What’s the Story?
I believe in the redeeming power of stories, I believe that stories are incredibly important, possibly in ways we don’t understand, in allowing us to make sense of our lives, in allowing us to escape our lives, in giving us empathy and in creating the world that we live in. – Neil Gaiman
What stories do we tell ourselves about the sort of country we want to live in? And what stories do we believe? In an age of infobesity less information and more narrative, less data and more sharing is what we need to make sense of our world. Story, as a pattern, is a powerful way of organising and sharing individual experience and co-creating shared realites. But ‘our’ story is becoming more and more contested. We often can’t even agree on who ‘we’ are.
Most countries have creation tales, whether they are of the lost people taken to the promised land, the pioneer myths of America, or the romantic triumphs of Jean d’Arc in France. Our own versions, of Bruce in his cave, of Bannockburn and resistance to a hostile neighbour, or of Clyde-built industrial Scotland – and it’s demise and decline are thin and past their sell-by-date. Our stories of royalty (thankfully) are marked by glorious defeat and suppression, with Charlie dying a drunk and Mary getting her head chopped off, and our patron saint’s a shadowy figure, so that won’t do. (1) We’re more likely to think of ourselves as Irn-Bru drinkers than anything, the story being: we are self-mocking, and hard-drinking (even of soft drinks); we’re made from girders.
Another story is of ‘not getting above ourselves’, it’s the story your parents maybe told you, meant at first as a scold against arrogance it’s developed into a crippling national humility. Whether it’s the Clearance-induced diaspora (a double-failure) or the motif of betrayal, we have some pretty negative visions of our past. (2) Given this, why (how!) can we create a positive vision of the future?
What are the competing stories in the referendum debate, and what qualities do they have? Are any of them any useful to us?
The Story of Redemption
This is a tale of devolution protecting Scotland from the worst excesses of austerity Britain, a government we didn’t elect, exerting values we don’t share. It’s a good story, partly because it has truth, which all good tales need, but also because it has a wide and receptive audience. It makes you feel good as well as having a well defined baddie, and the potential of a happy ending. Problem: some people think that devolution does this already. The fact is, it does a bit. But there’s a problem because this story is used by both sides: we don’t know what immersion back into the British state is going to feel like if we fail.
The story being put forward as an adjunct to the redemption of devolution is that somehow, incredibly, however infeasible, is that a No vote will bring more powers to Scotland. A post-indyref No vote as a sort of prequel to devolution: ‘Vote No to Scotland for more power’.
The Story of Inertia
UK:OK. This combines the problem of a very low bar of aspiration with the idea of ordo sempiternus rerum (there’s a natural – sacred even! – order of things) – think Harry on patrol – news platitudes – Changing the Guard – Remembrance – Noel Edmonds – Jamie Oliver – Sir Chris Hoy – Bruce Forsyth – the Proms – wraparound nostalgia – staring (intently) backwards – and on and on …
It has appeal, things are as they are. Why change? That’s a powerful question: why change? Change is risk. In a static, staid, conservative society this has quite a foothold. For a Scotland that has experienced failure, risk is, by definition, a bad thing. If we try and change we might fail again, and this time the worlds looking at us. This is the basic dynamic of the campaigns so far, Yes v No. No can’t (and doesn’t need to) define what would happen after a No vote. Yes is constantly attacked for not projecting with certainty ten, twenty, thirty years on. Inertia is tiring and depressing. Change is difficult and frightening.
The Story of Failure
We Can’t Succeed – from Darien (30th November 1699) to Cordoba (June 3rd 1978) – failure has been indelibly etched on the Scottish psyche. This psychology has been nurtured by a dependency culture, an overwhelming cultural anglosphere and a cult of centralism delivering government after useless government. Fail? Till recently we weren’t even playing.
One explanation of the inability of Labour to engage with the wider independence movement is their own recent failure. It’s not about Scotland’s story, it’s about Labour’s. John Mcallion wrote in Bella in 2011 ‘Where Now for Scottish labour?’):
When, after the 1987 general election, the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly produced its report “A Claim of Right for Scotland” calling for the setting up of a Constitutional Convention it was initially given the cold shoulder by Labour’s Scottish parliamentarians. As a Labour backbencher at that time, I put down an early day motion welcoming the report’s publication but struggled to get more than a handful of my colleagues to support me in signing it.
Despite having for the third election in a row seen their majority control of Scottish seats cancelled out by huge Tory majorities in England, most Scottish Labour MPs back then had no interest in resurrecting Scotland’s national question. This was not long after the SNP had branded Scotland’s Labour MPs as the “feeble fifty” and sent each MP a white feather in the post.
The experience of the feeble fifty, and Labour’s subsequent capitulation and assimilation to conservative values and policies is not one that can embolden you to self-government. No wonder Labour MPs are so vitriolic, most of their political life has been about experiencing failure, even in their greatest ‘success’ of Blairism.
The Story of Loss
This is the story of the generation (s) who mourn the olden days, and want things to be back the way they were in their childhood. Many adults are still in mourning, some for the certainties of gender inequality, others for the idea of progress, where your children would do better than you as you did better than yours. Others long for the simplicity of binary Thatcherism. Most, I suspect long for a Britain that’s been dismantled over their lifetime. That’s not coming back.
The Story of Influence
The dominant tale of the No campaign is that Britain is a world power and our association is a great benefit. Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has argued: ““Scotland deserves to know whether it is going to be part of making the world more secure or simply watching from the sidelines in the future.”
Ruth Davidson has argued: “By being British citizens it’s possible for Scots to be able to make a real difference across the world. There is nothing to stop a Scot from joining the army, or the Foreign Office where they can affect international politics. The United Kingdom is still a major power, one of the world’s largest economies, a permanent Security Council member, with one of the most effective diplomatic and military corps on the planet.”
Putting aside the ridiculousness of Davidson’s arguments or the potential benefits of ‘watching from the sidelines’, this story has some appeal. The less powerful you feel the more you might feel compelled to ‘punch above your weight’ as the mantra usually goes.
The Story of Just Not Existing at All
Gerry Hassan has described the dominant interpretation of modern Scotland – as being ‘centred on the rise of Scottish identity and difference, and the slow decline of Britishness to near-irrelevance’. But in another world, we consume a globalised culture of gaming and a dominant Anglo-British culture in which Scotland is both irrelevant and invisible. The voices of authority and leadership are rarely if ever actually Scottish and the cultural iconography, the ‘surround-sound’ is frequently American or English. The successful re-boot of the House of Windsor and the near-obsessive celebration of Britishness by the state media is all-pervasive.
To many many people who don’t know very much at all about their own history and culture in any depth – caught between the world of Grand Theft Auto and the All-England Club, Scotland might not exist at all.
The Story of the Saviour
From Assange to Alex may be quite a leap, but some people long for a dux, a leader. Why not? It’s a golden ageless story to tell. Leadership, charismatic leadership is a massively powerful force – the king across the water… will ye no come back?
It’s actually a great thing that Salmond isn’t more charismatic. He isn’t a Chavez, and after Obama’s sad denouement and Sheridan’s trial, leadership isn’t what it used to be. This story might explain why he is both hated and revered, reflecting the fear (and hope) that he might be our saviour.
Genius and Scroungers
Competing tales we tell ourselves are that we helped create the modern world with our litany of genius and the Scots Enlightenment – the tea towels of invention from David Hume and Adam Smith to James Watt, Thomas Telford and John Macadam to the present day myths where we are told we are a nation of scroungers. (3)
Both are unhelpful and we need to re-tell a tale that normalises us as a people just like any other. Yes we have made a special contribution to the world and yes we have endemic poverty, these two things have a relationship that needs explored.
The Story of the Underdog and the Rebel
From Jinky Johnstone to Begbie, from Kay Matheson to Margo Macdonald the role is endlessly gloried in. But it’s a role that we’ll need to transcend if we are to govern ourselves. We’ll need the self-confidence to move beyond the relationship with England that’s defined us and from which the ‘underdog’ myth is nurtured.
All of these stories are undermined if the story being shared is only shared within a closed group. Too many blogs and writers share within a tiny circle, essentially an echo chamber. Hearing your voice coming back to you is reassuring, but if Gaiman is right, stories ‘allow us to escape our lives, in giving us empathy’ then we’ll need to speak to others who don’t agree, don’t understand, don’t believe in Scotland, never mind a Yes vote. That could be a depressing thought but it could also be an invitation for hundreds of thousands of conversations about our lives and our future for people who are (mostly) trapped in an unthinking uncritical way of being.
But how can we get our story straight? How can we share as a wider community? Because the debate is distorted by campaigns – the No campaigners are forced to allege that our country will be consigned to failure and the Yes lobby who stand accused of avoiding difficult questions.
What we need is not creation myths but re- creation stories. Can we make a new story?
(1) Wikipedia has it that: “The legend surrounding Scotland’s association with the Saint Andrew’s Cross was related by Walter Bower and George Buchanan, who claimed that the flag originated in a 9th-century battle, where Óengus II led a combined force of Picts and Scots to victory over the Angles, led by Æthelstan. Supposedly, a miraculous white saltire appeared in the blue sky and Óengus’ troops were roused to victory by the omen.”
(2) As captured by Mhairi McAlpine here: “The 1707 Act of Union was a declaration of civil war on the people of Scotland from its ruling class. Right at the start of the shift from feudalism to capitalism, people were burned from their homes and left to die of exposure on hillsides, because the land on which they lived and toiled could make more money if they did not live on it”
(3) Whilst this myth is peddled repeatedly in the English tabloid media, it’s also fostered by people like Ruth davidson who has spoken of ‘Nine in ten Scots ‘living off state’s patronage’. In a speech last year, which was widely condemned, the Scottish Conservative leader highlighted official figures showing that only 283,080 households in Scotland– 12 per cent of the total – pay more in tax than they receive in public services.