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10 January 2000

The importance of thinking local

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

While the millennium bug seems to have infected very few computers, there is no doubt that it caused an epidemic among a small group of keyboard operators. Raging Predictionitis broke out recently among the nation’s journalists.

A virus made particularly virulent by a radical numerical change in the date, it brought our newspapers out in a rash of speculation. Predictably much of this was more reminiscent of the past than suggestive of the future. In particular, most political columnists in allegedly UK newspapers led their lists for 2000 with views on the mayoral elections to be held in London this year. The likelihood that 85 per cent of the population of Britain (this estimate assumes that all Londoners and London commuters do) don’t give a toss about this did nothing to stem the endless flow of comments on the chances of Dobbo, Glenda, Ken, Uncle Steve Norris and all.

Perversely, these uninteresting speculations threw up a wider question. Parochialism of a peculiarly unconscious and myopic sort, mostly peddled by journalists whose adoptive home is London, has always increased the city’s difficulties in understanding itself. But parochialism in general, if not a contradiction in terms, in British politics will become the fount of much interest and analysis in the next few years. While the inevitable tensions between Westminster and Holyrood will supply many column inches, there is a contra-dynamic at work here. Politics is only a function of culture – not culture as politicians tend to understand it (the opera, the Arts Council and ministries for it), but in a broad sense – and culture is shifting its base radically at present. In as much as it is possible to comprehend even the edges of these trends, it seems that cultural identity is localising, while economic structures are rapidly consolidating and globalising. That is a windy claim worthy of the most acute cases of Predictionitis but, when applied to Scotland, the detail of Scottish cultural trends, Holyrood, and how we communicate with the rest of the world (never mind the rest of Britain), the mist begins to clear a little.

Culture first. In 1979 Scotland failed to vote itself an assembly. Only 20 years later, in one generational span, we voted ourselves, overwhelmingly, a parliament. Margaret Thatcher, the poll tax and many other factors contributed, but below the political surface deeper change rumbled. Popular culture began to grow with singular confidence. Travis are only the latest in a long line of Scottish bands and performers who have won widespread acclaim without the need for London validation. Up until the sixties and seventies most Scottish artists of any sort needed a West End transfer, an exhibition in Bond Street, an appearance on national (ie, London-based) television to believe that they had really arrived, had really made it creatively. That is no longer true – for writers of uncompromising Scottishness such as James Kelman, for film-makers such as Lynne Ramsay and Peter Mullen, for the growing cadre of Internet artists all over Scotland. One of the most interesting aspects of the growing popularity of a band such as Travis is how their fans access their music and information about them on the net. This is a clear direction that popular culture can take and also, in a self-nourishing sense, feeds the notion that it is something local, even personal, and certainly not dependent on boundaries of any sort – or London validation.

These trends bred confidence, enough to ignore the doom-muttering, hand-wringing insecurities of Scotland’s past, and enough to vote Holyrood into being.

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Travelling at breakneck speed in the opposite direction is the global economy. Planet Microsoft, Yahoo!, Coca-Cola and the others transcend jurisdictions and, while they are careful not to offend, break local laws or press too hard on sensitive matters (bad publicity being bad business), they are rapidly passing beyond the call of any government. In addition, their marketing strategies drive out particularity in favour of homogeneity. Through their products they create a global, universally accessible culture which is designed to cross hemispheres and languages. They’d like to buy the world a Coke. And inevitably they print a good deal of their marketing on the sensibilities of young people.

It is difficult to see where these tensions will lead. Certainly politicians who think about the future will urgently have to consider how to adapt if they are to have any role worthy of the name. Perhaps they really have only one choice, and that is to try to understand the needs of localising or parochial culture and help it treat sensibly with the faceless giants of the world economy. In that sense it may be that the contest for mayor of London is important to us all.

Holyrood politicians have made their choice and, far from taking a back seat, it could be that they are driving.

Alistair Moffat