The Divine Right to Rule: Power and the Scots

The Divine Right to Rule: Power and the Scots
Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman
March 2011

Scotland likes to see itself as a land of passion, romance and rebellion: a disputatious society where no one is allowed to get too big for their boots: a permanent ‘diverse assembly’ in Robert Crawford’s telling phrase.

At the same time the Scots have displayed a curious attitude towards power, who has it, how they exercise it, and what it means. One could characterise it as an indifference, but it slips over into something much stronger: acquiescence.

One account, found in the Scottish Government and its extended networks, business and wider public life is to see those that exercise power and influence as doing so informed by the public good and general sense of a common weal.

This perspective blows over into a brazen conceit in some parts in those who have power and influence. Magnus Linklater once declared with certainty, ‘It would be very hard to talk about a Scottish establishment’ and that there was no ‘clubland’, a comment which could only be made by someone deeply entrenched within insider Scotland. The fact that he did it in the introduction to a book entitled ‘Anatomy of Scotland’ which was meant to look at influence and elites only made it more significant.

Most people in Scotland don’t live and breathe in the system. It is surprising that the popular mood generally seems to go along with much of the above sentiment. There is a general belief in society – of taking those with power and influence, whether they are the professional interests, public bodies, or government – at face value, having trust that they are what they say they are. And showing little interest in questioning those who have power and their motivations.

There is a public/private divide with the public sector viewed more favourably and the private sector with suspicion, yet we shouldn’t over-emphasise the latter. Where has the specific Scottish outcry been over RBS and HBOS beyond getting annoyed at Fred Goodwin? Or a sense of shame and protest about these once proud Scots institutions?

This is not about an apolitical, disconnected Scotland. Most of those who would identify as on the left, whether of the radical or cosy, comfy type, would take the same view. Writers and public figures such as William McIlvanney have over the ages eulogised the public realm in a deeply romanticised, sentimental manner.

There seems to be little interest in understanding how power and influence has changed in Scotland over recent times. There has over the post-war era been a massive concentration of power economically – as Scotland has lost many of its indigenous companies, and as capitalism has become more monopolistic and cronyish.

Similarly recent years has seen a profound, deep and damaging over-centralisation of public life which seems to be barely understood. In part this is because of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, seen as a decentralising move, but which has also encouraged centralisation in large parts of public life.

This trend can be seen in the treatment of local government from the abolition of town councils in 1975 and their replacement by first super-regions and districts: an age of modernist, triumphalist hope. These were then superseded by the 1995 single tier authorities. Today there is no talk of significant local government reorganisation, but instead of shared services and merging many public services which have a regional dimension, such as police, into a single national authority.

This leads us to what Kenneth Roy has aptly called ‘the Auchinleck problem’: the small Ayrshire town marred by the recent airgun attack on eleven pupils, and weeks previous a full-scale football riot between Auchinleck Talbot and Cumnock Juniors.

The wider question is who cares and speaks for small town Scotland represented by Auchinleck? Post-1974 the answer is no one really. Auchinleck like lots of other places finds itself lost in a big council: East Ayrshire, and squeezed into being at best a dormitory town for Ayr, Kilmarnock and Glasgow.

Scottish public life neglects and ignores the Auchinlecks of this world, focusing on a narrow Central Belt story of Scotland, of Glasgow and Edinburgh. As Andy Wightman has written the abolition of town councils took away a rich parchment of public life in Scotland, and removed the Common Good funds from local use, allowing monies that we own and control to be secretly hoarded away in bigger council coffers.

An interesting insight into how the powerful act in Scotland was revealed by Wightman when he found that Willie Ross, later to be Harold Wilson’s Secretary of State for Scotland, was given free, by Royal Burgh of Ayr in 1953, part of Ayr’s Common Good land. This is the kind of quasi-legal land and power grabs which go on in Scotland to this day.

In the last two years, I have been travelling the length and breath of Scotland talking and listening to people and asking them what kind of change they want for their communities and what kind of future. I have been to lots of small-town Scotland – from Ullapool to Fallin to Loghgilphead – and people in these places have hope, imagination and some resources, but they need a little bit more of the latter, and are  anxious about what voice they have and who speaks for them.

How do we begin to acknowledge the power question in Scottish society, and the consequences it has? I actually think change is coming and it is going to be a shock for those who think they have a near divine right to rule. First, Scotland isn’t that different from elsewhere. The age of deference and belief in authority has weakened here, like everywhere. Second, despite the professional classes tight grip on public life, people will eventually, due to cuts and changes, begin to be more questioning. Rising popular expectations about health, education and other public services will prove a powerful force.

As important, outwith the narrow bandwidth of official Scotland, people in lots of places, Govan, Dundee, Hawick and elsewhere, show that they have a capacity to think seriously about their communities and imagine different ways of doing things which isn’t about direct rule from some far-off councillor committee.

The challenge in this is to give voice, space and more resources to the changemakers and forces who are out there in the towns and communities to bring about the change that they want. We have to start from the belief that even the most enlightened parts of the system cannot bring about reform and empower people; people need to organise, and create institutions and networks which give all of this expression.

I believe that despite everything: the difficult next couple of years, a UK Government which seems intent on punishing the public for others’ mistakes, that Scotland has the opportunity to embark on something really interesting after devolution.

To do that we need to talk about power, who has it and what they are doing with it, and take on establishment Scotland and tell them their time is finally up.