The day optimism died
We need practical dreamers
Ten years ago this week I did a strange thing. I wrote to 500 people, exactly that figure, and asked each of them for £250. Within a week, 50 had replied with a promise of £250. So I wrote to another group of 500, then another, and another, until by the end of the summer I had raised £200,000. The government then pitched in a further £50,000 in gift aid.
I couldn't believe my luck or the generosity of my backers. What was it about this letter? I re-read it yesterday, in the cold light of a decade, and could see nothing exceptional about it. It was asking prominent Scots to subscribe to a new body, the Institute of Contemporary Scotland, dedicated to the young and the poor and, beyond them, to more abstract causes such as intellectual freedom. The idea might have raised 10 quid. Less. But there I was with seed capital of £250,000: enough to bankroll a programme for the intellectual encouragement of young people and the social integration of asylum seekers. Ah, yes, most of it was quickly spent. But annually we have replenished and kept going somehow.
In June 2000 I was in heaven. Heaven lasted about a fortnight before hell set in. It has been mostly hell ever since. Which is another way of saying that it has been a very Scottish experience.
On Monday, in anticipation of the 10th anniversary, I cleared out filing cabinets of masses of stuff. Wow. So much polemic, quite a lot of it written by me. I cannot begin to tell you how many letters received here in the last 120 months have begun with the words 'I am dismayed...'. There is only so much dismay that a wee office in Kilmarnock can accommodate, so nowadays the 'I am dismayed...' letters go straight into the green bags provided by East Ayrshire Council. There is nothing left to prove.
Would I do it all again? 'Something to have done', as Dr Johnson once said. It was something to have done.
But the optimism. Oh, the optimism. Well, that's something else.
It is astonishing how sunny we were in that millennium summer. All sorts of mad, inspiring projects came into being, including mine. Most flopped, but the attempt was made. That is what is worth remembering – the sense that all things seemed possible. Was it the number 2000, the feeling that collectively we had arrived at a symbolic and energising moment? Was it young Tony Blair, then still an impressive and popular figure? Was it the money sloshing around, not all of which went into the pockets of the rich, but some into good causes? We were already starting to go off the rails. But, hey, we were travelling first-class.
Or was it, in our case, the coming of the Scottish Parliament? Ian Mackenzie's diary entry in the Scottish Review for 24 April that year reads simply: 'But Donald is not well. What a compliment to a politician that (a) a surname is redundant and (b) we actually care'. But Donald – well, Donald is now a statue at the top of Buchanan Street, a lofty green figure overlooking a record shop. How odd that such a melancholy person as Donald should have come to represent the optimistic spirit of an age.
The date the optimism went out of the window forever, or at least in the lifetime of anyone reading this, was, of course, 11 September 2001. To utter the great truism: nothing was the same again. An insecurity was born; a fear. I know well that, had I delayed 15 months, precious few would have sent me a cheque for £250 to start an institute devoted to contemporary Scotland. I would have been spared all the 'I am dismayed' letters, but I would also have missed the creative satisfaction. As timing counts for so much in the theatre, so it does in life – a hazard to be negotiated with an eye to the correctly judged entrance and the equally impeccable exit. The timing of June 2000 could not have been better. I was dead jammy.
How different is the prospect today. When David Cameron talks scarily, as he did this week, of changes to the British way of life to be brought about by cuts 'unifying the nation', I feel any residual energy draining out of my soul, assuming I have one.
Does this sound bitter? It isn't meant to be. It is intended as a challenge to anyone who dares to risk the possibility of failure. I hope that in June 2010 there are still people out there who are prepared, against very much heavier odds than I faced, to write a letter asking for £250 in support of some brave new idea. We need such practical dreamers to counter the dispiriting mantra of austerity and repel the hatchets of our new masters. We need thousands of them. I know: 10 years ago this week, I was one myself.
Go on, then. Do it. Whatever happens to your dream, I promise not to be dismayed.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review