Monday, 10 August 2009

“Holyrood and the search for Scotland’s soul” (ps. it isn’t at the bottom of a tin of Tunnocks tea cakes)

While the Scottish Parliament was celebrating its tenth birthday BBC Scotland ran a series of events (and a poll) to commemorate this occasion. For this they should be commended because ordinarily they are a real lack of political programmes. Of course, it shouldn’t take ten years of devolution to prompt this but they do have to keep space for tragic 1980’s (90’s if we are lucky) B Movies.

The Scottish public were spoiled for choice; well those who were up late enough to have their devolution fix. One programme - grandly titled “Holyrood and the search for Scotland’s soul”- deserves a degree of scrutiny. With such an ostentatious title I was expecting it to be narrated by Sean Connery or Ewan McGregor; maybe even Tom Devine. Imagine my shock when I saw Brian Taylor going into a kilt shop in the opening scene - I feared the worse.

Within minutes I was squirming. Already it had eclipsed my fears, a feat in itself, with Taylor having dished out Tunnock’s Tea Cakes and Irn Bru to encourage Stirlingers to come up and share their views on devolution. I tightly grabbed my cushion for emotional support knowing what was coming next. Yes, the piper arrived and a young girl began “spontaneously” (aye right) dancing.

Now I was genuinely scared, angry even. If I could have swore half as well as Malcolm Tucker from In the Loop I would have. Yet like a masochist Scot I kept watching.

Actually, this turned out to be the lowest, cringe worthy moment in the programme. What followed were some interviews with political heavyweights like Tony Blair, Alex Salmond, and Gordon Brown etc. Brown smiled (I clutched the cushion ever more closely) as he skilfully avoided saying “Scotland” too much. Like the boogie man, Middle England is never far away.

Taylor’s search for Scotland’s soul (sorry I laugh every time I type this) took him to foreign shores. The key question this cake-eating, cowboy hat wearing, singing visit addressed was this: do we need independence to express our Scottishness or can we accommodate it within the union?

On impendence he went to Norway (cake-eating) and on unionism he went to Texas (singing and cowboy hat), America. Needless to say, this fact finding mission produced diametrically opposed views but it was refreshing to remove the debate from its often parochial anchor. The visit to Norway, in particular, provided food for thought, no pun intended.

On returning home Taylor outlined Holyrood’s major achievements. It was the usual list: thou shalt ban smoking; thou shalt reject tuition fees; thou shalt introduce free personal care and so on. One wonders when these successes will be recited in an evangelical chant at Time for Reflection.

I was just about to channel hop when Taylor said that the different policy focus in Scotland was because of a different identity and that these legislative achievements (particularly the smoking ban) consolidated our “pride, self-belief and confidence”. This caught my attention. My mind wandered to the de-industrialised landscape of urban Scotland. This gloomy reality and Taylor’s assertion were entirely at odds.

They were other examples of Taylor’s questionable conclusions. In 2003 Holyrood “spoke to the soul of Scotland” regarding the Iraq War and in 2007 the Parliamentary elections were a “battle for the soul of Scotland”. Without question the former was a “key maturing process” for the Parliament and of course there was a strong anti-war movement in Scotland. But a country’s soul, if it has one, is collective and has to speak for all of the country. Clearly this was not the case. Iraq provoked democratic protest but the vast majority were too enmeshed in Scotland’s hyperreal popular culture to notice. And the election was most definitely not a battle for the soul of Scotland. Like the 09’ European elections outlining a verdict on the current Prime Minister was high on the agenda for voters.

Yet, my contention with the documentary runs deeper than mere disagreements on certain issues; it’s philosophical. Taylor’s programme was rooted in the belief that: (1) a coherent Scottish identity exists and (2) a political institution can satisfy our soul. Let’s focus on point one and disregard the other (with a nod and a wink to Max Weber) as a political elites’ pipe dream. Taylor is certainly not alone in making these conclusions about Scottish identity – a certain SNP come to mind for example.

For Taylor a modern Scottish identity consists of fairness, equality and justice. Resisting the desire to shout “long live the revolution” and “death to the ancien regime”, one wonders how accurate this characterisation is. Isn’t fairness incompatible with a decade long growth in income inequality? Doesn’t the remaining vestiges of patriarchy strike at the heart of our aspiration to be an equal nation? And the continuing growth of fuel poverty and the prevalence of slopping out in our jails are surely incommensurable with justice. Right?

My purpose here is not to ethically proselytise about the state of Scottish democracy. I’ll leave that to our “transparent” elected representatives. I only wish to shatter the illusion he and others wish to create by shining a brief light on the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality. Scottish identity, as I see it, is inherently relational. More often than not, our policy makers have largely reacted to New Labour policies down south while the Barnett Formula has allowed the Parliament the great luxury of only having to bother with one half of the balance sheet.

Indeed, a binary narrative permeates Scottish identity and our politics. One side is good (Scotland), the other bad (UK). For example: Iraq, smoking, education, health, energy, social care and so on. This trend demonstrates a remarkable ability by the Scottish political elite - not that they are along in this, for e.g. the Cold War - to invoke implicit moral arguments.

Scottish identity is not simply relational, however. It is deeply fragmented and inchoate. At best it is in flux; at worst a caricature of itself. Unfortunately my belief in the later continues to gain credence when I look at the Homecoming Scotland campaign to attract the Diaspora. It is all kilts, whisky and Rabbie Burns, a sure sign of the increasing commodification of Scottish culture. To be fair it is a tourist drive mind you.

Holyrood and the search for Scotland’s soul had good intentions. I don’t doubt that. But, if ever there was a programme which illustrated the shared assumptive world between the political elites and the culminating disconnect from ordinary Scots’ it was this. In Orwell’s words, it gave “solidity to pure wind”.

Barry McCulloch
Policy Officer

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