Scotland After The Virus
Scotland After The Virus – Ed. Gerry Hassan & Simon Barrow, Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2020 reviewed by Doug Gay, University of Glasgow.
There is too much in this volume to do justice to in a single review (even a relatively long one such as this). I won’t try to mention every contribution, but silence does not imply disagreement or a lack of esteem. At over 300 pages and featuring what are presented as ‘a stellar range’ of 43 contributors, this is not a small or narrow book. The editors, like those of the Book of Genesis, divide their creation into seven sections focusing on: Stories of our Times; Politics and Money; Public Spaces; Care; Life & Wellbeing; Justice, Equality and Belief; Art, Culture, Sport and Media; [yes it does sound like a post Blair Whitehall Dept] – with a final section on ‘Ideas’ which invokes ‘the power of the past and the future’.
Section One frontloads the book with fiction, a selection of short stories which are not all equally compelling or effective in illuminating or interrogating the cultural moment of pandemic. That’s a hard ask, right enough, but it is the ask made by the book and the times. The standout piece for me was Kirsten Innes’ Droplets, for its skillful, tightly written, visceral capture of attempts to keep going and keep trying through lockdown pressures. I wish she had resisted the temptation of the last three words in a piece which otherwise felt pitch perfect.
Moving to Politics and Money, Michael Gray asks wistfully “Were these the early days of a better democracy?” His contribution displays a palpable longing for more generous and productive public conversations about Scotland’s future, although his hopes that a clear focus on class will help to cut through ‘liberal/radical culture wars’ may be over optimistic. A stirring call to action shows welcome signs of generosity but his short form manifesto style is not wholly free from wishful thinking and left nostalgia. James Mitchell’s seasoned and sceptical eye ranges across questions of political leadership in times of crisis, noting the dilemmas inherent in preventive strategies, the difficulties of weighing expert advice and the challenges of communicating effectively. While praising First Minister Sturgeon’s “exceptional communication skills”, he points up the need to develop better integration of health and social care across central and local government. While all political leaders made mistakes, too much focus on blame games will hinder a culture of openness which can learn lessons for the future.
Katherine Trebeck resists talk of recovery which is simply a cover for reinstating a pre COVID economic order, with all its inherent economic inequalities and attendant climate risks. COVID exposed the harsh realities of our current economy, built on low pay and precarious employment conditions. Post COVID we need to move beyond the limits of measuring success in terms of GDP and develop ‘a wellbeing economy’, something Scotland has begun to prepare itself for, but which needs greater energy and investment. She advocates for an ‘enabling’/underwriting state supporting ‘community led’ solutions and invests hope in the soft power of new constellations of small state actors ‘showing, sharing and suggesting’ routes to creating well-being economies. Bronagh Gallagher and Mike Small argue for what they call ‘an economy of life’ as an alternative to our current dirty, unsustainable, growth addicted forms of capitalism. Precarious economic and ecological conditions demand we embrace ‘degrowth’ in order to nurture what is ‘life-giving’. In terms which evoke Karl Polanyi and at times sound like the introductions to a report prepared by the Kirk or the Scottish Roman Catholic Bishops Conference, they present in classic Aristotelian-Thomistic telos language, the crucial question of ‘what the economy is for’. They urge a new focus on values, wellbeing, care and solidarity with a new human scaled economy, promoting mutuality, co-operation, localism and ‘good work’ for all. Their vision has romantic, utopian overtones which evoke Owen, Morris and Ruskin as well as more recent calls for ‘slow’ food/life/economics. In a chapter which seemed to me highly redolent of Catholic Social Teaching, the parallels with the economic bits of Caritas in Veritate, Laudato Si and Fratelli Tuti were striking even if unintentional. A brief focus on ‘radical municipalism’ needed further elaboration and greater grounding in political possibility.
Section Three, Public Spaces begins with Cheryl Follon making space for a bit of quotidien magic in her portal poem Hairdresser. Oliver Escobar argues that ‘our chances of governing desirable futures rest on developing an expanded form of democratic life’, whether within the Union or as an independent country. Noting that COVID-19 has been a shared event but not a shared ‘experience’ he advocates for new forms of ‘complex solidarity’ in response to the pandemic’s magnification of existing inequalities and injustices. Options for remaking democracy include promoting ‘mini-publics’ via participatory budgeting and citizen juries and assemblies. New ‘digital publics’ may also offer fresh routes to active participative democracy alongwith the recovery of the ‘commons’ as a paradigm for social and economic organisation. We need to lose our addiction to crisis-enforced change (Unger) and learn better ways to promote ‘change in ordinary times’. In a line dear to my own heart, Escobar comments “Institutional reform may sound boring, but it contains the seeds of desirable futures”. Gerry Hassan returns to one of his long term themes of the health of ‘civil society’ in Scotland, arguing that it was already in a reduced and weakened condition before COVID. He laments the demise of institutions which incubated civic and political skills and with a nod to Bauman, suggests the more fluid/liquid forms of civic participation which succeeded them lack institutional depth and reach. He wants to see more and richer intermediate spaces and platforms bridging the gap between the cautious centralism of the Scottish Government and an array of more isolated radical voices. Willie Sullivan’s joyous hymn to parks in general and Glasgow’s Victoria Park in particular, caught a key dimension of lockdown life in Scotland and minded me of the 1995 Demos Report ‘Park Life – Urban Parks and Social Renewal’. While I appreciated his warnings about moves to monetise them, I would have liked to see more recognition of how unimaginatively many parks are managed and maintained; blighted too often by restrictive, old school local authority mindsets and working practices.
Opening Section 4 Care Life and Wellbeing, Angela O’Hagan addresses the vital issue of how COVID has revealed our dependence on ‘care’ and highlighted the long term and pervasive undervaluing of care in Scottish society, which has been a key theme in feminist economic analysis. We need to build back better with a new politics of care, moving beyond paternalistic policy making to ensure marginalised groups and voices empowered to shape future patterns of provision. She argues that greater investment in care is crucial to developing a wellbeing economy. It falls to Dani Garavelli to write on the big topic of death in the time of COVID 19. The pandemic disrupted our relationship to death and made it even harder, reducing or denying contact, touch and gathering in solidarity. Her poignant account of how people have coped with these deprivations notes the innovations and accommodations which have helped them get through. Interestingly and without explanation, she ignores Christian traditions, practices and experiences entirely in the piece, although these still account for most funerals in Scotland. Given the salience of death and dying in a pandemic, there was perhaps more to be said here on the things COVID has shown us about what we make of death in a society which has become increasingly death denying.
Kapka Kassabova’s chilling ecofable is a confronting lament for Scotland’s ravaged nature, while Suzanne Zeedyk, drawing on her work on trauma and adverse childhood experiences, reflects on our psychology and anthropology as creatures whose present is woven from strands of our past, within whom the past will always live. Childhood suffering incubates adult health conditions. It takes more courage than we often show as a society to learn about childhood distress. She shares four striking narrative arcs, four mini psycho-histories of Scotland from the 40s, 50s, 70s and 80s, which reveal accumulations of childhood distress. Scotland’s adults, she says, are still not good enough at listening to Scotland’s children. The pandemic restrictions will take a heavy toll on children’s mental health. For the future, in the face of the anxiety COVID has brought to us and our systems, we need to make bold choices to nurture trust across society and exhibit ‘fierce curiosity’ about learning what our children and young people need. Psychotherapist Catherine Shea also describes the toll COVID-19 has taken on mental health. While some predict a tsunami of future referrals, she wonders what difference the collective nature of the pandemic will make and whether the shared character of these experiences will ameliorate the damage done? Delivery of patient care has adapted, even to Zoom conditions, but there have been costs to this, as home and work spaces have overlapped. The social dimensions of resilience are crucial and while therapists and patients have adapted creatively to online conditions, for many their economic conditions remain daily threat to human thriving. Shea believes the future can be better than the old normal we have lost, if we invest in relationships of care, compassion and collaboration. We cannot afford not to.
Section 5, on Justice, Equality and Belief has Aussie criminologist Hannah Graham deliver a compact, powerful and convincing reform manifesto. She offers an acute and humane analysis of criminal justice in the time of COVID, arguing for brave politics and distinctive policies to take Scotland forward. Tommy Curry calls for Scotland to reject the racist chimera of colour blindness and commit to tracking and reporting ethnic data to the public. The disturbing ethnic variance in US and English COVID 19 death statistics confirm the urgent need for this. BME communities in Scotland continue to experience active discrimination and structural racism. He offers a political- epistemological challenge to liberal-progressive narratives of Scottish society which ‘refuse to know’ what’s going on for BME people within Scotland. Overcoming our imperial/colonial, slaving past and the ongoing realities of racism are priorities for Scotland (during and) after the virus. A crucial early step is to improve data gathering and reporting.
Moving to my home turf, Simon Barrow hosts an engaging conversation about spirituality with Alison Phipps and Alastair McIntosh, which exudes the thoughtfulness, warmth and openness you would expect from all three of them. It was a relief to find it included within this panorama of Scottish cultural and political themes and a welcome contrast to most other conversations and publications on contemporary Scotland, which are too often tongue tied and inarticulate about religion and spirituality unless in full on critique mode agin’ fundamentalism or sectarianism. More of those who organise edited collections should try giving theologians and religion scholars (or as here activist intellectuals with strong faith commitments) a seat at the table and a voice in the mix. We might surprise you.
Jennifer Jones’ perceptive writing about the subtle temptations, compulsions and distortions of social media left me wanting more, not least about how we go forward to integrate new and old, screen and print, short and long form within our lives. She touches on themes of media economics, but the knockdown sale of The Scotsman + other titles since she wrote, points up the grim prospects of a collapsing print news sector where only the worst seems set to survive, bankrolled by the worst of the richest. Flavia D’Avila channels Dante in a colourful, vulnerable account of how hellish lockdowns have been for theatre and live arts, ending in a nervy riff on how uncertain future prospects for those sectors remain. Paul Goodwin and Simon Barrow write seriously and thoughtfully about football in Scotland, where the relative poverty of the leagues and high dependence on income from fans may mean there is a window for serious reform of finance, ownership and governance built on fan and community ownership models. We are still waiting for policymakers who can craft fiscal incentives for this, but this might be an area where some post COVID home wins are a real prospect.
The final section, on “Ideas” opens with a poignant Christie Williamson poem prefaced by a glorious word from James Baldwin “I didn’t want to hope. I didn’t know how to stop”: twinty twinty/here wir bön fun oot/even whan wir aa stuck in. Pat Kane’s mum was a barrier nurse working with TB and HIV, so facing COVID measures stirs a loving memory of her and a reflection on how we faced past pandemics, as well as how Scotland and other nations are facing up collectively to this one. He credits the First Minister for her leadership, while facing up to how relatively poor Scotland’s outcomes have been. He shares with her the sense that ‘the virus’ compels a shift in what we value, a new perspective on what matters most; which moves him to consider climate breakdown, economic system-change and independence as ‘ark’ and ‘lab’ for the future. Henry McLeish notes how Johnson’s/Westminster’s mishandling of COVID policy has increased Scottish alienation from the Union. This extends the pattern of pro-Union parties failing to find traction post-devolution. The 2021 Holyrood poll will be a COVID and a Brexit election, but Labour remains in denial about the new landscape of Scottish politics. There is still no serious offer which could secure the future of the Union. Cue the F bomb – with a flourish the magic cloth is whipped away and the new offer is ‘Federalism’! Sadly, he keeps up the tradition of those seeking to relaunch federalism by giving few clues about the what, how and where of its operation and why he thinks England will agree to it. if I were a unionist, I would be a federalist, but as an offer, this is thin, late and still underdeveloped. Even in a short thinkpiece like this, there surely needs to be some new substance if this umpteenth coming of fedUK is to be treated seriously?
Marco Biagi’s acute analysis adapts the Kahneman/Tversky ‘prospect theory’ of economics to the politics of indy; reading the 2014 indyref through the maxim that ‘people tend to be more motivated by fear of loss than the prospect of gain’. He argues that Brexit has not yet become a felt loss, but that the Scot Gov has gained ground in its handling of the pandemic. However, in a second referendum, fear of loss will be played hard by unionists and may still hit home, particularly around economic questions. YES campaigners may be helped by a negative verdict on Westminster’s handling of COVID. The political legacy of the virus is therefore not yet clear. Kirsty Hughes notes that only in 2021 will the effects of Brexit be fully felt, including the substantial implications for the devolution settlement. Brexit has complicated the coherence and power of the SNP’s developed ‘independence within Europe’ strategy. Routes back into the EU are now more complicated and have greater downsides than was the case in 2013.
Gerry Hassan’s interview with Patrick Wright is a compelling exploration of how the Left have repeatedly failed to tell the national story of ‘Great Britain’, or of the UK’s component nations in a way which was taken to heart and made into effective ‘myth’ or ‘saga’, taken up into a Left social imaginary. Figures as diverse as Benn, Brown and Bragg have tilted at this, but the Labour/Lib Dem parties have never seriously engaged with what such a project might entail. The affective dynamics of Brexit mean that fresh attention will now have to be paid to that constitutional dog which famously would not bark – the question of Englishness. As is their prerogative, the last word is with the editors. Their decision for a volume including poetry and fiction and encompassing spirituality, psychology and mortality, reflected a sense of the dread and longing stirred by COVID which could not be contained by a more restricted public policy/cultural studies mapping of Scottish life. Living with COVID has underlined deep and stark divisions and inequalities in Scottish life. It has also, they claim, led to remarkable and inspiring ‘moral adaptation’ and shared resilience, gained through unity of purpose, general respect for science/health experts and a capacity to understand the common good and act to secure it. Inspired by this, they hope for a remaking of the public sphere and for a future in which better public conversations can be sustained. They offer confederalism as a mediating term, which can move unionists and nationalists towards a common ground, as they recognise the limits of their own positions. They remain troubled by the threat to unity and dialogue posed by culture wars and cancel culture. In closing they return to the Fintan O’Toole inspired viviculture warmly received from their previous volume Scotland The Brave – ‘love of life and of cultures which are life-giving’ – and, on a sober note of realism, to the task of Reimagining Power through the Power of Imagination.
You should buy this book and read it. Inevitably there is unevenness, although that is between contributions which feel more ordinary and those which cut through with real power and cogency. The standout chapters for me were by Kirsten Innes, Hannah Graham, Oliver Escobar, Suzanne Zeedyk and Marco Biagi but there are none which fall flat. You should buy it for these, but also because of the kind of hospitable and diverse conversation which is modelled in these pages. We live in tense and anxious times. My own profession as meenister and theologian means that I have long experience of observing Calvinist infighting, where the narcissism of small differences and the work of making your most bitter enemies out of those closest to you has often been raised to a high art – all (of course) in the service of Christian love… I discovered decades ago that this was near perfect preparation for understanding the bitter geographies and factional vendettas of ‘the committed Left’ although it increasingly also seems to be a fair guide to ‘Greens behaving badly’.
The alternative to that kind of bitter, divisive and joyless confrontation, is to model a more generous and creative conversation, one which listens well across disciplines and genres. This book is a brave attempt to do that; one which challenges us to carry it on and to take it further.