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Social Text 18.4 (2000) 109-116

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Civil Society:
Enlightenment Ideal and Demotic Nationalism

Lindsay Paterson

Andrew Ross's article gives an excellent account of the development of modern Scotland. The last two decades have seen a flowering of Scottish historiographical, sociological, and literary scholarship, which has allowed us to interpret Scotland in what might be called a "normal" light; this is exemplified in Ross's article.

There was nothing paradoxical or craven about the eschewing of political nationalism in nineteenth-century Scotland. As Ross explains, the bourgeoisie of that period were supremely self-confident about their achievements as partners (with England) in running the British Empire and would have seen no point in following the secessionary enthusiasms of their class counterparts in places such as Bohemia, Catalonia, Poland, or (earlier) the United States.

Likewise, the working class and the new professional middle classes of mid-twentieth-century Scotland believed they had solved the problem of balancing "big government" against local choice and cultural diversity. They could get the resource advantages of being part of the economically powerful U.K. state--the capacity to redistribute tax revenues between the rich, southeastern English core and not only the decaying industrial lands of northern England, Wales, and central Scotland but also the massively underdeveloped rural regions of northern Wales and northern Scotland, still suffering poverty that would now be recognized as belonging to the developing world. (Like Andrew Ross, I grew up in Scotland in the 1950s and 1960s, but in the northern Highlands, where I can remember several children in my primary-school class who came from homes with no electricity, no running water, and the barest of clothing even in the harsh northern winters; by the late 1960s, the new welfare state had ended all that.)

At the same time, the channeling of this redistribution through a distinctive arm of the central state bureaucracy--the Scottish Office--ensured that local professionals had a great deal of say in how the money was spent. As in all developed countries at the time, the spending of public money became the responsibility of committees of "experts," doctors, teachers, social workers, planners, and so on who could adapt statewide mandates to local conditions. Dealing with Scottish peculiarities in that way seemed to be ideal: it avoided the messiness of local politics that [End Page 109] inevitably would have been the complication if the United Kingdom had had a federal governing system, but it gained the advantages of federalism insofar as it allowed policy implementation to be locally flexible.

As a result of recent scholarship, it is no longer necessary, as it used to be, to present the absence of political nationalism in Scotland until the 1960s as problematic. Scotland was nationalist in a cultural way, and there was no more than a minority of political nationalists to protest against these arrangements. We can now understand why the country was happy with this: what Walter Scott called "her silent way to national wealth and consequence" 1 seemed a safely nonpolitical route to national distinctiveness, where culture was--in classic liberal style--consigned to the private sphere in civil society, sharply separate from the loathsome world of politics.

Civil Society: Some Conceptual Problems

That much is agreed. The problem, however, is in deciding what will happen next in Scotland, now that the mood has changed for the reasons that Andrew Ross describes, and now that a democratic Parliament has taken over the running of previously apolitical domestic policies. It is to this matter that I want to address my remarks, not only because it is now the central question of Scottish politics: the question, as Andrew Ross says, as to whether the resumption of Scottish politics has more to do with "the self-interest of national elites" than with popular sovereignty. The Scottish situation also clarifies some deep ambiguities in the implications of the very concept of "civil society" and therefore also reveals some general dilemmas affecting the crisis of politics in most developed democracies.

So I first need to digress a bit into the theory of civil society...


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pp. 109-116
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Archived 2005
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