When I began writing these columns in July, I started out with the idea that we are living out a kind of national orphanhood – defined by what our forefathers and mothers built, but also by their absence.
In the intervening months, the national capacity to make and build seems to have been found wanting at every turn. The country that we are building today is not the one that we need to make a liveable future.
It’s easy to forget that when the climate crisis serves up some new terrifying instance of fire or flood; this is often experienced by those involved not as an act of God, but as a failure of human infrastructure. We do not seem capable of the collective effort necessary to make the systems that we use every day more resilient or sustainable. Such tasks are a job for governments, who seem just as frightened, biddable, and confused as everyone else.
The summer showed us that we can no longer construct wind towers to generate offshore renewable energy at Machrihanish, just as we cannot provide the ferries that we need to connect up a nation of so many islands. We can however, build a luxury hotel and shopping centre in the middle of a World Heritage site, and a seemingly endless quantity of luxury flats and student accommodation blocks. In short, we can build for markets that are killing communities and the planet, but expanding the commons remains a political taboo: the thirst for rent risks tearing up the fabric of the nation.
Scotland as a modern polity is still in its orphaned infancy, but the country itself is much older than most of the world’s nation-states. This leads to a nationalism that seeks out slow change in a world where certainties collapse daily; in which ancient forests disappear overnight. Scotland’s past has given us a line on a map, a cast of mind, some distinct traditions of self-government and always history, history, history. Many Scots of a certain vintage claim that they were never taught it, as though there was a conspiracy at the post-war Scottish Office to stamp out national self-knowledge.
Contemporary Scotland’s attitude towards what comes next is a bit like an inversion of the insight uncovered by Alexis De Tocqueville after he almost drowned in the Ohio River when the rickety steamboat he was traveling on sank. On asking his hosts why they didn’t build more durable boats, they replied that the certainty of technological progress was so ingrained in this young republic that durability took a back seat: the new vessel would almost certainly be better.
In contrast, Scotland is an old society about as far from the colonial frontiers of the early nineteenth century Ohio River as it’s possible to be. Our faith in the new is troubled by many failed experiments – there are plenty of old new utopias here – some which came and went within the span of a lifetime. A long history, an increasingly elderly population and a firmly non-militant politics offer many rewards, but they do not stack things up behind mass belief that a new structure – whether a steamboat or a state – will be better than what went before.
In a country in which around half of the population want statehood, it has become harder to mark out any sharp distinction about why the hassle of state-building would be worth it. Instead, the statehood that is discussed is more like independence for a consumer base than a people, a matter of preference rather than conviction. Perhaps this is because, as the nation becomes ever more similar and intertwined with everywhere else, representative politics becomes one of the few options left to express national character.
This is the core contradiction that Scottish nationalism simply doesn’t have any coherent answers to. If the question were simply one of preference about who makes decisions, the government in Edinburgh would always win hands down. But the existential need to begin the arduous process of emerging out from under London rule simply doesn’t exist amongst a critical mass of the population.
Although Scotland is not clamouring for revolt, the climate is. This was one of the themes of Emily Munro’s new archive film Living Proof – a climate story. Across an assemblage of stilted public information films and the suave output of seventies development boards, Scotland’s past looms large. One extract from a film on the construction of the Flotta Terminal goes back beyond Neolithic Orkney to ponder the great changes over geological time that shaped the coastline.
While its relevance to the question of what Scotland might do next is deliberately opaque, time and again Living Proof presents archive material which shows Scotland as an isolated rural or industrial backwater – being didactically dragged out of its past and into a globalised market – a gleaming new world of American affluence, progress and inward investment.
The unusual combination of a stateless nation and a prominent national brand informed those narratives. Scotland remains trapped in a state of exception, occasionally asking to ‘stop the world’ as though it can step on and off at will; in and out of the mists of time. As one of the first globalised economies in the world, shaped by waves of both immigration and emigration, progress in Scotland was often either to be found elsewhere or imported. Local Hero, the petro-update of Brigadoon, remains a fairly accurate picture of contemporary Scottishness. The old jars with the new, nostalgia is a canny performance: the nation is simply humour, character and the landscape. Is that really so bad?
This summer has, for many, represented a great moment of reawakening and re-acquaintance with those landscapes. There probably won’t be a post-pandemic era analogous to the post-war era, but the need for a great transformation is just as urgent.
I feel like I’ve been treated to enough views of Scotland this summer – fresh and clear enough to put all this history into perspective. Perspective is, perhaps, a resource that all nations need to cast around for in these times. I was lucky enough to find some of it looking out from Quinag to Suilven as the summer solstice sun set over the Minch.
A contrasting but equally stunning vista was offered in the closing frames of Living Proof: a shot from the top of Gardiner Street in Partick. In a few grainy, but truly iconic shots, terraced rows of tenements reach down towards the river, against the rich amber glow of an industrial sunset; a few cranes just discernible on the near horizon.
Today, you can still stand there with the Highlands at your back and see a city built by immigrants dissolve below. The tenements now lead the eye towards a logo on top of a luxury student accommodation block.