The Missing Voices of Public Life and How We Create a Different Scotland

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, November 9th 2013

To many of the tribes and partisans who inhabit our public life, all that matters is the contest and defeating their opponents. Democracy and politics in this mindset are in fine working order, beyond the difficulty of trying to get your own way!

In reality, Scottish democracy barely exists in any meaningful sense. The 1707 settlement guaranteed the autonomy of ‘the holy trinity’ of Kirk, education and law, giving prominence to these institutional identities, which came to the fore as government and its affairs of state went south.

Then distinctive Scottish administration from Victorian times began to expand and in so doing another definition was added: that of the dynamic, managerial do-er. This was an apolitical, often bureaucratic identity: the world of Lord Reith, Walter Elliot and Tom Johnston.

So it remained until the arrival of the SNP shook things up in the 1960s, and then finally the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. To some this has democratised and nornalised Scotland, but it has left underneath and around the Parliament the same institutions and networks running most things.

Scotland is not a fully fledged political democracy. Take even the most basic measurement of political partipation. In the 2011 Scottish Parliament according to figures supplied by the Electoral Commission for a forthcoming study I am publishing next year, 989,540 voters were missing compared to the 1992 general election turnout.

This is ‘the missing Scotland’ which is found in every part of our country. It is over-concentrated among younger, poorer voters and those who live in social housing. But it can be found in every street and community the length and breadth of Scotland – rich, poor, urban and rural.

Glasgow Provan may be the hotspot of apathy in parliamentary constituencies in 2011, but at last year’s local elections, the two wards with the lowest turnout were in Aberdeen. The ward with the smallest turnout in the country was George Street/Harbour where a mere 20.5% of voters participated last year.

There is something in Scotland about how most of us think about politics and culture which reinforces the above and makes them minority pastimes for the articulate, affluent and organised.

In the last week the New York based Centre for Artistic Activism (CAA) led by Prof. Stephen Duncombe and Prof. Steve Lambert came to lead a Changin Scotland weekend in Newbattle Abbey College. The audience was varied, mixed in terms of backgrounds and filled with lots of young people and women.

Duncombe has previously written a short, accessible book, ‘Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy’, which argued that popular culture had to be understood and embraced. His examples were far and wide: from ‘Grand Theft Auto’ to the Zapatista guerilla army in Mexico. But his message was simple and relevant to Scotland: radicals need to do a different politics, one informed by fun, play, irreverence and imagination. And less about being dogmatic and telling people off.

What the CAA invite people to do is ‘imagine winning’ on an issue close to their heart. They encourage people to tap into their deepest dreams and hopes and picture the world in such an eventuality.

Once people are in this place they tell them ‘you have won’; the next question is ‘and now what?’ This is the part where many struggle. The point is that this exposes the limits of the utopian imagination, and that intrinsic in much of what passes for left and radical politics is a desire for the end of politics, and the pressures and burdens of being an activist.

Central to all this is the power of dreaming in building real lasting social change: a point understood from Martin Luther King to the Nazis. It is also one grasped by modern advertising and game makers such as those of ‘Grand Theft Auto’.

Duncombe makes the distinction between the utopian imagination and using it as a journey and conceiving of it as an ultimate destination: the latter one where the first act is working out who doesn’t belong in your supposedly perfect society and which ends in disaster and nightmare.

It was fascinating to get their reading of the Scottish situation. At first, they assumed that everyone on the left and progressive would be for independence, but quickly they grasped the nuances of the situation. Still they found it difficult to imagine anyone seriously believing a progressive British future would work out under a UK Labour Government.

Surprisingly, what caused the most heated debate was an episode of the BBC Scotland comedy series, ‘Still Game’, which was shown because the CAA guys wanted to explore the reactions people have to popular culture and entertainment. Most people enjoyed it and laughed, but many had deliberately never seen an episode, and a very small group found it objectionable and a caricature of working class Scotland. Some found it brought up serious issues about representation, cultural power and commissioning, and could not enjoy it for those reasons.

Other insights included the secret languages and codes which fill much of professional and political life: from the acronyms of SCVO, STUC and COSLA to what happened at UCS forty years ago. One participant suggested that in the future, people should all be given red cards which they can put up when speakers at public events descend into incomprehsible jargon and phrases.

All of the above has implications for how we do politics and the independence debate. We have to recognise the importance of fun, play and imagination. More profoundly, we have to kick against the limits of our democracy and the constrained, controlled spaces of public life. Instead, we have to set our sights on a more idealistic, far-reaching political and cultural activism which isn’t about the safety first, cautious approaches which dominate politics and the referendum.

We have to dare to dream more, and map out the destination of a different Scotland, more democratic, equal and less institutionally dominated. In the process, whatever the result next year, we will contribute to changing Scotland, and get us nearer to that destination. Wouldn’t that make all the herculean efforts and hopes worth it?