Now is the time for a modern Scottish story

Our modern lives fill us with remorse, anger and bewilderment. But in Scotland we have the chance to discover a national story for the 21st century that binds us together and gives our lives meaning
Gerry Hassan
13 September 2011

Modern life is filled with anxiety, doubt and worry, and yet, for many, modern life has never been better.

In Scotland, this predicament is pronounced. Supporters of the SNP and self-government feel this is the culmination of years of struggle: the belief that we have an opportunity for Scotland to break free and regain its nationhood. Labour and unionist opponents emphasize the uncertainty, coming cuts, and what they claim is the absence of a Nationalist vision of independence.

Both of these accounts have a worrying incomprehension about the other which characterises a politics of tribalism and gesture. What we should also notice is not only the power of hope, but the draw of disillusion and negativism.

The story of modern societies in the West is a complex one. Are we better or worse off than our parents? Than our grandparents? Surely the answer in both cases is, for most of us, we are better off.

We live longer, have richer, more full, wealthier lives, and yet deep down many of us are filled with remorse, anger and bewilderment. There is the predicament of the ‘empty souls’ across the West: individuals living without faith searching for validation through consumerism and mumbo-jumbo interpretations.

Once upon a time the state of our world for some could be put into a set of opposites: radical and conservative, left and right, secular vs. religious, progress vs. reaction. These traditions from the French Revolution on allowed people to give meaning and structure to a host of disparate events. The Second World War, African decolonisation, the Vietnam War, the struggle against apartheid, and more all fitted into this.

This is no longer the case. Since the demise of the Soviet Union the world now appears more messy, confused and disconnected. How do we make sense of the Arab Spring when one minute Western commentators are optimistic about ‘another 1989’, and a second later, warning of Islamists taking over Egypt and Libya? Then there is the American-led occupation of Afghanistan that in a few months will surpass the length of the Soviet occupation. Is this the original struggle against the Taliban or a stand for democracy and entrenching human rights?

What terms of reference do we use today to make sense of the African famine, terrorism across the Middle East and Indian sub-continent, not to mention extreme weather and global warming? The old terms seem barely adequate, making our news close to incomprehensible at times.

In these times of flux, Scotland stands not having to face the life and death decisions which many have to endure, but with profound, historic choices. Scotland finds itself in a place where it has the potential to make its collective future, to decide what kind of society we want to live in, and the actions and change we want to bring this about.

This has to be seen as a story about the potential of Scotland. One which draws on the work of Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ and Robert McKee’s ‘Story’, the bible of how to write a screenplay in the US.

For most of us life has got better in Scotland over the post-war era. Our day-to-day lives are more varied, diverse and filled with choice. They are also more unpredictable and unsettling, and for a significant minority of Scots, life has become more difficult and pressurised.

There is an increasing dislocation between the tales of our individual lives and those of our collective stories. The former is one of for the vast majority, hope, liberation and expanding opportunity. The latter is one shaped by dislocation, and of yearning for the way things were in some mythical bygone age.

Why do we feel this? The powerful Scots sense of nostalgia and the feeling of loss and disappointment is connected to the powerful stories which we have chosen to define our past by: Enlightenment Scotland, the democratic intellect of Victorian times, and the myth of Red Clydeside.

One reason we feel confused in the present and worried about the future is that we have chosen to remember and understand a powerful set of archetypical stories about our history. And chosen to believe that these are mostly exhausted today.

The positive to take from this is that Scots understands the need and power for stories, and feel their absence. There is a huge opportunity in this. First, we have to connect our individual accounts to the collective stories of our lives. We need to reinvest the latter with a sense of hope and possibility and belief in change for the better.

Second, this experience needs to animate the political discussions of the next few years on Scotland’s constitutional question and independence. This has to develop a story of Scotland’s future which goes beyond narrow politics, and challenge the assumption that we can just seamlessly float to independence on some inevitable tide.

In some respects, this process has already begun happening in small ways in the work of artists and writers. Two weeks ago in the ‘Festival of Politics’ I spoke in a discussion with the celebrated playwright David Greig exploring story to mark the publication of a new book, ‘ImagiNation: Stories of Scotland’s Future’ (which I co-edited with Bryan Beattie).

Greig was both conscious of the power of stories and a little worried they could be used for too obvious political ends. He made the valuable point that we do have to be aware of who is telling the stories, what stories are hidden, submerged or silenced, and yet acknowledge that story is a profound human need. And that ‘we’ need to constantly check ourselves about the use of the term ‘we’: which people and which Scotland ‘we’ are talking about.

To connect the debate on Scotland’s future to story requires a few things. One is the creation of spaces independent of parties which address creativity, innovation and the future away from jargon and buzz words.

Another is to support our artists and writers better than we have been doing, and to take seriously the idea of Scotland as a nation of imagination. That requires Creative Scotland to step up to the plate. And above all it requires that we understand the connection of hope with story and our future.

This piece was originally published in The Scotsman. 

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