Whatever happened to Scotland’s Salon Society?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, February 5th 2011

One of the early hopes of the Scottish Parliament and the era of ‘new politics’ was that Scotland would awaken to a new age of engagement which would produce a more informed, inclusive politics.

A lot of this was wish-fulfilment; certainly much of the talk of ‘new politics’ and an emboldened civil society was just that. Yet at the same time this feeling tapped a sense that Scotland could sustain a kind of salon society – a modern day harking back to the Enlightenment vision of Edinburgh.

The reality of contemporary Scotland has turned out very different – a public realm and public sphere – in the media, civic and public life which has not exactly flourished with debate and diversity.

In many areas we have seen a narrowing of conversations, actors and agencies across society. The main players and movers and shakers in Scottish society where debate and exchange takes place are those of business, public bodies and government – who are often promoting their own agenda – rather than the common good of Scotland.

There is the issue of resources in this. Then there is the political and communications space Scotland finds itself in: a devolved territory in which broadcasting sits with Westminster. The Scottish Broadcasting Commission has undertaken good work, but there is a wider, much deeper crisis.

This is the problem of political participation and engagement. The Scottish Parliament was established at a point when there was a rising tide of anti-politics. At the same time, much public debate in the media and elsewhere, has been characterised by cynicism and the decline of deference.

Part of this has been how we do politics, the closed nature of a political system which claims it is participative, and the issue of party politics. Despite the complexity and nuances of society, political parties operate more as agents of control. Then there is the narrow bandwidth of exhausted ideas which mainstream politics borrows from which is hardly going to set the heather on fire.

There is the issue of ambition – the exceptions to which are few. There is The Scotsman’s Perspectives section which tries to bring together different voices debating the issues of the day. Then there is the BBC opt-out Newsnight Scotland which has been on air since the establishment of the Parliament.

The wider mainstream media has not exactly risen to the challenge, whether it is the BBC or even more STV. A host of creative websites such as Bella Caledonia and Scottish Review provide lively and informed analysis, alongside a deep ecology of bloggers, but all have tiny minority audiences. There is the challenge of the fragmentation of media and society, along with the shift from print to digital media. And can the internet provide a new Scottish conversation which has previously been missing?

As important is the absence of public spaces where people can meet, talk and exchange views and ideas: the literal meaning of the public sphere. The Scottish Parliament Futures Forum is a creature of ‘official Scotland’ and always has been an institution of the Parliament, not the nation. The Civic Forum presented itself as a gatekeeper, rather than a facilitator, and had an insufferably narrow idea of what constituted ‘civil society’, and it was no surprise it had its funding pulled.

Then we have all the commercial sponsored conferences and activities which exist around the Parliament. This is a world which didn’t exist pre-devolution, and which has now spawned into a small industry. It is a rather suffocating, bland, corporate public affairs environment, less interested in ideas, than selling you a PR line and the blandishments of the orthodoxies of the age.

Behind these we have what could be called dinner table Scotland, the invitation only conversations which take place in business organisations, in key influencer’s homes, and professional bodies. These conversations are even more conformist, defined by the individuals in question insider status, and a kind of debilitating group think.

This then is a wider predicament about society, democracy and politics. It is not a particular Scottish condition. We just feel it because of the expectations we started out with, and because some of the remedies which are open to others are not at the moment in our hands.

People we know are not less political, only less party political; they are less loyal to one party and tribal in their outlook. In this the Scottish political debate – with  Labour and SNP, unionist versus nationalist – is stuck in a time warp which does not reflect most people’s views.

The Scottish public sphere is going though a major transition; one can sense the doubt and anxiety running through parts of Scotland. Old institutions are fading along with traditional ways of doing things; established bodies which succeed will have to adapt and embrace change; business and professional bodies still stand across all public life in Scotland defining the terms of debate and culture of conservatism.

Underneath all of this is the issue of what is all this blether about Scotland for? What is the point of it? – a very Scottish kind of question, but one we seldom ask.

I think we need eventually to change how we do our politics, public conversation, and how we debate ideas and policy, which is still trapped in the mist of Victorian Scotland. This week has rightly seen a major public debate on fiscal autonomy and the merits or not of the Scotland Bill taking forward the Calman proposals; yet framed in the way it is this is a political class ‘bubble’ issue.

It isn’t fiscal autonomy and it certainly isn’t Calman which will move hearts and minds. Instead, we have to address the fundamentals which lie behind both of these, which is namely, what kind of Scottish society do we want to live in, how do we realise the potential of people, and what kinds of political, social, economic and cultural change do we wish to encourage?

That’s a debate that needs spaces, energy, will power, and alternative institution building. Part of what is desperately wrong with Scotland is the political, business and professional class who have run this nation since before any of us can remember. This is the land of the complacent, self-regarding clubland who meet on the golf course, and tell us that everything is alright as long as we just listen to them more, do as we are told, and believe that restoration to how things were pre-crash will make things alright.

Institutional Scotland is the problem; it holds power and talks the people’s talk while having contempt for poor people, ‘the schemies’, and thinking Glasgow is a failed city which has had too much public money flung at it.

Instead, we are going to have create new spaces, discussions and conversations, come up with new ideas and ways of doing things. Establishment Scotland has had its chance and hasn’t exactly produced a contented, successful country; it is time like any elite it faced a real challenge and the prospect of being toppled.