The New Sociology of Scotland

David McCrone
Sage, £32.99, ISBN: 978-14739003890, PP736
by Pat Kane

The Way We Are

June 10, 2017 | by Pat Kane

The cover graphic of this momentous scholarly exercise is just its title, but laid out in uneven, blocky, patchy lettering, like a photocopied punk magazine – or perhaps a late-returned essay. The spine even simulates some fraying through overuse (before it has even been used).

The immediate meaning is nicely ambivalent. This aspires to be the required textbook at the heart of Scottish social-science education, in a similar way – and with a similar heft – to Anthony Giddens’ great Sociology primer (now on its eighth edition). But there is still a sense of provisionality, chippiness, not-quite-respectableness, about the way it presents itself. Does the content bear out the design on the cover? Yes, I’d say (and I’m no doubt already enraging cadres of methodologically precise Scottish sociologists). The author David McCrone clearly intends that this book be civically, rather than just academically used: and indeed, anyone active (and activist) in Scottish life should seriously consider having this volume at their side whenever they take to the keyboard.

McCrone’s animus is not just that sociology illuminates Scotland, but that Scotland illuminates sociology itself. He quotes with relish one of his anonymous referees, who asks why grand social theory should focus on ‘one small, damp, and not particularly significant country in Northwest Europe?’ McCrone’s explicit answer is that the existence, and more strongly the persistence, of Scotland challenges some of the complacent assumptions of his discipline. One challenge would be that that ‘at best, the UK evolved as a state-nation from the eighteenth century, and has never been a nation-state as such’. In the face of Scotland’s continuities in religion, law, education and culture over the last few centuries of Union, the idea of ‘British society’ as a ‘meaningful and cohesive unity’ is implausible. McCrone quotes tartly from the French thinker Raymond Aron: ‘The trouble is that British sociology is essentially an attempt to make intellectual sense of the political philosophy of the Labour Party.’

Thumbing through this book from my own political escarpment, and with that subjective bias admitted upfront, I wondered whether the parallel question could be asked. That is, whether this chunk of Scottish sociology is essentially an attempt to make intellectual sense of the political philosophy of the Scottish National Party.

Unless I’m not reading carefully enough, there seems to be an unavowed reversal of position from McCrone about why such a book might be written. At the start, he identifies ‘one important way in which Scotland is sociologically interesting: it provides an exemplar of the fact that “society” is not a synonym for “state”.’ (Strange echoes here, the anoraks might point out, to David Cameron’s ill-fated formulation in the mid-2000s). Yet in the book’s epilogue, McCrone appears to change his mind. ‘We cannot make a hard and fast distinction between “sociology” and “politics”, between society and state. The two run into each other… The [Scottish] parliament is not simply a “political” instrument, but the means of social transformation and change.’ This goes on to produce what McCrone calls a ‘social politics’. So does it follow that the more shaping and powerful Holyrood gets, indeed the more like a standard nation-state its operations, the less ‘sociologically interesting’ it becomes? For McCrone and his guest authors, I sincerely doubt it.

One of the wonderful aspects of this book is the way it breaks Scotland as a whole down into tractable, indeed governable, aspects and functions. Sit this side by side with the equally slab-like Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government’s (somewhat less well-researched) White Paper on Independence from 2014, and a decent steering mechanism for a small country in a globalised world would seem to be before you.

The topics McCrone defines, and their authoritative treatment, invite political or collective response. Very early in the book is a chapter called ‘The Scottish Way of Death’, which is (as many of these chapters are) a definitive one-stop shop, analysing mortality rates in contemporary Scotland. The scholarship here is advanced, including a consideration of epigenetics: the way that extreme social conditions – like harsh switches between glut and starvation – can fundamentally switch genes, and their heritable features, on and off. This may sit at the base of mysteries like the ‘Scottish’ or ‘Glasgow’ Effect – levels of ill-health that seem to exceed strict socio-economic conditions. What could be the biological legacy of Highland (and Irish) famines, and the ‘seasonal fluctuations of food supplies’, for subsequent generations and their marked conditions of cancer and heart disease?

Elsewhere, it is also good to read calm, judicious statements of the way Scotland actually is. ‘Scotland is no longer a “working class society” in terms of its employment structure,’ McCrone writes in a chapter titled ‘Making a Living’. ‘Roughly one-third of people are in managerial and professional jobs, one third in administrative and service jobs, one-third in manual labour.’ Pondering this solid conclusion starts to make sense of, for example, the character of our leading political representatives in Holyrood. Aren’t figures like Sturgeon, Dugdale and Davidson, or McConnell, Lamont and Swinney, composed equally of the executive, the administrative and the shop-floor? The composition may be more or less competent (or hapless), but you can feel the pressure of Scotland’s actual class structure shape their agendas and politics.

There are equally authoritative chapters (and very useful to have to hand) on gender, crime, race, religion and much else in Scotland. Sociology – at least when done as lucidly and helpfully as by David McCrone – is very good at handling the eternally thorny questions of how ‘distinctive’ Scotland is from our neighbouring ‘nations’, let alone other societies. As we know, this is a regularly blootered political football. Claims to Scottish national virtue are made by constitutional progressives. Their opponents respond indignantly by waving opinion polls on the lack of difference on major attitudinal issues between Scotland and the rest. It would be good for robust and responsible social scientists to wade in here – and McCrone does.

On gender, McCrone notes many things, but particularly that ‘the assumption that Scotland is an especially chauvinist society is often asserted, and less reliably proven’, when compared to the British Attitudes Survey. Scottish women may be significantly less enthusiastic towards independence than men, but McCrone’s long-term studies show that women rank ‘being Scottish’ above their gender identity, and below their parent identity. On race, he notes some differences between England and Scotland, where in the latter considerably more ethnic minorities identify as ‘Scottish’ than ‘British’ (in England, it’s 3-1 the other way). The existence of a Scottish Parliament ostentatiously distinct from Westminster ‘squeezes out ethnic politics’ in Scotland; and though the conditions for tension are always latent, the political “sparks” are absent’.

The following chapter is on religion, specially written by Aberdeen University’s Steve Bruce. He despatches with precision the idea that currently ‘Catholics are victims of labour market discrimination’, or that the Church of Scotland could ever again be regarded as the ‘national’ religion. He also rumbles to a conclusion that the word to define religion in Scotland is not ‘decline’, but ‘choice’. Faith has become a ‘thoroughly private matter, a sphere in which the individual consumer is sovereign’. Cardinals, ministers and even the head of the Samye Ling monastery join together to make a common complaint: attendees ‘want to decide for themselves just what it was they would believe’. On this topic, it’s interesting to note how long-term social study can anchor you in the present storm. This is a time when it’s evident that some leading Scottish Conservative politicians are happy to play with the more sulphurous tropes of ultra-Unionism. So it reassures you to hear that this might simply be a brief flurry in the general weather-system of ‘benign indifference’ to religion.

Lindsay Anderson’s specially commissioned chapter on education has its own thrust – to assert the long continuity of a “liberal education” through any constitutional arrangement, Unionist or otherwise. Interestingly, he notes that 28 per cent of all those intending to vote ‘Yes’ in 2014 were people on the left/centre-left who had a higher educational qualification. This ‘intellectual leadership for the Yes campaign’ was comparable to the ‘general leadership of Scottish society in the middle of the 20th century by highly educated professionals’. For Paterson, what this shows is how the ‘solid intellectual basis’ of Scottish education ‘could equip successive generations to dissent’. A significant critic of Curriculum for Excellence, Paterson finds it ironic that ‘today’s reformers have been taught in some of the very institutions against which they rebel’.

Yet McCrone’s book is very far from being a collection of set-piece debates around Scottish affairs. If you want a tour d’horizon of modern social theory, refracted through the lens of this curious ‘under-stated nation’, then this is the book for you.

A brilliant chapter titled ‘Wilful Fragments: Characterising Scottish Culture’ successfully pulverizes the tendencies among Scottish intellectuals to put the country in the psychiatrists chair. Tom Nairn’s early idea that, because Scotland missed out on nationalist liberation in the modern era, a hysterical focus on culture has filled the gap, is shown to have had pernicious effects. McCrone asks for talk of our ‘national neurosis’ to be replaced with ‘social scientific scrutiny’. It is a timely injunction, given the current political febrility, and one which may stay my own, more intemperate political tweets. But for those of us who veer between exhausted and relentless in our advocacy for Scottish independence, the appearance of The New Sociology of Scotland, in its own considerable power and mass, feels like another stone added to the intellectual bridge. The author, lofty emeritus that he is, must of course demur. He cites the literary theorist Cairns Craig on how cultural renaissance is the base for political renaissance in Scotland. But the exact quote could as easily apply to McCrone’s own book: ‘a significant past, a creative present and a believable future’.

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