The birth pains of Scottish democracy and the anguish of ‘posh Scotland’

Hugo Rifkind has called on posh Scots to speak out in the independence debate, but it's not their voices that are missing.

Gerry Hassan
28 February 2014
Glenalmond College, Perthshire - wikimedia

Many strange things will be written about Scotland this year. Some will be uncomprehending, some inappropriate or wrong, with others likely to be malevolent and wishing to sew seeds of confusion or distrust.

One existing strand is the pain expressed by some English media voices. There is the liberal ‘Guardian’ reading classes, some of whom have just bothered in the last few weeks to look north from their cosmopolitan concerns and to plea, ‘don’t leave us alone with the wicked Tories’. Then there is the ‘Daily Telegraph’/’Daily Mail’ land of ill-concealed anger about ‘separatism’, derogatory comments about Alex Salmond, and a confusion over whether they really want Scotland to stay or go.

Sometimes interventions cannot be easily categorisable, or while coming from one particular perspective, give voice to a viewpoint which hasn’t been expressed or articulated in public. This was the case with Hugo Rifkind’s recent piece on ‘posh Scotland’ (his words and sentiment) in ‘The Spectator’ and its clarion call to awaken and ride to the defence of the union in crisis.

Rifkind’s ‘posh Scotland’ wasn’t a place for anyone with decent prospects; this wasn’t, as he made clear, anything to do with Ed Miliband’s struggling middle classes, or by implication, ‘the middlin’ folk’ of Scotland. Instead, this was about privilege, wealth and power: the people who run things, own large tracts of Scotland, are privately educated, and believe that the state, if it has to do anything, is there for poor people (and keeping those people a safe distance from them).

Rifkind gives a rare analysis of how this select part of Scotland sees itself, views the world, and exercises its power. First, he reveals that this group, despite its position and choices, feels a bit confused at the modern society it faces, and a bit unloved and uncelebrated.

Second, even in parts of society that they support, such as arts and culture, there is, in Rifkind’s eyes, a reluctance to portray all the moral dilemmas and difficulties of the full middle class experience. Rifkind doesn’t elaborate but we can guess they don’t include the rights and wrongs of sending your children to private school, or the perils of clogging up social mobility by continuing inter-generational privilege.

Third and perhaps most illuminating, Rifkind unveils the manner in which he sees privileged Scotland run, administer and dominate large parts of society. He writes that such people ‘sulk, despite being everywhere’; dominating groups such as the ‘Merchant Company, the Faculty of Advocates, the Edinburgh Festival’, and that ‘these pillars of the Scottish establishment are still stuffed full of such people’.

Rifkind turns to public life and observes, ‘Yet in politics and indeed in public at all, they have picked up a habit of either keeping their heads down or pretending to do something else’.

From this he finds such voices of certainty, sureness and arrogance, missing from the current Scottish independence debate. These are the sorts of people in England who are used to getting their own way, ‘noisy, boisterous and sharp-elbowed, confident that they set the template of what everybody else should hope to be’.

Rifkind doesn’t give this group its proper name, but is talking about class, and the rise of a certain kind of English new class - vulgar, self-regarding, lacking in empathy and understanding for people not like themselves and bereft of any sense of wider social responsibility. It is a London class view of England and Scotland, which he doesn’t have the insight or interest to see is the new establishment and vested interests who have contributed to the mess of ‘broken Britain’, morally, economically and socially.

The central argument in Rifkind’s thesis is that ‘posh Scotland’ has to realise that the union is under threat, in crisis and that the time honoured ways of working by stealth won’t do, due to the threat of the pesky ‘separatists’. He recognises it is a high stake strategy, that it could backfire, and that they have left it perilously late, but there is no other option.

He writes without any wider social understanding that, ‘These are the missing voices from the independence debate’ and this is ‘the source of the No campaign’s terrible insipid bloodlessness’, namely, ‘the cowed, awkward, embarrassed silence of the very people with the greatest stake’.

This is just so wrong. The ‘missing voices’ of Scotland are not the poor downtrodden well-heeled burghers of Edinburgh and elsewhere, repressed by decades of state sponsored proletarian propaganda (‘Still Game’ and ‘Off the Ball’ being prime culprits).

The real ‘missing Scotland’ (a phrase I coined and defined) is the one million Scots who have not had a vote or voice for a generation in politics or society. They don’t worry about their share or property portfolios, or how well their elbows work in restaurants, for they are the poorest communities of Scotland.

There is something rather wonderful in Rifkind’s article, for it is the voice of confusion and doubt of people who have comfortably been in control for as long as anyone can remember. It shows a class unsure of its position and place, and of how to act in Scotland’s independence debate.

Uncertainty, as is constantly said by such people about poor people, can be a good thing. It can in this instance challenge the entitlement culture by which many of the institutions of Scotland and Edinburgh have been self-preservation societies of a narrow spectrum of the great and good for too long.

Already parts of elite Scotland are in retreat. There was the implosion of RBS, the downfall of Glasgow Rangers F.C. and the Catholic Church mired in sexual scandals which went to its very top. Our mainstream media have not adapted to a more fragmented society and the challenge of social media, while the BBC struggle to reflect a more autonomous, distinctive Scotland.

The landowner trade union, Scottish Land and Estates, are fighting an increasingly bitter public rearguard action against what they perceive as the gathering tide to take action against the grotesque concentration of private land ownership which is one of the worst in Europe. Commentators such as Charles Moore get incensed that people now have the temerity to ask, ’who owns Scotland?’ and bring out the tired comparisons of Salmond and Mugabe.

This is all healthy and long overdue. Scotland is becoming a land which debates and challenges power. In which the democratic argument and voice is finding a place and greater confidence.

Not surprisingly the likes of Hugo Rifkind are finding this a bit alienated and threatening. That is a shame at an individual level, but a natural product of dramatic change. As the elites usually like to lecture the rest of us most of the time, change can be difficult and painful for some, for vested interests and those living in the past, but ‘the status quo isn’t an option’.

Rifkind has given voice to the confusion of a whole class of Scottish and London society about what is happening north of the border. The clarion calls of this debate are not ‘Braveheart’ nationalism, or the battle cries of Bruce and Wallace, but the calm, yet radical insistence that Scotland finally become a democracy and with it, a modern country. It is sad but true that given the squalid state of the UK that such moderate demands should be seen as revolutionary and threatening.

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