Joyce McMillan: Civic Scotland has gone to sleep

Civic Scotland at its apogee ' Donald Dewar at the opening of parliament
Civic Scotland at its apogee ' Donald Dewar at the opening of parliament
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Politicians’ schmoozing with moguls and billionaires leaves many of us with a nasty taste, writes Joyce McMillan

IT’S more than 30 years, now, since the great Glasgow man of letters Alasdair Gray inspired a generation of creative Scots with the quote he placed on the title page of Lanark, his soaring 1981 fantasy-fiction novel of a past and future Scotland. “Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation,” he wrote.

In that phrase he captured the sense in which the idea of a new nation – or a newly-liberated nation – acts as a field of dreams into which people can project their best hopes for a better society, one more just, more convivial, and more free.

For convinced Scottish nationalists, of course, the idea of an independent Scotland as a better nation has always been a cornerstone of their creed. The theory of Scottish nationalism suggests that the multinational British state is intrinsically corrupt and oppressive, and that if Scotland can only shake off its shackles, it will almost naturally emerge as a better and fairer place.

In recent years, though, we have begun to live through what Scotland On Sunday recently called the age of “I’m not a nationalist, but...” – the age when the idea of a fresh start in an independent country has begun to attract people who are not opposed in principle to the British state, but who are increasingly inclined to see independence as Scotland’s best practical option.

This is partly to do with hard-headed calculation. The blusterings of Donald Trump apart, it’s difficult for any impartial observer not to be impressed by Scotland’s huge potential as a global centre of green energy in the coming post-carbon age.

It’s also to do, though, with the exhaustion of other political options, particularly on the centre-left, where most Scottish voters tend to gather.

As the proceedings of the Leveson inquiry show with ever more dismaying clarity, British politics has increasingly fallen into hock, over the last 30 years, to an arrogant, overweening, and profoundly reactionary financial and media establishment. The consequent collapse of the Labour Party as a real advocate of social democracy, followed by the recent decision of the Liberal Democrats to throw in their lot with Tory neoliberalism, have left a gap on the centre-left which Alex Salmond’s SNP, with its broadly social-democratic policy and rhetoric, has been more than happy to fill.

As a result, more activists on the left of Scottish politics have been drifting towards the conclusion – a little lazy and hazy but tempting – that independence could be the answer to at least some of our political woes.

So it’s altogether salutary to have been confronted this week with Leveson’s damning evidence of just how much Alex Salmond’s SNP, while promising a fresh start to Scottish voters, is in fact bound up with the old, corrupt mechanisms of British politics and is far more Blairite than most of its supporters like to think in its compulsive attempts to square the rhetoric of social justice with a relentless schmoozing of wealthy backers.

It’s far too easy, of course, to slide into a posture of facile cynicism towards all politicians. Salmond is not “the same” as David Cameron, in background, motivation, ideology or policies; his SNP defends the founding principles of the NHS, cares about equal access to higher education, and has an outstanding record in promoting modern and inclusive ideals of Scottish citizenship.

What is true, though, is that without constant pressure to remain in touch with the people, all political parties and professional politicians tend in the end to be sucked into a game of power-broking that has nothing to do with democracy, or with good governance.

The craven offer from Salmond’s office to run around at Rupert Murdoch’s bidding, making the case for his toxic takeover of BSkyB, besmirches the First Minister’s reputation as a politician of wit, principle and intelligence. It stinks of an old politics he should have had the sense to avoid, and is all of a piece with the SNP’s lazy back-slapping with those whose bigoted views on social matters undermine the whole idea of a progressive Scotland and with their notoriously perfunctory and complacent attitude to gender politics.

This week, by contrast, people in the SNP, and far beyond it, will be marking a particularly sad event in the death of Stephen Maxwell, a lifelong campaigner both for an independent Scotland, and for a socially just and peaceful one.

Maxwell was an intellectual, a thinker, a writer, a civic activist, and a dedicated servant of Scotland’s voluntary sector. He failed to become an MSP when the parliament for which he had long campaigned was set up in 1999 because he refused to give the guarantee of 100 per cent public compliance with the party line which is routinely asked of modern professional politicians, and which partly accounts for their disappointing quality.

To think of Maxwell now, though, is to remember the ferment of genuinely radical ideas about representation, about election systems, about parliamentary procedure and about new kinds of engagement with politics, that swirled around the campaign for a Scottish parliament in the 1990s, and that inspired thousands to dream of better ways of doing politics in a new millennium.

In the age of Salmond, many of those hopes have faded, or slipped down the political agenda. And this week, we have received the sharpest possible reminder that even politicians who carry dreams on their shoulders need to be kept up to the mark, by campaigners who refuse to bow to the wisdom of economic elites, and by active citizens who keep insisting that our democracy should renew, refresh and recreate itself, rather than resting on its laurels.

It looks as though it’s time, in other words, for civic Scotland to dust itself down, and get moving again; ever mindful that whether we leave the UK, or whether we stay, our political hopes and dreams will only have a chance of being realised in a society where politicians are constantly under pressure to listen to the real voices of the people – rather to the siren songs of the already wealthy and powerful, whose influence democratic government is finally supposed not to serve and magnify, but to counteract, regulate, and resist in the interests of us all.