How do we hold power to account in Scotland?
Scottish Review, July 7th 2021
Scotland has a rich tradition of celebrating its difference and distinctiveness, seeing in its autonomy a kind of semi-independence that is exhibited in civil society, the public sphere and public life.
Scotland’s public sphere is one of the main ways we communicate, define ourselves, relate to others in public, and hold power and institutions to account – hence contributing to the democratic and political process. This contributes to an ‘independence of the Scottish mind’ – a distinctive outlook which has evolved and separated from the rest of the UK, but which also has a sense of fragility and doubt.
Some of this is due to the size of Scotland, its public life and public sphere. Some is also due to our history and traditions which, along with many positives, has at times seen a tendency to institutional groupthink and unquestioningly swallowing the prevailing orthodoxies of the day whether elite liberalism in the 19th century, social democracy in the late 20th century, or the politics of devolution and self-government in the early 21st century.
Another reason for fragility is the semi-autonomous nature of the public sphere here and how it has a ‘dual nature’, being influenced and intersected by the Londoncentric public sphere of the UK. Academic Philip Schlesinger observes: ‘Although the Scottish and UK public spheres often overlap, key differences in political institutions, voting patterns, and agendas mean that there is built-in scope for dispute about media content, legal and regulatory competencies.’
This relationship is critically not one of equals, but defined by imbalances and inequality. It is mostly a one-way relationship in that the Londoncentric public sphere communicates into and is represented in Scotland, but the Scottish public sphere has a slender footprint in London and when it does it is episodic and transient, linked to big stories or crises. London continually broadcasts stories into Scotland such as the rise of Euroscepticism and UKIP, immigrant scare stories and items about the London and South East economy; Scotland’s one big story in a generation with UK impact is the 2014 indyref.
2014 and after
The 2011-14 indyref witnessed an explosion of debate and discussion which changed the parameters and contours of public life. However, in the past seven years we have seen retrenchment, retreat and a return to a restricted menu of options with similarities to pre-2014: where politics and challenging power is once again regarded as a minority interest and something to be discouraged.
There are numerous reasons for this return. One is the political backdrop of an SNP administration who have now been in office for fourteen years, and the wear and tear which comes with this, as well as morphing into a political establishment. As important, this illustrates the limits of insurgency politics when the main champion of it is in office – a contrast from the twin-track the SNP ran in the 2014 campaign when they were able to portray themselves as insiders and insurgents.
Post-2014 has seen a retreat of people and participants, in debate, platforms, public spaces, and in the public sphere – whether in the media or wider public conversations. This should not be seen as presenting 2014 as some kind of golden age, but merely to note that the ‘Big Bang’ explosion of public engagement and participation was not built upon in public life.
The long road to 2014 was one of a weakening hold by institutional Scotland – which until the 1960s and 1970s was a liberal unionist perspective – which as it declined provided the opening for the SNP to win office, the independence question to be brought mainstream, and issues of power and legitimacy to come centrestage. Yet, even taking this longer picture of 2014 and since, there has been retrenchment and disengagement.
Black and White Scotland
All across public life one can witness the emergence of more abrasive debate as intolerant voices rise to the fore in discussions, and nuance, reflection and empathy are missing. This is a world of black and white Scotland, seen by its protagonists as good versus evil, the saved versus the damned, and which by its heat, lack of light and certainty has the capacity to crowd out and scare away others.
Thus, we have exchanges in parts of the constitutional debate which have an Armageddon-like nature: of Scotland needing to break free as soon as possible from a rotten, corrupt, anti-democratic union and being held against its will by perfidious politicians in Westminster and Scotland (in some accounts now including the SNP).
On the other hand the most fanatical aspects of the unionist sentiment have disappeared into its own parallel universe, equating the SNP with fascists and Nazis, hating Nicola Sturgeon to a degree beyond reason, and sometimes even embracing anti-Scottishness. One recent example has been openly refusing to support the Scottish men’s football team in the Euros, instead supporting the teams Scotland were playing. The logic in this latter sentiment is that any support for Scotland plays into the independence project and has to be opposed.
All across our public life we see such black and white thinking. Take the current challenges faced by Glasgow – as a city and council. Gary Smith, newly elected General Secretary of the GMB union across the UK (and previously head of the GMB in Scotland), has consistently talked of the city in the most apocalyptic terms – declaring that ‘the streets are filthy, infrastructure is crumbling, the public realm is in a terrible state of affairs’. Smith has taken this to the level of saying that Glasgow is unfit to host COP 26, so rather than talk appropriately about the scale of challenges the city faces and trying to find solutions he is, perhaps aided by frustration, lashing out and even looking to see the city punished.
A watershed for some is the controversy around the Gender Recognition Act and issue of self-identification for trans people. This has become in parts of public life an incendiary debate defined by a lack of common ground and understanding between those who are trans supporters and those who are gender critical.
Instead of a fair debate we see fundamentalists verbally assault each other and reduce discussion to the most simplistic banalities that are presented as non-negotiable. This does not happen in a vacuum, but has been weaponised and magnified by the forces of the reactionary right and the likes of George Galloway and Alex Salmond, blogs such as Wings over Scotland – which became fixated on the trans issue – as well as the Daily Mail and The Times.
The retreat of public service broadcasting
The changing media landscape, retreat of the BBC, and challenge to public service broadcasting, and the regulatory model overseen by Ofcom, do not assist in the vibrancy of the public sphere in Scotland or across the UK. The BBC is now consistently under fire from across the political spectrum – from right-wingers and the UK Tory Government, from Corbynistas and the left, and in Scotland, from the SNP and independence supporters. This underlines that the BBC’s cautious centrism and search for ‘balance’ is a dangerous tightrope which it regularly falls off – aided by the ineptitude and defensiveness of senior BBC managers.
The spectre of Andrew Neil’s GB News is worth noting because inept, nasty, ill-informed and unprofessional as it is, it may offer a glimpse into the future. This would be a media without much breaking news but with lots of prejudice and opinion, catering to a niche market and then looking to make waves from a small constituency and the reaction its output provokes.
This would be a media terrain where the all-encompassing national broadcasters – BBC, ITV, SKY – played an increasingly smaller role and instead there were a host of partisan and specialist broadcasters and providers. Rather than just let this happen by stealth politicians and policy makers need to recognise the changing world of the media both internationally and in the UK and act to aid quality, pluralism and diversity. The chances of the UK Tory Government leading such a debate – given its ideological and commercial interests – as well as propensity to bash the BBC – is non-existent.
Scotland’s public sphere is often just assumed as being virtuous, without addressing realities and constraints. Many of the specific institutions, practices and platforms which make up the public sphere are often cited and lambasted without any reference or understanding to this wider context and landscape. For example, it is really impossible to understand BBC Scotland and its outlook and choices without referencing how it sits and relates to the BBC in London – which is ultimately about who the heads of the corporation in Scotland are accountable to, how that distorts perspectives, and how it sits in the wider media landscape here.
This is a situation of which an increasingly self-governing Scotland has to become more acutely aware because it impacts on how we hold power to account – whether political, economic, civic, or of any kind. Today’s Scotland already contains too many concentrations of power, vested interests and closed doors which debar or disincline anyone from asking too many questions or scrutinising decisions too carefully.
The public sphere in Scotland needs urgent attention – as powerful forces and interests globally are going to bring turbulence, upheaval and disruption. That means that we will need to think how to protect and preserve the diversity and pluralism that we have, but recognise that this will not be enough. Rather, we also need to open up a debate about how we enrich and democratise our public life and public sphere, and use it for the benefit of the majority rather than the select few.
The Long Revolution
If we return to the long view of change cited earlier in this piece – a suitably thoughtful perspective came from the academic Christopher Harvie, writing in the New Statesman in November 1975 in a piece: ‘The Devolution of the Intellectuals’. Harvie characterised the decline of traditional authority and institutions and the emergence of new ideas and voices challenging the old:
The complacent conservatism which characterised middle class Scottish culture seems almost completely to have disappeared. The old Scottish institutions are admitted to be in dissolution; the hold of the churches has been broken; law is seen more as a restrictive practice than a national ornament; education is badly in need of reform. Political nationalism is no more prepossessing as an ideology than it was, but there is no longer a British or imperial alternative. The intelligentsia can now only create a tolerable, convivial community in its own country.
Scotland has come far in the years since those words were written. We created a Parliament and a more distinctive political culture, we established distance between ourselves and the British state, and we had an independence referendum: part of an ongoing, live political debate about who we are and what we want to be.
But we have also not come far enough and not been alert enough to the changing landscape around us. For all the focus on constitutional self-government, politics and political structures, we also have to be equally aware of the importance of cultural self-determination, and issues which go well beyond traditional politics.
This has to entail at its centre thinking of a public sphere built on pluralism, diversity and respect for differing views, but which also aids people listening, debating, and even changing their minds, learning how to turn down the noise and stand up to the forces of hate.
Doing this though demands that not only do we have to look hard and honestly at ourselves, but to address the wider context. Namely that we are still living on a set of islands with the relics of a feudal political order intended to intimidate us into submission and make us content with being subjects not citizens. That is not something the British establishment target Scotland with specifically but is their general attitude and contempt for all of the people of the UK. The difference is we can do something about it if we want.