Imagine a better Scotland: The Rebirth of a Nation


The banners proclaiming ‘Another Scotland is Possible’ at the 2013 Independence Rally conveyed a great sense of connection and hope to the thousands in attendance. By representing solidarity with a vast network of movements which declare ‘Another World is Possible’, the banners remind us that we are not alone in the struggle for self-determination. The slogan on the banners also remind us that possibility and hope are a significant part of the independence movement.

As gender theorist and philosopher Judith Butler writes, ‘Possibility is as crucial as bread’, especially for those seeking a life of recognition and dignity (Undoing Gender, 2005). Although written in the context of a different movement, her view helpfully captures the importance of possibility in the movement for independence; without it, the movement would have no fuel.

While possibility provides the fuel for the movement, we depend on imagination – as well as political action – to see and feel possibilities. Indeed, imagination requires us to push boundaries, cause trouble and create other realities, and this is why our imagination should not be caged or limited to pragmatic concerns. Hope is required to give that imagination future-orientated aims and visions. It is no surprise, then, that hope runs through the veins of the independence movement as it seeks to bring about autonomy for Scotland.  But while letting our democratic imaginations run wild is very much part of the process, there are more and less productive ways to imagine an independent and better Scotland. In other words, how and what we imagine matters.

How are we imagining an independent and better Scotland? Could we imagine better?

Misguided Imaginations  

Carolyn Leckie from Women for Independence reminded those in attendance at the Independence Rally that upon gaining independence ‘nobody could guarantee that Scotland will be a nirvana’. Leckie is right to resist the allure of what is known in Utopian Studies as ‘end-state utopianism’, which is characterised by the kind of imagining that conjures up a snapshot of the final state of things in an ideal political and social order. Whether your version of a Scottish nirvana includes rivers of Irn Bru and rolling hills made of Tunnocks’ Tea Cakes or is more closely aligned with the version of a Scotland where socio-economic inequality and political misrepresentation cease to exist, it is misguided to imagine in this way. To say that imagining in this way is misguided is certainly not to mock the strong egalitarian desire that informs it. Nor is it to deny that imagining a Scottish nirvana can be a creative stimulus and spark action. Instead, the naivety in such imagining stems from the lack of serious consideration given to what Marx called the ‘historical present’.

Becoming aware of Scotland’s historical present means becoming aware of the fact that an independent Scotland would emerge from an existing institutional framework with all the opportunities and baggage this presents. Nobody could guarantee a Scottish nirvana because Scotland’s current socio-economic conditions and political culture act as constraints on what is possible (more on this below). Let us not forget that we would also be faced with the mammoth task of bettering ourselves; a Scottish nirvana implies not only losing the chains of London-centric governments and a living in a world of substantively democratic institutions but one populated by an ethically-acting citizenry attuned to listening as well as speaking, caring as well as competing. We are still far from being that citizenry.

Much the same can be said of the following kind of logic: ‘Only through independence can Scots achieve the blossoming hope that a blank page…can ignite’. This statement is part of National Collective’s Manifesto and I think it represents one of the more unproductive ways of expressing how to imagine an independent Scotland. The establishment of independence should not be imagined to represent the erasure of history or symbolise a clean slate from which we can start afresh, yet this is what the image of a blank page promotes.

The renowned Marxist thinker David Harvey writes in his book Space of Hope (2000) that ‘we often seem to oscillate in our understandings of ourselves and in our ways of thinking between an unreal fantasy of infinite choice and a cold reality of no alternative to the business as usual dictated by our material and intellectual circumstances’. While imagining Scottish nirvanas and blank pages seem like manifestations of the infinite choice fantasy, we can be glad that the independence movement refuses to sing the ‘there’s no alternative to the Union’ mantra. This mantra is sung loudly by the No camp which seems to revel in the status quo of the Union, blind to the fact that most of us are shivering in its cold reality.

Yet in their attempt to conserve the Union, the No camp is not satisfied with promoting a ‘business as usual’ approach in their referendum campaign. They exploit the power of imagination by actively promoting an image of an independent and shoddier, more intolerant nation. This is done most easily by mapping onto the aims of the independence movement a toxic vision of nationhood. Labour MP Margaret Curran calls this ‘nationalism in the raw’, a nationalism that ‘is about establishing barriers and promoting grievances’ (The Scotsman, August 21st 2013). Scottish Labour Party leader Johann Lamont, in her 2013 party conference speech, made the same move, contrasting the politics of nationalism – ‘a virus that has affected so many nations and done so much harm’ – with ‘the politics of justice’.

Similar ‘big bad scare stories’ trade in powerful doomsday scenarios, as Iain MacWhirter points out (The Herald 3rd November 2013). As Nicola Sturgeon pointed out in her Academy of Government speech in June of this year, the same ‘Business would leave Scotland’ argument used during the devolution debate is again being rolled out by the No campaign.

Another Scotland is possible but we will not successfully build that Scotland if we indulge in unreal fantasies, cold realities and doomsday scenarios. Our imagination can be guided by reasoning and visions that are hopeful yet responsive to Scotland’s historical present.

Toward a Responsive Imagination

Developing an awareness of Scotland’s historical present enables us to imagine better, that is, with a healthy dose of responsibility. This means our hopeful imagination would be responsive to the reality of Scotland’s current political, economic, and cultural landscape and the histories that have made the nation the way it is.  This is why I think that wherever a misguided imagination expresses itself, it should be persuaded to mature into something akin to what Gramsci-inspired feminist Jonathan Deans has recently called a ‘responsible political optimism’ (see his book Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics  2010).

A responsible political optimism would recognise that Scotland is in many respects a neoliberal nation with a typical parliamentary political culture. Such an approach makes questionable the idea that Scottish political culture rejects adversarial politics and a neoliberal agenda and therefore is wholly distinct from Westminster.

In the edited collection Neoliberal Scotland: Class and Society in a Stateless Nation (2010), David Miller shows how public intellectuals and academics in Scotland routinely conflate ‘the debate on devolution with a rejection of market values’, which consequently ‘has focused attention elsewhere while neoliberal reforms marched even deeper into the Scottish body politic’. Similarly, in the introduction to the book, Neil Davidson notes, ‘only with the onset of a new period of capitalist crisis in 2007-2008 did commentators outside of the radical left apparently notice that Scotland has been subject to the same neoliberal regime as the rest of the world, and even now it is journalists rather than academics who show the greatest awareness of this fact’. Miller is of the view that it is misguided to imagine ‘“Scotland” exists in some balmy cross-class unity’ (there goes our nirvana!). Anyone looking for empirical evidence of the elite networks and a transnational capitalist class that have run Scotland need look no further than that presented in Miller’s chapter Who Rules Scotland?

The point of drawing attention to these aspects of Scotland’s current socio-economic and political reality is not to quash the hope that inspires the movement for a better Scotland or to limit our imagination. Rather, by having a better knowledge of the opportunities and barriers which confront us, the aim is to fine tune our imagination, to make it sharper and more effective.

This has implications for political action. Sometimes it seems that the independence movement imagines its political adversary is located down south in Westminster and takes the shape of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. “If it were not for UK governments”, the cry goes, “we would be living in a better Scotland already!” While there is obviously good reason to criticise Westminster governments on issues of policy and representation, this should not be the only government visible to the critical eye. We would do well to ensure that the independence movement pays attention to the Scottish political class and the elite networks they sustain with a view to hold them accountable. Of course, this means scrutinising the internal power dynamics of the Yes campaign given that the SNP government is a key player in it.

Insurgent Architects and the Rebirth of a Nation

Fortunately, a responsible political optimism already informs the independence movement thanks in part to the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s The Common Weal project. This project is an exemplar of productive political imagining because of the way it seeks to theorise the concrete possibilities that would confront an independent Scotland from the established policy approaches that are in place here and Scotland’s current socio-economics conditions. From well-being to welfare, ownership models to international citizenship, the Common Weal project demonstrates that Scotland can change its course of direction and lay new paths within and across policy sectors if it wishes to do so. To borrow again from David Harvey, the project demonstrates that we are already our own ‘insurgent architects’ (Spaces of Hope, 2000)

Insurgent architects (in literal and figurative form) make up the membership of National Collective and a responsible political optimism also informs of the logic of contributions to the National Collective movement. Despite my critique of National Collective’s Manifesto above, let me return to the sentence in the Manifesto which I selectively quoted above. Let me leave behind the ‘blank page’ phrase and repeat the more promising one:

Only through independence can Scots achieve the blossoming hope that… an attitude of rebirth can ignite.”

I think ‘rebirth’ is a more productive symbol for  National Collective and the wider independence movement. It gives us a language to imagine the ‘old’ pre- and post-devolution Scotland and a ‘young’ independent Scotland, while recognising that these constitutional changes are part of a continuous Caledonian history. Adopting an attitude of ‘rebirth’ allows us to recognise that Scottish independence would come about through a process of legitimate closure that would in turn provide the framework for opening up new processes in Scotland’s future.

To my mind, an emphasis on rebirth and process counters the type of unproductive imagining that comes along with the misguided logic of imagining Scottish nirvanas and blank pages. And although with my feminist hat on I recall that patriarchal ethno-nationalist imaginations tend to hijack or deny female reproductive capacity and embodiment for their own ends, I still think ‘rebirth’ can be appropriated for progressive, indeed feminist-inspired, movements.

I prefer to understand National Collective’s use of ‘rebirth’ in a way that is aligned with the characterisation of hope articulated by the late social theorist and activist Erich Fromm. As he so memorably wrote, ‘Faith, like hope, is not a prediction of the future; it is the vision of the present in a state of pregnancy’ (The Revolution of Hope, 1968).

The kind of imagination that the independence movement already typically endorses, and I think should advocate, is the kind which foregrounds the myriad possibilities embedded within and arising from Scotland’s historical present. Our hope is that a majority Yes vote in the referendum next year would help bring about ‘a state of pregnancy’ for Scotland. A responsible political optimism should offer us no less in the struggle for a better Scotland.

Kirsty Alexander
National Collective

Photograph by Graeme West.