Friday 26 August 2016

Culture in Scotland: the problem of substance rather than simply institutions

Nicola Sturgeon tames Scotland by Gerard Burns 

There has been a flurry of 'conservative' (I'm never quite sure how to describe this/my approach, but 'conservative' will do as a placeholder) comment on the stifling cultural and political hegemony of modern Scotland. Kenneth Roy's piece in the Scottish Review will do as an example:

This is the nature of the malaise: it seems that everyone has too much to lose by challenging an increasingly monolithic political establishment, particularly when the most influential voices in the arts and media have allowed themselves to become cheerleaders for that establishment. Is this really how a healthy democracy should function? Journalism works best when it is scrutinising and challenging the established order, not meekly acquiescing; the same is surely true of fiction, poetry and the performing arts. But in Scotland the normal rules of engagement have been turned on their head: if we know what is good for us, we sing from the same patriotic song-sheet, picking up our allotted crumb from the breadboard of Creative Scotland, hoping for a good review from Alan Taylor, hearing no evil, seeing no evil, until the last dissenter has been strangled with the last rolled-up copy of the Sunday Herald.

I've got considerable sympathy for this view, but more (and in more detail) needs to be said. First, one of the problems of devolution, let alone the push for more powers and ultimately independence, is that more powers now exist to exercise hegemony than did (say) fifty years ago. In my adult life, I have never noticed a particularly varied political or cultural debate in Scotland.  Anyone who encountered the Labour hegemony that existed until recently would not immediately have thought that they had encountered a Golden Age of intellectual curiosity. But it's undoubtedly true that 'blob' thinking now has more levers to operate in Scotland. So the first observation is that hegemony has always existed in modern Scotland but it now has more power to do damage.

Secondly, it is hardly the fault of the SNP that every other party in Scotland has decided to become incompetent. Although this is (perhaps) slightly overstating the case, the collapse of Scottish Conservatism, UK Liberalism and the Scottish (and perhaps UK?) Labour Party is not the fault of the SNP although they have clearly benefited from it. It is possible that Scottish Conservatism is staging a revival. Personally, I doubt this, but in any case there seems little likelihood in the near future of its being able to mount the sort of serious opposition to the SNP that Labour once was capable of. The resulting hegemony is undoubtedly regrettable, but the fault (and solution) is more to do with the other parties than the SNP.

Thirdly, and remaining with 'conservatism' for a while, at the moment, most criticism of the existing hegemony is on the grounds of a) competence and b) Unionism. That's fine and necessary, but as a long term strategy, it's limited. Issues of competence are difficult to assess in real time and unless Unionism becomes more than a simple economic case ('independence is going to cost you') it's probably going to become increasingly ineffective as people get used to the message as a background noise and certainly is going to lack impact on the wider cultural field.

And it's this wider cultural field that I want to focus on. Modern Scottish Nationalism has, in a remarkably short period of time, managed to convince large numbers of people, perhaps even a majority, that Scotland is progressive. The details of what this means are essentially fuzzy, but as a civil religion it certainly contains a familiar kit of benedictions and comminations. Blessed are the multicultural. Cursed are the homophobic. Blessed are those exploring their own sexuality. Cursed are those who believe in tradition. Etc. Etc. When coupled with a general tendency in the West for cultural elites to be overwhelmingly progressive (the Heterodox Academy is a good source on this), the pre-existing tendency to blob thinking in Scotland, as well as the identification of Scottish Nationalism with the project of becoming (even) more progressive than England, we have a recipe for the sort of stifling cultural control that Roy identifies.

Certainly, I would like to see a more effective political opposition to the SNP, not because I am particularly hostile to the SNP, but because it is unhealthy for any party to feel it is invulnerable. [Let me note here that there is a key issue that rarely seems to be raised: the SNP used to be regarded by most Nationalists I know as a temporary coalition which would dissolve upon independence. The need now to exist as a (devolved) government before independence has put this coalition identity in the background while the sort of effective discipline and clear policies required for electable government are practised. The resulting dilemmas for supporters of independence who are opposed to SNP progressivism have been insufficiently explored.] But until one or more of the other parties manages to pull itself into shape and become presentable as a potential opposition, that's not going to happen. And it's foolish to blame the SNP for that. Part of the solution has to be the creation of a vision of Scotland that is substantially different from the progressive vision of the SNP. (And it's worth noting here that the much of the most effective criticism at the moment seems to be coming from those who think that the SNP is insufficiently progressive.) And more needs to be said here than simply a endorsement of the Union: what sort of society would be better, aside from the question of whether or not that society is better realized within or outwith the UK?

Back to Roy's essay. Imagine a situation ten years in the future when (say) complete independence is off the agenda. The SNP will still be campaigning for a different, more progressive Scotland to differentiate itself from the UK culturally. Other than on economic reforms, the Conservative Party will be as progressive in all essentials as the SNP, and the Corbynite Left and the Greens will be urging even more progressivism. What reason is there to think that cultural life in Scotland will not still be as stiflingly progressive as it is now?

In sum, cultural and political hegemony is a problem in modern Scotland, but breaking the SNP's monopoly of political power is only one (and I think a minor) aspect of that problem. I see no sign that, even without an assured political control over cultural institutions, the dominance of a a certain progressive viewpoint will be abandoned. As I have said many times before, the question of Independence is secondary to the question of what sort of society we should live in, and the sort of progressivism that the SNP promotes is dominant in Scotland far beyond that party.

Three final, concrete illustrations. The current stooshie over the Named Person scheme is certainly the fault of the SNP. But it is also the fault of a cultural and political climate that makes it very difficult to articulate the sort of truth about the central place of the biological family that the Supreme Court judges quoted from international law (section 72):

The Preamble to the UNCRC states:

“the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and wellbeing of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”
Many articles in the UNCRC acknowledge that it is the right and responsibility of parents to bring up their children. Thus article 3(2) requires States Parties, in their actions to protect a child’s wellbeing, to take into account the rights and duties of his or her parents or other individuals legally responsible for him or her; article 5 requires States Parties to respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, other family or community members or others legally responsible for the child to provide appropriate direction and guidance to the child in the exercise of his or her rights under the Convention; article 14(2) makes similar provision in relation to the child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; article 27(2) emphasises that the parents have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capabilities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development; article 18(1) provides that:

     “States Parties shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both     parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child. Parents or, as the case may  be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.” (Emphasis supplied)

(When the judgment came out, I remember some Twitter comment describing that commonsense attitude as 'medieval'...)

Unless that sort of 'conservative' viewpoint has access to cultural institutions such as Roy refers to, in sufficient numbers and with sufficient internal variety to give it intellectual heft (another problem just now),  whether inside or outside the UK we are sunk.

Secondly, Roy allows himself a sideswipe at Neal Ascherson. In particular, he mentions Andrew O'Hagan's difficulties with Nationalists after criticizing him. I assume in particular he is thinking of the LRB review by O'Hagan of Ascherson's Stone Voices. (Here.) Now you can think what you like of Ascherson and indeed of Stone Voices. (For what it's worth, I think neither beyond criticism, but am profoundly grateful to Ascherson for over the years of his Observer columns showing something to a younger me of what intellectual life might be like, and to Stone Voices for a stimulating piece of psychogeography, particularly when read (as I did) in Kilmartin Glen.) Of course, Ascherson should be argued with. But note from what perspective O'Hagan does so:

There is, as Nairn puts it, a ‘tantalising sense of redemption which always informs nostalgia’, but the Scottish people cannot afford to get stuck there any longer, and Scotland must go on now to establish its role in bringing about a new United Kingdom within a new Europe. In the manner of Stephen Dedalus, we might do better to see Scotland’s conscience as ‘uncreated’; for while we must admit that Ascherson’s stones are interesting, they are not as interesting as people. Nationalism in Scotland is a place where good men and women busy themselves shaking the dead hand of the past, but the naming of a tradition is not the same as the forging of a nation, and modern Scotland, now more than ever, needs a new way of thinking, a new kind of relation to the old, a way to live, a way to make itself better than the badness that’s been and the badness to come. The question of what the past amounted to can lie about the grass.
So Ascherson, the paradigm of a progressive intellectual, complete with endorsements from Hobsbawm and an Eton education, is criticized by being insufficiently progressive, too interested in the past, too conservative. The usual Scottish substantive hegemonic game: you are wrong because I am more progressive than you. Am I really, as a social conservative, supposed to celebrate this iteration of the progressive mindset as an unproblematic example of well placed criticism suppressed by evil Nats? (Just imagine reading the above O'Hagan paragraph to Roger Scruton. With whom do you think his sympathies might lie?)

Thirdly and finally, Roy raises the question of the enforced reading of Scottish texts in Scottish schools. Quite why this should be objectionable is beyond me. (If it were a matter of only reading Scottish texts, that would be different.) From those of my children who had to study English at Higher, I can recall only two Scottish texts: Jekyll and Hyde and Robin Jenkins' The Cone Gatherers. Neither strike me as unreasonable (whatever else I'd like to say about the thinness of the Higher curriculum). Stevenson's text surely earns its place as a world classic. Jenkins', whilst not my favourite of his works (Fergus Lamont, if you want to know), is a Christian parable about suffering and innocence. Again, why should a conservative object a) to some awareness of one's local culture and b) in particular, these books?

Overall, I think the problem lies more in the absence of lively conservative cultural institutions within Scotland capable of articulating and even disagreeing on what is wrong with progressivism. (Alistair Darling makes the point in his introduction to Tom Gallagher's Scotland Now about the absence of " 'think tank' capacity", a lack particularly evident in the reasoned expression of conservative views beyond Unionism.) Too much rests on the sort of campaigning talk along the lines of  'my friend's enemy is my enemy'. The mere fact that a given commentator opposes the SNP  is not enough to endorse their views uncritically; the mere fact that a given view is held by supporters of the SNP is not enough to dismiss them.

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