By Gerry Hassan
Imagine this. If you were studying Scotland from a far off world, say Venus or Mars, what kind of impression would you get? If you were looking and listening to our TV and radio you would find a very peculiar place.
It would be one that lived on or off one street: Byres Road, Glasgow; it would be nearly entirely male, with very few women; and the men would be often boorish, angry and shouting perhaps because of this; and it would be a place obsessed by football rather than the substantive issues which face society.
The Venusian or Martian observer would rightly think this a strange, perplexing land. The serious point from this is the shrunken, atrophied state of what passes for the Scottish public realm in our mainstream media, politics and society is that it restricts and limits our potential for public conversation, and makes it more possible for the established order to maintain its dominance.
Scottish public life is still significantly shaped by black and white thinking, by a psychology and politics of binary opposites, ‘them’ and ‘us’ posing people you disagree with as ‘other’, and a profound lack of empathy. These views are held across the political spectrum, on what remains of the left, right, unionism, nationalism, in our football, culture and elsewhere.
The Moderniser’s Scotland
I want to identify two of the leading schools of black and white thinking which diminish who we are, our ability to have mature debate, and belief we can bring about change. The first of these is the modernisation thesis. This is a view found in parts of the Labour Party, other parties and institutional Scotland. It goes like this: the people of Scotland have been molly-coddled for as long as time can remember, they refuse to wake up and smell the coffee, and just don’t appreciate the hard realities of life. This is the mindset of the few remaining Blairites left in Scotland, government perspectives such as the Crawford Beveridge independent budgetary review, the Con-Lib Dem coalition, and bloviators such as Andrew Neil and Matthew Taylor, head of the RSA and their caricatures of Scotland (1).
An interesting example of the modernisation mindset was provided in ‘The Scotsman’ this week written by Ross Martin, a frustrated, infuriated Blairite (2). It was a wonderful piece for its bitterness and rejection of the whole direction of Scottish politics and public life. He opens his piece damning the political environment we inhabit:
No tuition fees. No prescription charges. No bridge tolls. Unfundable, untenable and frankly, unbelievable.
This is just the start, ‘This is a political sham, a social scandal, a democratic deceit …’ Then onto the election campaign, ‘It is dull and disengaging, uninspiring and uninformative, depressing and delusional. Perhaps more worryingly, it is simply an extension of what has gone before.’
The entire last decade is dismissed in a few words. Post-Dewar, ‘our MSPs couldn’t stop splashing the cash’, while ‘the list of goodies seemed endless’. He concludes on the current campaign:
‘It is hardly surprising then that as we approach this year’s Holyrood elections that self-same delusional drivel is being peddled by the four main parties.’
This is a revealing piece but not in the way Martin intends. The repeated use of words such as ‘drivel’, ‘delusional’, ‘sham’ and many others, show that this is the writing of an angry man, someone who shows the characteristics of being a failed revolutionary of the modernisation project.
‘Modernisation’ was once the bright new dawn of Labour circa 97-99; it quickly became the new language of the high priests of power and orthodoxy; something you had done to you: a euphemism like ‘people’s democracy’. As someone who briefly bought into this in that period I understand the allure and appeal of such a worldview (3). ‘Modernisation’ quickly became the language of the powerful, managerial consultants and masters of the universe: the Wendy Alexander-Peter Mandelson notion of the world, and one which never once challenges those with power and privilege and who are part of the elites and establishments of the modern world.
Then there is the miserablist account of Scotland. This argues that we have somehow lost our soul, direction, purpose, and that we have to acknowledge how lost we are before we can find a new path. Miserablists tend to be former or current left-wingers who are repulsed by the failure of the entire leftist project to make Scotland into a Caledonian utopia. This perspective grew powerful as Scotland endured Thatcherism, and built a politics of all-encompassing resistance, seeing the Thatcher revolution as a threat to the very existence of Scotland.
The voices that arose stating this in the 1980s: William McIlvanney, Alistair Gray, Neal Ascherson, had a richness then, a powerful voice and indignation, but in parts it began to tip over into an intellectual miserablist account of this nation. McIlvanney is key here: he became an eloquent force for an alternative Scotland in the 1980s and early 1990s, but it was very partial and flawed even then. And what this never said was what kind of Scotland it wanted, beyond a hazy, fuzzy abstract which today finds us wanting.
The modernisation and miserablist accounts are two of the most dominant accounts in Scotland. The current election has seen the Labour Party for example draw from both accounts, but more the latter, articulating a politics of fear, anger at the SNP for stealing their scones, and a deep sense of indignation.
The Politics of ImagiNation
The Scottish Nationalist campaign in the current elections has had a sense of drawing from a different Scotland, one which is characterised by hope, optimism and a belief in the potential of this nation . This seems in my opinion to be a genuine feeling in the SNP leadership, but it shouldn’t blind us to the pitfalls and limits of the Nationalists.
This is a party which reflects the caution and conservatism of society, has refused to challenge institutional Scotland, and instead aligned itself with power and vested interests. It is a catch-all party, like New Labour, part-centre-left, part-neo-liberal, both populist and opportunist.
If we are to challenge the miserablist and moderniser accounts then we are going to have to create a new story of hope, optimism and change which not only challenges these failed visions, but challenges the limited prospectus offered by the Nationalists. It would be about a pluralist voice, it would question the evasions and silences which disfigure society, and develop a politics which was interested in how and by whom power is exercised.
Most of all this Scotland would be about story: one which recognises that the old story has failed and become part of the problem. The miserablist account wants to keep us in the past in a mythical golden age; the modernisers wish us to embrace a world of marketeers, consumption and hyper-individualism; both are profoundly pessimistic, narrow and deterministic.
How do we go about creating Scotland’s new story? Robert McKee in the landmark ‘Story’ (3) identifies three important elements to a story: character, risk, and what kind of risk people are prepared to undertake? A new story which combined these three elements would be centred on the potential of self-government as a nation and its relationship to self-determination as a society. It would challenge the conservative mindset in large parts of Scotland, question the gatekeepers and empire builders in institutional life, and embrace hope and optimism. It would have anger and generosity, allow for mistakes and nuance, embrace learning and dialogue, and reject black and white thinking for shades of gray.
What motivates this new story is a sense of possible futures. The miserablists and modernisers have fallen for the deception that the future has already been decided and is no longer up for grabs in the way the left once believed in the future. That is one of the things which is exciting, liberating and potent in Scotland now, and which you can almost feel in the current election. There is still a sense that as a place, nation and imagined community, that we have the prospect of taking our future into our own hands. To do so, we have to take on the old comforting stories of the past and present, and embrace imagination, daring and risk.
1. Gerry Hassan, ‘The New Market Man of History and the McCliche View of Scotland’, Open Democracy, April 7th 2011, http://www.gerryhassan.com/?p=1631
2. Ross Martin, ‘Road to reform yet to be travelled’, The Scotsman, April 26th 2011.
3. Gerry Hassan and Chris Warhurst (eds), A Different Future: A Moderniser’s Guide to Scotland, Centre for Scottish Public Policy/The Big Issue in Scotland 1999.
4. Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Methuen 1998.