Stories and the Pursuit of Power: Richard Holloway, Andrew O’Hagan and Elif Shafak

Marrying previous lectures regarding narratives and storytelling (Uncommon Building) and the context of the tumultuous political times that we are living through (Scotland, Your Scotland), this panel discussion treads the ground of exploring how narratives are used to  affect within the political process.

Relevant to my project not just with regards to its topicality (and obvious links with self-reflection and national identity), this discussion relates to how we make fictional or semi fictional realities relate to the real, the concrete. The aim of Notional Identities is to explore how this connection can be construed through an architecture… how can built form reflect the imagined construct of a national identity? What part does it play in propagating this narrative?

The panel discussing these contested notions was diverse. Andrew O’Hagan, who I have written about previously, the renowned journalist who just a day earlier had delivered the enrapturing Scotland, Your Scotland, making the progressive case for independence. Richard Holloway was also speaking,  the former Archbishop of Edinburgh, in addition to being a fantastic public speaker and mediator, has insightful views on the state of the country today… Both spiritual and temporal. Elif Shafak completed the panel, an incredibly impressive novelist, author, columnist and civil rights activist hailing from Turkey.

Obviously, like in all the posts on this site, I’m not even going to attempt to eloquently and concisely summarise the ins and outs of all of the entire conversation. However, a few elements jumped out as relevant to the project and worth pursuing. Especially of course, those that resonated with other research strands.

Much of the discussion revolved around the issue of polarised debate: the aggressive duality which currently besets our political discourse and hammers out all nuance to the debate. This, of course, leads to extreme reactions, Brexit for instance. The YES / NO debates of previous independence referenda in Scotland. Any future Scotland true to its self image would have to reform this process, and bring subtlety and nuance back to the debate on the future of the nation.

this is difficult. As I have written previously, “traditional”, Romantic nationalism, divisive and oppositional, feeds off this kind of debate. A binary position of “us and them” ensures that the extremes are magnified and aggressively enforces the traditional, problematic rallying cries of the nation state. And, emerging as these did from the 18th and 19th centuries, these can rely on increasingly distasteful agendas. Ethnic divisions, exclusive cultural groupings, a shared language, and heritage (however the canvas of history is rework and the politics of today projected onto it). All of which are inimical to any opening and welcoming country in the present age which wants to be a part of the European community, desires open borders and free movement of trade and people. As, Scotland does today.

Democracy itself is degraded by this oppositional polarisation of discourse. The nature of debate in becoming some binary issue occludes all of the nuance that ensures that decision making process are truly collective. The panel discussed the role of institutions in addressing this balance, in “overcoming the histrionics of nationalism.” They exist to provide the checks and balances which are important in maintaining healthy public and political discourse, and when they fail (as many perceive some are today), they need to change to be able to function properly. One of the main points of consensus on the panel was that yes, these institutions are in need of reform today; both in terms of their scope and remit, and the time it takes for them to act. There is a shape we have collectively imagined in our heads that is filled by the state, and its apparatus of institutions. These, currently, are failing. It does however beg the question of what improvements towards our civic institutions, or entirely new apparatus, do we need to re-balance this collective dreaming?

It was the phrase “collective dreaming” that struck a chord in the crowd, and within my own work. Within the independence movement there is almost a disneyfication of an ideal happening: a lust for unity and commonality achieved through a reformed democratic process in some future ideal nation. My own project attempts to try and understand this in a future Scotland, extrapolating the lessons and thinking learned from the enlightenment into the present day and beyond in order to provide new institutions to “rebalance” the democratic deficit currently perceived within Scotland. But, there is no “perfect, discreet Scotland,” and there never will be. There are to be realities to this approach, and addressing the history of the nation is but one of these.  Even an independent Scotland would need reform in order to strengthen the hand of civic society in forming future trajectories.





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