Backward, repressed and conservative

'The dawning of devolutioncame with one certainty:that Scotland is a liberal,tolerant and consensual nation. How very wrong'
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The Independent Online

For the Glasgow intelligentsia and the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, the dawning of Scottish devolution came accompanied by one certainty: that Scotland is a naturally liberal, tolerant and consensual nation. Their confidence was shared by the Scottish expatriate sophisticates who hold down senior positions in the media, law and politics south of the border, and many other admirers in England.

For the Glasgow intelligentsia and the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, the dawning of Scottish devolution came accompanied by one certainty: that Scotland is a naturally liberal, tolerant and consensual nation. Their confidence was shared by the Scottish expatriate sophisticates who hold down senior positions in the media, law and politics south of the border, and many other admirers in England.

How wrong can the well-meaning be? Reality has dawned in the naked hysteria and unbridled bigotry unleashed by Scotland's agonised debate over whether to repeal Section 28. Yesterday the Scottish Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority for repeal. But liberals have nothing to celebrate. The ban on promoting homosexuality or depicting gay relationships as the equal of heterosexual marriage was replaced by statutory guidance to teachers celebrating the desirability of marriage, and ignores every principle asserted by those who originally demanded change.

The vicious campaigning and pointed personal abuse which preceded repeal has not ended in a victory for progressive thought. It has provided overwhelming proof that Scotland remains a backward, repressed and socially conservative country. The dismay is overwhelming. So much so that few in the thinking classes have yet found the courage to admit it.

True, there were always those who harboured doubts that the image of a northern redoubt secure from the forces of darkness was accurate. But they have traditionally voted with their feet, not their mouths. They move to London and stay there.

And devolution has done nothing to tempt this diaspora home. Rather it has unleashed the hitherto hidden forces of reaction. The conservative establishment which calls itself the Scottish Labour Party has been taken aback to discover that anyone wanted progressivism. Their assumption appears to have been that Scotland voted "yes" not in order to acquire the power to implement change but to insure against the need to impose any of the suspicious radicalism it assumed Mr Blair was planning.

So devolution has changed the United Kingdom a lot while hardly changing Scotland at all - and then only by denting her complacent pride that everything in this garden is rosy. Optimists who anticipated the new style of government allegedly guaranteed by proportional representation and a non-confrontational parliament chamber have been disillusioned. But something worse than aggressive rhetoric has sent liberals into deep shock. It is the emergence of pseudo moral-majority politics.

The country which sent the American fundamentalist Pat Robertson back to Virginia when he described Scotland as a "dark place" dominated by homosexuals has discovered that it did so not because Robertson is homophobic but because he forced Scots to consider an aspect of themselves they prefer to keep hidden.

In the absence of fundamental reform of a lacklustre educational system, squalid local government and a stumbling health service home-rule has achieved one spectacular success in Scotland. It has exposed the true nature of a tiny, jealous establishment wedded to the social and cultural values of the Fifties.

Scots have looked themselves cautiously in the eye and discovered that they do not inhabit the modern social-democratic nirvana depicted by novelists and comedians. They live in a frightened wee country which was able to disguise its failings for decades by the simple device of blaming all inadequacies on the malign influence of Conservative governments elected by a majority of English votes.

The disappointment has been greatest for those few sincere progressives who had the courage to stake their own futures on a system they suspected they could not trust. The most high-profile victim has been the luminously clever Minister for Communities, Wendy Alexander.

Ms Alexander represents everything a misty-eyed Scottish expatriate could want from her country. She is brave, articulate, imaginative, vivacious and very televisual. Scottish to the tips of her toes and a daughter of the manse to boot. Wendy Alexander did not contemplate the possibility that her decision to wipe Section 28 from the Scottish statute book would provoke a hue and cry which has all but guaranteed that whoever eventually replaces Donald Dewar as leader of the Scottish Labour Party and First Minister, it will certainly not be her.

Poor Wendy made the easy mistake of believing her own propaganda. She presented herself as the intellectual vanguard of a modern, inclusive nation only to find that she does not hold office in one. A terrifying coalition of private capital and religious fervour - the first represented by Brian Souter of Stagecoach Plc, the latter by Cardinal Tom Winning, God's very own Catholic reactionary - discovered it was mining a deep seam of intolerance, fear and suspicion.

In just a few short months this alliance of god and mammon, backed by the vicious ranting of the Daily Record, Scotland's only mass-circulation newspaper, persuaded over a million Scots that the repeal of a clause which had hardly been mentioned while it was in force would lead to a tidal flood of homosexual propaganda into the nation's classrooms.

Should Wendy have seen it coming? It is spectacularly unfair to say that she could have guessed. Nobody else did. But the evidence was there. Scotland the tolerant has not had a high profile since power was repatriated to Edinburgh. The opportunity to implement freedom of information legislation far more radical than any on offer to England and Wales has been spurned. The only administration on UK soil to include Liberal ministers has shown a stubborn reluctance to open the process of government to real public scrutiny. Numerous Labour members of the Scottish Parliament have surrendered to the power exercised by the churches and reactionary unions.

Teaching unions which know Scottish schools are underperforming insist on preserving structures which demonstrably do not work. Private power élites in the law, and the bloated public sector have kept their antiquated systems and procedures. New Scotland is not a happy place for ambitious women or idealists who speak their minds.

All is not lost. The passion which motivated members of the Scottish Constitutional Convention has not entirely dissipated. But yesterday, as the Scottish Parliament finally flexed its muscles and repealed Section 28 one lesson was clear. The myth of Scottish tolerance requires much more than the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe if progressives are to make progress. It demands a recognition that Scotland resembles Ireland in 1970 more than it does Sweden in 2000. Legislative power may eventually be employed to create a society which can teach lessons to the rest of the UK but first members of Scotland's new parliament must surely admit that they did not inherit one ready made and waiting to express itself.

Church, caution and the narrow selfishness of complacent public-sector professionals provide a more accurate snapshot of modern Scotland than the dreams of modernisers who imagined devolution would experiment with the radical and then export it back to the rest of Britain.

Home-rule has done nothing to convince sceptics that rule from Edinburgh is as enlightened as rule from London. The suspicion grows that what Scotland demanded for two decades was not modernisation but simply insulation from an alien form of politics. Perhaps it was not her conservatism that Scotland detested in Margaret Thatcher but rather her radicalism. This, after all, remains a country which Miss Jean Brodie would recognise. One where children are encouraged to conform and dissidents are stigmatised as deviants.

tim@luckhurst.gispnet.com

The author is a former editor of 'The Scotsman'

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