Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland, by Gerry Hassan (Luath Press, Edinburgh 2014)
What is statecraft? Something
Still on all fours.
And defence of the realm?
A sword thrust in a baby’s hand.
What is being a nation? A talent
Springing in the heart.
And love of country? Keeping house
Among a cloud of witness.
(From ‘What is Man’ by Waldo Williams. Waldo (Goronwy) Williams (1904 – 1971) was one of the leading Welsh language poets of the twentieth century. He was also a notable pacifist, anti-war campaigner, and Welsh nationalist).
Quite early on in the Scottish referendum campaign, I was first surprised and then horrified to discover the constraints being placed on the terms in which the debate was being framed. I was warned that showing any interest in the nature of Scandinavian social democracies and their possible relevance to Scotland would be construed as an indicator of support for the Yes campaign-indeed, even the use of the term ‘social democracy’ itself was suspect. On the other hand, any suggestion that the notion of Scotland as a bastion of progressive values, community and egalitarianism bears a little closer scrutiny, and might not be the whole picture, would open one to accusations of cultural cringe and lack of belief in Scottish aspirations and capacity.
So polarised has been this framing almost since the referendum date was announced, so controlling, and so reinforced by a cynical and deeply unimaginative mainstream media, that it is hard to feel that it has been a debate at all; rather, to a great many people, for the last three years ‘it has taken the form of two competing establishments standing off, both believing that they have the right to exclusively speak for Scotland, both with an entitlement culture, and both with over-passionate supporters who think they represent more people than they do, and that they have the right to shout down, hector and insult opponents.’
This description will resonate with anyone who has found themselves frustrated with what Gerry Hassan calls ‘unspace’, meaning ‘the prioritisation of official voices and interests, and the marginalisation of dissenting, non-conformist opinions.’ But, although the referendum provides the context in which Caledonian Dreaming is written, it is not primarily a book about independence, whether for or against. It is a book about democracy, and ‘unspace’ is characteristic of, and indeed essential to ‘undemocracy’, a term which Hassan uses to propose that ‘Scotland is not a fully-fledged political democracy. It has never had a democratic moment which has brought its elites to account, defined public institutions and seen the people as a historic collective agency of change.’
The ‘undemocracy’ of the British state
For many in the Yes campaign, it is the dysfunctional nature of British democracy and politics, and in particular the democratic deficit (whereby Scotland, more definitely on the left, is currently, and seems likely to be increasingly governed by parties it did not elect) which is the driver for independence. Caledonian Dreaming elegantly and systematically unpicks the democratic claims of the United Kingdom, with the apparently evolutionary rather than revolutionary forward progress of such reforms as universal suffrage masking the fact that at every stage along the way, the British establishment controlled the pace and entry points. That ‘despite all its radical and outsider roots, Labour was never a party of democratisation of British institutions, but instead of using them for progressive ends. The central instrument of change in this was the British state, which was seen as neutral and benign.’ That the institutions of the British state, shaped originally by the elites who limited the power of the monarchy in 1688 while enhancing their own power, consolidating that power in the Victorian Empire State, and co-opting progressive voices into the establishment thereafter, remain unreformed and undemocratic.
Only one pillar of state is elected, the House of Commons. The unelected House of Lords (the largest upper house anywhere in the world), the monarchy, the proliferation of quangos and public bodies, the outsourced state, the City of London, the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, many of them major tax havens, the security state of NATO, Trident and the military-industrial UK/US alliance, engaging in mass citizen surveillance, all unelected, all democratically unaccountable, have served to entrench ‘a version of the UK centred on power, privilege, money and its related institutions…’
The triumph of a profoundly conservative establishment, with the assiduous assistance of a right-wing populist media, itself part of that establishment and in no way ‘free’, has been in persuading so many, including politicians, that neoliberalism and market fundamentalism are not ideological, but just the way things are, to which there is no alternative. This is not just about politics and economics; it is a culture of neo-liberalism as an all-pervasive social order, which prioritises the individual as competitive, self-defining and, under the guise of choice, as consumer, what Tom Leonard memorably describes as ‘a bought behaviour pattern.’
The unmodern and undemocratic nature of the United Kingdom has seen the emergence of the past as a powerful political weapon. ‘It has become a populist, celebratory window dressing for the age of insecurity, anxiety, doubt and worry, and the rise of inequality, a fragmented society and the emergence of the new plutocratic class.’ So we seem doomed to celebrate an endless procession of 20th century military victories; those marking World War I are scheduled to go on as long as the war itself! Strangely, our leaders seem somewhat less eager to commemorate other imperial military campaigns, such as the Boer War, where Britain introduced the concentration camp into our lexicon. Or to remember the Great Famine in Ireland, when a Whig government (which the present coalition government increasingly seems to resemble), in its laissez-faire belief that the market would provide and there should be as little interference from government as possible, allowed grain to be exported in large quantities from Ireland (then part of Britain), halted government food and relief works, and left over a million people to starve to death. They also managed to persuade British politicians and public that the problem was essentially that the fundamental defects from which Ireland suffered were moral rather than financial, due to serious defects in the Irish ‘national character’-disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and worst of all, a lack of self-reliance. The Irish had to be taught to stand on their own feet and to unlearn their dependence on government.
The stories we tell ourselves
The Nigerian Ben Okri writes: Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings. (Birds of Heaven).
The Britain on offer in the new neoliberal social order does not speak to millions of people, any more than the partial and sanitised stories of our past we have been fed do. It is ‘a deeply unattractive, unpleasant one, of an increasingly parsimonious, punitive state and public realm, and a political environment defined by populism and authoritarianism on a host of issues from welfare to law and order and immigration.’ And, in spite of the efforts of Danny Boyle at the 2012 Olympics, an alternative view which clearly had enormous resonance with many failed to convince as a viable story for today, given its near absence from contemporary British politics. The reality is that Britain today is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.
In this context, the appeal of an independent Scotland is obvious. But Hassan is equally keen that we should not fall into the trap of believing all of our own stories –one might even call them myths- and he identifies several of these; the myths of egalitarianism, of educational opportunity, of holding power to account, of social democracy, of open Scotland. Whatever the truth in them, and there is always some truth in myths, each of them has their deep shadow side, which, unexplored and unnamed, makes them an unreliable basis on which to free our history for future flowering. Each creates its own exclusions, and we should do our best to deny the dead a mortgage on the living.
Much of Caledonian Dreaming is a deconstruction of these myths. We are only slightly less unequal than England in wealth and have the worst health inequalities than Europe, and though egalitarianism is a deeply embedded ideal, this has never been translated into any programme or political will for the redistribution of power and wealth. Educational inequalities similarly abound, with huge social exclusion of the poorest at every level, even in some of our most cherished institutions. And though change may have begun with the advent of the Scottish Parliament, we are still largely deferential to those in power; in the public sector, the professions, in business and in land ownership, there has been a marked lack of political will to challenge vested interests and powerful voices. As for our social democratic credentials, they have primarily been exercised by the middle classes for the middle classes, in a country ‘distorted by seismic inequalities, poverty and exclusion’, in areas for which the blame cannot be simply laid at Westminster’s door. Hassan suggests that Scotland’s social democracy has offered a legitimising political story of the middle classes to validate their position in the system, and that Labour, the SNP and ‘civic Scotland’ have all played a contributory role in maintaining this.
But the foundational myth, on which all the others rest to some degree, is that Scotland is a democracy. According to Caledonian Dreaming, Scotland has not used its idealised and imagined and desired notion of popular sovereignty to democratise and empower people, and to develop a vision which is markedly different from the status quo. In particular, there is a huge democratic deficit with regard to who has ‘voice’ in Scottish public life. This is most obvious with regard to electoral politics, particularly notable in Glasgow, where not one constituency in 2011’s Scottish Parliament election had a turnout over 50%, and which, in local elections, falls to less than 30%. If this is our much-vaunted democracy, we are in trouble indeed. What has happened in the city of John McLean and Harry McShane, of rent strikes and poll-tax protests, the epicentre of Red Clydeside and for a century the heartland of the Labour Party in Britain? Those who don’t vote are predominantly the younger and poorer, and living in social housing; it’s hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that Labour in Scotland has been casual to the point of culpability with its mandate. But as Hassan says, this ‘missing Scotland’, missing not just from electoral politics but in every aspect of public life, disfigures and diminishes the public life of Scotland and makes a sham of our democratic pretensions. The insider/outsider divide which characterises society, politics and public debate, which is seen in the narrow, competing establishment framing of the referendum campaign, is a reflection of the power dynamics of present-day Scotland, and excludes increasing numbers of people from any democratic practice.
“We want to better understand what Scotland’s values mean for our relations with people beyond our borders –specifically, for our international development policy. We believe Scotland’s behaviour towards, and impact on, people around the world should be driven by our values as a nation, and that only by making them explicit can we be held accountable to them – by others and by ourselves.”
(from ‘Scotland’s Place in Building a Just World, NIDOS 2013)
This affirmation, from a report on Scotland’s international development relations, doesn’t just apply externally. For Hassan, it is now crucial to name, nurture and implement the appropriate values to aid social change, so that the gap between what we profess and what we practice might be closed. But this will require vessels that are owned by people as reflecting their own interests and aspirations, which enable genuine democratic dialogue and conversation, and that challenge ‘official Scotland’ to recognise that ‘nothing about us without us is for us.’
Caledonian Dreaming ends by identifying a nascent culture of self-determination which Hassan calls Third Scotland-not easily categorised or controlled-of activism and intervention, and which I think is actually slightly larger than he suggests (I would, for instance, have welcomed a little more on the plethora of green/environmental groups and initiatives across Scotland). And it makes a number of policy suggestions, informed by others, towards the democratising of Scotland, which, though everyone might not agree with them, represent the variety of thinking that could be possible.
This book is an important and timely challenge to some of the fixed opinions and partial stories about who we are and what we are doing as a nation. If it’s uncomfortable reading in many places, it’s also filled with a sense of hope which isn’t the same as the official optimism we are too often presented with in parts of Scottish life. As Vaclav Havel observed:
Hope is to work for something because it is good,
and not only because it has a chance to succeed.
Hope is not the same as optimism
neither is it the conviction that something will end well.
Rather it is the certainty that something is meaningful, irrespective of the outcome, the result…