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Scotland's politics of evasion

Scotland's nationalist government projects the confident vision of a country moving towards independence. But the cramped nature of much public debate inhibits the renewal it seeks, says Tom Gallagher.
Tom Gallagher
11 December 2009

The white paper published on 30 November 2009 by the Scottish National Party (SNP) government led by first minister of Scotland outlines a number of possible constitutional paths for the country. The document - Your Scotland, Your Voice: A National Conversation - suggests that an era marked by the the opening of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh’s Holyrood district in July 1999 may be passing, and that Scotland is entering a new period of dramatic political change. Indeed, a deeply political pro-independence government, elected by a narrow margin in the election of 3 May 2007,  is looking hard at every possible way to manoeuvre the country into a post-British era.

Any further round of constitutional and political reform in Scotland, to be successful and well-grounded, needs to emerge as the result of a free choice by the electorate after a mature and many-sided debate. This is where Scotland at present has a problem, one for which (I would argue) the political class and other major institutions of Scottish society (such as the media, and academia) bear a great degree of responsibility. For the culture of debate in post-devolution Scotland is at present extremely limited, and too often fixated on reordering the constitutional furniture rather than taking a holistic and multi-dimensional view of the country’s condition and potential. In only a few policy areas (such as role of the state in economic provision, and energy policy) do a variety of groups mobilise to ensure a vigorous debate.

A high-rise vision

There are many proposals to make Scotland a better country, but little contest of ideas about implications for how Scotland evolves as a society - irrespective of whether it stays part of the United Kingdom or moves towards complete statehood. Michael Keating’s succinct evaluation of the state of the constitutional debate reveals a range of nuanced proposals for change in a land where Scotland is now the focus of identity but where there is no rush to sever the British link. But he also shows that the debate on the constitutional road ahead involves a very small number of participants (see Michael Keating, “Scotland’s constitutional future: after deadlock”, 8 December 2009).

The reality that large numbers of people are economically marginalised and have very little stake in society, for example, is a social crisis that receives too little attention. The predicament of many in this position are accentuated by acute personal problems, such as dependence on drugs and alcohol and high-levels of interpersonal violence. It is not clear how this “broken Scotland” can be healed if it is not more openly acknowledged and addressed.

The tendency at the political level to take a big-picture view and gloss over such deep-rooted issues is reflected in the belief that Scotland can overcome its internal shortcomings by encouraging accelerated rates of immigration and engaging with global high-achievers who have some trace of Scottish ancestry. It is true that large parts of Scotland would benefit (or indeed have already benefited) from the arrival of newcomers. But there is scant inclination to explore the effects of inward migration on labour-market conditions - especially in a recession and among already hard-pressed working-class (or post-working-class) communities - that is not combined with proactive employment and welfare policies.

There is too a distinct if rarely articulated view among some of the political engineers of the new Scotland - one that draws on enduring currents in Scottish society - that a better Scotland will arise if it is shaped around multicultural norms that extol group identities as positive in themselves while neglecting to encourage a sense of the value of individual citizenship. The result is to prioritise political networking with mobilised interest-groups without subjecting their social prescriptions to critical scrutiny. The fact that this has been a recurring pattern in Scottish society is reflected in the work of the post-1945 planners and technocrats responsible for decanting much of Glasgow’s population into soulless housing schemes without proper consultation.

Indeed, it is arguable that secular and multiculturalist thinkers wishing to shape society around their worldview are if anything more impatient of dissenting viewpoints than their religious or aristocratic predecessors were. The valid ambition of promoting a new definition of an inclusive Scottish community is unlikely to succeed if the debate about it is confined to policy-experts, campaigners and their political sponsors - or if individuals who urge more diversity in the debate are dismissed as aberrant or reactionary. This is a theme elaborated in my new book, The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism (C Hurst, 2009).

A closed circle

The restricted nature of much of the public discussion about Scotland’s future owes something to the evolution of the academic community and especially the media in Scotland.

There has long been a certain conformist steak in Scottish academia (perhaps always stronger than that in England), but it has been reinforced by the growing influence of the state in higher education - right down to what is researched and how this is done. In political science, the discipline I am most familiar with, there is often an unstated assumption that debate should occur within quite narrow parameters.

In the media, there is a tendency for “overtly Scottish” titles and channels (print and broadcasting) to respond to the agenda of activist interest-groups rather than to reflect a society-wide perspective. The mounting economic difficulties of so many citizens also make it hard for Scottish media to relate to society (for example, the number of correspondents reporting on local and regional affairs have been reduced drastically). Those in charge of print publications claiming to be serious tend to have a balance-sheet mentality rather than a desire to provide any intellectual or public-service role. So unadventurous media managers are prepared to address only those who comprise their chief niche markets. Again, the result is to limit the spectrum of argument.

A changing of the guard has occurred in the Scottish establishment; room has been made for some of the angry voices that emerged during the Margaret Thatcher era (1979-90) and the struggle for a Scottish parliament. But it is still the case that power and control is exercised and patronage distributed in less than transparent ways  by “self-regarding elites” which are all too often free of democratic accountability.

The growing influence of spin-doctors, lobbyists and “reputation-management” companies has enhanced an existing culture of secrecy and restricted the scope for debate about the conduct of politics. An energetic media machine watched over by Alex Salmond has no inhibitions about aggressively intervening to try and shape the content of the op-ed pages and anathematise critical voices.

The fact that the Scottish state is one of the largest employers of individuals in the media industry reinforces the underlying conformity that has gripped much of the profession. But a stale public-debating culture goes far wider. In recent years, the “festival of politics” organised by the Scottish parliament and the political slots at the Scottish book festival (both taking place in August to coincide with the Edinburgh festival) have been bywords for caution, predictability, and tired formulae.

A search for air

There is some intellectual air in those parts of cyberspace free of sectarian bile or choking nationalist conformism, and where writers are encouraged to think for themselves. The Scottish Review, an online journal edited by ex-BBC journalist Kenneth Roy for nearly fifteen years, has been exposing some of the less heroic practices of the Scottish elite. After it revealed the inflated salaries enjoyed by top public officials, the response of the Scottish government was to pull from its website any information that could form the basis for any future enquiries of this kind. The establishment press showed little interest (and even though the Scottish Review had just successfully raised funds from readers to ensure its survival, parts of it claimed that the journal was facing financial ruin).    

Pat Kane, the musician and philosopher - and author of The Play Ethic among other books - spoke in Edinburgh on 28 November 2009 about the need for the internet to renew the dwindling fortunes of the radical left in a post-industrial Scotland. If enough energy was channelled into the medium of cyberspace, he argued, it could enable radicals to exert real influence amid a future political-constitutional crisis between Edinburgh and London. At the same time, Kane acknowledged during his thoughtful talk that the internet was as much about “inter-passivity” as “inter-activity”. 

Kane chided the SNP for not embracing the culture of liberation offered by the net, which he related to its use of the medium as an instrument to propagandise for independent statehood. Indeed, the high-profile former culture minister Michael Russell (now minister of education after a cabinet reshuffle) led the party’s effort to devise a more politicised national culture based around traditional (or invented) festivals and public spectacles. These would be recognisable to a time-traveller from the Europe of 1848; they promote a synthetic Scottish identity and (naturally) have little or no room for elements of Britishness.

The idea of manufacturing a series of events which would encourage the creation of a recognisable Scottish identity is not unworthy. But it is unlikely to prosper if it becomes a crucial  part of the agenda of one political party, and one moreover where artists and intellectuals feel obliged to shape their output around a particular set of norms.

The patriotic hoopla of the “homecoming” - the dominant theme of 2009, symbolised by an expensive (and loss-making) clan “gathering” at Holyrood in summer 2009 - was designed to celebrate the links connecting Scots at home and abroad, and cultivate a sense of diasporic involvement (including tourist visits) in the affairs of the country. But if the underlying political agenda surrounding such events is clear, so is the flight from reality at a time when the country is finding it harder than any other part of the United Kingdom to escape from recession.

A time to turn

When Scotland’s indices for health, substance-addiction, inter-personal violence and even educational achievement are bleak, no amount of cultural propaganda can provide an escape-route. Beyond the closed circle of politicians, quangos, and interest-groups, many Scots - not just the truly disadvantaged - are, and feel, marginalised and excluded.

This is not a condition that encourages people to have confidence about taking complete control of their future. In this sense the SNP government’s style of political management and cultural engineering is likely to create the opposite effect to the one intended - and make more Scots reluctant to break the link with their southern neighbours. That will please some partisans and disappoint others. All the more reason to turn from this form of politics and look the realities of modern Scotland in the face.

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