Rebuilding the Scottish Imagination

Over the last few centuries Scotland has often been portrayed in media and in politics as an illiterate, poor, unintellectual, peripheral space that cannae talk properly. It’s the ‘subsidy junkie’ phenomenon. The reality, of course, is quite different. Scotland has been one of the most innovative nations in human history, inventing much of the modern world, contributing immensely to medicine, architecture, philosophy, economics, literature, and the arts. We were the pioneers of European university systems and the great standard bearers of free education, for rich and for poor.

We can boast, but there is a terrible paradox in Scottish education where we emphasise the importance of learning but devalue the importance of learning our own story. My own education started and ended by being told “Braveheart didn’t happen” – and that was the end of it. What about the Picts? What about the Act of Union and the Jacobites and the Scottish Enlightenment and the Highland Clearances? What about Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmid? What about devolution? What about our story, our sense of self and our cultural well-being? But none of that was important. “You need to focus on your exams.”

The greatest thing that comes with learning about yourself and your surroundings is that it enhances your imagination. If you can imagine a better society you can fight for one. To believe in an independent Scotland first requires imagination. It’s a leap of faith. The campaign in its very essence is an exercise in imagination; endeavouring to build a new country from thoughts and ideas.

Contrast this with the campaign against self-government, driving imagination out of us by insisting the status quo, (where we are ruled by a government we didn’t vote for, and one in four children live in poverty), is satisfactory – or ‘UK OK’, as they put it in their slogan. In its essence it is a campaign against imagination. It’s the ‘Don’t know? Vote No’ philosophy, in which they benefit from a lack of social vision. It’s a campaign for nothing to happen; to accept our meagre lot and be glad with it. But Scotland deserves better. Scotland needs to imagine better.

If recent polls are to be believed, the youth movement for independence is on the rise, with as much as 58% in favour. In some ways it isn’t surprising. How do you sell the idea of dependency to young people? How do you control their political persuasions if they prefer the internet to the printed press? We are a generation of free-thinkers, and that can only be positive news for the Scottish cause.

Non-violent, intellectual independence movements were first pioneered by young students in the colonies of the British Empire, who educated themselves and taught themselves to fight with words and ideas instead of guns. These were the native intelligentsia. Education, and the passionate research and promotion of their culture, was their form of peaceful resistance. If we could build a Scottish intelligentsia, not as an elite academic class, but as a mass collective movement of all people and all classes, to research Scotland, to imagine Scotland and to create the new Scotland, our potential to build a better nation and promote a better world would surely meet no limits. All you have to do is imagine.

Andrew Redmond Barr
National Collective