Margaret Thatcher famously inferred that “there is no such thing as society.” The phrase came to embody her creed of individualism. In Scotland, her philosophy and politics were universally rejected.
Scotland has long clung to the belief that it has a superior attachment than England to the idea that there is such a thing as society. True or not, it is a perception firmly enough embedded in the Scottish psyche to be taken seriously.
Nicola Sturgeon has recently articulated her vision for Scotland. An indyref2 or a general election fought on constitutional lines may perhaps soon loom larger in our lives. Now seems an important moment to look at how Scotland might translate its belief in society into something more tangible, into a force for lasting good in an independent Scotland. How do we create the Citizen Scot?
A new Scotland cannot afford a golden circle of winners and cast aside losers
When Theresa May won the key to No.10 from David Cameron, she didn’t attempt to unite the UK. Instead, she chose to label those who had voted Remain “citizens of nowhere.”
The phrase created two classes of Briton and gave the Leave voters not only a political victory but a higher status. They were the elect. The rest of us, including 62% of Scots, were outside the golden circle. Mrs May gave state endorsement to the winners and left the losers to lick their wounds. The UK remains deeply fractured.
If Scotland is to be independent it cannot afford to have winners and losers of the May type. We must all feel comfortable in our own skin in our own land. We must all feel that we belong here and here belongs to us all. But how do we that beyond the windy rhetoric of politicians (though politicians of all parties will have a duty of care to exercise)?
What is our personal duty to our fellow citizens?
Let’s assume that the first coalition government of a newly-independent Scotland prepares the ground for EU membership with legislation that will ease the country’s accession. High on the list must surely be a Human Rights Act, one broadly mirroring the UK’s 1998 Act.
The Act requires that public institutions – local and national government, the courts and police – treat every citizen with fairness, dignity and respect. An independent Scotland can do no less. But what is to be asked of the ordinary person? What duties, beyond simply obeying the law, will we have to the new state and to our fellow citizens?
I don’t mean here legal obligations. I mean those building blocks of a civilised society that, taken together, form the glue that bonds countries at ease with themselves.
The goal is finding a broadly common view of looking after our land and landscapes, our environment and ecology, our national assets like schools and hospitals, and our streets and homes.
Above all, looking after each other. Not leaving it all to the law and the state but asking each citizen to be part of a national endeavour to build a better society; a society more at ease with its differences, more open to constructive debate, more intolerant of violence, crime, bigotry, and vandalism.
A society that considers street-littering or social media intimidation as socially unacceptable as it considers religious tolerance an essential component of being a mature human.
The Citizen Scot must have an attitude of mind
Can we establish a general consensus that we really are a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns? An attitude of mind, not a prescription, not an edict, not a law, but a consensus that mirrors our belief that there is such a thing as society and encourages us to make the idea real.
We need to champion the notion that being a passive citizen might be okay but being an active citizen will be so much better, because it will be active citizens who will create a Scotland that is less divided, more united, more resilient, more successful, and more civil.
A Scotland where its citizens make the future at least as much as any government: the Citizen Scot.
[ed note: This article was first published in The Herald 25 July 2022 and was reprinted by the expressed permission of the author.]