The fight against Trump’s golf course is a beacon for how communities can combat centralisation, argues Gerry Hassan
The Scots have a strange and often perplexing relationship with those in authority and power. Sometimes we damn them and at other times we choose to believe their official story. More often than not we show a lack of curiosity in scrutinising and challenging authority. Instead, there is a deafening silence of the Scots across large acres of public life, in conferences, gatherings and fora which represent “civic Scotland”.
Michael Forbes has been an exception to this rule. The Aberdeenshire farmer who stood up to Donald Trump and his Menie estate golf development, along with a host of other local residents, on Thursday night won the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland “Top Scot” award, run in partnership with The Scotsman and voted for by the public.
Michael and others stood up not just against Trump, but the whole mass of the Scottish political and business establishment. The SNP, Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems, Alex Salmond, Jack McConnell, CBI, Robert Gordon University and many more, all weighed in with their “Scotland open for business” mantra as they palled up to Trump and his development.
For decades Scottish people have been patronised and told we are too stupid, small and poor to make decisions ourselves. James Mitchell of Strathclyde University calls this “the myth of dependency”: the articulation of the view that people have to be infantilised, told what is best for them, and that they cannot be trusted to govern themselves.
Thankfully, this culture is beginning to crack. It is seen in Anthony Baxter’s award-winning and uplifting film You’ve Been Trumped, which charts the efforts of Forbes and others to stand up to Trump. It is evident in the work of land ownership expert Andy Wightman in his best-selling book, The Poor Had No Lawyers. And it is could be found in the football fans who stood up to the SPL-SFA as they attempted a stitch-up in the summer to parachute Rangers into the top league.
There is wider evidence of a fledgling Scottish Spring. It can be seen in the work of the Development Trust Association Scotland which supports just under 250 such organisations across Scotland; in the activities of the group Local People Leading, and numerous other groups challenging the official way of making decisions about local developments.
This week saw a group of such campaigners, practitioners and activists meet in the magical setting of Galgael in Glasgow’s Southside, to see short films made by Oxfam Scotland and hear about change and how people stand up to institutional Scotland; the films showcased work in Beith, Linwood and Govan.
They gave accounts of people creating Community Trusts, getting fed up with the excuses and narrow bandwidth of what people called “cosmic bureaucrats” – who live in another universe – and becoming active researchers and spokespeople, checking up on the accounts given to them by developers and companies such as Tesco. We heard from three local futures projects in Dundee, Govan and Lochgilphead – part of a project called A Scottish Wave of Change. We talked about the different experiences of each and their relationship with public bodies and local councils.
Dundee had a supportive, collaborative relationship with their council. Wightman pointed out an important difference between the three. Dundee still has an element of self-government and has had this since 1292. Govan last had this in 1912 and Lochgilphead centuries before.
Who speaks for the Govans, Lochgilpheads, Beiths and Linwoods is a question which grows more acute by the year. Once many of Scotland’s proud communities, towns and places had a degree of local autonomy and self-government but this has been eroded by decades of centralisation and standardisation.
This has had consequences, with planning, development, housing, retail, Common Good funds and more, decided in a way which not local or democratic.
Scotland is now one of the most centralist nations in Western Europe. What is little understood is that since the setting up of the Scottish Office in 1885, Scotland has increasingly centralised and rationalised.
This process has accelerated since the advent of the Scottish Parliament under first, the Lab-Lib Dem Scottish Executive and now the SNP government. This illustrates that Scotland for all its inclusive, egalitarian rhetoric, has not and never has been, a fully functioning democracy.
Instead, what has happened in the past few years is that the Scottish Parliament has been put on top of a network of unreformed elites, institutions and public life. And what Scotland has lacked is the cleansing force of democracy and the influence of a democratising movement. Labour in its early days became a force of progress via the British state, while the SNP see political change as coming about by independence.
We cannot continue such a narrow menu of political possibilities: the dependency model, or change reduced to the ideal of independence.
People want to live in a different Scotland, a bubble-up democracy where they are not treated as children, told they are stupid, or that decisions are too complex for them to comprehend. This is about nurturing a culture of self-determination, developing a politics, philosophy and psychology of aiding change and autonomy, while moving away from the present dependence.
That is the lesson and example of Michael Forbes, a quiet, unassuming Scot who stood up to power, authority and the conformist groupthink of institutional Scotland. In so doing, he shone a light on the way too many things are done and how people are in many cases seen as an irrelevance or obstacle.
Scotland is changing. The old, ordered, tidy society of deference and fear is diluting, and a much more ragged, unpredictable society emerging which will challenge all of our elites. They had better learn to adapt and change because this Scotland is our future.