What is Scotland’s Big Story?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, March 26th 2011

What is the Big Story of Scotland: as a nation, society, and politically?

Like William Hague’s mojo, we know we once had one and that we have now lost it. Scotland has had a number of big stories over the years: Empire Scotland, kirk Scotland, Red Clydeside, and the nationalist dream of independence. Now we mostly have muddle and confusion.

The next few weeks are going to see an awful lot of sound and fury. Politicians will make jabbing points not listening to each other; men will make pedantic points of difference and non-dialogue all over our media, and the occasional woman will get a word in!

What this will amount to is incrementalism taken to the levels of a dogma, a world of conservatism, shorn of vision and inspiration and a risk averse politics. It is a Scotland we all know and inhabit and are in some senses responsible for letting happen.

The best this world can offer is drawing from the most generous of the Conservative, Labour and Nationalist traditions, all of which have contributed something to changing Scotland.

This would take from the Conservatives revolution of the 1980s, of widening opportunity and choice, Labour’s concern over social justice, and the Nationalist championing of the Scottish dimension. This isn’t an apology for each of these traditions, which has limitations, merely to note that each has in the past contributed something worthwhile.

Apart from the tribalism between all of the above there is a strange dynamic that electoral competition causes parties in Scotland not to mark out new territory. They crowd together, don’t face tough choices, and sing from the same hymn sheet. And there is a relationship between this lack of choice and bitter entrenchment of tribalism, as parties increasingly shout at each other to pretend there is a difference. No one believes in this world bar a few foot soldiers, yet it exercises a vice-like grip on our party politics.

This is still safety-first Scotland; the psychology and mindset of the system. It isn’t our best, our boldest, our most hopeful; the world of radicals, thinkers and dreamers from Adam Smith to Robert Owen and R.D. Laing.

Scotland’s future story surely does not lie in going on about the past, whether it is Red Clydeside or the Declaration of Arbroath, the two totems which have dominated Scotland in recent decades. Both of these are mobilising myths in the hands of politics. More crucially, while both can claim to include and reflect large parts of Scotland, they also exclude many people and don’t reflect their views. And nor do they have much to say about the challenges we face as a modern nation.

What would Red Clydeside or the Declaration of Arbroath say about Scotland’s disfiguring health inequalities, or the insular culture of large swathes of our public sector? Or the wider challenges of a relatively small economy in an age of turbulence, faultlines and global imbalances, where the Portuguese sovereign debt crisis threatens Spain, and thus, the whole Euro zone, and ultimately Britain? They both have nothing to say on these and countless other issues.

The search for our Big Story isn’t just a Scottish search, but part of a wider predicament. The Nordic nations which we reference all the time feel this anxiety and fragility as much as we do. Having come the nearest to living the social democratic dream we reference, the Swedes today worry about what has happened to their own Big Story: the Peoples’ Home (the folkehemmet); the Norwegians and Finns have similar experiences.

Here is my suggestion for Scotland’s Big Story. It isn’t about the union or independence, but instead a country which takes power from politicians, elites and organisations and becomes a vision of a self-governing set of communities.

Sceptics will say this is unrealistic; that the modernist urge is to centralise and concentrate power. This is the ideology which led to us building tower block slums and believing the hyperbole of RBS and HBOS.

We have a major problem with how we organise society, business and do politics. People want to have more control, influence and autonomy in their lives, and yet the bureaucrats and bean counters in the public and private sectors and their narrow notion of organisations, power and what is ‘knowledge’ still think they know best.

The power of self-organising people and the utopian imagination can be seen in the Glasgow University student occupation. Students and academics have demanded that Anton Muscatelli stop acting like a little dictator, and ventured onto the terrain of who runs the organisation, and the search for a different model than the business one to nurture a vibrant learning community.

The 20th century of course saw the idea of utopia taken to the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This doesn’t mean that dreaming of a different kind of society or the utopian impulse is over, merely that the notion of the utopian blueprint, of rationalising, organising and systematising a whole society should never be attempted again. We have to take from this that history isn’t at the end, and our current flawed economic and social order isn’t the zenith of humanity.

Scotland’s Big Story is out there; an alternative, parallel nation already thriving under the radar; in the work of the Transition Towns movement, in the ideas of cultural planning, and in the local futures work which goes on across the nation often without any institutional support.

You can find it in parts of our political mainstream, where people kick against the stultifying nature of our party politics, but if it is evident anywhere here it is in the Scottish Greens. They have a vision of a decentralist, sustainable nation, championing wind, wave and solar power, and a self-governing and self-determining community; this is surely an independence which matters and is an inter-independence for an interdependent world.

If we are to create a new Big Story for Scotland it won’t come solely from politicians or one party, it will require a gathering of people who want a different kind of nation and society. That means a movement for social change, one informed by a story of self-organising people saying that the ‘old Scotland’ has served us well, but had its day, and the new revolutionaries of the market have equally failed us.

We don’t want to be treated as children by authority or as brands, products and consumers; we want to define ourselves as complex, messy, contradictory adults, as people who dream of and create a different Scotland. As Umair Haque wrote, ‘The future’s not predicted, it’s created’.