Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish, Book review., Books, Communalism, Cynicism, Democracy, Freedom, Housing, Humanism, Lesley Riddoch, Local Democracy, Localism, Marxism, Nationalism, Norway, Opinion, Politics, Scotland, Scottish Independence, Scottish Nationalism
“Come on children, hurry up! You’ll need to cycle faster than that if we’re going to make it to the community allotment anytime today!”
“Mum, why do we have to go to the allotment?”
“Because it’s healthy and lots of fun to be outdoors, reconnecting with nature.”
“But that’s boring, mum!”
“Well, it’s nice to be able to contribute to the community and help out your fellow…”
“Mum, that’s boring!”
“Positive attitude, children! Lots of studies show that our physical health and mental wellbeing fundamentally depend upon community engagement.”
“Can’t we go home and play on Grand Theft…?”
“Absolutely not! We’re going to service the community compost facility.”
“But mum, that’s boring!”
Lesley Riddoch’s new book Blossom, What Scotland Needs to Flourish has taught me that I am an evil man. Riddoch wants to empower local communities to take back the land and collectively make decisions about their own futures. I am bored already.
Riddoch contends that Scottish independence should involve seizing the historical moment rather than just the state, and junking an established culture of disempowerment along with the UK. For her, Scotland should become a student of Norway and its virtuous welfarism. Norwegians emerge from her analysis looking rather like utopian Martians, with their quaintly marvellous way of life.
Perhaps it is just the luck of the draw, but all of the Norwegians who I have ever met have seemed mildly brainless. It must be my bad luck. I suspect, however, that most Scots are a little creeped out by Norway’s communalism; they may worry that it would transform them into a pleasant and unimaginative people, who are rinsed clean of personality. Forced to choose between a bleak life as a heroin addict on a desolate Edinburgh estate and one as an upstanding Norwegian citizen, I imagine that most Scots, if put on the spot, would opt for the former.
I reluctantly concede that Riddoch’s book is supposed to have a colon (Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish), even though this makes me picture Scotsmen munching grimly on platefuls of petals. Blossom is at times an exhilarating read, with the polemical spunk of a treatise by Jane Jacobs or Germaine Greer. Riddoch is a crusading feminist journalist for the Scotsman, whilst she had batted for the Beeb on programmes such as You and Yours. Yet her book drifts with an almost drunken quality in and out of lucidity, offering hard-headed analyses of Scottish housing and local councils, before floating back into unlikely visions of mobilised local communities. It is a good enough book to make the idealism seem like lapses of an underlying shrewdness.
If Riddoch is arguing for localism, some of the evidence that she tenders in its favour is, if we are being serious, a little silly. Take Norway, for example. This nation may well top the UN’s Human Development and Democracy indices, but its pretences to offer a progressive society remain the most insulting humbug. Norway is often slapped down like a winning card in British politics, since it apparently proves for good that our own economic model is inferior. We should instead follow the example of this wise nation which has never succumbed to Thatcherism. A nation which, alas, turns out to have made most of its wealth from exporting oil and gas to capitalist economies. If Thatcherism was murder, Norway would be an accessory.
Jane Jacobs would have dismissed Norway as a supply region. The test of how sophisticated this nation really is will come when its resources finally run out, or become more costly than those extracted elsewhere. But Norway actually raises spirits across the political spectrum. Tychy admires this nation’s prudent Euroscepticism and its determined reiteration of liberal values during the trial of the mass-murderer Anders Breivik. I have friends on the scarier part of the right who attribute Norway’s success to its relative ethnic homogeneity (immigrants constituted only 2.5% of the population as late as 2001). When showing that “ethnic Britishness preoccupies England more than Scotland, where the ethnic population is ten to 15 times smaller,” Riddoch should be wary of unwittingly reflecting the far right logic that social stability derives from ethnic solidarity.
Unfortunately Riddoch’s game is to champion autonomous local communities, and this is rather undermined by her tendency to refer to Norway as if it was an entirely regimented society, with uniform national values. In her vision of Norway, every community seems to be both free and part of an ideological franchise. Throughout Blossom Norway is wrapping itself around Scotland like ivy, but Riddoch does browse over the other Nordic nations and she maintains that, “Scotland’s destiny is to become more fully herself – not a pale version of any other nation…”
Riddoch charges that Scotland remains inhospitable to local initiatives, but it is hard to imagine those that she cites doing particularly well in any society. She tells the story of Drumchapel Men’s Health Group: a project founded in 1993 to assist working-class Glaswegians who were deterred by the snooty and judgemental NHS. Riddoch is astounded to discover that there is no information about the DMHG currently available on the internet: “How can that not be recorded in some version of Scotland’s digital story?”
Because it had failed? Because it was intended to reconcile the unemployed with poverty and deindustrialisation? Because it patronisingly tried to replace people’s beer and fags with gobbledygook therapies such as acupuncture? Or because it was naïve, in assuming that state-capitalism would actually care about Glasgow’s healthcare and volunteer to fund it? Riddoch crows that, “hardened, macho working-class men were not expected to ask for help or to offer it. Danny and Tommy had broken the toughest rules of the lot – their own.” Or to put it another way, they’d cracked.
Dr Mary Hepburn, the camp commandant of a treatment centre for pregnant drug addicts, is likewise struggling for professional recognition and state-funding. Riddoch arrives from Drumchapel unimpressed with the bourgeois medical profession. “How,” she wonders, “can one set of Scots heal another whose lives, lifestyles, attitudes and habits they hardly know and cannot possibly understand?” Most people would respond that this can be done with medical knowledge alone. Dr Hepburn has achieved undeniable success in her field, but this appears to come with a repellent determinism rather than any enlightened human understanding.
The doctor graciously acknowledges that “If I lived in awful circumstances, I would use drugs.” She advocates that women “whose parenting skills may be compromised” by a whole list of factors should spend time incarcerated in educational institutions, which seems to roundly confuse parents with their bairns. Riddoch returns from her meeting with Dr Hepburn wittering about the damage done to children with a poor “home environment” by the “stress hormone cortisol” and the determinism is now complete. She describes Scotland’s “poorest people” struggling with “forces powerful enough to immobilise even the strongest individual.” With such a low opinion of human resilience, it must be indeed hard to “know” poor people.
This determinism sets the tone of the book, for Riddoch frequently seems fearful that disempowerment is too ingrained within our culture to be ever truly eradicated. You may find it aggravating, this sense that the whole nation is being given a buck-your-ideas-up pep talk. Just think what we could achieve if we pulled our finger out. If we only knew our own potential. Yet there is a wistful or even pathetic strain to Riddoch’s encouragement, which reminds me of a middle class parent who is trying to interest their children in something other than Grand Theft Auto.
Riddoch’s localism is ultimately a kind of defeatism, just as the Left’s environmentalism is often trying to reassure us that deindustrialisation is actually a good thing. Riddoch retreats to the local because she has given up on democracy on a large scale. She has at some point concluded that the electorate is too big and too impersonal to convince with ideas, and that the Left can only appeal to their interests at a local level. Citing Ludovic Kennedy’s crack about Scotland being “in bed with an elephant” within the Union, Riddoch insists that, “we have tried to wake the elephant, electorally-speaking, for decades but no-one’s noticed.” It does not sound terribly appreciative of democracy to liken the British electorate to a big, dumb “elephant.”
And so we retreat, until we arrive at something like the West Whitlawburn Housing Co-operative. After years of enduring council mismanagement, the people of West Whitlawburn finally rallied together and assumed control of the estate in 1989. As is so often the case in Riddoch’s book, the funding had to come from elsewhere, with the expectation being that benign authorities would have to hand over the money, purely because the community needed it.
My cynicism slinks back from this project, unable to get its teeth into the idea of ordinary people wanting better lives and fighting together to achieve this. Yet, at least in Riddoch’s telling of the story, West Whitlawburn sounds like a place to admire rather than one where you would actually wish to live. She relates that, “concierges are on duty 24 hours a day watching the 28 external and 185 internal cameras of the extensive CCTV system and responding fast when needed.” Cheery security men may pop in on elderly residents at two in the morning if they are feeling lonely (the residents, that is). Riddoch finds the increasingly totalitarian co-op “tackling drink, dietary and skills problems.” However fervently Riddoch opposes “top down” state interference, she is happy with paternalism when it is literally closer to home.
Riddoch’s confusion over paternalism is encapsulated in a single sentence which qualifies the complaint that “we have criminalised nuisance behaviour” with her blood-curdling praise of “pioneering moves on minimum alcohol pricing.” She does not seem to register that the state has grown more paternalistic because it does not trust people with the freedom which they have historically wrested from communities. Many people have simply escaped urban communities, just as their forefathers had fled the land. In her disappointed-parent voice, Riddoch despairs that, “surveys find professionals have few local attachments, go less frequently (if at all) to local pubs and shops and socialise less with neighbours… That’s problematic.”
Riddoch reasons that we must like democracy and so we should obviously like localism. She implies that Scotland is existentially more democratic or even socialist due to its traditional absence of home-ownership. Paradoxically, Scots have been united as a nation by a common heritage of local battles with their landlords, and the common experience of having their lives piled on top of each other in tenements. Riddoch concludes her argument with a characteristically idealised picture of a homely tenement filled with the smells of cooking and the sounds of “the pipes or the fiddle.” She has evidently never experienced the awful atmosphere which results when somebody begins to learn a musical instrument in a shared tenement. It all becomes somewhat madcap, with Riddoch proposing that tenements wonderfully discourage multiple car ownership by providing less parking (does it not occur to her that the students and poor people who live in tenements rarely own cars?), or that the folk of Perthshire should traipse off to their local forests to collect wood for fuel rather than turning on the heating.
What is lost in this analysis is the allure of transient city living – the ways in which renting allows people to come and go, without putting down roots. But it also represents a devalued view of democracy. It would be highly surprising if distressed tenants did not unite against the landlord, but this collective action only appears whenever there is injustice on the ground. People are not coming together freely, of their own free will, to forge their destiny. If workers really are going to collectively improve their lives, they will have to overcome their local differences and maybe compromise their local interests, rather than just finding a better means of expressing them.
Riddoch laments the “deep-seated belief that ordinary Scots cannot own and run things.” Yet disempowerment and alienation from the land are found throughout advanced capitalist economies. She makes a decent case that some nations manage better than others, but she concedes that the questions of Scottish wellbeing and independence are effectively separate. If so, why is she exercised purely by Scottish wellbeing? Her answer is to retreat into a spurious Scottishness, which amounts ultimately to the smug fantasy that the Scots are more friendly or social than the English: “We don’t have the same capacity to commercialise ideas. We don’t have the same informal rules about collective behaviour… we don’t (publicly) aspire to the same social goals.” The Scottish nation can be finished off for good with the recognition that Glaswegians say exactly the same thing about Edinburgh.
If you are journeying to a progressive society, the land is the wrong destination. Riddoch contends that, “Scottishness is all about connection and respect for roots. The only difficulty arises with folk who seem distant and rootless. For Scots that’s like gaun oot minus yer kegs.” There is something sinister in this silliness, for it is missing the Humanism which has always defined progressive politics. When our forefathers abandoned the land for the cities, they chose to be uprooted and they yearned to author new lives for themselves.
Riddoch makes me smile when claiming that most Scots are as estranged from their national paraphernalia as those “90-minute Christians” who only attend church whenever there is a wedding. She is irrefutable when maintaining that a construction-led recovery will produce “next to none” new jobs for women, and that childcare “should matter more to economists than feminists and childcare activists.” I like Blossom and if I seem disappointed in this book, it is because I want a feisty, imaginative Left and Riddoch often demonstrates both feistiness and imagination. There is always a fundamental fairness to her writing – the insistence upon considering every aspect of a question, however unhelpful this may be to the argument which she is struggling to make. Oddly enough, this fairness soon shows up the faults of the localism which Riddoch espouses, but since she has disconnected the question of Scottish independence from that of her desired local renaissance, the former emerges from her analysis completely unscathed. We may yet agree that independence offers both the challenge and the opportunity for Scotland to blossom.
[Previously on Tychy: “I Am Not National Collective.” Ed.]