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Shrouded in Myth – Scottish Review of Books
by Gerry Hassan

Shrouded in Myth

May 26, 2014 | by Gerry Hassan

Scotland is changing. This is a long story and a more immediate one which stretches beyond the constitutional debate. It is about the kind of society, nation and people we are and aspire to be in the future. For many people this is disconcerting, bewildering and even incomprehensible. There is an element of disorientation as some of the defining landmarks of Scottish public life fall and fade away. For others, mostly pro-independence supporters, there is the opposite: a sense of hope, excitement and even exhilaration about this opportunity. Is it possible to aid these different spectrums of opinion to at least understand each other in the coming months and years? What then is the emergent Scotland, who can lay claim to it, and where is it going? What consequences does this have for the independence referendum and the Scotland which comes out the other side?

It is important, first of all, to look at the superficial explanations for why Scotland has arrived at this point. In some accounts, this is all about the vanity and ambition of one man: Alex Salmond. Or, it’s about the SNP and ‘separatism’. Or, the decline of Scottish Labour. Even that it is concerned with ‘narrow nationalism’ – meaning Scottish nationalism. Or the waning of Scotland’s other nationalism, namely unionism. Finally, there is the call and evocation of the past: Bannockburn, Braveheart, Wallace and Bruce.

All of these soundbites misunderstand modern Scotland and the scale of changes we have lived through and are still experiencing, and of which the independence referendum is but one manifestation. In recent times, Scotland has experienced a crisis of many of its traditional institutions and authority. This has happened across large swathes of public life, and are part of a wider set of changes which can be witnessed in the rest of the United Kingdom and West. These include greater individualism, fragmentation of communities, secularisation, and the decline of many established identities and forms of authority.

In the last few years this has reached epic proportions. There has been the implosion of the Royal Bank of Scotland, pre-crash the fifth largest bank in the world. There was the liquidation of Glasgow Rangers FC, historically the dominant and most successful football club in Scotland. And there has been the miring of the Catholic Church in a series of sexual scandals which have reached its highest levels. Mainstream Scotland, in the media, politics, public life, has been consistently caught asleep at the bridge or, worse, colluding with these institutions. There has been an absence of challenge and questioning of those with power – Fred Goodwin, David Murray, Cardinal Keith O’Brien. Since these crashes, there has been a conscious attempt to get back to ‘business as usual’ which entails presenting any errant behaviour as that of a lone individual misbehaving at the top.

Beyond this there are deeper myths which define modern Scotland. In Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland I identify six myths. These include that we are an egalitarian country, a land of educational opportunity, a place that systematically holds power to account, and the notion of ‘open Scotland’ – that we are pluralist and at ease with diversity and multi-culturalism. The reality is rather different and jars with these myths. Take the idea that we are egalitarian. Scotland has the worst health inequalities in western Europe. A Save the Children Fund report last year found that a child born in the East End of Glasgow lived 28 years fewer than a child born in Lenzie a few miles away.

On income inequality the gap between the poorest and wealthiest households as calculated by ‘Oxfam Scotland’ is 1:273. In relation to educational opportunity a whole generation of working-class children are finding it harder to get on. Across the country there is an educational apartheid. St. Andrews University allowed entry in the last year to nineteen children from a working-class background, and that is when it has an access programme. This figure is probably related to the 40 per cent of its entire intake who are privately educated – the highest of any higher education institution. Next is Edinburgh University with 30 per cent.

Two further myths reinforce the above. One is the idea that Scotland is a fully-fledged, rumbustious democracy dating back through radical Liberal Scotland, ‘Red Clydeside’ and the Scots’ love of argument. The second is that we are social democratic: a place of centre-left values and even consensus. Instead, we live in a society which is neither a fully-fledged democracy or a social democracy. ‘The missing Scotland’ have gone unnoticed in public life until the independence referendum came along and their vote might just count. They represent the generation of disproportionately poorer and younger voters who have been almost permanently excluded from politics and public engagement. According to figures from the Electoral Commission Scotland they number 989,540 voters.

Then there is the comforting idea that Scotland is a social democracy. It is useful to put this powerful perception of ourselves in wider context and compare ourselves with our near-neighbours Ireland. Fintan O’Toole wrote two penetrating books – Ship of Fools and Enough is Enough – on Ireland, the causes of the economic meltdown, the after affect, and what lessons might be learned. In both he looked at the myths of Irish society which he believed had contributed to the disaster. In the foreword to Caledonian Dreaming, O’Toole makes a comparison of contemporary Ireland and Scotland. He observed that Ireland’s foundation myths post-independence which endured up to the crash were reactionary and regressive. Scotland’s on the other hand, he assessed, are warm and welcoming. They present a picture of us as ‘progressive, tolerant, social democratic’.

What is not to like or feel pleased about in these stories? Firstly, they are myths and not the accurate picture of modern Scotland. And in their attractiveness lies their problem: for they offer a picture of ourselves we want to believe and which many of us do believe. An honest examination of the character and limits of Scottish public life would concede that despite having few Tories in elected positions, conservatism is alive and well across Scotland and to be found in the most unlikely places, including left and nationalist Scotland. An illuminating example recently was when Hugo Rifkind in the Spectator implored ‘posh Scotland’ to emerge from its secret networks and proclaim its love for the union and Scotland. A common response to this argument on social media – from many supposed left-wingers and nationalists – was to deny that there are any elites in modern Scotland. This can only be described as a denial of reality.

Historically, Scotland has been defined by institutional elites and power. Take the 432 estates that own more than half of Scotland’s private land. Then there is the 25 per cent of Edinburgh’s secondary school children who attend private schools. There are the legal, educational, health and business elites who represent a closed order Scotland, who grew up inter-connected and intertwined, going to the same schools and universities, serving on the same public boards and bodies, and often sending their children to the same schools and universities. It all has the hallmark of a self-perpetuating order and self-preservation society. Strangely Scotland seems to be content to be only vaguely aware of such patterns. Instead, we comfort ourselves in the familiar stories that we are not Tory, didn’t vote for Thatcher, and that because of this we are the inheritors of a radical Scottish tradition. Our elites and its advocates pander to this: recently, Magnus Linklater stated that it would be ‘very hard to talk about a Scottish establishment’ or a ‘notion of clubland’.

In many respects, however, Scotland is a less hierarchical, ordered, conformist society than it used to be. Yet the accounts we have chosen to tell ourselves about recent times, the scale and implications of change, are partial, limiting and at points, self-deceiving. In an age of turbulent change, collapsing institutions and vainglorious, self-absorbed elites, we cling to selective stories. These give a black and white account of the last thirty or so years, suggesting that the roots of nearly all of our problems have been and are external, or the fault of those two hate figures, Thatcher and Blair.

How do we escape out of the myths we have created and told ourselves and which are repeated constantly? We have to understand power, who has it and how they got it, and who doesn’t and why. We have to understand that Scotland has historically for as long as anyone can remember been a society shaped and run by elites, closed orders and vested interest groups. It was the ‘holy trinity’ of the Kirk, education and law which were preserved in the 1707 union settlement and whose autonomy maintained a sense of Scottishness for centuries. But elites they were; not some expression of some pre-modern golden age of Scottish democracy.

There are several obstacles in this. The first is our lack of interest in our own history: of how Scotland maintained and reproduced itself in the union. Much better to have a version of our past filled with romance and wrongs done to us. The second is the power and reach of establishment Scotland – which has not just incorporated the usual and obvious suspects – but those who also think they are radical. So as well as Tories and official Scotland, left and nationalist society has bought into these myths, along with ‘civic Scotland’.

Third, there is the ease with which many people describe the changes they didn’t like of the last thirty years simply by namechecking ‘Thatcher’ and ‘Blair’. These totems prevent us having an informed debate which addresses the scale of change we have experienced in recent decades. Invoking them allows people to feel a politics of empowered opposition and rejection of their values and ‘me first’ attitudes; it also sadly aids a sense of victimhood and denial.

Fourth, there is a problem with politics which is two-fold: one, that it is seen as the answer to everything and another being how narrowly it is drawn. Politics isn’t the be-all and end-all. There has to be a public and private life beyond it, otherwise the consequences are totalitarian. In Scotland there is still a propensity to believe the answer to everything must be political. This is linked to the narrow gaze of what is deemed political in public conversation which is tightly constrained. Not so long ago society was marred by all kinds of no-go areas not to be mentioned in public: religion, sectarianism, sexuality and the issue of homosexuality to name the most obvious. While much progress has been made, we still live with this legacy and shadow: politics is about parties, politicians and parliaments. Even independence is shaped by this, being defined as ‘the full powers of the Parliament’ or as one pro-Yes group put it ‘completing the powers of the Parliament’. This strait jacket of what is political misses the power of the cultural, and how deep-seated political change isn’t just about institutions, but about attitudes, mindsets and collective psychologies.

Finally, the last and biggest obstacle Scotland faces is what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called ‘the danger of the single story’. Adichie has observed the universal truism that ‘when we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise’. Don’t we recognise part of ourselves in this description? The pull of an essentialist, singular, monochromatic Scotland has been a potent one. It has been expressed through the power of the Church of Scotland when it was the omnipotent power in the land, the reach of Victorian liberalism, the mid to late twentieth century grip of ‘Labour Scotland’ and the early twenty-first century politics of Nationalist Scotland.

This independence debate has arisen because the old traditional order has retreated, hollowed out and is in crisis. Scottish society has dramatically changed. The reference points that we have known and grown up with have either gone or mean completely different things. This offers the prospect of an opening, a set of movements and fluidity, and the recognition that there is no one over-arching story or political project. It is about us as a nation growing up, maturing, taking responsibility, and seeing this opportunity as a debate which is about something more far-reaching than ‘the full powers of the Parliament’ which is a restrictive, top-down idea of change. It is about an independence of spirit and the mind about much more than politics and institutions, centred on individual and collective mindsets and psychologies, and about stopping the easy options of blaming others for our own shortcomings and seeking the capacity to change in ourselves.

This isn’t an abstract observation. Instead, it would entail looking at the institutions and areas of public life Scotland has been self-governing for decades: education, health and law, and the decisions Scots have made collectively and the consequences which flow from them. The potential of this opening can be seen in the flowering of the self-organising, self-generating ‘third Scotland’ and its DIY culture and very different take on politics. This is embodied in groups such as National Collective, Radical Independence Campaign and Jimmy Reid Foundation to name but a few. Something fascinating is going in on in this ‘third Scotland’. It is an expression of a very different kind of power and authority from traditional norms. It has witnessed a whole new generation of voices, spaces and ideas emerge who seem to be not waiting as people once did for permission to do something but seem to be just saying, ‘I have authority’ and ‘I can do something creative’. In this such groups are very much a product of the post-Thatcherite, post-Blair environment of modern Scotland whether they realise it or not.

One fundamental change which has huge implications has been that the idea of independence has gone from the margins of society to the mainstream; that it has become normalised and something which has entered the public consciousness of the nation. Up and down the land you can hear snippets of conversations at bus stops, train stations and public places about the state of the currency debate, the European issue, the prospect of Scotland being governed by a future Tory government it did not vote for, and the public policy choices we would be faced with in the event of independence. In a sense, people are beginning to inhabit, no matter how sketchily, the contours of what Scottish independence looks and feels like, and that may well turn out to be an irreversible change whatever the result in September.

The current debate – our hopes, fears, anxieties, even the bewilderment and incomprehension of some – has to be seen in a longer timeframe. This is of the managed elite autonomy which preserved the very ‘idea’ of Scotland post-union. This made possible the emergence of a layer of Scottish administration and government from late Victorian times onwards which has evolved into what it is today: an embryonic Scottish state. This Scottish public space used to be exclusively about a society of the few: a ‘high politics’ of the well-to-do and supposedly respectable opinion. Yet as the organs of public administration expanded over the twentieth century so the pressure grew for democratic control and accountability. The campaigns to achieve a Scottish Parliament and then independence have to be seen in this environment: as a means to an end of democratising Scotland, calling time on the rule of ‘high politics’ and nurturing an era of ‘low politics’, namely popular control. This illustrates the potential and pitfalls of the present debate. Holyrood with all its ‘new politics’ hype in the early years, proved under Labour, then SNP control to be about going with the grain of prevailing opinion. It witnessed the making permanent of an insider devolution class who knew how to maintain their position and voice. They are the Alphabet Soup Scotland: CBI, IoD, STUC, SCVO, SCDI that all of us in public life are meant to know the importance of and what each set of initials stands for.

The independence and self-government debate can only produce fundamental social change if there is a demand and pressure for it. This requires a critique of the limited politics and vision of what has passed for politics pre- and post-devolution, and the collusion of our mainstream political classes – the constitution apart. It is true that Holyrood hasn’t gone down the route of market vandalism, stigmatising the poor and vulnerable, and appeasing xenophobia and Euroscepticism which now characterises Westminster. But that isn’t enough to make what has been and is a conservative political culture into one that is dynamic and bold. Instead, it is a politics defined in the negative by what we are not.

For some turning our back on this broken British order is enough. But it isn’t enough or even possible for Scottish society is very different from that past age: one which is undergoing unprecedented change, remaking public life, politics and institutions. All of this informs the current debate. We can use this opportunity as one stage in the route of narrowing choice and minimising risk, or we can embrace the world of uncertainty, fluidity and hyper-change. The old Scotland – the old world of institutions, knowing your place and believing in the stories told by our elders and elites – is disintegrating before our eyes. Let’s not try and pretend otherwise, or worse, attempt to put it back together.

Caledonia Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland

Gerry Hassan

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Shrouded in Myth

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