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The Scottish stalemate and how to change a culture of conservatism

Scottish society, culture and institutional life is shaped by a lack of dynamism, pluralism and a profound lack of interest in ideas - a movement of Scottish citizens is needed to break the deadlock.
Gerry Hassan
23 November 2010

Party politics and the wider art of politics are profoundly about tribes. Are you part of my tribe or the opposing tribe? How is my side doing? Are we up or down: making the political debate, or in retreat and on the defensive?

At the same time we know our political tribes – Conservative, Lib Dem, Labour – are in major crisis leaving aside the disorientation they all feel as they come to terms with the reality of coalition government at Westminster. Yet, while tribalism is in crisis and decline outside of the narrow political village, it still shapes most of how our politics is done.

Brian Monteith would not on the surface have much in common with myself apart from the fact that we are both columnists in ‘The Scotsman’. Brian was a Tory MSP in the Scottish Parliament serving from 1999-2007 and in his last few years sat as an independent; I have never stood for elected office under any colours.

And yet our paths have briefly crossed when we have found ourselves on different sides of a political battle. In the 1997 devolution referendum Brian was head of the hapless anti-devolution campaign, while I had responsibility with crafting the communications strategy and development of the pro-devolution side.

Deeper down than these supposed important differences, Brian and myself share several common characteristics: we are both iconoclastic individuals, deeply anti-tribal and more interested in ideas and thinking than party or ideological divisions, and both motivated about questioning conventional wisdom more than you sometimes should for your own good.

So it should have come as less of a surprise than it did to find that Brian’s Monday ‘Scotsman’ column (£) was devoted to my two most recent columns in the paper, challenging the scale of anti-Toryism and demonisation of Thatcherism in Scottish life, along with the degree and grip of the forces of conservatism across this supposed radical nation.

Monteith calls myself ‘a thoughtful polemicist of what can broadly be termed the Scottish Left’. He then addresses the argument I put forward in my first piece that Scotland was shaped more by an anti-Toryism – a politics of negative force – rather than anything positive:

Hassan argued that the tendency of many Scottish politicians and commentators to dismiss Conservatives in a tribal and blinkered manner as being un-Scottish was no better than gut instinct and blind emotion. Not only was this clearly unjust and misinformed, as there is a strong Tory tradition in Scotland, but it is also unhelpful to the left in developing what should be its approach to our modern world.

He then further elaborated on the anti-Tory tribal conservative nature of much of Scotland:

Hassan challenged not only himself, for he admitted to having behaved in such an uncharitable fashion in his youthful past, but he confronted the whole edifice of the Scottish left that inhabits our institutions at every level to the point that it is the real conservative movement in Scotland.

Next Monteith reflected on both my first piece and the second which addressed how Thatcherism was portrayed in Scotland:

In response to such home truths one might have expected a whirlwind to be got up by all sorts of collectivists ranging from tin-shaking social democrats to fist-making socialist workers, but there was not a sound. Maybe Gerry thought he should try harder, for this weekend he used the anniversary of the fall of Margaret Thatcher at the hands of her own Cabinet to challenge what has become part of our national culture – blaming so much of what happened to Scotland over the last 30 years on Britain’s first female prime minister.

Now Monteith is right on what matters: the wider picture, but the specifics of the public response to my provocations was more complex. My first anti-Tory piece brought forth a significant and passionate response and denial from Joyce McMillan, which has been published here on OurKingdom. And that exchange itself has brought forth a wide debate – with numerous (but not all) contributors showing their ill-ease with laying some of the blame for the state of Scotland on its dominant centre-left tradition.

Monteith believes that there is a public culture whereby politicians lead and shape a complete refusal ‘to engage in debate’ observing that:

This is a lamentable state of affairs for which the public cannot be blamed; instead it is a scandalous indictment of our current political leaders who prefer to hide behind soundbites and platitudes for fear of revealing their true levels of ignorance or lack of a philosophical grounding.

The Scottish stalemate, sclerosis of thought and stasis is a product of a number of sources: it cannot just be laid at the door of our political classes. Instead, Scottish society, culture and institutional life is shaped by a lack of dynamism, pluralism, a profound lack of interest in ideas (from a culture which used to pride itself on such an interest), and an inability to have genuine debate and disagreement while respecting and engaging with opposing opinions.

There is across Scotland – well beyond politicians and the reach of politics – a  culture which can be defined as one of gatekeepers, both self-appointed and institutionally mandated: people who believe you have to seek or ask permission to be able to comment on certain reserved, protected areas and opinions. This is a politics of thought police, black and white thinking, moral absolutism, and believing the world is divided into two binary camps, right and wrong.

A few years ago I published a book which was a powerful critique of much of this: ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’ by Carol Craig. Not surprisingly she was nervous about saying what she was saying: that something at the heart of Scots culture was deeply against open debate, discussion and engagement, and instead, reinforced a culture of conformity, fixed mindsets and clinging on to various orthodoxies.

At the time Carol talked of ‘putting her bum out of the window’, but what happened in my opinion was that this breath of fresh air was embraced by part of the system and the Scottish Government. A whole industry of ‘confident Scotland’ waffle was born which was no threat to anyone and didn’t promote any serious, far-reaching ideas of social change.

It was a lot more complex than that of course. The point is that the forces of conservatism which prevail in Scotland are in one sense actually quite dynamic and pro-active: for they constantly have to police public debates, challenge and ridicule certain opinions, and know when to, on other occasions, incorporate and suffocate others.

That is what any traditional power elite and establishment do. We in Scotland have this in spades. A culture and society defined by hierarchy, status and authoritarian mindsets. A society which sticks to its comfort zones and sentimental, romantic, official stories of itself as this egalitarian, welcoming, inclusive, radical land, but which, based on evidence and attitudes, points in exactly the opposite direction. And aiding and reinforcing this is an institutional landscape, attitudes and power whose self-interest is based on the maintenance of this state of affairs.

Our political parties don’t want to challenge this. Labour have built most of these rotten edifices, and are looking forward to getting the whole show back on the road next year. The entire Alex Salmond SNP strategy has been about not trying to frighten the horses, and win over institutional Scotland to independence, or fiscal autonomy first.

We can acknowledge that mainstream politics isn’t going to be what changes Scotland. Individual voices – no matter how powerful, eloquent or right – wont be able to do it either. Instead, it is going to take a movement that is cultural, political, and independent of the state and big business. A kind of Scottish Citizens modelled on the work of London Citizens. Anyone up for it?

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