An apparently careless word uttered by me at the Edinburgh Book Festival indicated the perils of enquiring too deeply into what was holding its host nation Scotland back.
There was much talk about governance, constitutions and of course Brexit at a lively conversation about ‘Scotland Now’ from two Scottish pundits, Alex Massie and Alex Bell and a constitutional lawyer, Aileen McHarg.
In the Q & A I suggested that the SNP was in danger of being captured by angry and disaffected people in the West of Scotland where, since 2014, a boom in membership ensured that perhaps 1 in 50 Scottish adults were members of the ruling party.
Thanks to my upbringing in Glasgow and continuing links with the city through friends and relatives, I had witnessed a gradual transformation in its character. Risk-taking became increasingly acceptable, as shown by figures for alcohol and drug abuse as well as for inter-personal violence. There was no lack of commentators who laid this squarely at the door of Margaret Thatcher and particular economic policies which hastened the demise of much of Clydeside’s industry in the 1980s.
Indeed, a recent Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Sir Harry Burns, has made a career in academia and public service by blaming Thatcherism even for ‘the poor parenting skills of many mothers and fathers’.
Virtually nothing has been heard in Scotland for a long time about the changes in mass culture which encouraged the rise of an angry and disaffected cohort of Scots whom the SNP tried to mobilise to bring about independence in 2014.
Arguably, developments which have created a post-Christian, consumer-driven and morally chaotic society are more advanced in Scotland than in most other parts of the West. Young men in particular lack a purpose. More emerge from education with fewer qualifications than anywhere else in Britain. Women are dissuaded from taking the path of marriage and raising a family by a vulgarised media that champions the ego sometimes to destructive lengths.
In my question I used the word ‘downscale’ when referring to the kind of Scots who increasingly counted inside the SNP. I was concerned about their strident militancy which often just boils down to unfocused anger about Tories, Westminster and perceived English misdeeds in Scotland. Scotland is of course self-governing in essential respects and whether it has a decent education system, a well-provisioned NHS or a national theatre which can attract talent is entirely down to the Scottish government and nobody else. But there is usually no concern with these issues among the new nationalist throng. Instead, the preoccupation is a positively medieval one involving ancestral enemies.
The influence of activists with such a superficial and simplistic outlook is calamitous for the SNP. It made it even less likely than before that the party can be an agent of worthwhile modernisation. Both Bell and Massie made a point of stating that the use of the word ‘downscale’ was ‘unfortunate’ and ‘unhelpful’. It may be no coincidence that both are members of literary families, at least one of whom has gone to public school.
In other words they are members of a liberal professional elite which accepts the working class very much as they find it. They are reluctant to ask whether the demagogy of the SNP in which it promised cornucopia to the masses in 2014 was believed by so many because of changes which had blunted the critical faculties of ordinary folk.
I believe that much can be learnt about the political upheavals in Scotland by tracking the decline in the maturity and good sense of the working classes. Indeed, earlier this year I published a book, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World which is available at the Edinburgh Book Festival arguing that social regression had been the handmaiden of Scottish populism.
My argument was hardly original. It drew on the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset who had argued ninety years ago that Western countries would become increasingly ungovernable due to the rise of a ‘mass man’ whom cultural and educational changes had made increasingly volatile and short-term in his habits and outlook. He feared that populist movements offering simplistic solutions and seeking to manage a volatile society by appealing opportunistically to the emotions and heightened egos of numerous voters, would be the result and that immense turbulence would be hard to avoid.
In an economically stagnating country where over 55 per cent of gross democratic product is in State hands, there is remarkable disinterest in the type of society that has evolved. The masses are patronised and made a fuss of. But it is virtually heresy to advocate taking concrete policy steps that would remove the initiative from self-indulgent to self-improving Scots in everyday communities.
It is hard to recall that from the 1870s to the 1950s many of the leading figures in the early Labour Party had plenty to say about downscale citizens. They were keen to make a distinction between industrious and self—improving workers and their families whom they believed to be the backbone of the emerging Labour movement and others who through an anarchic or feckless approach to life were a block on social progress.
Emphasising standards of behavior worthy of emulation can bring leadership and welcome role models to submerged groups in society. It enables individual initiative to count rather than leaving everything to be planned – and often drained of vitality – by a gargantuan State.
Scotland is held back because the rhetorically nationalist elite hungers for some kind of mythical independence but most certainly does not believe in independent-minded citizens. Nor, it often seems, do the liberal critics of the nationalist era. They are content to jolly along the populace and avert their gaze from what is a real social crisis of destructive behaviour and tragic under-achievement.
The fact that the word ‘downscale’ is taboo for some at the Edinburgh Book Festival shows the degree to which backwardness in the guise of breezy progressivism prevails in Scotland.
(Image: Christine McIntosh)
Tom Gallagher ‘s most recent book Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published by Scotview Publications earlier this year.