The Scots as Persons in Transition: There is Another Way
Let me start by asking the question: who are the Scots? I recently read a fascinating book by historian Daphne Brooke, called Wild Men and Holy Places. It’s about the early history of Galloway. It helped me get my head clearer about the basic plurality of the Scots from the earliest times.
There are Picts, up there in the Mearns and adjacent areas. There are Ancient Britons, with their stronghold at Dumbarton, or Dun Briton. There are probably a few Romans, skulking in the mist, intermarrying with Picts and Britons. Then in come trailer-loads of Angles, via the kingdom of Northumbria, which stretched as far north as Edinburgh, as far west as Galloway, and as far north-west as Ayrshire. With a name like Kirkwood – first recorded in Ayr around 1000 AD – I can’t be anything else but an Angle.
Then in come waves of Celts, or Scots, or Irish, whatever you call them. And in come boatloads of Vikings, all round: north, south, east, west. And later still you’ve got the Normans, who first of all came across from France and defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings.
These Normans, or North-men, are really Vikings of a more sophisticated type. I think of them as early imperialists, from this corner of the globe, who later on got as far south as Sicily with their conquering ways.
It is, for some, an inconvenient truth, but a vital one, that the Normans did not stop at Berwick-on-Tweed. It was a Scottish king, David 1st, who invited about 60 or 70 of them to come up north and help him “manage” the unruly proto-Scots into some sort of unity. He parceled Scotland out in large chunks to these Normans, and they got on with the job of pacifying our ancestors in all their diversity. They “drove change” as Tony Blair would have put it. Their strategy included feudalism, and their tactics included gouging out of eyes and cutting out of tongues. As Daphne Brooke insists, this was quite normal at the time. Fergus of Galloway was the last native lord to hold out against the unifying and centralising trend, before he too succumbed to eye- and tongue-related interventions.
In case you get too dewy-eyed about independence, you need to bear in mind that one of these Norman knights, or barons, or whatever you choose to call them, was called Robert de Brus, later anglified to Robert the Bruce. He defeated another Scotified Norman knight to seize the Scottish throne, and went on to defeat Edward Langshanks, another Norman knight, normally domiciled south of the Border, who happened to be the King of England.
Incidentally, the Border should not really be called “the Border”. It should be, and once was, called the debatable lands: a territory rather than a line.
So there we are. Immigration. Conquest. Warring tribes. Land grabs. Raiders. Intermarriage. Imperialism. The usual mix. The novelist Willie MacIlvanney got it right when he called us a mongrel race.
We could continue the list right up till today. French. Jews. Huguenots. Dutch. Catholic Irish. Protestant Irish. The odd black slave. The odd shipwrecked Spaniard. And more recent arrivals from England, Italy, India, Pakistan, Germany, China, the Caribbean, Poland, Lithuania, Greece, Iraq and so on. And on.
The Scots are not a pure-bred race. They are inherently and increasingly diverse. They are whoever happens to come here, live here, work here, fight here, breed here. I hope I have got that key point across.
So the question at issue is not racial, since we are a multi-racial people. We would be getting closer to what the issue is – or rather, what the issues are – if we were to ask a series of questions. Is it about hatred? Is it about resentment? Is it about domination? Is it about feelings of inferiority? Is it about class? Is it about caste? Is it about social justice? Is it about land ownership? Is it about political power? Political differences? Is it about democracy? Is it about community? Is it about religion? Is it about capitalism? Socialism? Communism? Is it about enterprise? Wealth? Is it about languages? Is it about sex and gender relationships? Is it about ecology? Geography? Sport? Philosophy? Culture in the broadest sense?
My answer is: all of the above.
And here is another – not entirely tangential – question: does some of this stuff show up also in counseling, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis? After all, Scotland has made a noble contribution to a distinctive trend in psychotherapy, a tradition rejoicing in pluralism, even eclecticism, welcoming Freud, Jung, Adler, Ferenczi, Klein, Suttie, Fairbairn, Winnicott, Gestalt, Person-centred, Transactional Analysis, Buddhist Psychotherapy, Psychosynthesis, Cognitive Behaviourism, the Heimler Method of Human Social Functioning, Mindfulness and so on.
But I am not here to praise Scottish psychotherapy, rather to address what some Trotskyists used to call the conjuncture. And what a conjuncture! We have a chance to contribute to determining the future of our nation. And for me, it is even broader than that: we have an opportunity, as the novelist Alasdair Gray once put it, to gather all the rays of culture into one.
I am not here to summarise a wide range of views. I have my own “take” on our situation, and intend to present it briefly.
I am a personalist. I hold that every human being is a person, who is inherently valuable, who can know and act on the world, who is to be treated as a subject, not an object, and whose personhood is constituted at least partly by their relationships with other persons. Persons need and seek friends and fellowship. Persons need and seek roles, relationships and community.
Britain, and Scotland as a part of Britain, prides itself on a long historical process of transition, from autocratic monarchy to representative democracy, with a gradually expanding franchise. Now, while that process has undoubtedly occurred, and has been hard won, to overglamourise it puts us in danger of missing other trends that have been happening since the second world war. During this period, there have been significant shifts away from democracy and mutuality, in the direction of the centralization of power, the growth of individualism, and the hegemony of self-interest.
The post-war picture has been muddied because these latter trends have been presented in the context of talk about devolution. The late John P Mackintosh’s influential book, published in 1968, The Devolution of Power, illustrates the muddying process to perfection. While floating the idea of the possibility of devolution to Scotland and Wales, Mackintosh is actually primarily concerned to do away with small-scale local democracy in towns, counties, and urban and rural districts, and replace it with government through much larger regional structures. Mackintosh in an aside in The Devolution of Power actually comments that “democracy is now in decline”, as if that is obvious and need not be debated.
I contend that his preoccupation in that book, and the real direction of British national policy in the last fifty years, has been to move away from locating democracy close to where human beings live and work, away from local democracy, towards large-scale structures which are seen as rational, efficient and functional. In short, democracy is being replaced by technocracy. British society is being reconfigured as a rational machine. The search is on for powerful experts. For tsars, commissioners, and chief executive officers. For large-scale directive management in every area of life. Change is to be driven, whether we like it or not.
It is in this context that we should see recent developments in Scotland: two rounds of local government reform, which in most areas abolished any meaningful local government, followed by devolution of certain powers to a Scottish Parliament, with the retention of real financial and political power in London. Power devolved, as Enoch Powell acutely observed, is power retained.
The real problem for the Scots, as for the English and Welsh, is the continuation of British centralism, British paternalism and British patriarchy. We in Scotland do not have a problem with our continuing attachment to the people of the North-east, the North-west, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands, the South-east and the South-west of England, or to the people of Wales. We are stuck, we are lumbered, in common with our English and Welsh neighbours, with an outdated concentration of political and financial power in Westminster and the City of London. We in Scotland do not want or need to separate ourselves from our neighbours. On the contrary, we all need to resume the struggle for fundamental democratization and decentralization throughout the UK. We need personal and communal empowerment. We need community democracy.
The difference between the Scots and the English at the present time is simply this: the Scots are sharply aware of the yawning democratic deficit, and the geographical imbalance, and want to empower themselves as a people, while the English are still thirled to British centralism, paternalism and financial sharp practice. They think: that’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it will always be. I argue that it doesn’t need to be like that. It won’t always be like that.
I am making this point strongly, because there are a few people in Scotland who do want complete independence, who do want complete separation from England. They are in a minority, but they are very good at pressing powerful emotional buttons in the Scottish psyche.
What I am arguing for is self-government. I want all the levers of political and financial power affecting Scotland to be pulled in Scotland, by people living, working and committed to Scotland. But I also want us to continue to play a reforming part in Britain, with the Scots acting as a (non-prescriptive) working model, a demonstration to the English people of how we can dismantle the Westminster and City of London systems of centralized power. So: not the break-up of Britain, but the break-up of the London-centred system. Our friends in England need a radical decentralization of power and resources just as much as we do. It calls for fundamental restructuring, and re-orientation, not for a few token gestures.
If we don’t make this kind of argument, and go for this kind of solution, we will be in danger of ending up with our own miniature version of the Westminster Punch and Judy show, with all political and financial power centralized in Edinburgh.
So when we cast our votes in September, we need to think outside the British centralist box. And there is an awful lot of thinking to do.
I ground myself not in individualism, but in the idea of persons in relation. I hold that ordinary people – non-celebrities – can know, think, dialogue, find common ground, take initiatives and manage themselves. We can be self-governing, in a whole variety of communities and at every level of scale.
For me, the core of democracy is direct democracy, direct engagement as both a right and a responsibility. Of course, there is also the need for good leadership, and good representation. There is a need for expertise, and for courageous, prophetic voices. But so long as we define democracy merely as representative democracy, we exclude persons and communities from the direct exercise of power and responsibility. In fact we treat people not as persons but as disempowered objects. Our cities, towns, housing schemes, and rural areas, are full of people who have been treated in this way: systematically and intentionally excluded from the direct exercise of power. We have our attachment to the central elites, the British party system, and the arcane British financial and land-ownership systems, to thank for that.
How appalling it is these paternalistic mindsets and entrenched privileges still dominate our lives! And don’t kid yourself on: I am not referring here only to the Conservative Party, but also to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In Scotland, the SNP demonstrates some worrying signs of centralist thinking. We need to find the nerve to break with that kind of thinking and empower ourselves as persons, citizens, localities and communities.
But to emphasise the concepts of persons in relation, community empowerment and self-management is not enough. We need to revalorize other strands of the Scottish tradition and weave them into the new society to which we aspire. Here I name some of these strands and summarise their key themes.
It was Scottish thinkers Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith who articulated the idea of sympathy: that people sense directly what other people are thinking and feeling, and that we actually feel with them. That, according to Hutcheson and Smith, is the basis of our moral sense. We need to rehabilitate that idea and weave it into a whole social ethic.
It was Adam Smith, also, who led the way in understanding how economies thrive. We need to integrate Smith’s understanding of the prosperity of nations with his understanding of human sympathy and moral sentiment, in an ethic which can replace the impersonal model of free market economics which has become dominant again in the last thirty five years. We need to replace it with a model hinted at in the titles of two great books: Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, and Nyerere’s The Purpose is Man. This latter point can perhaps better be captured by arguing that the purpose of society is the flourishing, as best they can, of every man, woman and child, in every community, and the wise use of the resources of the world. It should, for example, be a basic assumption that the good society has a responsibility to design useful work and other worthwhile activities that every person can do.
The Scots, like our cousins the English, have always been drawn towards religious, humanist and ecological perspectives. The Scots tend to emphasise principles, and the English tend to emphasise pragmatics. Both are important. It would be a great mistake to downgrade religious, humanist and ecological perspectives. They are foundational, and they need to go on developing. I am very much opposed to attempts to privatize or individualise these concerns. They are core elements in defining our sense of community, of where we have come from and where we are going to, our sense of right and wrong and our efforts to live good lives personally and socially.
At the same time, I argue that we have to challenge fundamentalism and literalism wherever it occurs. The literal belief in the actual existence of a God transcending all time and space is unconvincing and counter-productive. It is a misconception which has distorted religion throughout human history, pointing backwards towards a murderous and fanatical authoritarianism. On the other hand, the idea of God as symbol, as illuminating metaphor, as powerful imaginative story, as a source of support, is very valuable indeed.
In the same way, our religious and political tribalism, our belief in the exclusive rightness of our own holy texts, our exclusive versions of what is right and wrong, cry out to be addressed, because they are so obstinately (and oppositionally) rooted. Religious, humanist and ecological practices affirm the value of life and values for living, a reverence for the whole of nature, both animate and inanimate. They are too important to leave to sectarians and fanatics. We need to learn to dialogue, and value other perspectives.
In this connection the recent spread of humanist celebrations of birth, marriage and death seems very valuable from what I would regard as a religious perspective.
The United States of America claims to have developed much of its underlying thinking from Scottish sources, and while there is some truth in that, it is also true that the USA has distorted many of its Scottish models, for example the model of democracy, by individualizing it. There is a strong Scottish accent on fellowship and community, which we need to reaffirm.
Some of the most disturbing yet creative struggles of the last fifty or sixty years have been around human sexuality and gender, the relations between the sexes and the generations. In my childhood, Scottish society was patriarchal, male-dominated and misogynist, full of hatred and fear of women. You often heard of, and occasionally literally heard, men battering women, and women and children screaming. These cultural norms have been courageously challenged by the feminist movement, and yet there are times when it can seem as if the resolution of the tensions between men and women is as far away as ever.
At the same time, sixty years ago, homosexuality and lesbianism were the loves that dared not speak their names. And underlying all of this was Christian hatred and disparagement of sexuality, the association of the body with original sin, the idea that we were born in sin. This devaluation of human sexuality is still with us, as is the other side of the coin, the sexual exploitation of women, children and men. We need to find the courage to continue our efforts to rehabilitate, understand and respect human sexuality as a core aspect of personal being and relating. We need to give equal regard, equal resourcing, to reproduction alongside production; and to the contributions of all generations, including parents, grandparents and childless adults, in the love, upbringing and education of children, who belong to us all.
If I were to pick out one real advance in our Scottish society in the last sixty years, it would be the atmosphere that now characterizes many nursery and primary schools and their playgrounds. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, teachers, learning assistants, janitors, administrative staff all mix with children on much more equal terms. How far we have come from the grim days of belting, when parents were kept out of the school and out of the playground.
Scotland has maintained a great split between organized labour on the one hand, and management, ownership, enterprise and finance on the other. We must take decisive steps to overcome this destructive division. It is counter-productive. We must sustain our awareness of the injustices of class, inequality and poverty and our determination to right these wrongs, but face up to the fact that we have substituted public rituals and political rhetoric about social justice, ending poverty and reducing unemployment for taking effective action to achieve those objectives.
I am therefore in favour of ending class-based divisions in politics and enterprise, and instituting in their place all-inclusive, community-based politics and production. It will need to be all-inclusive. It will have to be based on really drastic reductions in income differentials. It will be have to incorporate further development of Gordon Brown’s great innovation: tax credits, which should be renamed social credits. It will have to be grounded on genuinely full employment, which should be a basic assumption, implemented and sustained without question.
Without such steps, Scotland will continue to be a hypocritical and complacent society, admiring in the mirror of the media its social democracy, liberal individualism and bureaucratic corporatism, features which at present benefit mainly our greedy middle classes.
There is in Scotland a deep and justified resentment of feudalism, yet we retain the bizarre situation of our noble families, our nouveaux riches, our private equity funds and our biggest companies owning vast tracts of land and property. I am in favour of a Scottish law to replace private property with community property, not on the basis of eviction, but on the basis that all resources are to be held and used in trust for, and with the direct involvement of, wider communities; with strong rights of intervention when this objective is resisted or evaded.
We need to move towards a system in which everyone, no matter their class, status or inherited wealth at birth, is expected to take an active, contributory part in the life of communities at every level of scale, to ensure that the resources of every member of the community are applied to support the flourishing of all.
For this purpose, we need to transform our taxation system into a resource-sharing system. Tax systems are resented, evaded, and when they are effective, mainly feed central bureaucracies and middle and upper class interests. Instead, we need a comprehensive register of all resources to be compiled locally, nationally, and internationally. Such a register will be the basis on which we resource, create and convert existing interests into a range of social enterprise communities.
I go out of my way to praise again the contributions of counselling, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for the significant changes they have brought to our culture in Scotland over the last sixty years. They have enriched society in two ways. First they have helped people to tackle problems of personal distress and personal relationships, which were previously ignored. And second, they have irrigated the barren landscape of utilitarianism, positivist science, large-scale economics, and paternalistic policy-making. This barren discourse has been enriched with new words and stories, dialogues and metaphors about experiences, feelings, memories, thoughts, relationships, persons and places. If we have grown in self-confidence and the sense of self-efficacy; if we are ready for self-government and direct as well as representative democracy, if we can tackle the transitions involved, it will be at least partly because of that contribution.
Now, a final word from a Scottish person-in-transition. I have decided to vote YES in the referendum next month. Not because I support separation-independence. Independence can only be meaningfully considered in the context of acknowledging continuing dependence and interdependence. Interdependence does not stop at Berwick-on-Tweed, nor at the English channel. I refuse to acquiesce in turning the word independence into either a shibboleth or an anathema.
I will vote YES because I believe in the growing confidence and maturity of the Scottish, English and Welsh people. I believe in our capacity for self-government. I hope to see self-government in every part of Britain. We can reinvent Scotland, and the rest of Britain, on a decentralized basis. Then we will be both self-governing and better together.