This book, edited by Gregor Gall, is both a timely and ambitious work that seeks to take Scotland further forward along the road to self-determination. It is timely because it matches rather well Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announcing recently that she plans to hold a second independence referendum later next year. Anyone interested in how Scotland could be as an independent nation should read this book, for its breadth of vision almost prefigures a new nation into being.
The ambition of the book is evident by the array of contributors to it. Gregor Gall has brought together nearly 60 academics and activists in various fields to consider three central areas of concern – Key Issues which deal with poverty, climate justice and economic concerns, Policy Areas which deal with housing, health, education, work, human rights, income and wealth inequality, gender justice, race and migration and the thorny issue of land ownership, and finally Political Practice that looks at culture, Scotland’s radical tradition, political classes today and community campaigns.
If all the analysis and calls to action were enacted upon then there would certainly be a newer and fairer Scotland. If everything suggested in this book came to fruition there would be nothing less than a paradigm shift in the political, economic and cultural condition of Scottish society. And it would lead to editors of every other nation commissioning their own versions of such a book.
What militates against this – and this is something most contributors agree upon – is the actual neoliberal condition in Scotland, in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Nearly every contributor deals with this, however without anyone actually defining what it is. It was interesting to see that Ellie Harrison is one of the contributors to this text and in her marvellous book The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of class, capitalism and carbon footprint (2019), she said that the word had a pervasive use in the world of culture and the arts and no-one ever bothered to define it. She referred to the book written by Alana Jelinck – This in Not Art: Activism & Other ‘Not-Art’- which suggested that neoliberalism has three main components, namely privatisation, deregulation and trade liberalisation.
This aggressive system of parasitic capitalism is clearly responsible for the world’s inequalities and for the climate emergency that it also fails to fully recognise. This economic culture holds Scotland back just as it holds back every other nation on earth. However, Scotland truly does have a special place in this debate since she last voted for the Conservative Party – a key driver of neoliberalism – in 1955. Undeniably, Scotland has suffered from a democratic deficit since then as a result of voting Labour up until 2010 at General Elections, and has subsequently voted SNP at General Elections since then as well as giving the SNP majorities in Holyrood since 2007 and at local elections too since then.
Just like Gall’s book the Scottish people have aspirations to improve. The preferred route was traditionally through Labour but with that Party’s incarnation into New Labour that continued the neoliberal nostrums enacted by Thatcher, they have now switched to the SNP, which claims to be social democratic. Initially, this party did some excellent things with free bus passes for pensioners – extended to young adults aged under 24 – free tuition fees, free prescriptions and, more recently, baby boxes for each new child born in Scotland.
Brexit certainly changes matters even more. Scotland voted to Remain in the EU in 2016 by some 62% and there is no special deal for Scotland as there is for Northern Ireland. The Brexit coup has pushed the whole polity of the UK further to the right and Scotland feels isolated by these events. While the contributors do applaud some of the SNP achievements, many also recognise how the party has stalled in recent times. The book, in a sense, seeks to push things forward.
Much of this stalling is due to what several contributors call the PMC – the professional and managerial class both within Holyrood, and the troupe of journalists, assorted media and business interests which surround the place. According to Morelli and Mooney this has been responsible for what they call the technocratic managerialism within a fixed budgetary framework. Scotland’s Barnett formula grant from Westminster has created a heavily centralised state under the SNP as it seeks to distance itself from an even more centralised post-Brexit Westminster under a right wing Conservative government.
Hassan and Graham suggest that the community around Holyrood and its professional politics is defined by the privileged white, middle-class, male gaze. In a marvellous phrase they speak of the choreographies of consultation that take place there while lamenting the missing voices of ordinary working-class people and their growing concerns.
Danson and Dalzell both castigate the two centuries of clearance, emigration and degradation of communities, land and culture have created imbalanced landscapes, economies and populations. Such sound historical knowledge of the contributors underpins the desire for social justice in a small nation that is genuinely in need of it.
The use of the word culture seems well chosen. In essays by Burnett and Chalmers and Scothorne and Gibbs, there is recognition given to the place of culture in Scotland. While Burnett and Chalmers view Scottish culture as an inherently national identifier and admit that culture is not about ‘additional benefit’ but is essential to our lives and wellbeing, Scothorne and Gibbs view Scottish culture as the most likely source of renewal for Scottish radicalism. However, this view also used the word perhaps and I must take issue with this choice of word here. Both writers point to the wonderfully radical play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, written by John McGrath in 1973, but seem to fail to understand that it is Scottish writers and artists since McGrath and Hamish Henderson, who also gets a mention, that have taken us to the demand for a second independence referendum.
Scotland’s first three Makars – Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay – all had their poems read out at the opening sessions of Holyrood. All three poems had a radical edge, demanding that the Scottish Parliament deliver for the people of Scotland. Alasdair Gray, as both writer, artist and individual was the very epitome of Scottish radicalism. In both Gaelic culture and in Scots there are many writers producing work that is radical. Scottish literature – and Scottish culture more generally – has been on the side of radical change for Scotland. And that change has been of a constitutional nature.
Jim Cuthbert refers to Lenin and the rentier states that Scotland and the UK have become but maybe – as opposed to perhaps – with independence the SNP could wither away like the state as envisioned by Lenin after revolution, and create an opening for more radical politics that could be filled by a Scottish Labour Party that is no longer a branch office’of London, as Johann Lamont once said?
Maybe or perhaps is all that can be said just now. On a broader level of cultural understanding there is the recognition that access to culture has a price tag attached and with so many people living in poverty there will clearly be an issue here. And big business, of course, sponsor so many events in the cultural sphere that seems to counter any radicalism ever coming into play. The same can be said of print houses that are foreign owned but Scothorne and Gibbs do point favourably to the website Bella Caledonia which, it must be stated, has been inspired by one of Alasdair Gray’s creations.
It was good to see some excellent input to the book by Rozanne Foyer, General Secretary of the STUC and Linda Somerville, the Deputy General Secretary. The STUC, we are told, was the first ever labour movement body to employ an arts officer. That is recognition of the radical importance of culture in Scottish society.
The final word should go to Gregor Gall, the editor of this fine collection of essays. He tells us in his introduction that Scotland is a wealthy country full of poor people. The whole point of this book is to try and change that.
Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.