A third Scotland is emerging
Two Scottish establishments facing one another – one the old Labour Scotland which has administered and dominated public life for the last 50 years; the other the newcomer on the block: the bright, shiny SNP establishment full of vigour and promise. This is what lies behind the slugfest of the ‘Yes/No’ debate, its partisan adherents, and the simple, superficial presentation of this in large sections of the mainstream media.
Two weeks ago a piece I wrote for the Scottish Review which outlined the nature of this non-debate and the ‘two establishments Scotland’ idea. I subsequently began to think whether this was an accurate description of where we are, and whether the British establishment shouldn’t be counted given they that have an interest and voice in the whole thing. Then I came to the realisation that at least within Scotland, there was another emerging force different from the two camps.
This is what I would call ‘the third Scotland’. It is characterised by being mostly non-institutional, not part of ‘official Scotland’ and with a significant presence in social media. It also seems to represent a generational shift, with a whole swathe of politically literate 20-something Scotland being involved in it.
Whereas the SNP idea of independence seems to be predicated on the idea that nothing much should change in Scotland, and that the formal gaining of independence should be enough, ‘third Scotland’ takes a very different view. This diffuse group poses the idea of economic, social and cultural change at the forefront, and mostly but not exclusively that independence is the best vehicle for advancing this. It takes a very different approach in places, not supporting independence as nationalists, but as radical democrats, egalitarians, feminists, greens and numerous other variants impatient at the closed, complacent conversations of ‘official Scotland’.
The forces of ‘third Scotland’ can be seen in the activities of the Radical Independence Conference (RIC), National Collective, the Jimmy Reid Foundation and its Common Weal Project, in the work of Andy Wightman on land reform and Lesley Riddoch on cultural change. It is a political community I feel an affinity with, and one of its many interesting aspects is that parts of it defy description. Are its protagonists and advocates, activists, campaigners, imagineers or policy and ideas entrepreneurs? It seems the English language hasn’t yet caught up with the fuzzy, messy, non-partisan way that many people are now doing and living their politics.
There are limitations in elements of ‘third Scotland’ like any diverse gathering. In parts there is a capacity for what could be called an unreflective socialist nostalgia, which seems to have little understanding of modern Scotland, collective memories or the past. Scotland isn’t and never has been a socialist country, but has had a powerful collectivist culture, which is something entirely different (for good and bad). The forces of socialism in Scotland, like everywhere in the West, are weak and in retreat, and there is an urgent need to break out of any heritage industry of the left, and find a progressive politics very different both from the conservatism of what passes for socialism with its yearning for a mythical, simpler past and the neo-conservatism of the free market determinists.
I was thinking about this when I read Jill Stephenson’s piece (3 September). Apparently Jill lives in a Scotland where she has only met two people who are in favour of independence, and thinks that is telling us about modern Scotland rather than the unrepresentative nature of the company she keeps. She even compared the entire independence project to the Edinburgh trams, i.e. got up by a few fanatics – in the one, trainspotters and transport geeks, in the other, political trainspotters.
This does a disservice to the long revolution which Scottish society has undergone and which has contributed enormously to getting us where we are today: debating and considering the prospect of Scottish independence. In this, a major factor has been the slow weakening of the vice-like grip of ‘high Scotland’, which in 1945-75 expressed itself in progressive credentials in a unionist Britain that shared these characteristics. That vision of society was part of an older Scottish story: of a managed, ordered society of closed elites and professions who until recently faced very little public scrutiny or criticism.
As I posed in my two establishments perspective, a significant part of society is having trouble with this debate, and it is concentrated in institutional Scotland in parts of public bodies, the media, and formal politics. John Boothman, head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, might like to think the Beeb is doing a good job in covering the referendum, but he has to say that doesn’t he? Anyone who speaks to some of the passionate, committed journalists who work in BBC Scotland will know they are dismayed at the caution and lack of imagination of those running the organisation.
But this isn’t just about the media or the BBC. These are easy targets. The wider problem is the nature of power in Scotland, its unequal distribution and the consequences which flow from this, the undynamic nature of large sections of what is called ‘civic Scotland’ and the legacy of elite power and patronage.
Yet despite the above, something significant is stirring which is being aided and facilitated by the independence debate. A spectrum of Scotland is feeling it has the confidence, opportunity and voice to contribute to a debate on Scotland’s future. The old patterns of how things were run is being challenged, as we begin a conversation about democratising public life, and, for all the qualifications in the SNP’s version of independence, the very idea of it is being normalised. These are huge, seismic shifts.
Within ‘the third Scotland’ there is a cultural shift underway which I think we are not even beginning to come to terms with, and which ‘official Scotland’ has little comprehension of. This is the changing nature of soft power and voice.
For as long as anyone can remember, Scotland has been defined by ideas of sensing that you needed to seek permission to do something; there was in the air a palpable feeling that you could be told off at any point which any homegrown Scot knew. This prescriptive, sometimes punitive authority in the ether was based on people’s own experiences, of being educated, of how parents or relatives sometimes acted, or the folk histories of times when the Kirk ruled the land with an iron will. When a friend of mine years ago decided to publicly challenge some of the totems of Scots public life she said that she felt she was ‘putting her bum out the window’ and might be verbally shot at!
Now there is a growing movement of people saying ‘I have authority’, I have permission, licence and confidence to dare to stick my head above the parapet. That seems quite a change from the Scotland many of us grew up in, and which defined our parents and grandparents. There is a gender dimension to this ‘third Scotland’: more women are sensing that they can challenge the male-only spaces which have existed too long and still exist in too many places. There is a generational shift as we move from the society of the elders where a group held forth about how perfect things were before the evil Thatcher decided to steal our scones. And there is the emergence of a whole plethora of social media voices and platforms.
Let’s by all means challenge the narrow bandwidth of ‘official Scotland’. Let’s challenge what passes for party political debate and the idea that Scotland’s future is about a binary, simplistic Yes and No. There are many different Yeses and Nos, as well as many Scotlands beyond that.
We shouldn’t get carried away. The forces of institutional Scotland, while weaker and in decline, still have enormous reach and power. The forces of the ‘third Scotland’ are relatively much weaker. But change is in the air. The 1980s mantra of ‘civic Scotland’, of worthies and city fathers proclaiming that they speak for the people, is coming to an end. And with it the possibilities of a new culture of diffuseness and diversity is emerging: the age of the ‘third Scotland’.
Dr Gerry Hassan is the author and editor of numerous books on Scotland, politics and ideas, including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’