When did present day Scotland begin? Not the ‘modern’ Scotland of post-war times, or the upside and then downside of Labour Scotland. But the land that we visibly live in today – shaped by the ghosts of industries long gone and the sins and excesses of Thatcher and Blair.
The conventional answer is 1979: the ‘Year Zero’ of Scottish sensibilities when, for many, the world was turned upside down with the election of the Thatcher government and the stalled first devolution referendum.
However, that is the view in retrospect. Thatcher didn’t unambiguously represent Thatcherism in 1979. Interestingly, most of Scotland’s non-Tory politicians and mainstream media didn’t represent it then the way we do now. For example, the Herald and the Scotsman choose to interpret Thatcher’s first UK victory not in terms of the Scottish national dimension, but in British conventional left and right terms (neither of which were then as wedded to the constitutional debate as now).
In reality, present day Scotland started somewhere between 1983 and 1987 – between the second Thatcher victory, the invention of the poll tax in 1985-86, and the third Thatcher victory in 1987: ‘the Doomsday scenario’ as it was called (meaning Scotland voted more Labour, but got a Tory government based on English votes).
Around this time a contemporary version of a very old Scottish lament came to the fore. This stated that Scotland’s very existence was under threat – in this case from the Thatcher government and her now widely recognised ism.
This has been a strand of our history and culture – of feeling a sense of anxiety and concern that we may cease to exist, be assimilated or even annihilated. This is often linked to worries about the consequences of collectively taking the wrong decision and ‘bottling’ it at a crucial juncture – such as the 1979 and 2014 referendums.
Contemporary Scotland’s journey to the parliament, SNP dominance and indyref, stems from the most recent expression of this fear – originating in the mid to late 1980s. Margaret Thatcher was, for many, committed to destroying everything Scottish – a belief still widely articulated about this near past.
William McIlvanney gave this view emotional resonance at the time. Thatcher, he said in his ‘Stands Scotland Where It Did?’ 1987 lecture, was ‘a cultural vandal’ who, if allowed to continue, ‘will remove from the word ‘Scottish’ any meaning other than the geographic’. Many others said similar things – ranging from cultural figures to politicians of every non-Tory persuasion.
Despite everything this opinion still has power. Last week, after the threatened closure of Bella Caledonia, playwright David Greig commented that Scotland could in the future be reduced to ‘a regional culture’. One reason for this was that we ‘make hardly any films or TV for example’.
This evolved into a measured, but illuminating, conversation between David, Joyce McMillan and myself. It touched upon different aspects of culture, cultural production and representation, identity, nationhood and what makes a nation – and to what extent today any nation can be truly autonomous and self-governing.
There are grounds though for some of the above fears – even if they are over-stated and simplified. Scotland is one-third the land mass of the UK and matters strategically and geo-politically, but it is only 8.4% of the UK population. It has 59 MPs at Westminster out of 650 elected members – meaning that its democratic wishes can be ignored or overturned as in Brexit for example.
As seriously, there is an imbalance in power and economics which affects everyone in the UK – in that we have to share an island with the overbearing power of London and the city of London, and the fantasyland pseudo-economics of the super-rich which has captured so much of British politics.
Yet for Scotland to become ‘a regional culture’ would require quite an effort or non-effort. Scotland’s nationhood has legal, political and institutional backing. Most importantly, it has widespread public backing.
There is some similarity with post-Brexit and the shenanigans around Article 50. Just as it is ridiculous to pretend that the olden days of Westminster sovereignty still exist, so it is hyperbole for Iain Macwhirter to claim that ‘the Scottish parliament is just a here-today-gone-tomorrow institution which can be overruled and, in theory at least, abolished by Westminster as it sees fit.’
Just because something could technically happen doesn’t mean it will. Thus the UK claims to be a unitary state, underpinned by parliamentary sovereignty, when it has always been a union state now explicitly based on popular sovereignty – hence the increased frequency of referendums.
The UK is out of touch with how it sees itself, but so, in many respects, is Scotland. Recent decades have seen the idea of a ‘renaissance’ of Scottish culture, but as Alex Massie has observed such a rebirth requires previous crisis, even a ‘death’. Massie illuminates a central faultline of culture when he writes that ‘A truly confident Scottish culture would be authentically Scottish, while not caring about being Scottish.’
The uber-fragile sense of all things Scottish takes the opposite view. It argues that we have to continually obsess about our identity and that by doing so we can somehow come out the other end with the perfect Scottish identity at ease with the world. Then and only then can we proceed with doing the many other things in modern life which should be our proper concern.
But what if the collective pre-occupation with all things Scottish is part of the problem? Shouldn’t we at least consider the proposition? Might not the best way of being at ease with our Scottish identities just be to accept them, recognise their strength and durability, and acknowledge that they actually aren’t under threat or needing continual navel-gazing and introspection? Haven’t we outgrown such activities nearly two decades into the Scottish parliament’s existence in a nation increasingly autonomous and semi-independent?
Massie wrote of William McIlvanney’s best work as being ‘of this land’ but ‘neither constrained or defined by that. It contrived to be Scottish without boasting of its Scottishness and was all the better for it.’
Scotland isn’t just a nation, but a community, a community of the realm, a social and communicative space – our collective home and a place of belonging. We need to lift our heads and our aspirations and recognise the many Scotlands and the many ways of being.
We are both unique and not unique. We are something which no one else is and also part of a global conversation. We are different and not that different from elsewhere. We are even different from our southern neighbours and friends, and not that different – the latter hardly surprising after 300 years of political union. We are part of the universal story of humanity while contributing something no one else has – in our past, present and future. And of course the word and evoking of ‘we’ has many different meanings and identities, but there is in all this, a collective ‘we’ – and all of us, on one level, are part of it.
Scotland has to see past simplistic binary distinctions and embrace the multiplicities and contradictions that make us up. The divided Scotland trope is as old as our nation – reinvoked and given added sharpness in the indyref and afterwards – in yes/no, nationalist and unionist, 45% and 55%. But that isn’t really us, or the vast, vast majority of us. Instead, it is a tiny, infinitesimal part and we have to start acting as if this fact were so.
There is a need for tolerance, common rules of debate and exchange, and recognising the fundamental need for greater pluralism. Beyond that we have to encourage the missing voices of society, those marginalised, and the need for continual reinvention.
A big practical constraint in this is the nature of public life and the public sphere: constrained by economics, market size, the lack of imagination of capital investors and inadequate business models. To some of the most partisan independence voices all that matters here is the perfidy of the BBC and the mainstream media (the Daily Record and its Vow having a special place). No other stratagems are needed – which means that some complex issues of media representation or cultural reproduction are forever foreign lands.
Such thorny questions as the quantity and quality of the TV and film we produce are irrelevant to such voices. This affects nearly all debate, while the small amounts of TV and film we produce restrict many from having an honest, informed debate about whether it is any good, because of its scarcity.
An architect friend recently gently pulled me up for being slightly critical when at the end of last year a new-build in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town won UK House of the Year. He said too few such buildings were constructed in Edinburgh or Scotland’s other cities, thus meaning we should be sparse with any criticism. He took the same attitude to BBC Scotland’s recent comedy series ‘Two Doors Down’ which he thought looked awful and filled with out-of-date clichés. But he wouldn’t say anything publicly because he judged that there is so little representation of Scottish life on our screens.
Scotland is our collective home. There should no one prescribed version and instead a celebration of the many different Scotlands. Yet, for large parts of our history we as a nation have been characterised by sequential single stories which have felt they have held most wisdom and insight: from the Kirk of the 18th and 19th centuries, to Liberal Victorianism, Labour Scotland, and now the latest manifestation, nationalist Scotland.
When will we recognise the danger of the single story for Scotland – a universal observation relevant to our own circumstances? Maybe for many that moment will only come with independence, but even if that is so, we need to start planting the seeds in the here and now by encouraging counter-stories. In the process, we could perhaps learn to be a bit more relaxed about all things Scottish and the perceived threats to our continuation as a nation, and concentrate on what we actually do: whether it is film, TV and culture, building homes, or making this a safe, secure, humane society for all of us who live here.
Gerry Hassan is author of 'Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back' (Freight Books)