Like many people I have been watching and reflecting on the run-up to the Scottish Parliament elections today, and finding the experience in equal parts fascinating and frustrating.
In one way, these are elections of some theatre and drama, the Labour-SNP contest, the background of the cuts, what happens to the Tories and Lib Dems. And yet they are not really an example of an imaginative, emboldened, or even in parts honest politics.
Post-war Scotland: From ‘We Have a Dream’ to ‘We are Doomed’
There is so much unsaid and unstated. It begs: what is the contemporary story of modern Scotland? Once we had a powerful post-war story of Scotland. It went along the lines of ‘we have a dream’, a collective, mobilising story. It was filled with hope and a sense of progress, rationalism, planning, order and a belief that things could be solved. This is the world whose last gasp is generally seen as Cumbernauld New Town and the film ‘Gregory’s Girl’.
This was supplanted in the 1980s by the ‘we are all doomed’ strand of the Scottish character. At first this overtly negative message in the eloquent hands of writers such as William McIlvanney, Alasdair Gray and others, had a positive, unifying message seen in the former’s ‘Stands Scotland Where It Did?’ 1987 lecture. It was motivated by our collective need to huddle together against the elemental rainstorm of Thatcherism, which we saw as a real palpable threat to our very existence: to Scottish values and even Scotland as a nation.
Now this 1980s account went completely over the top in its portrayal of Thatcherism as some sort of scorched earth mentality. Slowly and not surprisingly, ‘we are all doomed’ drifted from an affirming, uplifting story stressing things shouldn’t be like this into something desolate, pitying and disempowering.
I think what was particularly significant in this shift was the establishment of the Scottish Parliament which came about in an anti-political age, and at a point when despite the influence of the left in culture and society historically, relatively we were living without any vibrant, influential left; I don’t think Tommy Sheridan’s existence and then self-destruction invalidates that point; rather it makes it.
Thus this new negativity turned in on itself and us: the transition from the richness of McIlvanney in the 1980s to the barren landscape of Peter Mullan’s films in the last decade: from ‘The Big Man’ to ‘NEDS’. This is the world of what is seen as miserablism, a new school of Scottish thought which has arisen in response to the Thatcher rainstorm.
What is not commented upon is the rise of the more prevalent intellectual miserablism which pervades Scottish society. What this says is that contemporary Scotland is a horrid, bleak place; that there is no exit, no escape, no redemption, no hope. Instead, we live in a black and white world of moral certainty and absolutism. This world sees Mrs. Thatcher as the source of all that is wrong in Scotland, and refuses to see the stories of Scotland as more deep-seated, enduring and multi-various.
What characterises this world is that it is made up nearly entirely of either leftists or former leftists: people like the Peter Mullans and contemporary William McIlvanneys. They are disappointed that the world has not turned out in the manner they thought in their earlier ‘we have a dream’ part of the story.
This miserablist account tells us something about the Scottish left mindset. The ‘we have a dream’ world of ‘Caledonian dreaming’ was nearly always about an abstract, distant, impossiblist Scotland, not the real, complex, contradictory place. It posed utopian, idealist solutions to everything, and was barren on offering feasible or detailed ideas for dealing with the challenges and problems society has. And so it isn’t surprising that learning to live with its own disappointments and failures, this genre has turned on itself, and rather than engage in self-reflection, it has developed an intellectual miserablist manifesto of Scotland. In ‘we are all doomed’ the sequel, the people are not worthy of our dreamers and idealists.
How to Imagine Scotland’s Story
Robert McKee’s magnum opus, ‘Story’, the authority on screenwriting, examines what makes and draws us into story, namely the importance of character. He writes that it is ‘revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.’
Central to story and character is the amount of risk according to McKee, ‘Here’s a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: what is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what’s the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire? If this question cannot be answered in a compelling way, the story is misconceived at its core.’
Story at the level of a nation or society just like at other levels cannot be compelling without the idea of people identifying and embracing risk, and so doing defining their character and that of society.
The prevailing spirit of our times is to talk of hope lost, and see this as the age after the great disillusion.This was cogently expressed by Katie Grant in ‘Scottish Review’ talking about the reach and sense of disillusion and disappointment which pervades much of society.
I feel that this account does not reflect the diverse, challenging lives many of us live. Put it this way: before the politics of the crash, the cuts and the coming age of austerity, were the modern lives of those after the baby boomers and even after the post-baby boomers, really all about disillusion? That might be one of the collective stories, but aren’t the personal and individual stories more rich and telling? I think for many people their lives are filled with a sense of richness, engagement and hope, and a belief which is universally inherent to humans that the future can be better. And that one of our challenges is to reconnect these individual accounts into a new collective story.
Feeling the Fear and Doing It Anyway: The Power of Hope
To understand where we are and where we might choose to go, we need to understand the past and the post-war story of Scotland. Recently I went back to the part of Dundee I grew up in, Ardler, where myself and my parents lived in a multi-storey at 13A Edzell Court. Ardler is on the northwest corner of Dundee, and was a council estate comprising six tower blocks built in 1968 on the land of Downfield Golf Course which the council bought and thus filled with space, facilities and places to play.
I had a blessed childhood growing up in Ardler, loving parents with secure employment, both socially and politically engaged, a rich hinterland and a safe environment filled with friends. Ardler went wrong in the mid to late 1980s long after I left it and the last multi-storey was blown up in 2007 with nothing remaining of the original estate but the two primary schools and churches, community and health centre and the many trees. In its place, a new gentrified, much-lauded ‘Ardler Village’ has arisen.
What I am trying to convey is the universal truism of this. The post-war story of my parents and my childhood in Ardler, just evaporated into thin air, a kind of silencing of working class lives and experiences, which has happened all over Scotland and Britain.
What comes after is understandable in this context. Carol Craig, writing of the experience of seeing ‘Ardler Village’ commented that Ardler ‘was a concrete jungle with crumbling buildings and few social amenities’, a story spun by the spin doctors of the new age. This is the oldest trick: the Old/New Labour, Old/New Glasgow, denigrate and caricature the past, to justify the present.
This is what is happening across Britain. A nationwide narrative says ‘council housing didn’t work’, ‘tower blocks were all horrible’, ‘we were stupid to think we could abolish poverty’, or ‘save the feckless poor from themselves’. Next stop is talking about the underclass, welfare dependency, chavs and neds.
There is an exhaustion and bewilderment in the professional classes about their once missionary project to save the world, the poor and their own souls. Instead, they have unwittingly become part of the problem.
On my return to Ardler, I spoke with several Dundonians, the warm, loving Michael Marra and Betty Kilgour, my mum’s best friend in Ardler in the 1970s and 1980s. They reflected on the changes we have lived through, and the warmth, connectedness and love that was in Ardler and similar places, the sense of shared stories and experiences that people carried.
Scotland’s predicaments aren’t really particularly Scottish. They are part of the universal set of experiences: the crisis of modernity some would call it, and at a more human level, the crisis of stories and the crisis of heroes.
Hope is out there in modern Scotland. We just need to voice our new stories, along with some old ones and some timeless ones. We need to dream collective stories, create stories that we live in and inhabit as active agents and then make them real. We have to find platforms and vessels to share, connect and live them. And these have to be stories and dreams which have both complexity and simplicity in them, and don’t go off into dreaming of an abstract, perfect Scotland, either a ‘Caledonian Cuba’ or ‘Andrew Neil Ayn Rand Ecosse’.
That story like all stories seems to be partly there and just needing development into a compelling account. It is a story after the certainties of left and right, unionism and nationalism, and every other tribalism you might care to mention which has helped shape our society. It will also go beyond the abstraction of ‘independence’, and those techie tinkerings, Calman and fiscal autonomy, which mean nothing to anyone outside policy wonk land.
Scotland’s future story is going to be about inter-independence, a politics of a self-governing nation in an age of interdependence and inter-relatedness. And it will also be a society, culture and economy shaped by self-determination, in which we learn to express our individual and collective desires and hopes in a manner which acknowledges the fragility of the planet and impermanence of all of us.
Telling that story implies that we start to leave the closed conversations, comforting stories and default positions of much of what we all believe, and take the risk of challenging the narrow broadband of institutional Scotland. The old stories of certainty and simplicity are threadbare and exhausted.
We need to articulate new stories which succeed in a very delicate balancing act: embracing complexity, but allowing for some simplicity, daring to be indignant, but also allowing for joy and lightness, and reflecting a world where so much is wrong and unjust, but where much of life is worth celebrating, and allowing for this nuance. What is stopping us but the fear we might get it wrong? We all know we need a new story for Scotland….
This piece was originally published in the Scottish Review.
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