How Can Scotland be a beacon of Civil Society? That was the question asked of the panel in today’s discussion.
Continuing the theme of exploring parallels between the historic Scottish Enlightenment and the future trajectory of the nation, this panel session brought together some fantastic speakers to debate the course of the country.
Most importantly, (and refreshingly) the politicisation of independence was barely touched upon here. This was not some painting of utopian views by Unionist or Nationalist spin doctors, but simply an honest (if very hopeful admittedly) speculation on the future of Scotland in continuing as a beacon of “enlightened thinking”, whatever that may be.
The panel brought together a diverse range of speakers. Thomas McEachan is a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament for Glasgow Pollok, representing the youth of his constituency in a junior level of governance. Folk singer and social commentator Karine Polwart was also in attendance, along with Chris Van Der Kuyl, a technology entrepreneur leading the development of worldwide phenomena: Minecraft. Chaired by Leonie Bell, the panel opened and opined on whether the country still lived up to Voltaire’s famous 18th century statement, that “we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”
The social challenges of today within Scotland, and the rest of the UK, are obvious. From gross inequality, disenchantment with the current political status quo and the resulting tide of populist movements across the world, the “sense of civic society” so key to the enlightenment and to an imagined, wonderful future Scotland is shrinking. Again, it was raised that this was perhaps due to the insular and exclusionary nature of how stratified much of our society has come. Both in terms of distribution of wealth and social integration the gaps are huge.
It is empathy here that is perhaps key to understanding how to heal these various fractures. Eloquently raised in an example by Karine Polwart (and usefully honing in right back on the enlightenment history so central to my own work), the role of human connection in propagating the enlightenment is key. Polwart recounts the story of poet Robert Fergusson and surgeon Andrew Duncan, both two hugely important figures of literature and science and prominent figures in the mosaic of enlightenment Edinburgh. Their friendship was forged through the cross pollination of ideas, and more to the point, the forcing together of two figures from very different levels of social status: all facilitated by the drinking dens and societies of the time. This was the 18th and 19th century equivalent of civic, social space. It was a mixer of ideas and people and backgrounds.
The most tangible result of this is the legacy of this friendship itself. Fergusson’s tragic accident and knock to the head landed him within the walls of the only place for severe head injuries at the time: Darien House “hospital and asylum.” Conditions were so diabolical that after visiting, his friend Andrew Duncan was inspired to help found the Royal Edinburgh hospital, and become a pioneer of early mental health practice. Polwart held the audience enraptured by her account of Fergusson singing beautifully into the dark of Darien House where he would later pass away, being met only with the howls and cries of those committed there with him.
It cannot be overstated how much this cross-pollination of ideas, (and its link to ‘civic’ space, or space of debate) is key to the development of the enlightenment. The influence of the philosophy of David Hume and his contemporaries is absolutely clear in the work of pioneering economist Adam Smith, and the development of commercial society which eventually helped to propagate the mercantile British empire around the globe. The ties of the development of this period towards the issues of empire cannot be forgotten.
But, interestingly Polwart points out that the now iconic Wealth of Nations was not Smiths only pioneering work. The earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments followed ideas which would influence Hume himself, the wider society of enlightenment thinkers and beyond; the importance of human experience on the morality and psychology of man. It is this morality, and empathy which Polwart argued was key to understand, and recapture.
The role of physical place and space was brought up in answer to this query during the open question and answer towards the end of the session. The panel agreed that the Scots seem to place a hugh value on the actual physical, especially natural environment. This is a current research strand of my own, and the importance of landscape in forming identity (and how this influences social patterns of those that inhabit it) is an element worth thinking about. In terms of actual space, modern day contemporaries of the “civic spaces” of the enlightenment are hugely important, and helpfully the topic of the next lecture in the Visions of the Future: Scotland series.
It is the intellectual capital of the nation that Chris Van der Kuyl argued was so essential to the both the Scottish self image and its success. This is clear from the enlightenment, a mixture of rational, scientific ideals married with the power of human experience to give an incredible vision. The whole ethos of “improvement” distills this, and Van Der Kuyl argues that “what we (Scots) have is the ability to think in a different way” and, as he later argues, it is collaboration which enables this to occur. Van Der Kuyl essentially argues that an updated version of the historic, uniquely Scottish egalitarian system of education, ‘the laid o’parts’ needs to be re-established.
This is especially relevant to my own research. The Old Royal High School on the flank of Calton Hill was founded to pursue such an ideal, and is a core building of interest to my studies. It was conceived and constructed in the face of a more anglicised version of education in the Edinburgh academy… Crucially a fee paying academy, unlike the Royal High School. If this building portrays an essential element of the Scottish national identity in being a symbol of this method of education, a method which made Scotland the most literate country in Europe by the mid 1700s, then how can this ethos be projected into the future? How can this legacy be continued? I’ll leave it open as to how much the the other schemes for the site, the music school and the luxury hotel, carry on this tradition for a future Scotland.
Consensus from the panel on a need for a more participatory society (raised by so many other of these lectures) and reform of civic institutions was key to this progress, and key to the future self-image of a nation. Van der Kuyl argued that the magnificent vision of Walter Scott in remaking, rebranding Scotland during the 19th century had sustained the country even to the last few decades. But it was another vision, with individuals as far thinking as Scott with the power to implement it that were needed… I found it interesting that what was essentially being suggested here was another re-brand, a re-brand from innovative individuals of course, but a re-brand nonetheless. This honest statement correlates with the idea of national identity (and its use of elements of the past) as something fluid which shifts with the ideals, needs and opportunities of the day.
Maybe the most heartfelt comments of the night came from the parting words of Thomas McEachan. The conversation had (like many others) turned to the shortcomings of party politics in the current political system, and the consequences this had on civic engagement in the decision-making process. McEachan stated that, as a YMSP, he was directly beholden to his constituents, not to some party whip or line from the leader’s office. It is similar to the founding ethos of the Democracy for Scotland group that occupied Calton Hill demanding a Scottish parliament, and who are a central part of the historical research of Notional Identities. This is also congruent with the resulting comments from many other lectures in this series querying the promotion of civic engagement… But to hear it from someone who perhaps would be helping to shape a future Scotland was a poignant end to the evening.