Stuck In The Middle: Or How Scotland Needs To Bridge The Gap Between Its Intellectual And Cultural Riches, And Its Dull, Dreary Politics – Column 7.1.11


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 7.1.11

THIS WEEK, THE WORLD OF music mourns the death of Gerry Rafferty, the Paisley boy who grew up – in the strange, rich austerity of postwar Britain – to become a key figure in the  Seventies folk-rock group Stealers Wheel, and the creator, as a solo artist, of one of the greatest rock tracks of the late 20th century, in his mighty 1978 hit Baker Street, with its soaring saxophone solo, and haunting lyric about the price of fame.

Rafferty’s story is not an entirely happy one, of course; he struggled against addiction to alcohol, never seemed at ease with his global success, and died far too young, at only 63.  His early life, though, was full of a rare creative intensity.  Mentored by Paisley artist and playwright John Byrne, working closely with the young Billy Connolly, Rafferty came of age in urban Scotland at a time when raw memories of social trauma and pain collided with rare levels of encouragement and opportunity, to produce an astonishing generation of artists, across all the arts.  And since his death on Tuesday, the tributes have been legion, reflecting  – among other things – how much this beautiful, sophisticated music meant to a generation of Scots who were striving to find a new voice, in a globalising world.

All of which provokes some deep thought, this weekend, about the growing mismatch in Scottish life between the richness of our recent cultural, intellectual and socal history, and the relative greyness of our current politics.  It hasn’t always been thus, of course.  In the last 20 years, Scotland has roused itself to a rare pitch of peaceful civic action for change, won back is Parliament, and changed the landscape of British politics for ever; the launch of the parliament, on a bright summer day in 1999, was marked by a brilliant coming-together of cultural, political and social forces, and by a speech from the first First Minister, Donald Dewar, that that soared from prose into poetry.

Since then, though – well, let’s just say that things have grown more ordinary.  In analytical terms, the Scottish Parliament, and some of the hopes surrounding it, have been victims of the structural weakness of post-modern political parties as real social movements, and vehicles for change.  And although for eleven years, since the coming of devolution, their broadly managerial style has served its turn, the evidence is mounting that Scotland’s political life now urgently needs to move on to a new phase.

For to put it bluntly, the choice facing voters at the Scottish Parliament election in May is grim, and threatens a desperately low turnout unless something is done to enliven the debate.  The SNP government has lost its novelty value, and lacks ideological clarity in its approach to the current crisis.  The Labour Party has still to acknowledge the extent of the defeat it suffered in the UK general election, and has not even begun its much-needed process of rethinking and renewal. The Liberal Democrats have thrown in their lot with the Tories, who remain deeply unpopular in Scotland.

And the Green Party, while they play a useful role in broadening debate, have so far failed to join up the dots of social and environmental justice in a way that large numbers of Scottish voters might find persuasive.  As for the UK government’s determination to implement the changes  proposed in the Calman Report of 2009, nothing more clearly exemplifies the weakness of our current political debate, as assorted experts and lobbyists argue over the detail of a potentially significant change in our system of government, of which most people in Scotland have never even heard.

So what is to be done, to prevent the coming election from dwindling into a damp squib, and another nail in the coffin of representative democracy?  The answer, it seems, is that civic Scotland needs to gird up its loins again, and start re-engaging with the deep structures and agenda of the political process.  Scotland, of course, already has a “Big Society”, and always had had; out there in every city and community, there is a formidable network of churches and other religious organisations, women’s groups, schools, colleges, arts organisations, environmental groups, community projects, campaigners and volunteers, many of whom, over the last decade, have been honing their skills in lobbying the new parliament about their own specific area of interest.

Lobbying on specific policies, though, is not the same thing as exerting pressure on the political system as a whole, to maintain a radical attitude to its own processes, to keep on reforming, and to maintain some of its recent gains.  The representation of women, for example, seems likely to plummet back towards Westminster levels at the coming Scottish Parliament election.  The weakness of political parties in general, and their growing struggle to attract recruits beyond a cadre of personally ambitious policy-wonks, needs real innovation, perhaps in the form of the local primary elections currently being tested by the Tories in parts of England.  And the dialogue between professional politics and the wider forces in Scottish life needs to be steadily deepened and enriched, if only because of the thrilling quality of some of the ideas currently being kicked around by Scottish thinkers, artists and bloggers.

For as Canon Kenyon Wright, the Chair of the Scottish Constitutional Covention, used to say, power is fundamentally like love: in the end, you can only get it by giving it away, and sharing it.  If our politicians want real power, in other words, they have to become steadily more inclusive in their attitude to it.   And unless we, the rest of the people, want our poltical leaders to become ever more powerless and ineffectual in dealing with the challenges that surround us, then we also have to act to empower them: not so much with our votes, as with our ideas, our hopes, our visions for the future, our dreams of how this country might be, 20 years from now.  And, of course, with our great songs and music, pictures and poetry; because without those, our dreams remain unspoken, and our shared political life hollow at the core.


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