Joyce McMillan: Scotland is now horribly divided

A new promotional campaign can only offer a future Scotland shaped by outside forces, writes Joyce McMillan

Tourism secretary Fiona Hyslop said the campaign would bring together all the messages that promote Scotland
Tourism secretary Fiona Hyslop said the campaign would bring together all the messages that promote Scotland

To paraphrase Scotland’s former Makar Liz Lochhead, who once said the same thing about mothers, nobody’s government can’t never do nothing right – at least, not after 11 years in power.

This week, the Scottish Government launched a new advertising and branding campaign designed to promote Scotland not only to tourists, but also to potential incomers who might want to move here, and to companies considering inward investment.

It is called Scotland Is Now, and its primary targets are London, China, and the United States. Its main video advertisement is swish and good-looking, a handsome mix of traditional and contemporary images of Scotland; and its purpose is crystal clear to anyone who has studied the data on Scotland’s image beyond its borders. For if Scotland has a strong “brand image”, it remains one stubbornly associated with the past – with films and TV series like Braveheart and Outlander; with castles and islands, and with a general image of a wild and undeveloped land, far from modernity, whose more ambitious and forward-looking citizens would be well advised to leave, and make their lives in London, Los Angeles, or Shanghai.

Tourism secretary Fiona Hyslop said the campaign would bring together all the messages that promote Scotland

And while Scotland has all that, and many tourists enjoy it, it is hardly the image that is likely to attract high-tech inward investors, or to encourage the movement of young people into the country that Scotland urgently needs.

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From its title on down, the Scotland Is Now campaign is therefore designed to address that misperception of the place as a picturesque backwater; and to link the idea of Scotland not only with education, aspiration, and cutting-edge technology, but also with a future in which only countries that boldly face up to the “inconvenient truth” of climate change can hope to thrive. It is, in other words, well pitched towards companies and individuals looking for a place to build a future; and although it offers a glossy marketeers’ vision of Scotland now, it contains enough truth about the country’s potential to be persuasive and effective.

Yet for all that, some commentators have been playing the daft laddie, professing to find its slogan empty of meaning; and they do so because the campaign is associated with the Scottish Government, which, 11 years on, lives under permanent suspicion of caring for nothing but the cause of Scottish independence.

Tourism secretary Fiona Hyslop said the campaign would bring together all the messages that promote Scotland

The lukewarm reception for Scotland Is Now here at home reminds us, in other words, of the profound truth that if Scotland is “Now”, then one aspect of today’s politics it reflects with heartbreaking accuracy is the tendency towards profound and completely disabling political division, often on matters of culture and identity. The 55 per cent (or so) who oppose Scottish independence would apparently rather put up with any degree of Brexit-related incompetence and disrespect from the UK government than undergo the horror of a second independence referendum; the 40-45 per cent who support independence have not gone away, but are waiting for the time when any second referendum will not end in failure.

And even within the SNP, the pressures created by this profound stalemate are causing strains and fissures; not only on whether the party should seek to exercise its mandate for a second referendum before it runs out in 2021, but also on what kind of “Scotland Now” it will be proposing, in an effort to reunite the Scottish people. The SNP’s so-called Growth Commission, chaired by political lobbyist and former MSP Andrew Wilson, has not yet produced its final report, but this week, signals appeared that after inspiring many of its troops in 2014 with the idea of a Scotland that would aim for a Nordic model of prosperity, sustainability and social justice, the SNP might now be about consider instead the free-market, heavily deregulated New Zealand model of how to run a successful economy of four or five million people, in today’s global environment.

Now, in a less divided nation, the advent of this idea could generate some vital, even cutting-edge civic discussion. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is clearly a social democrat through and through; and given the rankings which continue to show Nordic-style social democracy as by far the most successful system on the planet, in terms of prosperity and human development, my guess is that she, and a majority of SNP supporters, will take a lot of persuading that that super-successful model is no longer right for our times, and cannot be rebooted to make it so.

Scotland’s politicians and their supporters could therefore now be shaping up for an exciting and internationally significant debate on the kind of future we actually want, in Scotland now. Except for this: that more than half of Scotland’s voters seem increasingly irritated by the idea of Scotland having any autonomous strategy, since it might just be a ramp for another push to independence; and ever more doggedly determined that we should simply accept the majority decisions of the United Kingdom as a whole, whether they suit Scotland or not.

In happier times, when national boundaries were becoming less important, when supranational co-operation was in fashion, when the EU was strong and growing, and when differences of identity could be nuanced and lived with in deals like the Good Friday Agreement – that difference of opinion about Scotland’s ultimate destination mattered less; among the 75 per cent who supported devolution in 1997, thrilling debates were possible about the kind of Scotland we hoped home rule would help to promote.

Today, though – now the huge centrifugal forces of Brexit have been unleashed – to talk much of Scotland’s distinctive future is to rile resurgent British nationalism, and, in some areas, to invite serious conflict with the Westminster government. Today, we face a far starker choice than in 2014 between national rejection of Westminster rule, and national quiescence in it, whatever it brings. So far, to the dismay of Sturgeon and her party, we have chosen quiescence; we are too divided to do otherwise. And that suggests that whatever we say about Scotland Is Now, the future we can offer to those targeted in the campaign – the potential visitors and investors, the possible future students and workers – will not be of our own making; but will be shaped by politicians elsewhere, with vastly different priorities in mind.