O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!
– Robert Burns
Here's a wee story from modern, digital age, Scotland. Recently a politically-active man used his Twitter account to encourage his followers to publicly intimidate a politically-active woman who disagreed with him. Obviously her political views, which she regularly expressed in the letters pages of various newspapers, intimidated him.
Anyway, this man discovered that the woman was planning to dine, on a particular evening, at a particular restaurant, presumably by keeping her Twitter account under surveillance. Having secured this intelligence, the man then directed anyone who happened to be in the vicinity to go and 'say hi' to her. At this point he called her 'the hag.' Apparently nobody accepted the man's invitation to harangue the woman on her seemingly unorthodox views, thus scoring a minor victory for common decency in our beautiful country. However, the rather creepy behaviour of the politically-active man deserves further consideration. We'll come back to him.
Staying with Burns' long wait, let's remind ourselves of one of Scotland's most significant annual events; not the Edinburgh Festival and not the Cowal Games.
Every July, the citizens of various towns and cities – mostly in the West and centre of the country – have their normal lives disrupted by the very public celebration of a battle that took place a long, long time ago in a place far, far away. The celebration is conducted by those who favour the victors of the battle. They dress up in suits and sometimes bowler hats, with orange accessories, and are accompanied by beguiling flute bands playing catchy tunes while dressed in colourful, self-designed, Sgt Pepper uniforms. Throughout one particular day they block the main streets and pavements of Scotland's busiest city, drink rather a lot of alcohol and make a great deal of threatening and abusive noise.
This is all well and good, except that it isn't. All of the activity generated by this rather large group of people is designed to express their sense of superiority over, and to intimidate, a relatively smaller group of people – the supporters of the losers of the aforementioned battle. I could also mention regular street battles, occasional riots at Hampden Park and exhibitions of intractable paranoia on Radio Clyde after the Saturday afternoon rituals have been completed. Thus, in Scotland, we have two groups of people who are very, often violently, alienated from each other because a few of them go to different Christian churches while the rest just can't celebrate even those smallest differences that emerged between them before the Enlightenment.
The current first minister of the Scottish government talks a great deal about how tolerant and inclusive Scots are when compared to others. She is not the first person to say this as I've been hearing about our warm and boundless bonhomie my entire life from various sources within the country. However, my problem with this notion is that the present tense is and has always been deployed. It is said that we are tolerant and inclusive and always have been, it is our natural state of being and everyone loves us for it. 'Wha's like us…?'.
Well, current evidence, including the two examples I've given above, appears to clearly prove the opposite to be the case. We have no right to call ourselves either tolerant or inclusive. If a woman, any woman, in Scotland cannot freely express her political opinions without being threatened with abuse in a restaurant and without being called 'the hag,' then we have a serious problem. If we cannot finally deal with the obscenity of religious intolerance and cultural sectarianism in Scotland, then we have a serious problem. Indeed, we appear to accept visitors and migrants with a great deal more enthusiasm than we can find for each other, except where England is concerned – the ultimate enemy.
These and many other issues of long-standing tribalism, intolerance and exclusivity have been highlighted more over the past 20 years as the temperature has risen over the independence debate. Only it's not a debate. We've dug our trenches and the unbreakable attrition is ongoing, precisely because we are so breathtakingly intolerant and exclusive. Any political post on Twitter, including those from professional journalists and commentators, is instantly greeted by a tsunami of personal abuse. There are absolutely no exceptions. No substantial point survives the flood.
Our national self-narrative boasts of our superiority over our southern neighbours in everything from healthcare to sewage treatment, and most notably in education; we're simply better educated than everyone else. Yet year-on-year our schools and universities turn out a steady stream of more wilfully ignorant, narrow-minded, knee-jerk reactionaries per capita, than any other country in the world with the possible exception of the US.
We are getting nowhere as a nation, in any political and economic direction, despite all the hot air that we generate. We are simply hogtied by our own intransigence. We still do not realise that political change best happens in a sustainable way through positive, respectful compromise and negotiation. Standing your ground very easily becomes an end in itself, without any possibility forward movement. Brexit could be a tremendous opportunity for Scotland to take advantage of a spectacularly weak British government; concessions could be won during some positive constitutional deal-making. But any possibility of that will sail right over our heads because 'We will take no lessons…'
We can only start to see oursels as ithers see us if we respect the ithers and listen to what they are saying. It's not a matter of legislation, it's got nothing to do with Yes or No; it is a fundamental matter of personal responsibility. Each one of us can make a difference if we can start to listen to, respect and build on the best that each of us has to offer. Right now we can't even hear each other through our screeching aggression and the thunderous roar created by our slapping ourselves on the back.
Robert Burns offered us a vision, a way out of the self-destructive, argumentative quagmire that we have always been in. We believe our own propaganda and allow others to take advantage of our delusion. If we could just stop and get real...