What do we do when we talk (and don’t talk) about Power?
Scottish Review, April 9th 2013
The story of modern Scotland is an obvious one: we are a nation and a community, increasingly defined by these two terms and from this comes our sense of difference and identity.
Beyond that it begins to get complicated and contested; our prevailing account of ourselves is that we are centre-left, egalitarian, inclusive and radical, and the missing word in front of each of these is more; meaning more than England, which for many is the crucial ingredient.
All of the above contain elements of truth but they are also our modern myths, the stories we tell ourselves to understand who we are, which are part-fact, part-fiction, but which make us who we are. And to fully comprehend this we need to try and have some honest, reflective conversations about this, the nature of our public life, and the challenge of power, namely, who has it and who doesn’t, and how we understand it.
Let’s start with power. It is one of the central ingredients that makes the world go round. There are at least three versions of it in modern Scotland: hard power, intermediate power, and soft power. And for some reason we don’t want to talk too much about these in modern Scotland.
All of these levels of power, influence and status have various inter-relationships, cross-sect and cross-influence each other. Each has to be understood. The hard power of institutions, whether public, private or voluntary; the intermediate power of place people Scotland; and the soft power of intellectual ideas and discussion. Scotland often does not differentiate between the three, something John Scott in his interesting and thoughtful Scottish Review piece failed to do, talking exclusively about the last, and ignoring the first two.
How do we begin to talk and understand power? Let’s begin with hard power. The uses and abuses of power – whether it is RBS, HBOS, the Catholic Church or Rangers to take the obvious examples – were never seriously examined until each institution hit crisis or blew up. Even now there is not one serious book on the Rangers crisis (Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s bestseller being a collection of previously published blogs); while it has taken until five years after RBS’s implosion for Ian Fraser’s book to appear later this year; and we are still waiting for the first systematic investigation into the Catholic Church and its role in society.
Then there is intermediate power, the place people of institutional Scotland – the nomenklatura of public life – the world of Jeremy Peat and numerous other figures who prospered under Tory Scotland, continued their life of privilege and power under Labour devolution, and have effortlessly maintained their position under the SNP. And without any major debate or scrutiny, there will be the people who gain most out of an independent Scotland or a Scotland remaining in the union; at least we could have the ‘radicalism’ to debate these basic truths.
Finally, we have the world of intellectual (and non-intellectual) ideas and discussion in the media, academia, the small think tank world, and other organisations. This is a small, insecure environment, defined by perilous business models and lack of finance in the media, along with the bureaucratic ‘newspeak’ of much modern academia. Plus there is the obvious reality that most professionals in these sectors are completely disconnected from policy and ideas, covering other areas from celebrity and sport in the media to other specialisms in academia.
Power has to be acknowledged, brought into the open, challenged and admitted by those who hold it. Personally, I inhabit the third area of soft power exclusively, working in the media, academia, think tanks and other research, policy and campaigning bodies. Many of the people making up the above three groups never address their own influence, whether hard, intermediate or soft, their status and power, or the inter-relationships and collusions which allow them to be seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and an expert on subjects they know next to nothing about.
There is in this a faux people’s tale of Scotland in this: of power evading its responsibilities, accountability and scrutiny by what is an element of self-deception if not something stronger. Some of the elites of Scotland tell themselves and anyone who will listen that ‘they are still one of us’, ‘one of the people’, ‘working class’ or ‘socialist’. Others that they just happen to be the best person for an area that they know nothing of: ‘a fresh pair of eyes’, ‘transferrable skills’, etc.
Maybe the group who are worst are those in this milieu who think while having power that they are the alternative: the self-declared ‘free thinkers’ and ‘radicals’; surely anyone who describes themselves as such is evident of being conservative, clichéd and blowing their own trumpet? Two community development professionals that myself and a group in Govan tried to work with a few years ago, constantly declared in their work, ‘it’s not about us’. They said it so many times, it was a mantra which indeed made it about them, and not surprisingly with a matter of days to go before an important event they stormed off in a huff! It actually made the event even more special.
Then there is the absence of forensic, systematic critiques of power and elites. We used to do this. Tom Johnston wrote two powerful books on power and people that sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the first decades of the 20th century. This was in the era of the ILP when there was a collective working class culture. All of that is a long time ago. Then we had the post-war age of Labour statism and then resistance to Thatcherism. A sole exception in this field is Andy Wightman and his powerful, ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers’: a wonderful counter-history of Scotland. For transparency I should declare that Andy is a friend, and I gently encouraged him to write his book. That doesn’t disqualify my thesis.
The reasons we don’t talk about power are multiple. It involves being serious, doing research, and accepting that simple, conspiracy theories or black and white thinking are not adequate. But it is more than that.
There is the decline of the intellectual left: the ILP years ago, then the Communist Party which was active in Scotland until the 1970s and 1980s. There is the influence of anti-Toryism and opposition to Thatcherism which became synonymous with being left-wing and radical. Another factor is the rise of a catch-all Scottish nationalism which declares itself social democratic, but actually covers the entire mainstream political spectrum. And finally, there is the positioning of our professional classes as the defenders of the people: our common weal and community of the realm, and our collective decision to trust them and not question their credentials and actions; even after RBS, the Catholic Church, Rangers FC and many other crises of trust and authority.
We have choices in this. As Ernest Renan wrote about what makes up a nation – it is about the active selection of what to remember and what to forget. And this is something we choose collectively to do and not to do everyday, and it shapes us, our many cultures and us as a people.
It is naturally and healthy for us to have myths, folklore and stories. It is just that some of them have become a bit battered and discredited and should be replaced by more relevant, accurate ones.
There are people who believe that the Scotland of today is about a whole pile of perceived injustices: whether it be 1707, the Highland Clearances, First and Second World Wars, Thatcherism and the poll tax, or Tony Blair and the Iraq war. Then there are those who choose to live in the fantasyland of Britain as a force for fairness and good at home and internationally, for many this centring on the ‘Brave New World’ of 1945, the welfare state and NHS.
These aren’t our only stories but both are being trundled out in the long run to the independence vote next year, and what both display is a profound desire to live in the past and a mythical past at that. And critically for the rest of us, they show a deep-seated lack of comprehension, or even willful miscomprehension of views other than their own.
Here then are a few characteristics we need to emphasis in this defining period and beyond. First, an encouragement of curiosity, enquiry and imagination, and an acknowledgement of those who do this even when we disagree with them. Second, that we learn to talk about power, its dynamics, consequences and its hold over us as a society. Who has power, why they have it, and what they do with it should after all interest us in some way.
Finally, enquiry and radicalism should not mitigate against a sense of shared history, traditions and background, and that we have respect, empathy and understanding for our fellow Scots. Too many cheerleaders in this debate have already illustrated that they are happy to show zero empathy and try to browbeat and bludgeon their way to victory for ‘their side’.
In Scotland, we have chosen to tell ourselves that we are a progressive, warm, caring social democracy, and have covered our ears to any inconvenient truths that might challenge that state of affairs. We can continue to pretend that everything is all right and cling to conservation and conservatism, but we cannot do that and claim that we are left-wing, radical or social democratic. But there is one redeeming attraction in the above: it would allow us to continue the story of difference as England embarks on its path of free market groupthink. For some people that is enough; but is that really what the rest of us want to be reduced to?