what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Caledonian Dreaming?

My readers know that I like a good dissection – I like to see a country stripped of its pretensions.
A book called "Caledonian Dreaming" about the various myths with which the country sustains itself is as good as it gets in that respect…The author, one Gerry Hassan, is one of the few Scots who doesn’t seem to mind being called an intellectual. In fact, just as Bulgaria only seems to have one intellectual (Ivan Krastev) so Scotland has Gerry. The book doesn’t really seem to take a position on the burning issue – although I understand he is a “for” rather than “agin”. He certainly doesn’t mince his words -
 ‘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.’

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.
 In my 20s, I was angry about that power structure which, of course, was evident in the shipbuilding town I grew up in. I read avidly the early New Left Books – such as “Conviction” and critical material about “exclusion” which was coming from the Community Development Programme of the 1970s. I did my own bit about encouraging community activism – and actually wrote a small book in the late 1970s with a title “The Search for Democracy” which has echoes with Hassan’s sub-title - “the quest for a different Scotland”.
Although I voted (ultimately) in 1979 “for” a Scottish Parliament, I did write (in my contribution to the famous Red Paper on Scotland) that the discussion of the time was a “distraction” from more important issues. The caution of my Labour colleagues on the local and then Regional Councils I served for 22 years until 1990 was evident – their subservience, with honourable exceptions, to the power of their professional advisers transparent….

Hassan is ruthless in his critique….
despite all its radical and outsider roots, Labour was never a party of democratisation of British institutions but rather of using them for progressive ends.The central instrument of change in this was the British state, which was seen as neutral and benign.’
But 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 and its “myriad contractors”, 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 and money’

Hassan is keen on the stories we tell about ourselves – and warns about falling into the trap of believing all of our own stories or myths- and he identifies several such myths  which Scots propogate–
·         of egalitarianism
·         of educational opportunity
·         of holding power to account
·         of social democracy
·         of open Scotland.

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 these 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”.
At the moment, I would fault only one thing – that he does not sufficiently recognize the efforts of those who struggled in the 1970s to develop, in his words, “a different Scotland”. He is (probably justly) caustic in his dismissal of the fashion in the 1970s for “community education” – but might have mentioned those like Ken Alexander and Geoff Shaw who dared to speak (and act) for a different Scotland. 
Or perhaps he dismisses them as “the great and good”? I met a lot of leftists who took such a dismissive view – and took exception to it. The usual divisive story – “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. Even Lesley Riddoch, in her celebration of community activism, fails to mention the pioneers of community business in Strathclyde in the 1980s…. talk about being whitewashed out of history……

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