Me vs We: The Battle for the Soul of Scotland

Professor Joe Goldblatt

As I witnessed the awkward, uncomfortable, unseemly and always riveting images of a former Scottish First Minister testifying before a Holyrood Parliamentary committee this week, I was reminded of King Lear. Some critics believe that Lear may have been Shakespeare’s weakest play and it was ironically first performed during the great plague of 1606. In the play, the ageing King is trying to retire from the monarchy and he decides to divide his realm among his three daughters and to offer the largest share to the one who loves him the most.

There appears to be a similar scenario being replayed in Scotland during our own modern plague. As I watched the agony of a former well respected Scottish First Minister being probed by the members of the Holyrood Committee to perhaps seek the favour of viewers and also advance their own individual political aims, I wondered how my beloved adopted country has shifted its focus from a society focused upon “we” to one where self interest or “me” is rising. As I watched, I also shuddered at this modern day dramatic battle for what I describe as the soul of Scotland.

As an outsider who became an insider, I have witnessed the complexity of adopted country’s precious and sometimes fragile soul. As I made my way north to Scotland in 2007, I first delivered a talk at Oxford University about tourism. I was seated at the top table with a leader of the English government tourism agency and he asked me about my future plans. I told him that I was soon off to Scotland to accept a new post. This former chief executive of a major tourism corporation turned to me in abject horror and asked “Why would you want to go there? Do you realise the Scots have lost the plot? They want to be independent!”

This was the first time I heard the words “Independence and Scotland” used in the same sentence. I then asked the executive what was wrong with Scotland’s ambition to become an independent country? He responded loudly and forcefully by saying “Scotland is too small. The country is too poor. The people are too stupid.” I was, on this rare occassion, speechless. However, once I recovered I responded by enthusiastically saying “It sounds like my kind of country!” After all, I spent the first 55 years of my life in a country that had successfully seperated from the British state and my first eighteen years were spent in Texas which is still talking about seperating from the USA. That night, I went to bed wondering about my future and the next morning I boarded a train for Scotland.

I am convinced that much of the drama we are seeing played out, just as it was in 1606, is about the lack of confidence some have in this great land and in this historically signigicant people who have invented so much for the good of others throughout the world. Perhaps our current challenge as a Scottish people is our lack of long term memory of a time when Scots banded together to care for one another and advance society through the formation of friendship clubs, craft guilds, pioneering hospitals and great universities.

Scotland is not unique in witnessing this modern drama of the shift from we to me. In much of western civilisation, following many years of generally positive economic growth, we have see an increasing division between those that have critical resources and those that do not. This division is not because of a threat from a foreign adversary, rather it is an internal civil war that has been slowly simmering until it has finally reached its current breaking point.

It is not without irony that both the first performance of King Lear and the current battle between a former and current First Minister are taking place during a global pandemic. It occurs to me and perhaps many others that the current rising battle of me versus we in our civil society may be the result of our need to find some measure of distraction from the uncertainty of this invisible virus and its daily changing mutations. However, if we do continue this battle, I believe it will be at our own peril.

In the text of King Lear the words nature, natural, and unnatural occur over forty times. Some believe that this theme reflects Shakespeare’s analysis of reason over feeling as evidenced by King Lear’s subsequent death due to his emotional exhaustion. I fear that 415 years later it will not be solely our leaders that succumb to exhaustion due to unrestrained emotion, rather it may also be the citizens who are caught in the line of fire between these two opposing forces.

Therefore, as proud as citizens of this great and historic country that has been the birthplace of many of the world’s greatest leaders, we must now ask ourselves how we may find the courage and resolve to once again come together and rediscover our own best nature by rejecting this narrow vision of “me” and warmly embracing the triumphant return of “we”. This may perhaps be the greatest battle in our long storied history as it is truly the battle for the future soul of Scotland.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. He has provided research for the Scottish Government regarding planned events and analysed the impacts of events such as the Scottish Homecoming, the Papal Visit, and St Andrew’s Day. He is a supporter of Scottish independence.

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