Telling the New Stories of Scotland and Independence
The first of two parts discussing the stories and songs we use to understand who and where we are. Part One: Stories.
Gerry Hassan writing in the National (‘How the Scottish independence movement can learn from story‘) states: “Acknowledging that ten years after 2014, independence is in a cul-de-sac and needs to regroup, reappraise and do things differently is inarguable. To do this it needs to understand the power of story, why its previous stories have been limited, and therefore needs to find a convincing new story.”
- SCOTLAND WHY NOT
“This postulates that Scotland is a nation and, ipso facto, should thus be an independent nation-state. This tidy, logical perspective misses that the world is not and never has been organised by such principles: a point understood by such scholars of nationalism as Ernest Gellner and Tom Nairn and post-colonial analysts such as Fred Halliday. Many nations the world over are not independent such as Greenland, Catalonia, Tibet, Kurdistan, for a variety of reasons.”
“The second is the presentation of independence as a principle irrespective of detail and policy. This could be called the “Braveheart” vision of independence – emotive, expressive, with a romantic pull drawing deeply back into history. Yet this part of the independence coalition has never been enough to create majority Scottish opinion because it is silent on the kind of Scotland that will emerge with independence. It automatically assumes that an independent Scotland is morally and politically superior to a Scotland in the union – irrespective of the nature of that independence and union in real life. Not surprisingly it does not have the characteristics or detail to speak to and create a long-term popular majority.”
“Third is the “whataboutery” argument which looks at the deformed nature of British politics and the British state, proposing that we need no part in this and must become independent as soon as possible. This powerful and understandable response falls short in that it tends to ignore the current state of Scotland and again assumes that widespread repulsion at the debasement of British public life is enough to carry people to independence. At the centre of such a stance is an evasion and lack of responsibility for modern Scotland including devolution, the Parliament and track record of the SNP in government. The cause of self-government has to involve taking responsibility – what Fintan O’Toole called “the art of growing up.” All our limitations and shortcomings cannot be blamed on Westminster, Tories or the absence of certain “levers” in Holyrood. A mature mindset would have an honest discussion about challenging areas such as local government and a decade plus of cuts; about drug deaths and rising social inequalities; about the state of public services and the pressures on arts and culture funding – to name but a few.
Invoking the wreckage and carnage of Westminster is not enough. It is an abdication of that “art of growing up” and of looking at ourselves honestly and candidly and facing where we can do better collectively. That is tough in a culture of noise, and often binary politics, but just focusing on the nature of the British state goes alongside ignoring or minimising the real-life political choices we make every day in Scotland which helps no one.”
- CONTINUITY SCOTLAND
“Fourth, is the SNP case in recent times of offering essentially “continuity Scotland” as a version of independence. This makes people feel less scared, see less risk and view independence as entailing less upheaval and disruption. The “continuity Scotland” case builds on the fact that Scotland feels and is different and, in many areas, already has significant autonomy. Thus, the argument goes, the achievement of independence is a gradual road that Scotland is on which is building up and expanding what we already have. However, the continuity case begs the question – what is the point of change if things remain broadly the same? Ultimately in relation to Scotland this case rests on reassurance which is an important part of any successful politics but does not make a positive case for change.”
- PROGRESSIVE SCOTLAND
“Fifth is perhaps the most powerful independence strand of recent times – Scotland as a progressive beacon of hope and enlightenment. This gained traction under Thatcherism, the rise of the SNP under devolution and 2014. It still has mileage, but like the third point about the British state this must have a relationship with present-day Scotland. Too much talk of “progressive Scotland” has been shaped by self-congratulation, smugness and making comparisons with the rest of the UK to believe we are “progressive.”
The 2014 independence prospectus has gone, alongside the world it was based upon. This is not just that the UK has left the EU but in 2014 there was an underlying assumption that an independent Scotland would sit in a relatively peaceful and prosperous part of Northwest Europe. The world is now a good deal more instable and dangerous than ten years ago. Although Putin had invaded Crimea in 2014, subsequently we have seen the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Israel’s escalating indiscriminate violence in Gaza alongside the rise of Trump and the threat to US democracy and the international order. Any future independence has to navigate such turbulent waters.
Independence can never be considered in a vacuum. One wider factor is the death march of this reprehensible, failed Tory Government and anticipation and potential of a Labour Government. Whatever the minimal offer from Labour and miniscule difference between the two Westminster parties polling in Scotland confirms that most voters recognise there is a difference between the two. Following from that Labour coming to office will demand that independence change fundamentally.”
People may be resistant to challenging these stories but it seems hard to argue that these narratives have been successful in so much that polling remains at roughly 50% in favour of independence, but have not been successful in transforming the debate or the country beyond that.
There are other sub-stories we are told and tell each other.
- TWO WEE (ETC)
There is the story that Scotland is too wee, too poor, too stupid – a Unionist standard that is often told implicitly in the message that Scotland survives only with the benevolence of the Union Dividend. For this story the message is that Scotland, somehow, never explained, is unable to stand on its own two feet, which is, if you think about it, an odd argument after hundreds of years of Union. What is it about here that makes us uniquely incapable of self-rule?
- MY PRECIOUS
A second is that we are blessed as part of a unique and precious Union. We are in a Partnership of Equals, a Family of Nations. Actually, this argument has largely been abandoned by the Unionists, who now deny they ever made it.
- THE CRINGE
A third argument we experience, or is it even an argument as much as a feeling or a cultural phenomenon, is that of the cringe. This is the experience of some, often older people, who find most of Scottish culture and traditions simply embarrassing. This ranges from hatred of the Scots language to denying that Scotland has any discernible culture at all, to complex arguments that Scotland doesn’t really exist – normally built around arguments about Orkney or Shetland or the country not being really unified.
There’s a positive element to this story in that at times Scottish culture has been sort of rarefied and celebrated in an uncritical way. In defending a culture that has often been under attack we can end up creating a cultural infrastructure that celebrates ‘everything Scottish’ without question. Some people have called this Dreichism.
- GLORIOUS FAILURE
A fourth is a version – or an inversion of the Wha’s Like Us argument – it is a romantic story of us as perpetual failures, a nation that endlessly seizes defeat from the jaws of victory and becomes Glorious Losers. There is a version of this, Scotland as Underdog, which has some qualities to it as it instils a sort of humility. But Scotland or Scots as ‘glorious failures’ can become self-fulfilling and limiting. If it becomes learned-behaviour it is deeply problematic.
In a world of extreme precarity the idea of ‘risk’ is almost absurd. ‘It’s too risky out there on your own’. This is a mixture of dredging up fears of how an independent Scotland will protect itself against any external threats: a view which has seen the likes of Labour dinosaur John Reid pose that we could be an easy touch for terrorist future opportunities; but also now given greater purpose in the new ‘Dad’s Army’ Britain and its response to global threats and instability. ‘Stop the World Scotland wants to get on’: the battle cry from Winnie Ewing onwards in the 1960s becomes something the British state wants to use as a spectre seeing us getting bullied around by any passing authoritarian.
These stories need to be interrogated and scrapped.
The first, the story of Scotland as a blasted heath with few resources is an embarrassment but needs to be countered not just by outrage but by demonstrating the resources of people and place that we have. No-one seems to make the case for the vast potential of the games industry, no-one seems to be utilising our renewable resources by creating an indigenous just transition industry. No-one seems to be making the case for a sustainable and nourishing food sector, such as exists in Denmark – captured as it is by land-use and ownership and the conservatism of the NFU and the commitment to highly-damaging industries such as salmon farming.
The story about being in an ‘equal partnership’ is such nonsense it’s been abandoned by those that previously argued it. But highlighting the structural inequality is essential in debunking that myth and it is deeply related to the first point, the idea of Scotland as a place of few or no resources.
The idea of the ‘cultural cringe’ is largely a generational one. But self-hatred comes in waves and is inculcated by much of the Scottish press. In recent times this has become so intense that it has become difficult for people to imagine anything happening here at all, nevermind conceiving of the upheaval and transformative energy required to break from the UK and become independent. If we cannot set up a bottle return scheme how can we possibly become independent?
Story is about all of us, as a collective, as a society, realising ourselves as conscious agents and actors in our lives together. This is what self-determination means, being in charge of your own story, as much as you can. Story never stops, never completely ends in a society and nation, and never ever in a democracy becomes a completely totalising project, with any dominant story at any point always having counter-stories engaging and challenging it, and eventually on some occasions supplanting the dominant perspective. This has been Scotland’s story so far with the rise and fall of collectivism and socialism, ascendancy and then decline of unionism, and the re-emergence of self-government and then independence. This will go on in the future.
The power of story requires connecting it to intellectual and popular ideas, possibilities, agency and structures, while recognising that politics is about more than policy and party politicians.
Here are three different approaches to storytelling we need to employ.
First, and this is perhaps the biggest change in narrative we require, we need to tell ourselves that Scotland is a place where things happen. We need to get to the place where Scotland is a Heterotopia – a place that is somehow transforming rather than stultifying, limiting or intensely negative.
Second we need to be future-focused rather than obsessed with the past (all those tea towels, all that oil, all those castles, all those men, all those tragedies).
Finally we need to look at who gets to tell the story. At the moment the public narrative is dominated by a group of men of the same age, the same race and the same politics, most of whom know each other and share the same outlook on life. This leads to a turgid narrow and negative commentary on our lives and any possibility for change. The need to diversify the storytellers is clear, but this means many younger voices, more feminine voices and lots of new voices. More KD Lang less RD Laing you could say. Maybe the forums for who and where stories are being told are already made?