What role will “story” play in the emerging Scotland? It’s a question Gerry Hassan asks once again in his most recent Scotsman column (10th Sep 2011) to coincide with the publication of a new anthology.
Gerry Hassan argues that “story” – those of ordinary individuals and the communities they live in – matters. Beneath the shiny façade of party politics, driving opinion, story has been one of the primary influences on the changing political map of Scotland. It also presents a challenge for the brave new emergent Scotland.
In the landscape of story, writers, poets, folk singers, musicians and creative artists of all shade and form, have constructed an alternative grounded map of identity and culture distinct from that of the dominant narratives writ large by government, education establishments, political parties, and the all-pervasive mainstream media.
This landscape is not writ large as “national culture” but is to be found in the multitude of loves, lives, struggles, joys and inter-connections of individuals and communities in day-to-day conflict and harmony with themselves and outside forces.
Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in his poem, ‘Scotland’:
So I have gathered unto myself
All the loose ends of Scotland
And by naming them and accepting them
Loving them and identifying myself with them
Attempt to express the whole.
Such is the challenge.
The stories that arise from the individual and the local are, by their very nature, going to be significantly different from those that are promoted by institutional Scotland. The importance of these everyday stories is paramount and it will take individual as well as collective will to ensure that they are heard, and given the space they deserve, for these stories are continually battling for legitimacy above the clatter and din of the dominant narratives.
Individual stories are continually shaped, confined and silenced by institutional Scotland. Outside the individual or family home (and within it too) the great institutions of government, state, and corporations bear down relentlessly on the life of an individual.
Gerry Hassan points to the “anxiety, doubt and worry” at the heart of modern life. “We live longer, have richer, more full, wealthier lives, and yet deep down many of us are filled with remorse, anger and bewilderment.” Few would disagree with this. It cuts to the heart of a deep malaise within our society.
It is more critical than ever, as Scotland prepares for Independence and a fresh start, that we question the value and role of the dominant institutions. Not from the perspective of an entrenched knee-jerk or ideologically-driven basis but from lessons learnt by listening to individuals’ stories.
Take the banks and corporations. Of course they are the bogey men of the left. But how exactly do they affect the everyday story of individual Scots? Do they make life better, simpler, or more stress-free? Do they provide much needed work? Or do they crush individuality and enterprise and frame economic hardship, debt and misery?
Sure, for the ideological left this is a no-brainer. But the point of story is that it coaxes out individual experiences into the collective narrative. Leftists are only a small part of the bigger picture. In this respect there is much value in creating space to allow everyday story to emerge. It can be the supporting structure of a future Scotland.
From story comes policy and self-determination. How this works in practice is one of the great challenges of Independence. Will taxation alone be powerful enough to match story with policy? Will democracy itself need to be overhauled?
Questions also need to be asked of the necessity and strictures of institutional government and state. Both at local and national level. What are individuals’ actual experiences, articulated as everyday story, in relation to dealings with every aspect of the state? Is centralised power and bureaucracy making modern life worse? Is the state for wiping arses or facilitating individual and collective independence?
The barbarians in Downing Street, who seek to rein in state spending whatever the cost, are not interested in how individual stories will be affected by ideological-driven cost-cutting measures. Yet paradoxically, in response, some of those who oppose any shrinking of the state do so out of self-interest.
Scotland is at an exciting juncture in our collective history. Our future is unwritten. Political parties do not have all the answers. Most are struggling with the questions. But as we move into a possible post-Union future, with the ability to reconstruct or devolve power, or redistribute wealth if that is the wish of the Scottish people, then we’re going to have to listen to and help encourage and facilitate the stories of ordinary individuals, and with open ears.
“ImagiNation: Stories of Scotland’s Future” edited by Gerry Hassan & Bryan Beattie is now on sale. (A review to follow).