Letter from America: Civil society matters more than who wins elections in the UK, US and elsewhere

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 6th 2019

Britain from afar looks very unhappy and divided. This much is obvious from the USA – not exactly a benign, peaceful, harmonious world itself. But in its media coverage, and the people I have spoken to in the past week, there is a universal understanding that things are not going well in the USA or the UK.

Everybody I have spoken to in America has heard of Brexit, knows that Boris Johnson is UK Prime Minister and that he wants to get the UK out of the EU as quickly as possible. Yet even more than that – amongst some of the detailed conversations I had some of which were in the most unlikely situations – with people in Boston, in wider Massachusetts and upstate New York, there was an impressive understanding of the bitter UK divisions on Brexit, and the faultlines and fissures pulling the country apart in myriad directions.

A young twenty-something barman, Peter, in Woodstock, MA, reflected on the democratic engagement of Scotland’s 2014 indyref, its high turnout, and recognised that it was still a live issue – ‘Are you going to have a second indyref?’ he asked. The conversation begun when I indicated I was from Scotland and he revealed that he planned to come to Edinburgh in 2020 to undertake a PhD on democracy in Tibet and Bhutan. He was of firm belief that the Scottish experience offered lessons for others, and had a global relevance.

Near Woodstock is the college town of Williamstown. A helpful stranger, David– a self-identified ‘political obsessive’ – kindly gave me a lift on Saturday evening. He was fully conversant with the politics of Scotland and the UK that happened that day, including the pro-independence George Square rally. ‘I see Nicola Sturgeon is saying independence is getting closer’ he said, and then added, showing his acumen, ‘Isn’t she always saying that?’

This Williamstown witness said that he and his wife owned a flat in London, as he noted, in the constituency of Jeremy Corbyn. He was not impressed by Corbyn saying ‘he is the worst kind of left-winger’, ‘a blast from the past’ and unlikely to do well at the coming election.

Going further into political conversation, the young Woodstock bartender asked ‘Who is the liberal Scot who came to America and took on those in power?’ This drew a blank initially but when narrowed down to Washington I correctly guessed he meant George Galloway and then added ‘he is many things but liberal isn’t one anyone would call him.’

There was an awareness from some that Scotland and Northern Ireland were in a state of flux and discontent with the prevailing winds of British politics. Perhaps the latter is hardly surprising in Boston and its environs considering the size and long-term influence of the Irish Catholic community. One museum guide, Hailey, asked me ‘if the Scots are going to go with the Irish?’ – by which she meant move to independence in light of Brexit.

Meeting a group of Boston liberals in their home one, Emily, asked politely and quietly ‘How will Scotland succeed if it becomes independent? Isn’t it true that England subsidises you?’ How do you respond to such a question in a couple of short sentences? I mentioned that the UK was one of the most unequal countries in the developed world in its regional disparities and that in the official figures London and the South East engaged in fiscal transfers to the rest of the UK – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the North of England. And that this was a product of the failure of successive UK Governments to adequately disperse power.

Culture, Economy and Regeneration

Political reflections are much wider and richer than even the above subjects and some of the most nuanced deliberations emerged from the experience of going to art galleries and museums. The outstanding example was MASS MoCA – Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art – in North Adams, MA on the site of the huge industrial complex of what was the Sprague Electric Company who made technology for the atomic bomb and then the US space programme, that shut down in 1985.

MASS MoCA opened its doors in 1999 and is the largest contemporary art gallery and museum in the entire USA with 275,000 square feet of space. More than this it houses across its 27 buildings an outstanding array of exhibits and artists – addressing some of the issues modern art should be about. The likes of Sol LeWitt, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Holzer and many more explore such themes as the modern Mexican-American border; the prevalence of racism, bigotry and hatred; how abuses of power are challenged; the memory of the Holocaust, the nature of war; what the USA stands for, and lighter subjects such as the appeal of pop culture and graphic novels. Trump was nowhere to be seen, but sadly his presence was everywhere.

This was stimulating, thought provoking and a world-class cultural experience – worthy of any capital city in the world. But it also raised some uncomfortable questions about the role and purpose of culture. For example, nearly all the art in the buildings are from global and established figures and there seemed to be little room left in this account for championing and profiling prominently local and emerging artists.

Another question was the imbalance between the town of North Adams of 13,000 inhabitants and a cultural institution which would not have looked out of place in some of the most dynamic cities in the world. Was this a cultural spaceship or parachute, and how could such a huge enterprise develop a relationship of equality with such a small town?

When MASS MoCA first opened in 1999, although on a much smaller scale than it is now, all the usual promises were made about rejuvenating the town, high street and businesses, and employment. The museum’s arrival has put the town on the cultural map and made it a destination spot for New Yorkers and Bostonians hungry for new experiences.

Historian Maynard Seider, author of ‘The Gritty Berkshires: A People’s History from the Hoosac Tunnel to MASS MoCA’ thinks the institution has not delivered on its original vision of acting as a catalyst for wider regeneration. Therein lies a story told many times about culture being used to act as a leverage against economic forces, when this is a dishonest way of presenting culture and understanding economics.

James Welu, director of the nearby Worcester Art Museum observed at the beginning of MASS MoCA ‘Historically, museums follow affluence, they don’t usually create it.’ Seider commented on the shift from Sprague to MASS MoCA: ‘Ironically, for a city that had put almost all of its eggs in the Sprague basket, only to be devastated when that company left, it seemed to be betting its whole purse on MoCA and what came to be known as the ‘creative economy’’. This is a question which could be asked the world over – from Dundee to Hull to Bilbao.

Returning to some of my American exchanges one common thread was putting current challenges, and in particular Trump, into a longer-term setting. My Williamstown informant, David, said a couple of profound things about the US that have wider currency. He commented, when talking about the degeneration of political standards and behaviour aided by Trump, that ‘elections are all well and good but they are not where democracy stops. Increasingly what I think matters is the state of civil society.’

He continued in this vein: ‘More and more what I worry about is the health and vibrancy of civil society. More so than who wins the Democratic nomination or even whether Trump is elected or not elected – or impeached. Aiding the health and pluralism of civil society in the US is what I think matters most – much more than the result of any particular election.’

Those last comments go straight to the provenance of what democracy and public life should be about and often sadly is not. Namely, how do we collectively aid, engage, interact and respect one another while doing so in a way that holds power to account?

By this measure, many societies across the world that call themselves developed and democratic are not really doing that well. These would include the USA that is not by any standards in a good place politically. But it would also include the UK as it embarks on its fourth general election in less than a decade. And then there is the Scottish experience, and our seismic national debate of five years ago that motivated so many voices previously unheard. How have we built on that democratic moment, learned how to permanently include those once missing voices, and reached out to those alienated to heal divisions? We have barely begun to do any of this – and in the case of the Scottish Government and democratic engagement post-2014 actively gone backwards.

The health of democracy and civil society cannot be taken for granted. That way only aids the growth of authoritarianism, populism and media manipulation – with the pretense that it is fighting vested interests and the establishment. Too many across the political spectrum are prepared to see a very selective account of democracy, believing their own myths when they are winning, and savaging the status quo when running as outsiders.

The essence of the voice from Williamstown – that what matters most is the energy, dynamism and pluralism of civil society – has to be the foundation stone of any modern democracy, alongside how we think about the economy a decade after the crash. Through the noisy debate of the coming UK election it is essential that we remember that this matters even more in the long term than who ends up as UK Prime Minister.