of inquiry and curiosity which many of those with the most certain voices seem to conspicuously lack. It necessitates over the next two years, nurturing resources and imaginations in arts, culture, policy and ideas, which demand going beyond the superficial and caricature.

We cannot afford to have a debate dominated by angry men, mostly of a certain age, trading insults and invective. It won’t change minds, convince many, and would be a defeat for democracy, and lessen the chances of radical change.

That means asking the aggrieved victimhood, anxiety and sense of loss in parts of both Scottish cultural nationalism and unionism, to stop talking from a fixed, certain Scotland, whether about ‘colonisers’ (Gray) or Scotland as ‘a colony’ (Brown).

There has to be a wider tablet of words and colours than this. We have to know that we are choosing what we remember and forget, and how our collective memories change and adapt constantly. We have been the children of union, Empire, wars, the welfare state, Thatcher and Blair, and our own Parliament, and now we have the chance to say something affirming and positive about what we want to be.

This has to entail choosing something less one-dimensional than many of the men of certainty, and reflects more the near-infinite Scotlands out there, the multitudes, pluralities and beautiful contradictions of this ‘mongrel nation’ that is Scotland. A Scotland of Gray and Brown for sure, but of a rainbow mix of colours as well.