Sometimes it takes outside voices to reinforce what you already know. So it was with Fintan O’Toole and the second in the series of Glasgow School of Art-University of the West of Scotland ‘Cultures of Independence’ seminars.
O’Toole is author of the acclaimed books, ‘Ship of Fools’ and ‘Enough is Enough’ (1), both wonderful and powerful counter blasts to the baloney and bubble of the Celtic Tiger and its excesses.
He is of no doubt that Scotland is at a hugely important point in its history and that this isn’t just a narrow conversation and debate about constitutions, political and legal processes, and flags north of the border. Instead, this is a debate with huge consequences for England, for the rest of the UK, and with even global ramifications. This has come at a point where the first two are in significant flux and uncertainty due to Europe, economic and social change and the leviathan that is labelled ‘globalisation’.
O’Toole believes that Scotland has already been changing in ways which are irreversible and unfathomable to parts of Scotland and to most (if not all) of the London political classes. The old Scotland is dying, and a very different one is emerging; and at the same time, even more uncomprehending to some, the old England and Britain is disappearing, the loss and bewilderment from which can be witnessed regularly in the columns and letters pages of the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and the rise of Ukip.
One powerful dynamic in this is the ahistoric English account of what Britain is which poses a mindset of continuity and conservation, irrespective of reality. This, O’Toole posed, was evident in the reaction of this version of Britain to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1920-22, which resulted in the current name and boundaries of the UK: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Thus this moment changed what the UK was and created a new territory, space and nation-state: something the continuity version of Britain wilfully chooses to ignore.
O’Toole posed that time-honoured question asked down the years – ‘What is a nation?’- and explored the tensions between politics and culture. He dwelt on the tenth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, and the controversy over Seán O’Casey’s play, ‘The Plough and the Stars’, and W.B. Yeats dichotomy between immature and mature cultures. In the former, vanity, anxiety and worry prevail; in the latter, there is an ease with plurality, as people feel they have actively chosen to be who they are, and are sure in how they see themselves. In a culture of vanity, such considerations as ‘there’s nobody like us’, purity and exclusiveness, are evident; in the other of national pride, there is a comfortableness which manifests itself in being less concerned about how others see you.
Nationalism, O’Toole posed, cannot survive its own success, comparing it to a high-octane ‘rocket ship which quickly burns out’. Just as important is how any nation state understands its collective psychology and the wider terrain beyond politics, culture and identity; a new Irish identity had been forged in the Celtic Tiger years which seemed at the time a liberation from the old constraints, but was in reality, a mirage with a whole set of delusions and orthodoxies. Post-crash, no one in Ireland would want to forgo independence and even as fantasy imagine a post-1922 world in which the birth of the Free State had not happened.
There is a relevance for Scotland despite the differences. Most of the SNP leadership at points – Salmond’s ‘arc of prosperity’, Mike Russell’s gusto for shrinking the state and Jim Mather’s mind-maps for a new managerialism – were as much as New Labour affected by ‘bubble thinking’. Then there is recognising the importance of psychological attitudes in any collective mindset, rather than relying on narrow versions of politics, statecraft or economics. This has come late to Scotland with its tradition of seeming happy to blame others and external events for its travails, aided by the power of myths and lack of interest in taking on myth-makers.
Following O’Toole, came Prof. James Mitchell of Edinburgh University who pointed to the narrow way that many public policy discussions and analyses happened in Scotland. He homed in on ‘the stories of radical Scotland’ where ‘we know the language and the words but not the action’.
Then came cultural practitioner Roanne Dods (ex-Jerwood Charitable Foundation) who talked of the importance of stewards of artists, producers and curators. This had, she observed, a relevance way beyond the arts and culture: who are, for example, we could ask our stewards of ideas and change across society? The final speaker was Mairi McFadyen of the School of Celtic and Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, who posed her presentation on the notion of inter-independence, the limits of modernity and possibilities of ecology and cultural democracy.
The Art of Dying Well
One of the undercurrents in the latest ‘Cultures of Independence’ event which was evident in the first as well (with the New York based Centre for Artistic Activism) was the power and problem of partial and broken stories which litter our landscape. These are reinforced by the myths we kid ourselves with and the binary beliefs of who you define as ‘your side’ and ‘not your side’ which, like many of Scotland’s debates could be run with the rationale and insight of being football supporters.
This brings me to James Mitchell’s ‘the art of living together’, a phrase which he articulated to mean what politics at its best and most basic should be about. Think of the component parts and what they mean: ‘art’ and ‘living together’: they denote craft, non-scientific discipline, emotional insight, and an awareness and understanding of differences and transcending them.
This relates to the idea of ‘the art of dying’, a concept previously explored by Roanne Dods in her work with Mission Models Money (2) (and perhaps not unconnected, a George Harrison track on his epic ‘All Things Must Pass’ album).
If an older Scotland is withering and in systematic decline in front of us – we have to be able to understand it and the numerous ways society is changing. The ‘high Scotland’ of 1945-75, which some have a conspicuous yearning and nostalgia for, has gone forever. The society of elders who have dominated public life for long, whether it be institutionally or as experts and commentators, have articulated what can only be called a political and cultural miserablism – which is ill-at-ease with the political moment.
We have to be able to embrace a culture of collective dignity which allows individuals and institutions to exit public life, with a bit of grace, but sometimes encouraging them to speed up. This could be called practicing ‘the art of dying well’ offering an opening to be able to begin discussing such issues in public.
There are numerous dimensions here. Why does Scotland have so many business organisations in a culture they constantly lambast as ‘anti-enterprise’? Isn’t that a bit, top-heavy, and to use the words of the new right, ‘producer capture’? What is the point of bodies such as SCDI which stopped having any real raison d’etre in 1975 when the Scottish Development Agency was founded?
Then there is the length of public leadership in key organisations. Next year, Iain McMillan will have been head of CBI Scotland for twenty years; Martin Sime has already done twenty plus at SCVO. Now these are the equivalent of life sentences for them and us in judicial terms which don’t aid these organisations, individuals and the dynamism of public life. We at least need to be able to start talking about these things.
Could we begin to start considering term times for leadership positions of significant Scottish bodies? If two terms is enough for an American President, then maybe it is enough for public, business and civic bodies. Would it be possible to imagine term limits for Board memberships of all public organisations so we can move beyond the capture of ‘the usual suspects’?
Can we venture into the sensitive ground for some of the ‘civic Scotland’ chumocracy, and its related middle class self-preservation societies in, for example, law, medicine and public health? Would it be possible to begin to imagine a different criterion for public life than judging people subjectively on whether they are your friends or not, and the dire criterion of someone being a ‘safe pair of hands’ which encourages a culture of mediocrity and conformity in ‘official Scotland’?
These networks of secret and hidden Scotland do not want time called on their activities of mutual support, validation and wider entitlement culture, which in many cases seem to show little self-reflection or self-awareness.
Take one of many examples: the publication, and derisory public and political response to, the Scottish Government McCluskey review which had been charged with coming up with recommendations in relation to the Leveson inquiry on the press for north of the border. Speaking to one respected public figure who was a member of the review for this ill-fated endeavour, I asked if he understood when such initiatives were being floated (with the motivation of government being seen to do something), whether he weighed up before agreeing the balance between his expertise and reputation, and having that ‘used’. In a number of amicable exchanges, he professed to not understanding the premise I was advancing: that his reputation was being temporarily bought and utilised for something he was not in full control of with the potential to diminish the status he had carefully built up over years.
This is a product of professional Scotland’s historic entitlement culture, the committees of the great and good who for so long administered public life, and the inability of parts of our elites and professions, to understand conflicts of interest, and barriers and boundaries (often or usually when it suits them).
The current Scottish Government may talk the right reassuring language to whoever it is talking to (STUC, Common Weal, Wealthy Nation etc.), but it has presided over an explosion of pointless Expert Groups going through the motions to give the impression that something is being done or might be done.
Scotland is emerging from a long shadow of a highly managed, controlled society: the legacy of the Kirk, Liberal Scotland in the 19th century, Labour Scotland in the 20th century, and as a result of this we have a narrow, constricted public realm and public life, one in which certain voices and institutions believe that whichever party is in power or constitutional status Scotland has, their services as Board members or Expert Group participants, are indispensible.
This has been a Scotland which has dared to call itself radical, and then invoke past traditions, heroes and heroines, and mythologies, to keep the self-preservation society free from scrutiny, criticism and challenge. The tragedy is that bereft of serious pressure from an influential radical left or radical right, too much of Scotland has bought into and believed this set of reassuring, comforting stories.
In this we have not in past or present been assisted by the role and cultures of our mainstream media, who until a couple of decades ago colluded and were part of the closed order society which went hand in hand with the ‘high Scotland’. Yet as we address where we now are, we also have to challenge the ongoing disinformation, prejudice and ignorance of large elements of the British media on Scotland, from ‘The Wright Show’ showing a 19 minute fact-free discussion on Scotland (thanks Richard Madeley and Katie Hopkins) (3), to the likes of a recent item in the “Daily Telegraph’ by Damian Thompson on Scotland which talked of land confiscation, Mugabe and Mussolini and worse (4). This is a London political and media class who don’t care about caricature, insult and factual inaccuracy, about a part of the union they profess to wish to maintain and care for. Some of them sure have a funny way of showing this.
Scottish public life has not embraced democratisation, instead believing in the power of benign experts and authority, but then Scotland has never been a fully-fledged political democracy. The origins of this do not just lie in the union or the unbalanced nature of the UK; they are home grown and curated.
This is what is beginning to change aided by the independence debate. Scottish society is slowly more effectively beginning to question and challenge authority, to believe that people outside institutions have equal legitimacy and voice to those inside, and in so doing, to start to dramatically change the characteristics and norms of authority and what constitutes power. It has to continue and extend into the dark recesses of society, public debate and numerous no-go areas, to call time on these practices, to make the independence debate real, and to reassure those worried about status quo and complacent Scotland continuing uninterrupted irrespective of our constitutional status. It is that crucial; not an optional extra.
This is a historic change, one worthy of O’Toole’s analysis. If we are to aid, nurture and champion it, we have to master both the art of living together and the art of dying. That requires that we begin with sensitivity, humbleness and a quiet insistence, to bring some of these problematic practices and difficult questions out of the shadows and into the light. The time has passed for myth-makers and is now ripe for change makers and creators.
1. Fintan O’Toole, Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger, Faber and Faber 2009; Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic, Faber and Faber 2010.
2. John Knell, The Art of Dying, Mission Models Money, June 2007, http://www.missionmodelsmoney.org.uk/sites/default/files/23974645-The-Art-of-Living-by-John-Knell-2007_0.pdf
3. The Wright Stuff, Channel 5, November 27th 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xm5EBDa42ck
4. Damian Thompson, ‘Alex Salmond, the SNP and ‘fascist Scotland’’, Daily Telegraph, January 18th 2014, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/damianthompson/100255404/alex-salmond-the-snp-and-fascist-scotland/
Photograph by North Sea.