Gerry Hassan: The land of silver offers us lessons of fool's gold
Argentina in many respects felt very different from home. In the world of football, there was the celebratory nature of opposing fans, the humour, joy and strange lack of triumphalism. The games I attended had unsegregated fans, lots of families and even babies. People laughed, cried, argued and hugged one another including supporters of rival teams; missing was the sense of edge so prevalent in Scotland.
Walking to games with my friend Geoff in our kilts, we were stopped hundreds of times for conversation and photos. One person asked whether I was from "Ecosse" and when I replied in the affirmative, then stated "Rangers and Celtic", and after I nodded, replied "battle of religion". With all our obvious differences, Argentina and Scotland have some important similarities about what they think about themselves and where they see their societies going.
Argentina has experienced a dramatic history since the end of the Second World War. There was the Peronist era of heroic triumph and symbolism, the division and chaos of the 1970s, the military dictatorship of 1976-83, the Falklands/Malvinas conflict of 1982, and the economic collapse of 2001-2.
This could not seem more far removed from Scotland. Yet there are similarities. The Menem government of the 90s embraced "modernisation" while engaging in extensive privatisation from the railways to electricity and even zoos. After the economic collapse of 2001-2, the Kirchner dynasty arose, with first Nestor as president from 2003, then his wife Cristina from 2007. She has just announced that she will stand for a second term in October.
The Kirchners spent the years of the military dictatorship in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, renowned for its few people, oil and penguins. This has led to the Kirchners and their allies to be known as "the penguins", Nestor the King Penguin, Cristina the Queen Penguin. It has also put a different take in Argentina on Jim Carrey's recently released film, Mr Popper's Penguins.
The Kirchner era has seen them rail against the Washington consensus while accepting much of it, placing much of the blame for Argentina's woes on neo-liberalism while embracing and extending it.Platitudes abound in politics and media about the Argentinian and Latin American model, anti-imperialist slogans from the Falklands/Malvinas to solidarity with Hugo Chavez and Cuba, but this is all gesture. Argentinians have a resolute attraction to the politics of symbolism, of believing in defiant gestures and romanticism. The air and ethos of such a culture fills discussions with a sense of hope and lyricism, but also escapism. This vicious cycle underneath the bravado and celebration leaves a sense of self-doubt and self-depreciation.
With all our differences, Scotland and Argentina have some similar predicaments. Scotland didn't experience the darkness of dictatorship or a home-grown free market revolution. And we didn't have a financial collapse such as the Argentinians witnessed in 2001-2. Yet with all these qualifications, Scotland and Argentina have engaged in a similar kind of political non-conversation.
Argentinian politics has a predilection for national myths, narratives and heroic symbolism, rather than nuance, complexity and addressing substantive issues. Argentinians like to believe in their Peronist and popular stories, carrying with them illusions of inclusiveness and egalitarianism, but which instead mask a reality of power and its uses.
The Peronist state may have become much more extensive than anything we have ever known in modern times in Scotland, but with its corporatist nature, peak period of the 1940s and 1950s, and morphing into a cronyist clientism, there are similarities between the two.
Argentina's public subsidies benefit the middle classes and affluent in a society in which one-third of the people are in poverty. Now Scotland's inequalities and poverty are nothing like Argentina, but there is a wider distributional point here: about who we are supporting and who gains most from the public purse. Argentina and Scotland might differ in their experiences on the football field, but these are both societies which have a remarkable sense of denial.
Both like to trumpet their progressive credentials, to tell themselves and the world that they are the good guys, on the side of the angels, and that they oppose the vandals at the gates. In this, both Argentinian and Scottish politicians conduct a deeply disingenuous account of the past: of the villains of neo-liberalism, the World Bank, IMF and Thatcherism/Reaganism. This is used to avoid the difficult discussions about the balance between the state and market, the role of politics and democracy.And to mask the degree to which supposedly centre-left parties and politicians for all their rhetoric have bent and compromised to the gods they rail against.
The similarities among all the obvious differences beg the question: what is the point of Argentinian or Scottish progressive belief when it sits so obviously to avoid confronting basic home truths?
Both are transfixed by silence and omission on the questions and challenges we face. What kind of economy do we have after the explosions of turbo-capitalism? How do we support small and medium businesses, aid creativity and imagination, address the pressures on public spending, and widen and protect the nature of the public realm?
Underlying all of these are the challenges to the role and nature of politics and purpose of democracy itself. In my time in Argentina, I got a sense that the long delusion and distortion of Peronism was finally coming to an end, leaving a politics more messy, humble and perhaps focused on values, questions and outcomes, rather than national salvation.
Would it be too much to hope that Scotland finally wakes up and senses it needs to radically change course?