Scotland’s comforting stories and the missing voices of public life

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 24th 2013

Scotland in its politics, culture and sense of its identity likes to tell itself a comforting story.

There was once a Labour Scotland optimistic story of lifting working people up, and now there is a Nationalist account about the possibilities of independence. There is even a positive pro-union version that has not been fully articulated in public for many years.

All of these are partial accounts, and one of the many challenges they face is the continued existence of negative stories which emphasise that we are too small, too poor, too divided, and above all, just too Scottish, to do anything about changing our country.

One of the positive accounts of modern Scotland which has risen in recent years has been the richness of artistic and cultural Scotland. This was witnessed in the recent Creative Scotland stramash which saw its Chief Executive Andrew Dixon shown the door. An organised group of artists and cultural figures saw themselves as defending the interests of a community and a set of inclusive, enlightened values.

The more powerful claim of significant sections of cultural Scotland is that when politics reached a roadblock in 1979 with the first devolution referendum, artists, writers and cultural practitioners came to our aid. So the story goes: where politics failed, along came Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ in 1981, followed by James Kelman, Janice Galloway, A.L. Kennedy, leading to Irvine Welsh.

It is a modern day parable which has become received wisdom and close to the cultural ‘official story’ of Scotland according to Scott Hames, editor of ‘Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence’. It has become myth and folklore, and has entered into the ether, recited and explained by people who have never read ‘Lanark’ or even heard of Alasdair Gray.

This cultural narrative of modern Scotland has fed into the political narrative and vice-versa, with both cross-fertilising each other. Thus, the cultural ‘official story’ has been bought into by the political and non-cultural world which has little detailed cultural intelligence or knowledge (with honourable individual exceptions). And at the same time, the dominant political account of Scotland – of difference, autonomy and being a centre-left inclusive nation that doesn’t vote Tory – has been absorbed by the cultural world.

Now what’s the problem with all this you might say? The trouble is that these are selective, panglossian accounts of Scotland. They have elements of truth, but also of omission and significant wish fulfillment.

This cross-fertilisation of cultural and political stories is something little understood. Both reinforce and validate each other, the cultural world buying into the political version second hand with little detail, and the political community reinforcing the cultural story based on scant knowledge. And the cumulative effect of this is to strengthen Scotland’s comforting story of itself: as the land of good people and values who reject Tories and market vandalism.

One of the key problems with the above is the way that it glosses over uncomfortable facts about modern Scotland: our declining levels of political participation, shocking public health, whole generations of working class men disconnected from society, and endemic levels of inequality, the last of which is broadly the same as the rest of the UK.

Instead there is a Scottish propensity to not notice the missing voices and stories from public life, what I have called ‘the missing Scotland’. This could be seen in Andrew Marr’s preposterous comment about the Scottish Enlightenment, ‘all of Edinburgh was involved in saloon discussions’, which beggars belief given the nature of society then on class, status and gender. There is a modern version of it in the independence debate with the redoubtable Pat Kane recently commenting, ‘This nation is in conversation’.

Much as I would like it to be otherwise, the whole nation is not engaged in conversation. Challenging such assumptions isn’t about some abstract notion of an idealised, participative democracy, but the limits of Scotland’s public sphere and the truncated democracy we live in. If people want to change that, as I know Pat does, we have to start by reflecting this and then discussing how we change it, not continuing the comforting stories.

This brings me to the role of culture and media in the partial version of Scotland. There has been historically and to this day a burgeoning chasm in how culture in Scotland is represented and reflected back to us in the media and in particular, broadcasters. I am thinking of culture in the widest sense as an all-encompassing term which covers much of what it is to be Scottish and know what it means to be Scottish: our histories, traditions, voices and languages.

The diverse, fascinating and challenging world of Scotland culturally just doesn’t gain adequate coverage, representation or time on BBC Scotland or STV. Instead the Scotland we are served up is a tiny prism of the nation we live in and an unrepresentative snapshot. It is obsessed with football, crime stories, bad comedy, and fixated with a caricature of the West of Scotland.

This means that many of us are alienated from the modern Scotland we live in beyond our experiences. This has ramifications that we barely touch upon: hollowing out public life of Scotland, and by necessity, fragmenting and making more individualised and subjective how each of us understand our country. We all lose in incalculable ways from this.

Our history becomes one which we only have isolated episodic recollections of mythic moments and people – Wallace and Bruce, Bannockburn, the Declaration of Arbroath, Mary Queen of Scots and Darien. In modern times it would run from Empire and high union to ‘Red Clydeside’, the rise and fall of shipbuilding, the welfare state, Margaret Thatcher, the poll tax and Ravenscraig.

These are the collective memories of how in Ernest Renan’s words a nation selects what it chooses to remember and forget, but the context of this disconnected history has to be noted. Willie McIlvanney many years ago wrote that this was a product of the inadequacies of our public life, which contributed to ‘the pop-up picture school of history’.

There are occasional attempts to redress this such as ‘Scotland’s Story’ on the BBC and ‘Road to Referendum’ on STV. But they are notable as exceptions. Yet when people see parts of their culture and history on TV as in the recent ‘Road to Referendum’, they are fascinated to see old Hogmanay footage or how people danced in the Barrowlands in the 1950s.

The Consequences of the ‘Missing Self’

This amounts to a huge chasm in understanding Scotland and its representation. Recently speaking to the blogger Lallands Peat Worrier about this, we came up with the idea of ‘the missing self’ from our stories, collective memories and culture.

‘The missing self’ involves the internalisation of this sense of disconnection. There is a psychological dimension to this, and similarities with the manifestation of ‘learned helplessness’ and powerlessness in those economically, socially and politically excluded who make up ‘the missing Scotland’. But this is also about power, voice and who has the access and resources to portray their version of Scotland.

It is magnified by the narrow version of Scotland put forward – the world of crime, football and celebrity evident on ‘Reporting Scotland’ and ‘STV News at Six’. It can be seen in the comedy of ‘Limmy’s Show’ or the soap opera of ‘River City’ which come in a long Scots tradition of middle class society presenting a caricatured version of the working class. This is Plastic Proletarian Scotland with a lineage from the Citizen’s Theatre of old to today’s Oran Mor’s ‘Pie and a Pint’ in Glasgow’s West End.

‘The missing self’ does have paths of individual redemption. It can be seen in the way people feel liberated when after being offered this stale diet, they first encounter their own culture and their own vernacular voice, whether on TV, theatre, literature or in another form.

How do we find collective expressions of such redemption when our public life and public sphere is characterised by disconnection and our desire to tell ourselves comforting stories, and the retreat and loss of confidence of many of our institutions and broadcasters?

This crisis of traditional Scotland is actually more an opportunity than a problem. ‘High Scotland’ knew what was in our best interests and kept us fed on a controlled culture in return for security and compassion. This age is slowly declining and passing, leaving some people with a sense of loss, and yearning for a return to the certainties of 1945-75 Scotland.

It isn’t an accident that Scotland’s independence debate has come at a point when the old, elite society is withering; that world would not have allowed this opening. Yet somehow in the course of all the noise, blood and thunder in our public life, those of us who dream of a very different Scotland have to come to terms with the equally powerful silences and omissions which mark so many parts of our society.

A small start would be to acknowledge the Scotland represented in our culture and media, the damage down by ‘the missing self’, and how it diminishes and harms our society. We have to talk about the caricatures, superficial concerns, and dare I say it even the use of football as a national passion (which might be difficult for many of us).

If we are to have a ‘national conversation’, we have to start from where we are, not where we would like to be or the Scotland of our dreams as if existed today. The only way to create the better nation of our hopes and imaginations is to notice the silences, gaps and missing voices and then ceaselessly challenge the inadequacies and complacency of status quo Scotland.