Sir Georgie McHabermas
Posted on February 3, 2012
Something that exercises me about the Independence debate is the way in which ‘cultural and social difference in Scotland’ is frequently intimated as, first of all, indubitably insurmountable and thus necessarily the primary national shaper, and secondly, putative counteraction to putative Central Belt cultural monism. The catalyst this time was Tavish Scott in yesterday’s The Scotsman writing about the diversity of Scotland and the Nationalists’ inability to appreciate that diversity (‘Sailing into fiery waters’).
Leaving to one side whether the Nationalists are effectively contending with it, foregrounding great cultural diversity in a country is, I think, neither a decent intellectual nor political counteraction to the current reasoning and rationale behind a drive for independence, here in Scotland, or wherever else for that matter, but perhaps especially here in Scotland. These bloggy thoughts are once again sketched out from a cultural perspective and my motivation, note, is not a reflex defence of the movement towards independence. Rather, these posts link to a searching interest in the possibility that Scotland could forge a politics through the independence movement which could see a galvanising cultural ethic at its heart. To jump my own gun: that cultural ethic would be one which accommodates a diversity of sociocultural customs and practices and inasmuch it could be a nationally progressive move, and a credible validator of a ‘yes’ vote in 2014. The ‘yes’ then would depend upon 1) the extent to which a voter feels that that ethic can translate into political practices of distinction and 2) whether that voter feels that something of those practices has been evidenced thus far by the Parliament in general and the Nationalists in particular and that independence is now the means by which that ethic can be advanced to distinction on an international stage for Scotland’s benefit and for the benefit of those who maintain and evolve interdependence with an independent Scotland. (Much needs to be done to vehicle this political conceit, as Leigh French rightly reminded me last time I peeped over the parapet – see the Facebook spiel here, and the earlier blogpost here – but I’m still taken by it, hence this additional peeping.)
There are many issues at work in Scott’s engaging article, and not all of them deal directly with the incompatibility of cultural diversity with Nationalism and independence. In the piece Scott writes with authority about Scotland from the perspective of Shetlanders: his note is one of caution, for the Northern Isles have always been sceptical of Central Belt rule. This statement allows Scott to remind us of the superbly seen snub voiced by ex-MP for Orkney and Shetland, Jo Grimond who said that the ‘last thing the Northern Isles want is to be ruled by Glasgow trade unionists and Edinburgh lawyers’. So there is a distance-from-the-seat-of-power issue which is beyond doubt (Scott lets us know that the nearest train station to Lerwick is to be found in Norway). The issue of actual separateness is strengthened in Scott’s favour by his making mention of the spectacular customs and practices of the mid-winter festival Up Helly Aa. That event underscores for Shetlanders a sense of independence (from the rest of Scotland is the implication) although it brings at the same time a closeness to Scandinavian culture, of which the islanders are very proud.
So far, then, Central Belt monists are rightly reminded or informed of the spectacle of Up Helly Aa – an event to trump the too’stery boostery of a Capital fireworks display. More importantly for Scott, these Beltists are firmly reminded or informed of the cultural diversity of Scotland, especially Scotland at the edges, where the gravitational pull of other national and state cultures might retain attraction. But all that is all that. Nations with the geographical diversity and map-spread of a Scotland, in other words even small nations, will comprise a diversity of cultural forms; forms which, yes, might create a sense of distance or dislocation from a perceived big centre. That eventuality being especially likely, of course, when those forms are coupled with literal distance from the corridors of political and civic power. Care is needed with this model, though, for no one will tell an axe-wielding Shetlander that he is peripheral during Up Helly Aa; Scott persuasively evokes the smell of the burning ship and the paraffin reek as a combined something which still centres Shetlanders spread across the globe – and I can believe it.
I guess my first point, at last, is that those who forward the diversity and distance argument rarely volunteer the specific differentness of diverse culture as an alternative big cultural driver to the one offered by those who are professing a cultural steer on behalf of the Nationalists and the independence movement (not all of whom are Central Beltists it needs to be said). I dare say that this differentness as seen by the Diversists, in whatever different form it takes, could be volunteered; we will indeed have much to learn from the Northern Isles as a conduit to Scandinavian culture. And yet, it seems to me, that this viable differentness isn’t volunteered (and Scott doesn’t break this rule by simply pointing to diversity). This is so probably for ideological reasons contra pragmatic ones as much as it so because of the absence of any viable cultural competition. The result? The big cultural driver at the heart of the SNP momentum, remains intact, and for many, viable.
It remains intact for there is nothing in identifying difference that would dissolve a priori the proposition that a cultural ethic could be professed with credibility as characteristically Scottish (based equally on history and a sense of collective ambition for the future), an ethic which, following Dewar’s contribution to the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, could pervade the formative and substantive business of Scottish politics in independence (or formations short thereof). It must be said immediately that that ethic, in keeping with Dewar’s vision for greater egalitarianism, must have at its big centre a strain of tolerance and empathy which would cherish the great diversity to be found in even our wee land. Now, because alternative cultural drivers different from those pronounced by Dewar and Salmond are not offered as replacements (not even Scandinavian ones) it is reasonable to assume that the criticism levelled at the Nationalists’ approach to cultural identity formation is a fundamentalist criticism.
This claim can be made because there is not much left in Scott’s approach other than to hold in ideological grasp that any ambition to have any politics or any parliamentary business driven by any form of Nationalism that accords with any big cultural centre, however ethical that centre, is always forever an unethical ambition, because that way fascism lies, or at best pernicious paternalism. To hold that is to hold off a pay rise from senior managers because to accord with senior managers can never be good. That said, it’s not that Scott is out of kilter in his criticism with established liberalism writ large, and that connection comprises an overt subtext in his piece. His is a take like Kant’s which is to baulk at the prospect of any form of imperium paternale for it makes citizens passive and unable to shape futures of their own design for want of the sovereign’s determination, so that argument runs. This may be a pure argument of Liberalism, but it’s a complacent one if the opportunity cost of holding it is the loss of a chance to effect different political and state patterns (culturally, educationally, militarily, politically) delineated by an inclusive cultural ethic which will find no enemies internationally or domestically other than pure liberals and party Unionists.
Lastly, at risk of leaping over the parapet, the work of Jürgen Habermas might be brought to bear to help quiz the intransigent position which lies underneath Scott’s representative Diversist argument. Habermas holds on to a universalism conducive to, specifically, the ongoing development of a Federal Republic, away from corrosive petty-but-dangerous nationalism towards a shared mentality which grounds political action, civic engagement, and identity formation. This ‘towards’ is important, as it relates directly to what is meant when speaking of devolution not as an event but a process. As Max Pensky has written, Habermas’s post-Reich nation is moreso a value than a fact, more a verb than a noun. Habermas’s post-petty nationalist identity formation involves a universal commitment read through a ‘constitutional patriotism’. In this sense, according to Pensky:
‘Universalism’ means something like the basic shared mentality that allows individuals to conceive of themselves as citizens of a democratic state, one in which citizenship consists of a constellation of interlocking duties and rights that together form an abstract level of popular sovereignty subsisting below the spectrum of particularistic kinds of identity operating within a diverse society’
My pragmatist argument rests, you’ll have seen, on the capacity of a Nationalist Government in Scotland to be able to lay credible claim to the connection in Scotland between the ‘verb value’ which would inform universal constitutional patriotism and the history & future of Scottish cultural production. If there is potential therein, and there is, credibly, then the Habermasian basic mentality advocated by Dewar for devolution and Salmond for independence, let’s say, could subsist below the spectrum of particularistic identity in a diverse society: it could connect Glasgow’s trade unionism, Edinburgh’s lawyering and Shetland’s fire-raising.
This kind of popular, subsisting, tolerant sovereignty, Pensky says, moves ‘restlessly between its moments of abstract expectations of reasonableness and unthematizable sets of culturally specific problems and needs’. In playing out like that pragmatically and never in fundamentalist fixed form, therefore, the cultural identity which could vehicle a basic shared mentality for self-determining Scotland would find itself, in Habermas’s words, in the ‘placeless place in the interactions between democratically institutionalized will formation and culturally mobilized public spheres’.
With all the authority of a peeping blogger, I hereby pronounce Jürgen Habermas, Sir Georgie McHabermas of the Cultural State of Scotland.