Citizen Kane – A review of Pat Kane’s Stevenson Lecture


Look into the sun, and when you look away everything glows. The rising possibility of Scottish independence has tempted sky-gazers to widen the concepts of politics and the constitution until they become unrecognizable. The mundane subject of powers being transferred from one state to another flares up into the development of a new political sphere; the prospect expands one way and another till we bask in the idea of a future where enlightened citizens step into the political sphere with new hope, certain of freedom and the primacy of civil life – in a world of fulfillment and contentment.

Constitutional change is allowed to seem like a leap into the light precisely because it is a leap in the dark, and because pursuit of enlightened expression has become a fundamental principle of the movement for an independent Scotland. Pat Kane’s speech this week at Glasgow University beautifully captured both tendencies.

There are countless ways to describe what will happen when Scotland becomes independent, many of them romantic. Kane described the process not as transferring powers but resources; Scotland has human, institutional and natural resources, for which, with independence, Scotland’s citizens will take responsibility. Under this conception, humans become both resources and citizens. They can exist in at least three spheres: work, private life, and, potentially, public life.

This split seems unduly wearying. Why must people take control of their working selves not in their capacity as workers, but instrumentally as citizens? Why is being a citizen the crucial undeveloped stage of being, and the most appropriate for implementing change? And perhaps more importantly, why describe independence as a transfer of resources to the control of Scotland’s citizens, when it is quite blatantly the transfer of power first to an SNP government and then to another group of our dire set of politicians?

Kane’s vision is utopian because he starts by looking to the ideal Scottish City. Then he stares the skeptics in the face and asserts that while there may be no Gods and precious few heroes, he has seen that there are Citizens, and knows that this alien race holds the future in its hands. Kane’s ideal of the Citizen is expanded right out. He tells us to see in this moment a rising army of Scots grasping at collective goals – it is ourselves, we, who can do this, all of us first.

Kane presupposes his own ideal, for we are not his civic creatures, and independence is not being sought in order to create them. Many will vote for independence or for the union with wry or painful smiles, knowing they are not grasping the future in their hands but being dragged by one side or the other. The polling booth he calls a place of power and happiness will be a site of compromise and forced decisions for many voters.

With the loose canon of academic psychology at his disposal, Kane is also very happy to talk about what Scots should be and feel. He compares individual psychology with collective psychology, claiming that through independence we will reach “that state of deep fulfillment when the activity we are involved in is something we feel able to do, but is challenging enough to develop and stretch our skills” – fulfillment that is found through stepping into Scotland’s civil sphere. But this sphere, remember, has not yet developed. In its current form it can provide fulfillment only to a few, and it is neither accessible nor desirable for those who are not in the privileged class of the Scottish public sphere.

For people to already be in the early stages of citizenry, as Kane suggests, they must believe in something bigger and nobler than ourselves. This is belief in the nation. To be motivated by the prospect of gaining fulfillment as individuals or citizens or individuals by submitting ourselves to a great idea. This is the epitome of nationalism.

Access to this ideal is described in terms of ‘right’ – where people feel they have the right to think about something more than home, work, and lifestyle. No matter that the Scottish public class is thinking less about the real subjects of politics less than ever before. Everyday politics has been boiled down to thick but ultimately meaningless concepts of citizenship, freedom and autonomy. Meanwhile those who have always had to think about work and home and the cost of living all the time still have to. Landlords did not cancel rent so people could think about the referendum, nor did employers stop using exploitative contracts, nor did children stop needing to be fed.

For where are his real-life examples of the new Citizens? Kane believes that his ideal of citizenship is being realized through the activities of Yes campaigners. Look at them, he says, the citizens, they’re all out there, setting up websites and going to meetings, creating artwork and organizing concerts and stunts. That’s your active citizenry right there.

Well if that’s them, all we can say is those creatures are very dull. They are apolitical, giving no clear reasons when, say, they defend SNP universalism against Labour’s needs-focussed policies. They organise meetings with all-male panels, exhibit artwork by hipster students for hipster students, and believe they are crafting the future. But ask them about the politics of corporation tax, or about the ideological configuration of governance structures, and they blankly assume the government will do its best for everyone.

Pat Kane also suggests the citizen-race may realize itself by voting for “calmness, confidence and patience, in the face of complexity, detail and negotiation”. The debate over currency may rage, but this simply “raises the game of citizenship”. In the face of disruptive change, a Yes vote would prove that we are not the weak-willed cretins that behavioural economists think we are. A No vote would suggest that we are in fact characteristic rational economic men, over-determined by… the determining factor of the economy. Kane urges people to step out of the bounds of economic security represented by the status quo, to show them you are not going to be determined by capital. Whether you lament it or not, this sort of solution died in France in the 70s.

This assumption of self-determination fuels a general refusal to believe that by voting for independence we are exchanging one bunch of liberal paternalists for another. Ours is civic nationalism after all, and we are enlightened Habermassians – what could possibly go wrong?

There need be no structural critique of the mess we are in, because to step out of the mess we simply need to hold on tight and look to a better future. The argument only features his favourite structures, those that promote invention, ingenuity, or civic mindedness and collective will. Anything else might subvert his story of the “quiet, thoughtful way we do things in Scotland”. So Kane would like us to forget everything from the Queen’s Birthday Riots to the Glasgow Rent Strikes to Bloody Friday, or at least subsume them all under an ideal of thoroughly thoughtful nationhood. Anger has no place in this vision, nor do inciting speeches, or direct industrial action, or revolutions. It’s not our kind of politics.

For Kane, “tumult has always been the most exciting prospect of independence” – but not in the form of through conflict between Scottish Labour and the SNP, two ‘social democratic’ parties whose opposition seems to be a “continuing irrational absurdity”. Never mind that Scottish Labour stands for using powers of devolution to redistribute as far as possible and is now planning tax rises on the rich, while the SNP provide universal services which benefit the middle class, cut college courses and lower tax on business.

It’s strong governance and an enlightened citizenry, rather than political strife, that is needed to ride the waves of the glorious technological revolution coming our way. There is certainly a risk that this revolution will destroy jobs, and thus we need to resist it – by holding “national conversations”, so that we (the citizens) can understand future technological development and mitigate its effect. Scotland is a goldilocks country – not too hot, not too cold, just right to ride this pending revolution, if we are enlightened about itThis is pure common wealism, from the sci-fi politics of “massive computers” to the belief that we can use institutions of state to challenge neoliberalism, rather than challenging its power over the sphere of production. To learn how we do it, we require models, which we can “get to”. Get ye to Denmark, he urges the institutional pioneers – and then we may even find ourselves charting not a Nordic but a Scottish model, in the “laboratory of democracy” our nation can become.

Kane’s vision is all very well for the political class, and is certainly more developed than the vague ideology of civic Scotland. But it is no programme to lead people to independence, constitutional, political or economic. For that, we need to take our eyes from the solar sphere of the life of the citizen, and adjust our sights to the human creatures all around us. It is with, and for, these people that we march for change.

Amy Westwell
Cailean Gallagher

7 thoughts on “Citizen Kane – A review of Pat Kane’s Stevenson Lecture

  1. I am honoured by this lengthy response to my Stevenson lecture – it’s genuinely exciting to be in discussions with a younger generation of Scots radicals. I don’t know where Tom Nairn is (though I do know where Stephen Maxwell is), but I’m sure both would be exulting at this standard of public-intellectual production. However, let’s get down to play…

    I don’t really get the need to counterpose the domains of Scottish “citizens” & Scottish “workers” all the way through this text. When an avowedly constitutional document like the White Paper nevertheless considers stronger workers representation in both enterprises & national economic strategy, or posits a revolution in childcare as a major outcome of indy, or makes it clear that fundamental rights of employment & housing might well make their way into a Scottish constitution… Isn’t there govt recognition here – which a focused post-Yes left can certainly push and build upon – that citizens autonomy is indeed empty without socio-economic security to back it up? (I say this in the piece: “Yes supporters are loyal to the idea of good governance, fully representative democracy, and the social justice that enables all to participate in that” [my emphasis].)

    The late Steven Maxwell had a 70s vision – still powerful – of a Scottish “radical democracy” (to move beyond the corporatism and compromises of social democracy); its agenda including land reform, educational reform, media reform AND approval of cooperative and mutualist forms of enterprise.

    Why do you think that civic and economic democracy are necessarily discontinuous? Do you regard bold institutional and regulatory goals like a 30hr week or a citizens income – both forthcoming policy positions from the “common wealist” (most curious epithet) Reid Foundation – as necessarily tainted, because they seek to persuade the “political classes” (or elected representatives) that true security & sustainability for an #indy Scotland may need audacity of governance?

    Is the *only* political agency you value that of street-and-workplace-based class struggle? Does the late feminist economist Ailsa McKay’s work with the SG to inject her childcare agenda into the White Paper – & which she clearly regarded as worth the engagement – to be rejected because it tarries with an SNP administration? I am no friend of the NATO-joining, corp-tax cutting leadership of the SNP – but it seems like you need to set them up as a straw party of putative neo-liberalisers, when any real-world engagement with Nats in, say, a YesScot event shows the real plurality of their internal political culture. The left of the SNP exist, and in my campaigning experience many are looking forward to a non-party “civic” crucible, post-Yes, where they may be free to turn to other Scots, across and beyond parties, and for a period imagine what new political vehicles could express the Scots left-of-centre consensus.

    The post-Yes “public sphere” could be indeed be an extraordinary place – a theatre of societal progress *without* crisis, a “high-energy democracy” (in Roberto Unger’s words) of social & institutional innovation. And some of that innovation would be workers rights, state investment in employment opportunites, and the redeployment of capital to productive investment. Why not? What is to stop your True McLabour from playing its part in the general agonistics of a new state?

    Incidentally, I think you go far too far with the “race” word (“alien race”, “citizen-race”) – a term never adverted to in ANY of my Indy-oriented writings over the last 30 years. You should respect the achievement of our debate as a civic-nationalist enterprise. If I were to scold you as Marxisants, I’d suggest you alternatively explore the notion of “species-being”, as it has been updated by the Italian autonomists Virno & Negri (for my take on Virno, see, and my general play scholarship). I do indeed believe the deep-seated creativity of human species-being is “expressed” in the energetic citizenship that will take us to a Yes vote, through a settlement, and on to a stirring journey of just, collective achievement. If that’s looking at the sun too long, then consider me dazzled.


    1. I’d go a bit further than the writers here, and suggest the problem with focusing on the civic/political realm is that it is determined (in the last instance) by the realm of productive relations: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” I know this is a bald Marxist claim – even bringing in the old ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ arguments – but I believe all attempts at redistribution and ‘state capture’ during the 20th century (like the social democratic project) have shown that all gains that do not fundamentally alter the nature of work – the nature of property and power, in short the way in which value/wealth is produced – these gains are illusory in the medium-to-long term, and are as easily revoked as they are granted.

      They represent victories, certainly, but they are tactical victories and not strategic gains.

      It is not that the political is unimportant, but to turn this question around (“Is the *only* political agency you value that of street-and-workplace-based class struggle?”) would to be ask where is there ANY struggle in ANY workplace in the UK/Scotland today? It would be GREAT if there was a myopic focus on workplace struggle! Then we could perhaps argue about the need for a semiotic struggle.


    2. P.S. there is nothing ‘Marxist’ – with my definition of a Marxism being: materialist, to do with social forces, production etc – about this “deep-seated creativity of human species-being is “expressed” in the energetic citizenship that will take us to a Yes vote…”. In fact, this is baldly Romantic, no?


      1. Nope, actually roots of Marx’s theories of alienation informed by visions of unalienated human social nature evoked by Romantic writers – possibly Goethe but more specifically Friedrich Von Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. The Italian Marxists quoted above also good guide.


  2. I agree entirely with your denouement – “we need to take our eyes from the solar sphere of the life of the citizen, and adjust our sights to the human creatures all around us. It is with, and for, these people that we march for change.”.
    The referendum will be won or lost in the eye contact in the streets. Some may have been gazing at the sun, others at the moon. It’s all in a days work. ; )


  3. I agree with some of the general arguments here, but I’m a little tired of reading the echos of SNP/Labour battles. If we are saying that the Labour party could become a vehicle for more radical politics then I’m happy to go along with that, but let’s not pretend that they have already become that vehicle, or that they are substantially to the left of the SNP because of a proposed (token) rise in income tax. A Scottish Labour free from westminister could – and should – do a lot more.

    Most young activists in the Yes campaign don’t stare blankly when you ask about corporation tax. Many people refuse to identify with the SNP or their policies. If anything I would suggest that a lot of the left in the Yes campaign has a healthy instrumentalist attitude to the party and to independence itself, the RIC is an embodiment of this attitude.

    The fact that people are so engaged with this campaign is encouraging, we should use this as an opportunity to steer them in the right direction politically, not shut them out for perceived ignorance.

    As an aside, I don’t think that having lively arts scene is a bad thing.


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