Jamie Cooke: Scotland is on the brink of a new Scottish Enlightenment

Scotland can create a new philosophical revolution to rival the achievements of David Hume, Adam Smith and others during the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century, writes Jamie Cooke.

The work of Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume was famous all over the world (Picture: Jayne Wright)
The work of Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume was famous all over the world (Picture: Jayne Wright)

During the heady days of 2014, when the country was immersed in the debate around Scotland’s constitutional future, a recurring question that arose was whether we were at the beginning of a new Scottish Enlightenment.

Regardless of where you stood on the question of independence, the unparalleled levels of public engagement and debate seemed to indicate an appetite for a new conversation about how we wanted society to function and the principles that we wanted to underpin it, many of which were shared across the constitutional divide. The challenges we face around the changing nature of work, globalisation, inequality and automation create a space for new ideas to grow and to be tested, to open up new opportunities.

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It’s fair to say that in the years since the referendum the challenges have continued to grow, and indeed have been added to as we head towards the uncertainty of Brexit and its long-term impacts on the country. We’ve seen some change in approach and thinking in response to this – the Scottish Government’s leadership around the concept of basic income being one of the most innovative examples – but it also seems that the new Enlightenment has not quite happened. The desire is there, but the actuality of bringing it to fruition seems to still be waiting to reach a tipping point.

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At RSA Scotland – the Scottish arm of the global Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce – we believe that this tipping point is now. We are an organisation founded during the Enlightenment on the very principles of humanism, autonomy and universalism which have such a critical role to play in the challenging world we are in.

Work is changing dramatically, and economic insecurity has become one of the defining features of the modern economy.

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Punitive approaches to social security such as Universal Credit have created hugely negative impacts for citizens, and fail even on their own narrow objectives. International collaboration feels weaker than it has done for many years, as various governments follow protectionist programmes at the expense of mutual benefit. And the looming catastrophe of climate change is already forcing communities to have to move away from lands disappearing under the waves, or to suffer extreme weather conditions which lead to loss of life and economic collapse.

This paints a pessimistic portrait of the world, but we strongly believe that turbulent times can also be the spur for new innovation and progress. Much as the original Enlightenment was a powerful response to the dark times which preceded it, our challenges today require us to create new thinking.

A new Scottish Enlightenment would build on those original principles, particularly in its openness to the rest of the world, and would harness the power of technology and communication for the common good.

It would utilise new deliberative forms of democratic engagement which can revitalise our politics. It would see us renew our social contract to one of opportunity and security, rooted in policies such as basic income which are humanistic, universal and trust the autonomous decisions of our citizens. It would turn the development of automation and artificial intelligence from threats to opportunities, to reconnect us with good work and an appreciation of the variety of ways that people make a difference to society, such as caring and volunteering.

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We were therefore delighted earlier this month to have the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon deliver her keynote speech on Brexit at our historical headquarters in London. What was crucial for us was that the First Minister started her speech by celebrating the Enlightenment principles which are shared by the RSA and the Scottish Government, and called for them to be a renewed focus for policy making. This is not a party political statement – for us at RSA Scotland it is a responsibility for all parties, civic society, academia, business and the wider Scottish public, to rise to the challenges which confront us. It shows that there is an appetite in Scotland for truly embedding Enlightenment thinking into our decision making processes, to broaden out our civic engagement. It’s a big call, but one which could fundamentally change our country.

So how do we move from talk to action? It will, at heart, be a collaborative effort – no one group or organisation can claim the principles of the Enlightenment for themselves. At RSA Scotland, with our diverse and inspirational Fellowship in Scotland – part of nearly 30,000 Fellows across the globe – we are opening up the opportunity to make this a reality for the rest of Scottish society. We want to work with you to help take this forward, to update the thinking for the 21st century, and to identify how we can tangibly change society by turning ideas into action.

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We want to convene a gathering on the new Scottish Enlightenment which will be seen as a powerful, society-wide response to the dark times we are in, and a positive statement of the future we want to create. In the Great Room of the

RSA House, where the First Minister gave her speech, the walls are covered with the famous series of paintings, Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture by James Barry. Showing the journey of humanity from darkness – and the risk of returning there once again – it offers us an inspiring call to action for the 21st century.

As once before Scotland played a critical role which outweighed our size and location in the world, we believe that once again we can do so, and that out of these challenging times a new Enlightenment can be our response.

Jamie Cooke is the head of RSA Scotland. You can connect with him on Twitter @JamieACooke and @theRSAScotland