The Seven Wonders
Scotland’s future is about greater self-government but at the same time it has to be about more than that if it is to reach out and be relevant beyond the political classes and involve, engage and inspire.
It has to articulate a vision of a society, culture and economy – one which recognises the failures of past politics and the limited menus on offer from contemporary mainstream politics. This should be shaped by the principles of self-determination, in which we learn how to express our individual and collective desires and hopes in a manner which acknowledges the fragilities of the planet and the impermanence of the human race.
Telling these stories necessitates that we start to leave the closed conversations, comforting stories and vested interest positions of much of modern Scotland; that we take the risk of challenging the narrow bandwidth and self-interest of institutional Scotland; that we recognise the limited nature of much of what passes for ‘civic Scotland’, but in reality is a set of gatekeepers, aiding the continuation of undemocracy and unspace, practices and places where it is difficult to impossible to nurture honest, reflective discussion and ideas.
The old stories which defined us and contributed so much to making us are threadbare and exhausted, and in the eyes of most, discredited or simply irrelevant. We have to nurture, nourish and aid into being new stories which succeed in a very delicate balancing act: embracing complexity, but allowing for some simplicity, daring to be daring, allowing ourselves to be indignant at the state of much of our society, but not falling into hectoring and lecturing; and allowing for joy and lightness in a world where so much is unjust and needs to be challenged, but where much of life is worth celebrating and affirming; and allowing for these nuances.
This will require that Scotland’s storytellers engage with the future of society, from writers, musicians, imagineers and historians to other radical and disruptive forces. It will need iconoclastic voices to be encouraged to offer challenging accounts to ‘the official future’ and prevailing myths.
This entails understanding the past Scottish futures, their hopes and how they ultimately failed. Most important are the two most recent, the post-1945 era and that of the 1980s onward. The first involved an explicit ‘eye to the future’ and belief that the Scotland of tomorrow would be a more enlightened, fairer and better place, and that a new kind of world and society was possible. A vision of this, The Future of Scotland, written in 1939 stated:
For that we require vision. Short-sighted hand-to-mouth legislation is useless. Procrastination is equally dangerous and indefensible. The organisation essential to put things through, it should be remembered, will not spring into being of itself and even if it did, it would be of no avail without a reawakened popular consciousness.
These words are equally true in the Scotland of the twenty-first century. Our challenges entail that we think and act boldly, and are radical about how we think and create the future. Fundamental to how we imagine, dream and create a different Scotland will be our stories and storytellers and what has been called ‘the community of communicators’.
The stories in new published ‘The Seven Wonders of Scotland’ convey seven imagined Scotlands of the future. There is the hidden underground Scotland of Andrew Crumey, where the archaeological remains of the past has an almost mythical power. Then we have a modern-day independent Scotland which became so a century ago, according to William Letford, where Loch Lomond is the world’s first semi-submerged city.
In Caroline van Schmalensee’s contribution a new community emerges in a prototype to reduce global warning and begins an experiment in living with wider repercussions; Kirsti Wishart draws from the Scottish International Exhibitions of Victoriana to the People’s Palace and even Las Vegas to examine pleasure; and Maggie Mellon envisages Glasgow as a post-industrial urban garden town. Gavin Inglis paints a country which has confronted one of its most difficult and shameful aspects – religious bigotry; and Michael Gardiner enters a dystopian Anglo-America which is increasingly seen as such, and outside of which Scotland explicitly and proudly stands.
Drawing from my own experience of growing up in Dundee and that of my parents, one of the powerful anchors was how they saw their own life and future and its connection with wider possibilities. There was a tension and a balance in this, and as people grew more questioning and affluent many in Scotland felt that we overdid the latter, the sense of the collective, at the expense of the individual.
The post-war era contained for my parents a sense of optimism, but that was only part of the picture. What we now seem to have shifted to in many accounts is a story of the present day filled with loss, despair, pessimism and a longing for a golden age which never was. Just as the immediate post-war years was not all sweetness and consensus, so the present is not all discord and darkness.
This points to the profound disconnect between personal experience and the public life of society and the nation. The way in which most people describe their individual lives and that of their immediate families is informed by a belief, whatever current economic and social problems, that life can and will eventually get better. However, at the level of the collective, we seem to have a deep failure to articulate these hopes and wishes, and find plausible vessels and accounts which people belief in. This disconnect, and how it is addressed, is crucial if the possible Scotlands of the future are to emerge and take shape.
If they are, then the language used to create them is pivotal. Dominant ideas of the last few decades across the political spectrum, of abstractions such as ‘globalisation’, ‘free market values’, ‘inequality’ and ‘poverty’, mean little to most people. Instead, future stories need to connect the individual to the collective, and be about relationships and the values we choose to cherish. Thus, instead of talking in the abstract about economic growth, we would address how people get on their lives and support themselves and their families. The same would be true of how we conceive of poverty, inequality and other social issues.
This may seem a small step to some and an obtuse point to others but suggests that the prevalence of system talk, thinking and jargon do not allow for the articulation of deeper values, ideas and the search for new understandings and philosophies. Many people intrinsically recognise this mismatch and the hollowing out of public life it has entailed.
This would be a Scotland of mission and purpose, collective stories and utopian imagination, and going with the grain of our character and culture as the most likely way to aid change. What this leads to is the following question: what has a small cohesive nation at the cusp of a historic debate and decision to lose by being bold, drawing from the best of our traditions, trying to aspire to the noblest in them, and learning from others in a similar situation? We have so much to gain: in short, a future that we make ourselves, can call our own and contribute to the wider world.
This is an edited extract from Gerry Hassan’s introduction to The Seven Wonders of Scotland, published this week by Birlinn £9.99. Go here to buy the book.