The Seven Wonders of Scotland, introduced by Gerry Hassan, Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2012.

An impressive and stimulating anthology, Birlinn’s The Seven Wonders of Scotland gives us eight imaginations on future Scotland. Seven of those are gifted by: Andrew Crumley, Michael Gardiner, Gavin Inglis, Billy Letford, Maggie Mellon, Caroline Von Schmalansee, and Kirsti Wishart. Gerry Hassan contributes the eighth by way of his extensive and provocative introduction, ‘Scotland’s Stories: A Nation of Imaginations’. As a whole, the book presents vivid futures, not to rest on complacent and titillating speculations, far from it: The Seven Wonders of Scotland deploys serious doses of imagination to cause us to pause and reflect on what these affecting futures might ‘tell us about ourselves here and now’.

The very contemporary political context for this review has been thrown into relief by Nicola Sturgeon’s proclamation this week that independence is not about nationality and identity. Rather, we hear, it is about the practicalities of politics, about the levers of power to be deployed to ensure our arrival in Scotland at a better form of democracy and social justice. As pragmatic as I might think myself to be, I could not hear Sturgeon’s proposition clearly thanks to the coincident and challenging (and welcome) noise created by Hassan’s book. That interpolation is effected precisely because Birlinn’s stories invoke a here-and-now cultural identity which is, quite simply, and for better or for worse, recognisably ours: a layered cultural identity which cannot be peeled off the practice of politics in this the country of our formed identity as if some kind of self-adhesive label.

We know why Sturgeon (and others of course) tactically describes some distance between herself as advocate of independence and nationality & identity motivations for independence. This tactic is an insurance policy against accusations of (supposed) localism and parochialism, the worst form of which is (indeed) aprogressive conservative cultural nationalism: a pettiness which is a step towards contemporary fascism no less. ‘Sturgeon’s’ tactic creates the impression of a world of pure democracy and pure social justice which is in some way apart from the world of lived relations, especially the lived relations of a country of not quite five and a half million. But no such pure democracy or pure social justice exists, as all politicians know at that threshold moment when they meet candid reflexiveness about their professional endeavours.

Sturgeon’s semi-seductive pitch cannot erase the fact that all politics is properly pragmatic, and all forms of democracy and social justice within an independent Scotland will be intertwined with both our national needs, and, as Birlinn’s book and Hassan’s storymaking might propose, our understanding of our national needs. This is not to decry the possibility of universal appeal to democracy and social justice, but it is to decry the tactically wanted separateness of that thing from the actuality of its manifestation in locations and national cultures.

Hassan is well aware of that fact of inseparability. In answer to his own Introductory parrhetorical question, ‘What do our seven Scotlands tell us about this place, its people and its future?’, Hassan offers this acutely seen ambition: of a future Scotland, perhaps to be accelerated by the conditions of independence, we might well desire that:

A wider set of communal societal stories emerge which address the issues of mission and purpose that come from a powerful sense of ‘we’ and ‘us’; where we are more than a disparate group of individuals or groups but bound together by a sense of mutual obligation and understanding. And that in twenty-first century Scotland, new mobilising myths and perspectives emerge which resonate with our past and connect to a future.

Here Hassan allows the Existentialist dimension of the independence debate to come to the fore, and quite rightly according to this reader. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Brian Wilson, writing in today’s Scotsman (Beware the SNP’s hidden Ex-factor‘, Wednesday 5th December 2012) finds fault with Sturgeon for not acknowledging the Existentialist aspect of the independence debate in her topical speech. Citing the late Sir Neil MacCormick, Wilson introduces the notion of ‘the existentialist and utilitarian strands’ of Scottish Nationalism, and chastises Sturgeon for not confirming her own existential inclinations towards Independence.

Existential Disavowalism

So, Wilson has Sturgeon up on a charge for masquerading as a Utilitarian when, in fact, her colours are that, he says, of an Existentialist. The bind for Sturgeon and her Existential Nationalists is, according to Wilson;

while ‘independence for better or for worse’ is their raison d’être, it has never shown much sign of commanding majority support within Scotland. So they require that third category which, I guess, covers the entire SNP leadership. They are ‘E-[Existentialist] Faction who must pose as U-[Utilitarian] Team in order to tempt the unwary with wonderful promises and disappearing problems…

Wilson sticks his plastic knife into Aunt Sally when he has it that ‘then comes the difficult bit – persuading the electorate that this [the pursuit of democracy and social justice] is a meaningful prospectus, rather than a barrowload of platitudes to give cover to her fundamentalist ambition’. In this context, then, Wilson conjoins Sturgeon’s disavowed existentialism with a fundamentalism which is blind through mania to the noble meta-story of Wilson’s thinly veiled highbutcannotbeseentobehigh-ground of politics, namely, a utilitarian worthyworkerist busyness, to be performed, at best, with a lobotomised sub-ideology which would sanction the stealing of the lunch voucher from that all-too-human political Existentialist playground weakling as she herself stole five minutes of contemplation of existential stories. By the way Brian and Nicola, an Existentialist Nationalist is not by definition a Fundamentalist: give the voucher back.

The problem with Wilson’s argument for me is that in pursuit of Irx-Factor journoism he has to be not-honest about the Existential drivers which underpin his own understanding of what politics means and what politics is for, not just anywhere, but here, in Scotland, amidst his own stories, personal and political, and those of his family, friends and respected colleagues. For Wilson’s argument to work, paradoxically, his political conviction must have been born from a familial and collegial inculcation, not of stories of the ethics and the ethical characters of Scottish Labour and Scottish futures, but of the antiseptic ambitions of pure democracy and technocratic, abstract social justice. I will sign up to Brian Wilson’s anti-Existential Irx-Factor factoring when he can renounce the stories and shared understandings which contributed deeply and lastingly to his formation as professional (utilitarian) politician and committed and generous public thinker.

It is not, then, reasonable to assume that a so-called Existential Nationalism cannot be connected to a Utilitarian Nationalism, and on this point I don’t so much find fault with Wilson’s unwillingness to say as much, I find fault with Sturgeon’s unwillingness to connect nationality and identity to the particular kind of Utilitarian Nationalism that would befit the communal and lived stories of Scotland as a nation and putative state. On this point, it seems to me, Hassan’s public discourse has a lot to offer the Nationalist strategists, even the Existential ones, and it would be disingenuous of Wilson to disavow his own cultural and political stories and imaginings only to pretend to say that there cannot be any connection between Existentialist and Utilitarianist political positions.

Now, you will need to read Hassan’s book for yourself, but my neglect of its composite stories here (for the time being) goes some way to represent the point, only semi-deliberately I confess, that one cannot easily separate the discrete, bound and published stories from the background|foreground stories of one’s lived world. And it happens to be those stories, as you can tell, which put me in mind to say that the utilitarian politics which are indirectly and directly referenced in The Seven Wonders of Scotland are the necessary outcomes of existentialist imagining, an existentialist imagining which is no more fundamentalist than Wilson’s ingrained existential stories of comradeship and solidarity.

Lastly, thinking again of our current (in this case only semi-contingent) coincident stories, what irony is there in the fact that in the same week as Sturgeon relegates nationality and identity we see the public strife of Creative Scotland, a national body, we all hoped, that would be an engine to drive our communal, Existentialist, creative stories of location-inflected selves for aesthetic and for utilitarian gain.