The Self-Preservation Society of ‘Civic Scotland’


By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, January 21st 2012

‘Civic Scotland’ has been spotted these last few weeks, out in public, on manoeuvres, laying out their claims to be not forgotten in ‘the great debate’ about to ensue.

The official story of ‘civic Scotland’ matters because various people in the voluntary sector, trade unions and churches are articulating a very partial version of history to justify their place and stance now. And at the minimum we should, like every aspect of public life, put this and its claims under proper scrutiny.

‘Civic Scotland’ says that it created and gave expression to the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which in turn gave birth to the Parliament. This is myth and folklore.

For a start, the Convention wasn’t an adequate expression of civil society. It was an unrepresentative gathering of the great and good, of the political and administrative classes who had their noses by the Thatcher Government.

Local government, trade unions and churches claimed to represent Scottish society, but in this body and activity such claims need questioning. None of the afore-mentioned bodies engaged in any kind of participative or deliberative conversations. For all its invoking of ‘popular sovereignty’, the Convention was a curiously unimaginative body which engaged in top-down processes.

Then there was the myth propagated that this entity, the Convention, brought about the Parliament. The Convention mattered in influencing the debate, shifting Labour on home rule and electoral reform, and making people feel something was being done about how the Tories governed Scotland. But the flawed, final Convention plans weren’t what led to the Scotland Act 1998 which departed from it in important ways, the former listing devolved powers, while the latter took the more radical step of listing reserved powers to Westminster.

This short history lesson matters because in the way part of Scotland likes to revisit its greatest moments in a Groundhog Day style, some public figures are proposing that we repeat the trick again. That we trundle out ‘civic Scotland’ and create an umbrella entity to make the case for the third option, ‘devo max’.

First, there is of course politics in this. There is an SNP strategy which has been on going since the summer of 2010 which was then trying to stop Calman and its limited fiscal autonomy. This entailed a strategy of persuasion of civic Scottish bodies to take a stand against Calman and for more powers.

This approach seems to involve the SNP aspiring to become the voice of institutional Scotland in the way Labour once were, while hoping through this that this part of Scotland will in turn support it on more powers and eventually independence.

Second, the version of ‘civic Scotland’ in this equation seems to be as narrow and unimaginative as you could conceive. This is a small band of talking heads, led by SCVO, the STUC, the churches and Canon Kenyon Wright; all good bodies and people, but all insiders with access and clout.

This is not only bad history, but a rather dispiriting, unattractive reading of the Scotland of today and the possibilities of change. One of the worrying signs in this is the meaning of ‘civic society’ which seems to imply a gathering of like-minded, similar people who think they speak for the rest of us.

This is the Scotland of the Convention and the well-intentioned Civic Forum; people who mistook an echo chamber of agreement for a debate and difference.

This perspective paints a romantic, dewy-eyed view of Scotland, of a strong, empowered, varied civic society. And one which does not acknowledge complexity and the downside: of voluntary bodies reliant on the state for decreasing funding, often trapped doing the state’s bidding delivering their policies, targets and services, and squashed by the attentions of central and local government.

There is no addressing of what the term ‘civic Scotland’ means with its connotations of ‘civic society’ and why this is different from ‘civil society’. The former is surely a subset of the latter, small, more incestuous, homogeneous and middle class.

Instead, we have to reflect Scots civil society and do so in a way which doesn’t try and corral it all in one gathering and pretend we all face the same way and believe in consensus. That language and thinking is redolent of Scotland in the 1980s.

We also have to come to terms with how Scotland has changed over the last 20 years. Scotland has a Parliament, so a group of talking heads can’t talk or claim to represent Scotland. The managed society which characterised our public life for most of the 20th century and further back has slowly begun to recede and be challenged.

This old Scotland was an ordered society, of security and solidarity, but also of deference and of not questioning authority whether it be ‘the cooncil’ or the doctor. It was a place where the telling phrase ‘settled will’ had another meaning, of stultification and suffocation of people’s potential. This was the Scotland of the union pre-devolution, of a state of undemocracy.

We should see the idea and myth of ‘civic Scotland’ as not a conservation society, but as a self-preservation society of elites and insiders, of adaptors and survivors who swayed that way with Labour and now are doing the same with the SNP.

Is this really the sum total of the imagination of the public life of Scotland? That every couple of decades we roll out a Convention or pseudo-People’s Forum and have a limited, notional expression of the popular will.

Why can’t we embrace the changing world of activism and campaigning we see all around us? Utilise the ideas of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and encourage the voice of a disaffected public through Facebook, twitter and social media.

There is in Scotland a generation of young people as disconnected as elsewhere, worried about their prospect and future, and ‘civic Scotland’ and mainstream politics does not speak for them.

We need to bring a bit of unpredictability to the settled world of Scottish public life, encourage new voices, and notice the silences and omissions from the table of ‘civic Scotland’.

For to long we have been content with the grand gestures of ‘We are the People’ and talking inclusion, while presiding over one of the most bitterly divided societies in Western Europe. Wouldn’t it be great if to paraphrase the words of that aged old sage, Leonard Cohen, we could finally say, ‘Democracy is coming to Scotland’.


Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –