National traditions, though often presented as ancient and hallowed, are usually thought up by someone with an agenda. Often they’ll claim to be reviving some long lost ritual, or will seek to give form to the distant roots of a national culture. As Bhaba neatly puts it:
“Nations, like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time (sic) and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye.”
In Scotland we’ve shown ourselves to be masters of myth. The most obvious example is our national dress. The kilt was thought up by a Cumbrian iron magnate who wanted a more practical mode of dress for his Gaelic workers. We’re happy, like most nations, to accept the often shallow pretexts that underpin badges of identity.
Walter Scott was pivotal in improvising new rites to establish Scotland as part of the union: this grafting of fragments of Highland culture onto the Scottish (unionist) establishment was extremely successful. His no-expenses-spared pageant for George IV’s state visit to Edinburgh in 1818 probably did more than any other single event to embed the shortbread tin version of Scottish culture that is still with us today.
On this front, there is nothing unusual about Scottish culture. Indeed, the invention of tradition was defined by Eric Hobsbawm in a landmark collection of essays as being:
“highly relevant to that comparatively recent historical innovation, the ‘nation’, with its associated phenomena: nationalism, the nation-state, national symbols, histories and the rest.”
Our case is different, in that, though Scotland invented national traditions and built up one of the world’s most recognisable national cultures, it has yet to become a nation state.
Perhaps now is the time to think up the kind of traditions that a new Scotland could invent, new rituals to validate a new state in the early years of a new century. Just as Scott knew that Scotland would need new rituals and symbols to get to grips with the post-Jacobite union, I think we should do the same for a newly independent Scottish state.
Could it be that the one truly authentic tradition is our collective interest in creating new ones? Here’s a few ideas to get us started:
1. Interdependence day
In St Andrew’s Day we already have a celebration of Scottishness that very few people bother with, while Burns Night has long served as a kind of surrogate national celebration (and there’s the Hogmanay shenanigans). Given this glut of festivities about who we are, it’s questionable whether we need yet another nation-fest on 24 March. Instead, we could do something unique by transforming our independence day into a celebration of our connections with the rest of the world, the Scotland’s Interdependence Day. The march and rally held in September of the past two years has been a multi coloured tapestry of different groups, there was nothing homogenous about it. With a new nation and the need to mark its creation, we could celebrate our diversity at home and the vitally important social, cultural and economic ties that bind us to people and places from around the world. Scotland is good at hosting things and is famed for its hospitality, I can’t think of a better way to embody this than foregoing the tired old rituals of a national day.
2. Play in Parliament
Given the cost of the Scottish Parliament building it’s only right that every citizen should get a slice of the action. I’d therefore suggest that every primary seven class in the country gets free run of the parliament chamber for one day of the year. The weans would get to learn a bit about democracy, on a basic level, but would mainly be encouraged to clamber around and get to know the place through play. Such an event would allow each child to feel that this building is in some way theirs, that they have touched it, imagined in it, enjoyed it. These young republicans would, through having a whale of a time in this remarkable structure, also learn some exceptionally valuable lessons. On the one hand, they’d grow up to see that the First Minister isn’t all that different from them. On the other, it would discourage reverence for (or alienation from) power and authority. It would be a space that they could feel comfortable in. Such young minds are the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.
3. National Empathy
A re-working of national service, of which the much misunderstood Adam Smith would have approved. This rite of passage could take as its starting point the following statement from Smith’sTheory of Moral Sentiments:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
Every young Scot, prior to entering further or higher education, would have to engage in a vocational programme designed to foster empathy with the old, the sick, or the disadvantaged. It would also familiarise people from all backgrounds with conditions in the massive number of jobs in our society that are poorly paid and poorly regarded. Better still, in the digital age, it would also provide a universal safety net against isolation. It would allow us to say, ‘fuck the gap year and that there are more important things in life than searching for transcendental experiences in South America. Those too privileged or narcissistic to tend to their fellow Scots could join the Scottish Defence Forces or paint the Forth Bridges for a year.
4. The Bairn’s Box
The Nordics are not without their flaws, but they do tend to excel at policy relating to childhood. There’s one example in particular that I think Scotland should borrow. In Finland every expectant mother receives a kind of starter kit or ‘maternity package’ from the government. This post-war Finnish innovation, popularly known online as ‘the baby box’ was originally used as a cot and helped to drastically reduce the country’s infant mortality rates. It ensures every wee Finn has an equal start in life and is both a symbolic and practical demonstration of universalism. Though the state now offers 140 euros as an alternative, 95% of citizens still opt for the box: these objects have become part of the ritual of preparing for a new arrival in Finland. The cost of this policy for 2009 was a bargain at only £11 million. Scotland’s share of Trident is £163 million: roughly the equivalent of a 15 year supply.
5. National Flyting Festival
For the opening of the Scottish Parliament building Edwin Morgan penned these lines on behalf of the people of Scotland to their newly ensconced parliamentarians:
“We give you our consent to govern, don’t pocket it and ride away.
We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don’t say we
have no mandate to be so bold.”
How does this play out in the reality of a modern state? The SNP never tire of stating their fidelity to a slightly vague concept of the ‘Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people’. Perhaps a low-cost but symbolically important solution to embody this would be a modification of the Swedish Almedalsveckan. Instead of a party conference ‘season’, all political parties would gather together in one place for around a week, with each given a day to lay out their priorities to the public. This could take the form of a spring festival that moves to different parts of Scotland each year, and allows equal access to all attendees. As party membership is on the slide, there’s a clear need to rethink the format and the substance of how we ‘do politics’. What’s more there will be a groundswell of expectation if there is a big turnout in September and we vote Yes. How do we, as a society, begin to meet this? Making lobbyists stand in a cue for the bar with the rest of us would be a good start. The Flyting Festival, which would take place outdoors (a bit like a beefed up Solas) would provide a space where policy could be crowdsourced, dogma could be questioned and politicians could check in on their mandate.