What are Modern Scotland’s Three Defining Stories?
Scottish Review, December 4th 2012
What are Scotland’s defining stories at this crucial point in our history? Many of our traditional accounts are suffering from exhaustion, discredited or hollowed out, from the collectivist dreams of salvation from socialism to the belief in religious redemption, both with their sense of either being damned or saved. There are arguably three pivotal accounts present at this time: the Scotland of the egalitarian impulse, the Scotland of the democratic intellect and the nation and culture of popular sovereignty.
This is not the reality of contemporary Scotland. These accounts are defining myths or mobilising myths if you like, which shape who we think we are, define us and our place in the world. They influence our normative values, where we think we came from and are heading, our attitudes, decisions and behaviours. James Mitchell defined myth as ‘an idea or set of ideas whose importance lies in being believed or accepted by a significant body of people sufficient to affect behaviour or attitudes whether grounded in fact or fiction’. David McCrone argued that ‘the Scottish myth’ of egalitarianism is ‘not dependent on facts’, because it represents a set of social self-evident values, a social ethos, a celebration of sacred beliefs about what it is to be ‘Scottish’ which provides ‘an ideological device for marking off the Scots from the English’.
What drives and motivates much of Scotland’s debate, from its politics, to the constitutional debate, our distinct and different public realm, and culture, identities and understanding of history, is a desire to develop and create distinct collective stories in which we see ourselves.
To understand and connect between past, present and future, I suggest we return to the three mobilising, defining myths mentioned above: the egalitarian impulse, the democratic impulse and popular sovereignty.
Over recent times Scots have comforted themselves with the belief that we are not like England and that we have comprehensively rejected the excesses of Anglo-American capitalism. The implication is that we are more virtuous, moral and filled with a mission of compassion, honour and duty: a sort of ‘love thy neighbour’ attitude as evidenced in William McIlvanney’s 1980s pronouncements about Thatcherism and the Scots sense of community.
Scotland is shaped by an egalitarian impulse, Jock Tamson’s bairns and all that, yet Scotland is one of the most unequal places in the developed world. We are only marginally less unequal than England, itself distorted by the existence of London, the most unequal city in the world. The UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, only surpassed by the USA, Portugal and Singapore.
Then there is the evoking of the democratic intellect, of pride in Scotland’s curiosity of the mind, its inquisitiveness in relation to ideas, and our generalist educational traditions which many believe are more open and meritocratic than England. This is the world of the all-pervasive myth. The Scottish education system with its lad o’pairts was never this hallowed world of liberation, was never particularly child-orientated or friendly, and has in recent decades, become a virtually closed system, complacent, inward-looking and shaped by organised interests.
Finally, there is the most powerful account of Scotland in recent times: that of the sovereignty of the people and of popular sovereignty. This argument believes that Scotland as a distinct political and historical space – from the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 to MacCormick v. Lord Advocate in 1953 and ‘A Claim of Right’ in 1988 – is a nation where instead of parliamentary sovereignty the tradition and practice is of popular sovereignty. It draws on the notion of the different titles of the monarch north and south of the border: in England the monarch was always the King or Queen of England, whereas in Scotland they were King or Queen of Scots; in the former their authority comes from the tradition of absolutism, whereas in the latter, it supposedly derives from the people.
Scotland is, of course, not in any legal or literal political way a place of popular sovereignty. If it were our society, democracy and culture would look very different. The experience of Thatcher, the democratic deficit and the poll tax would have all been substantially mitigated and resisted. The talking shop that was the Scottish Constitutional Convention of the 1980s would have been more than an alternative elite Scotland. More crucially, our democratic practices would be more varied and concerned with the ‘forgotten Scotland’ and missing voices who are excluded from democratic politics. There would be in a culture shaped by popular sovereignty a whole raft of processes and practices by which the peoples’ will and voices were expressed: referenda, deliberative and participative forums, and a diffusing and dispersing of power beyond the political realm and classes; that is not the Scotland of today.
If Scotland wants to be true to how many people see it and imagine it, then it needs to change dramatically from the current situation and practices; and the best way of doing that, of building wide enough support for change is to go with the grain of some of our existing traditions. That is, after all, what the forces of power and privilege have done these last thirty years: from New Labour and the Cameron Conservatives to the market fundamentalists across the globe.
A Scotland that was shaped and acted upon these three myths would be a place which sat in the proud tradition of the inventors and imagineers, agitators, provocateurs and radicals of our past. A more egalitarian society would start to care and act upon the seismic inequalities, economic, social and cultural, which disfigure our nation. How can we be an egalitarian society when so many people are excluded from gaining work, opportunities or genuine choice, where our health inequalities are the worst in Western Europe, and our democracy is shrunken and atrophied with so many Scots silenced and ignored?
A society of the democratic intellect would be one which began to rethink learning and education, and embrace the insights and implications of psychology. We would begin to move from uncritically accepting the power of rationality, systems and a narrow notion of knowledge and intelligence, and begin to understand that the world is rather more messy, complex and unpredictable: that intelligence comes in many different forms, and that we have to understand the power of the emotional, the subjective and the subconscious.
Finally, in popular sovereignty we would begin to challenge the over-prescriptive, tightly controlled bandwidth of what it is possible to imagine politically and as the popular will. Instead, we would endlessly experiment with different formats, learn how to use humour, play and irreverence, and encourage spaces and resources which sit outside the system. We would do something about the missing Scotland which in places has been excluded for the last thirty years and, as importantly, we would begin to establish some basic rules about how and who should conduct a modern democracy: how we can appropriately agree and disagree constructively, challenge disrespect, exclusion and the generational, gender and socio-economic gridlock which disfigures our public life.
This is an edited extract from Gerry Hassan’s introduction to The Seven Wonders of Scotland, published this week by Birlinn £9.99.