3 July 2009

'Civil religion' & the ritual life of Holyrood...

The peat has been left to tend to itself for a day or two here, and the grass to grow rather more long in this sweatsome summer mug. It seems my tyrannicide didn’t quite topple the brute presence of Work or disperse her driving minions as thoroughly as may have been hoped. So what have we missed? A singularly dreary “devolution” debate on BBC Scotland. A half-wee-semi-sorta-celebration of 10 years of devolved Scotland involving Lizzie Windsor, rather fewer MSPs than some had anticipated and a sticky squadron of birthday boys and girls of Holyrood magnitude vintage.

Thoughts? Well, the BBC picked a delicious spot in the University of Edinburgh’s Playfair Library. The political fare on offer, however, was bland. It is significant that the only comment I’ve seen about the Scott-Gray-Goldie-Sturgeon drear-off was Mr Gray’s accounting slip about the goodness or otherwise of a particular proportion of Scottish children’s poverty. The reason? Predictably, it wasn’t a debate. All were polite about devolution. Within the first five minutes, I found myself – atypically and quite contrary to my usual inclinations – yearning for an inkhearted, leering body in the room to stir up some mischief and generate meaningful argument. Sadly, the only incidences of this in the Library were tomb-toothed members of the public – aka potential voters – and thus were not subject to excoriating banter from their fellow panellists.

This absence of dissenting voices is, however, politically significant. In the cant cliché, “it shows how far parties have come”. However, from the programme-plotting point of view, it was predictably a tremendously poor show. Worse, the drabbery is aggravated by boredom a’forethought, since it must have been obvious to BBC Scotland that the format chosen could never set the heather alight. Or it should have been obvious. Next time, give Alan Cochrane a tinderbox and shove him on set instead.

In sum, BBC Scotland: nuls points.

And now, with a strutting military gait, we come to Mrs Windsor and the Case of the Absentee Tribunes. I take a bit of interest academically in the rituals of parliament, their origins, how they perpetuate themselves and what sort of unspoken social rules and regulations constrain or empower participants. The Scottish Parliament is a particularly interesting subject, since its “invented traditions” are plain for all to see, from germinal concept to the processional succession of events where these ideas have played out.

Interestingly, the ceremonial plan of the Parliament is built around what happened in 1999 – albeit with the wiggle room and dexterity associated with Holyrood’s modernity. The ritual opening of the Parliament in 2003, 2007 and the opening of the Holyrood building in 2004 all played host to very similar ceremonials. Elements constantly recur. The Lord Lyon, King of Arms, traipses around in train with his chums the Carrick Pursuivant of Arms, Unicorn Pursuivant of Arms & Heralds of Arms. All wear a sort of burlesque, heraldic outfit. The Duke of Hamilton totters after the Queen, living up to his title of hereditary bearer of the crown in Scotland, by doing so. Files of middle-aged nobs with an enthusiasm for amateur archery form rifle green columns in their faux militaire uniforms. These are the gallant Royal Company of Archers. Speeches follow.

Throughout they are dotted – one might even stay festooned – with references to poets, singers, writers. Theirs is a sort of bardic knowledge about Scotland, which politicians of all colours are disposed to cite, rely on and echo. Burns, Walter Scott, etcetera, etcetera. For instance, the SNP wear white roses, a symbolic reference to Hugh MacDairmid’s lyrical insistence that:

“The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of
That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart”.

All of which is undoubtedly lots of fun. For those with a background in sociology, however, it will instantly provoke consideration of one name: Robert Bellah. For those, quite reasonably, who’ve never heard of him, here are the sparknotes.

Bellah is an American sociologist with a particular interest in what he termed “American civil religion”. The recent inauguration of Obama is precisely the sort of event which concretely articulates many of the curious phenomena Bellah explores. The essence of the idea, however, is that social phenomena have a religious component. Religious is here defined broadly, and shouldn’t be taken as a reference to the various “world religions” with which we’re all familiar. A “people”, said Bellah, has “its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols”.

From a nationalist point of view, these opening ceremonies, I would argue, are a powerful staging of Scottishness, the persistent referencing of creative Scots – and Burns in particular – readily identifiable as a prophet of Scots authenticity and the primary historical voice articulating the “myth of Scottish egalitarianism”. What is interesting, however, is that the insistence on a collective national “soul” or a Scottich civil-religious life is not limited to the political nationalism of the SNP. Donald Dewar’s speech of 1999 was a classic, tone-setter in the genre.

Equally, Winnie Ewing’s chance to analyse devolution as a continuation when she said “The Scottish parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March, 1707, is hereby reconvened” – and the “rediscovery” and re-imagination of the Riding of the old Parliament reinforces ideas of restoration, of continuity, and hence, of nationhood, nationalism and a connected, historically unbroken narrative. Tentatively, and with caveats that I wouldn’t care to see the causal implications of this overstated, the choice made by the Labour Party in 1999 to make such a bargain with nationalist sentiment may have been a terrific miscalculation. How will such nationalist conciousness raising impact on the political nationalism of the SNP? Devolution shorn of cultural context simply provided for a new body to exercise legal powers. How did Donald Dewar's choice to strongly emphasise a nationalist cultural context and analysis of devolution change the way people think about the parliament, or indeed, about the reality or extent of a specifically Scottish "national consciousness"? It is undeniably that the opening ceremony in 1999 staged Scottishness in a way we’ve never really seen before, and did so within a discourse of Scots authenticity and of history which was largely imaginary.

I don’t mean to denote either by this “imaginary” or the earlier reference to the “myth” of Scots egalitarianism that either are in any way false. Rather, I just want to point out that a choice is involved to run ceremonies in particular ways, or to include or exclude particular symbols, persons or words. In this context, it is fascinating to consider the choices tribunes have made in ritualising Holyrood, and to speculate on the broader political consequences of this experiment in performative Scottishness.


  1. If they do that Top Ten Blogs exercise in mass futility and backpatting this year, you'll feature in my list for stuff like this.

  2. As someone who is unreservedly a 'Unionist' (although in real life I would never be caught anywhere near a union, as that word is more commonly understood - lol) I have very decidedly mixed feelings about Devolution and the 'ceremonial' (which is what I think you are really discussing here, mostly) of the Scottish Parliament.

    At the original ceremony in 1999 I actually found Mrs Ewing's "The Scottish parliament ... is hereby reconvened" reconstruction of events quite moving, if exceedingly contrived and not entirely accurate. On the other hand I found the 'songstress' on that occasion squirm-inducingly awful, with an absolutely grotesquely atrocious voice - kind of a warbling Dawn Primarollo and the mawkish sentimentality of what she was singing deeply unpleasant.

    In fact, although I can't recall precisely what the musical interludes were during the other ceremonies you mention, these above all else seem to have become symbolic of the 'civic religion' of our Scottish Parliament - and are normally cringe-making. I'd love to know who chooses the musical 'acts' so I could curse them silently! The most recent event was no exception, although to be fair it was less bad and less embarrassing than some of the earlier events, specially the 1999 opening.

    Who knows where Scotland will be politically in say 50 or 100 years, or the UK for that matter - I'll be long gone by then - but I hope I won't have to see out my twilight years, should the SNP have achieved its political objectives by then, knowing that 'The Flower of Scotland' is Scotland's national anthem - euthanasia couldn't come soon enough ... In other words people like me, indisposed to buy into SNP rhetoric, might be less-openly hostile if the mawkishness and sentimentality were held severely in check - maybe I really do need to take myself off to Eastbourne or Worthing (like Nairn, places with a somewhat higher age-profile than the national average) before it's too late ;)