Radical Scotland: arguments for self-determination

Cailean Gallagher reviews a collection of writing on the state of modern Scotland, edited by Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett
Cailean Gallagher
27 April 2011

Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination, edited by Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett, Luath Press, March 2011.

Taken as description, the title of Radical Scotland could be ironic. Devolved Scotland has failed to be radical. That the Scottish body politic is vegetating is obvious from the dearth of ideas and talent evident in the current Scottish election campaign, and there is virtually no policy difference between the two main parties. Instead of reform, the Scottish party system will focus its energy on conserving ‘institutional Scotland’ from the cuts of the Westminster government.

Such is the context for this new collection of writing on the state of modern Scotland. Radical Scotland is an aspiration, not a description. It brings together twenty-six writers and thinkers in a wide ranging set of essays, conversations and interviews, to develop a new culture of civic engagement, cutting across politics, community, arts, education and society as a whole.

The weaker essays offer theoretical descriptions of the status quo, calling for more ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ – such as McCormick and Grant’s agreement that “positive attitudes, values and behaviours are just as significant as the removal of structural barriers for true self-determination”. Stronger ones describe and analyse areas often overlooked in day-to-day political battles: land ownership, community culture, early years development. Many draw heavily on comparisons with Nordic countries, a theme addressed specifically in Hanlon and Kärki’s “Scottish-Nordic exchange”. Yet it also acknowledges the need to promote ideas, activities and conditions that differ from those in Scandinavia or elsewhere.

The separate arguments aside, the book seeks to inspire a new era of democratic discourse and freedom to experiment with different ideas and practice. The variety of styles means it lacks a narrative and sometimes struggles to hold together, and we are left at the end not quite sure what this new era of self-determination will look like. So the book is disappointing if approached as a coherent strategy, let alone a route-map, for the future.

But the fact that there is no coherent argument is surely redeemable. After all, the radical Scotland envisaged will have a discourse defined by a variety of means of expression; essays, conversations, partnerships, reports and polemic, breaking free from the stale party-political world and the think-tank culture criticised by Hassan and Ilett in the introduction. The letter-exchanges between figures in arts, politics, and the third sector; the bringing together of "leading global figures" from the left; and the shift from a historical critique of Scottish housing in one essay to a dialectical analysis of environment in the next all represent the diversity of issues that need to be brought into civic discourse.

The attempt to keep the debate free from the ‘conventional wisdoms’ has notable implications. The first is the absence of a left-right analysis. While clearly directed at a left-wing in the sense of radical and democratic readership, occasional Marxist undertones and socialist ideas are rarely explicit. The introduction takes a sceptical view of the "social democratic consensus", implying that it is an element of stagnation inherent in the very concept of social democracy. Secondly, the book places itself in the tradition of Tom Nairn by avoiding to pander to the narrow debate over independence and treating nationalism not as an end in itself but as framework for the larger questions of a shared 'self-determination'.

Third, based on he belief that the institutions and constructions of Scotland are the reason for our stagnation, the introduction criticises as a whole the “narrow world of institutional Scotland found in government, public bodies and quangos”, i.e. the very bodies that constitute our political society. The political parties are seldom mentioned, and then usually in negative terms.

So the book dismisses the dominant ideology, institutions and the nationalist-unionist split in its ambition to construct an entirely new, self-determined politics from the root up. It is here that the book is perhaps too ambitious: without the structures, the parties and the ideologies, there is very little left to work with. Many potential readers will already be working in these ‘institutions’, well aware of limits and restrictions, but also aware of how hard it is to change traditions. Other potential readers are members of the parties that, whether we like it or not, will fill up the seats of the Scottish Parliament. And others will be committed to ideologies that are much more radical – in the conventional sense – than those proposed in this book.

It is easy to be sceptical about the suggestion: that if only a large section of society – other than the professional class – start ‘self-determining’, then the old structures will crumble, allowing a new radical nation to emerge? It is easy for writers and thinkers to hypothesise about this sort of civic Scotland; the question is whether we can develop this tendency in society as a whole.

But one thing that is clear from the years of devolution: it will not emerge of its own accord. This is a book that should be read in earnest as an exemplar of the new era it aspires to – a spirit in which new ideas can emerge, grown and cultivated at home through academic and public debate or through experience at community level, and allowed to flourish in policy and practice. One is left feeling unsure about what ‘self-determination’ really consists in, but vaguely optimistic that it could be the key to a new act in Scottish political life. 

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