The need for a second Enlightenment


By Alex Robertson
After the ’45 Rising, and the ethnic cleansing that took place in the Highlands and Islands thereafter, a remarkable phenomenon took place in Scotland. 
In the aftermath of all the strife that had marked the previous century in religious and philosophical turmoil.  For a short period of around 30 years, the Scottish Enlightenment pulsed through Edinburgh and the old Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen.

Throughout Europe a similar event had started earlier and transformed the culture and thoughts, particularly in France.  In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing practicality where the chief virtues were held to be improvement and practical benefit for both the individual and society as a whole. 

The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the fundamental importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason.

And the effects of the Scottish Enlightenment spread far afield and many scholars trace its effects to the nascent United States of America and to France when the massive revolution and reforms took place.  Indeed, Voltaire once said: “We look to Scotland for our idea of civilisation”

At its heart, the Scottish Enlightenment was the triumph of Reason over Doctrine and Dogma, and it led rapidly to a reassessment of how we viewed the world and our environment.  It saw the beginning of Edinburgh’s predominance in Medicine, and the birth of modern Economics and Philosophy through the works of Adam Smith and David Hume.

It was the high point of Scottish achievement and influence.

And today, as the European Union confronts the most fundamental challenges and changes for many decades, Scotland is being watched by many eyes to see how our small country can regain its independence and freedom by wholly peaceful means, and then to see what we do with it.

If we seize the opportunity, it is now the time to launch a new Scottish Enlightenment, which will transform our prospects and future and send ripples out across the nearby continent, far beyond our size and might.

This Enlightenment is focussed on the way we organise ourselves as a nation, the building of a homeland and a rejection of the doctrines and dogmas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where military might and imperialistic expansion and growth were the guiding lights.

Scotland needs to think anew, act anew and rise to the challenges which the future presents and will present.

All this was brought to mind by the ludicrous antics in the Scottish Parliament of last week.  A simple, albeit serious, mistake was made by one or more officials in preparing an answer for our First Minister to give in parliament in response to a well advance-tweeted question from the Leader of the Opposition.

The mistake was pointed out at 2pm, and within three hours, after an intervening and unrelated debate had concluded, therefore at the earliest opportunity, the mistake was acknowledged, corrected and a full apology given to parliament.  In any case, the correct figures had been provided in a written answer months before.

There then followed an unedifying spectacle of the Leader of the Opposition embarking on a diatribe which roused the Deputy Presiding Officer to repeatedly rebuke Ms Lamont, in the end more or less instructing her to shut up and sit down.

Where did we learn all this yahboo behaviour, the need to fling insults and abuse in parliament in response to a human mistake, confessed, corrected and for which contrition was offered in short order? 

It is the Westminster way of conducting the governance of the people’s affairs.  But it is not, and should not be the Scottish way.

Reason, empiricism, and practicality are Scottish talents, and they have served us well in the past.  So they will in the future if we let them.

But we must raise our eyes to greater, higher things, and raise too the way we behave and think.  It may well be that Scotland’s major gift to the world may be the triumph again of reason and knowledge over the self-indulgent vice of Westminster style parliamentarianism.

And more, to tackle the future with the same optimism and confidence which so marked the first Enlightenment in Scotland.