The Importance of Growing Up: Heroes and Villains in Modern Scotland
Scottish Review, March 26th 2014
Who inspires and defines us in modern Scotland? Who gives us inspiration and imagination which says something about who we are, how we see ourselves, individually and collectively? Who are the heroes and, maybe just as pertinently, anti-heroes of the day?
Is Hamish Henderson’s frequently quoted line that Scotland is a land of ‘no gods and precious few heroes’ (as well as heroines) accurate? Couldn’t the opposite be said to be true?
A certain vocal strand of Scotland proudly declares its allegiance to a pantheon of heroes: Keir Hardie, James Connolly, John Maclean, James Maxton and John Wheatley. This is the left and nationalist version of Scotland evoking ‘Red Clydeside’ workerist connotations.
This is motivated by defining Scotland as a distinct political political community, providing a lineage from past to present which offers directions and what some believe is a moral compass; i.e. what would Keir Hardie have done on independence, the Iraq war or charging Tony Blair as a ‘war criminal’?
This brings us to the counter-stories to the heroes that people choose, namely, the anti-heroes and villains who say just as much about us. Scotland is awash with several potent anti-heroes – the most crucial in recent decades being Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
The coming to power of Thatcher in 1979 is widely portrayed as some kind of ‘Year Zero’. Thatcherism became Scotland’s ‘Other’: the negation of all we as a people collectively valued and held dear. This long shadow hangs over us to this day: to a set of myths and folklore which have become the foundation stories of modern Scotland. They provided the final rationale for why a Scottish Parliament was necessary, and the old order of autonomy in the union broken, and for many inform the dynamic and context of the current independence referendum.
In the Scotland of the 1980s a number of prominent public figures gave voice to these sentiments, arguably the most influential at the time was the writer William McIlvanney. In his 1987 lecture, ‘Stand Scotland Where It Did?’ he argued that Scotland was under threat from Thatcherism which was uncontroversial at the time. He went on to claim that not only did her government want to attack our distinct values, she wanted to reduce Scotland to a geographical description and set of postcodes.
This was hyperbole then and now; yet it has become ‘the settled will’ if I can use that term of Scotland in relation to Thatcherism. Others played supportive roles: Canon Kenyon Wright and his ‘We are the people’ address, Joyce McMillan, even Kirsty Wark with her robust interview challenging Margaret Thatcher towards the latter half of her Premiership.
The sentiment and politics in this can be found alive and kicking in aspects of today’s independence debate. There is a sense in parts of the pro-independence argument that not only is Scotland different, but we are more moral, progressive and radical, even sometimes superior to our fellow citizens down south.
Take the current invoking of Jimmy Reid as a Scottish hero of the hour relevant to today. Reid was a charismatic, attractive man on many levels: and his role in Upper Clyde Shipbuilders with Jimmy Airlie and Sam Barr is one of the most evocative stories of post-war Scotland and of left politics in that period.
Yet today the spirit of Reid has been reanimated and invoked in the independence debate. This is a very partial version of Reid with a tendentious connection to the real man. What is missing is the Reid of complexity, whether his Communist past, period in the Labour Party (where he stood against Gordon Wilson in Dundee East in 1979 and lost), or his taking on of Arthur Scargill’s kamikaze, no ballot approach to the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Many are invoking not the real Reid, but one recreated and reclaimed for contemporary political purposes.
There are numerous dimensions to this. For starters, McIlvanney and Reid both gave voice as self-confident public men to the collective hopes and dreams of the working class: in politics, society and culture. This is partly why they continue to resonate, as their memories invoke an elegy for a lost Scotland: for an age when men did ‘proper jobs’, built things and were ‘breadwinners’.
I know this story from my own father who was in the Communist Party. Our society has dramatically changed in the past three decades, and yet we are still shaped by the memories of class, working class culture, importance of solidarity and in many places by the sense of community that went with this. Remembering our heroes and villains is about how we navigate and understand the present in a way which isn’t just about individualism and consumerism. And articulating an anti-capitalist set of values given the inequalities and injustices of today.
Nations need heroes and anti-heroes, mobilising figures and myths. And the past is something always being remade, recreated, and selectively drawn from. Yet, there is a potent sense of radical nostalgia in the current Scottish debate – of believing that pre-1979 Scotland was a land of milk and honey, that all that is wrong in our land is the responsibility of Thatcher or the union (or both), and that fundamental political change such as ending poverty or social exclusion are as simple as hitting a light switch. All of these are fundamental deceptions, sometimes deliberate, sometimes not.
This is not an argument against radical social change, but that to bring it about we need to confront some of the pervading myths about modern Scotland which allow so much of our society to remain in its comfort zones. When Hugo Rifkind recently wrote a piece on ‘posh Scotland’ which I replied to in ‘Scottish Review’, one of the consistent responses on twitter was to deny that Scotland has any elites: this from supposedly progressive, centre-left, pro-independence voices.
Scotland is disfigured by inequalities, elites and the exclusion of large parts of our nation from public life, yet our myths tell us otherwise. In my new book, Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland, published in April, I argue that we need to dispel these prevailing myths which define us: that we are egalitarian, inclusive, the land of educational opportunity, and a place which holds elites and power to account, if we are to ever embrace radical change.
The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole made a similar set of observations about the republic after the crash, and in his introduction to my book he examines the differences and similarities between Irish and Scottish myths. He argues that nationalism and nations always define an ‘us’ and ‘not them’, and that whereas Ireland’s set of foundation myths were regressive and reactionary, Scotland’s are the opposite: inclusive, welcoming and warm.
According to O’Toole here in is the problem, for defining ourselves as ‘progressive, tolerant, social democratic’ traps us into a problematic story and set of myths: ones which appear attractive and positive, but tell a selective and problematic story of who we are and what our future might become.
We cannot buy such one-dimensional stories about ourselves, our near-past, present and future. It is wrong about our near-past, inaccurate about the present, and offering a false prospectus about our future. If we want to be ‘progressive, tolerant and social democratic’ then we can only do it by looking honestly at who we are, at the diminished lives of so many people in modern Scotland and ‘the missing Scotland’ of half our nation.
Present day Scotland, where we are and the canvas of the independence debate, offer a historic opportunity to collectively decide who and what we are. In this we can choose to go for the comforting stories and easy answers of believing the myths that Scotland is this place where all that is wrong can be blamed on Thatcher and the union, and that we are shaped by progressive values and politics which will be easy to implement post-independence.
Some people actually think Scotland can nearly instantly become socialist or Nordic, and a wider constituency thinks that fundamental political change can come effortlessly once Scotland leaves behind the wreckage of the good ship Britannia.
This just isn’t the case. If radical change is to occur irrespective of our constitutional status it entails understanding the myths we have told ourselves, the heroes and villains we have created to make things simpler, and the element of self-deception many have bought into. Scotland isn’t an egalitarian place, and that fact isn’t all about Thatcher or being in the union. It is mostly the product of our cumulative decisions and actions.
Having these debates is therapeutic. As one part of Scotland clings to these myths, another sees this debate as not just about powers to the Parliament and civil servants having more responsibilities, but about the maturing of our public debates and society, about looking at ourselves honestly and humbly, and beginning to realise that if we want to change this nation, it starts with our collective mindsets, and taking collective responsibility.
It is time to put Margaret Thatcher and even Tony Blair into the category of history, and realise that if we want Scotland to be this ‘progressive, tolerant, social democratic’ country that we tell ourselves we are, we have to reflect on our decisions, change our ways and stop blaming others. That would be an exciting, liberating, and slightly nerve-racking experience, but wouldn’t it be better than continuing to kid ourselves it will be easy or is all the fault of others?