As I worked for the government in Scotland for just over 10 years my thoughts immediately turned to what I learned from that experience. And as I like to try and weave the ‘what I learned from’ projects into the theme of writing, I wondered what I could say about that. But I wasn’t sure I could add anything to What I Learned from Writing Under Stress and What I Learned from Writing at Work. Plus it would have led to quite a short post:
There’s way more paper than anyone will ever have time to read. So cut, cut, cut and cut again unti you get to a (plain English) point.
As I cast my mind back over the time I spent in government I couldn’t help but remember some of the highs and lows, the triumphs and challenges, the times of heart-pumping adrenaline and the days of bone weary exhaustion. And I couldn’t help but think of some of the triumphs and challenges of government in Scotland over the last 10 years as we stumble along to a new way of making decisions after the devolution settlement.
But never fear! This isn’t going to turn into a political essay. It gets to a personal point.
My mind went back to the last time I’d been at the Parliament building in Edinburgh. Now to say this building is controversial is to make a massive understatement. It cost way more than originally anticipated, has led to numerous enquiries and conspiracy theories, and is the subject of at least one book. And the design is… unusual, to say the least. Some love it, some loathe it.
But never fear! This isn’t going to turn into an architectural analysis either. (I know hee haw about architecture.) No, I’m getting back to a personal point.
First, about the emotional response I feel whenever I see that building. A feeling of pride, optimism, hope, possibility. A sense that the people who designed this building, and are now inside it making the institutions work, the people of Scotland whose parliament it is… are people who dream big dreams.
That’s the feeling I get when I see the building from a distance. When you look over and catch a view like this:
It’s actually very hard to take a decent picture of the Parliament, or get a decent view of it. Unlike many parliament buildings around the world, it’s not sitting up on a hill or set apart from other buildings. It’s at the foot of the hill, in a narrow street, close by other buildings and at some points cheek by jowl with a block of social housing.
This, they say, is deliberate. It’s to stop the parliamentarians from getting ahead of themselves. Of thinking they’re better than others. Of losing touch with the people they serve.
Which brings me to my second point. The feeling I get when I walk past the building, close enough to touch its walls, and read what’s written on them.
One of the best features of this building is the choice of quotes and inspirational words that are etched into its walls. You can read the full list of sayings here.
It includes a much quoted reference from Sir Walter Scott:
when we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns – But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon.
Basically it means that when we had our own parliament (in Edinburgh) we could pelt the politicians with stones if they didn’t behave themselves, but it’s too far to get to London.
For me, it captures the essence of what we mean by and what is good about parliamentary democracy. The opportunity we have to hold our politicians to account. That government isn’t a one way street: something ‘they’ do to us. It’s about us ‘ordinary’ citizens paying attention to what they do, making our voice heard, and doing what we can to make the whole thing work.
I don’t have a picture of it but there’s another quote on the Canongate Wall of the Parliament that gives me the same feeling: of optimism, of proximity to government, of our collective responsibility to make the whole thing work.
Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.
They’re words that come from Scotland, but they have international application, don’t you think?
Wherever you are, whatever’s going on with your government, don’t forget the part that you can play too.
And work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.
This piece was written as a contribution to the What I Learned From Government group writing project. The project is open to Sunday 9th November, and is open to anyone to join in.
Group writing projects are a great way to meet other bloggers and get new readers as well as a lot of fun (except when you’re being serious!). I’d really encourage you to think about taking part.
It’s also inspired by the big day today: the U.S. 2008 Presidential Election
List of quotations on the Canongate Wall
“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”
Alasdair Gray (1934-)
© Canongate Press (paraphrased from Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies. Toronto:Anansi,1972)
(“Hee haw” is rhyming slang for “bu**er all”, with “all” pronounced “aw”)