Being a Scotland Futures Forum Intern: First Thoughts

In January Nicola Martin and Nell Widger become ‘Futures Fellows’ at Scotland’s Futures Forum, a public policy think-tank based at the Scottish Parliament. The Forum works to promote research and stimulate debate on the long-term challenges and opportunities Scotland faces, with the aim of informing MSPs and others, and enabling them to consider the effects of decisions taken today on Scotland’s long-term future. Nicola and Nell are interns on the current major project – ‘Scotland 2030: Our aspirations for culture and society in Scotland in 2030 and beyond’.

What is a civilised nation? This question, posed by Scotland’s Futures Forum as part of its ‘Scotland 2030’ project, is likely to elicit an array of complex and possibly conflicting responses – as a literary critic and historian, we of course instantly tabled the question itself in order to dissect its particular phrasing. Since meeting, Nicola and I – now the Futures Fellows – have reflected that when we were considering whether to apply for a SGSAH Doctoral Internship, and browsing the opportunities available, we were both intrigued by the idea that a futures think-tank would invoke ideas about ‘civilisation’ in discussions of Scotland’s cultural and societal aspirations for 2030. In what ways might this historically loaded word be useful for analysing the cultural, political and economic strengths and weaknesses of a nation? Does the word continue to have currency, and what might people in Scotland today understand by it?

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Adam Ferguson, David Hume and Adam Smith are among the most famous early discussers of what it was to be a ‘civilised nation’. How do their interpretations sit alongside the views of Scottish people today?

‘What is a civilised nation?’ feels like a question which fulfils something of what it asks: perhaps a ‘civilised’ nation is one which engages in this kind of reflexive process of evaluation, and which considers the problematic language we have at our disposal to evaluate our collective successes and failures. That said, might we identify more relevant alternatives with which future generations could do this? Together, our role in the Scotland 2030 project will be to interrogate the associated terminology, and to engage with young people from around the country to gain a sense of their perspectives on these issues which we can then disseminate to policy makers.

In addition, we will each be undertaking individual pieces of research in line with our respective areas of interest. Nicola will be investigating how the discourses of the Scottish Enlightenment produced the notions of ‘civilisation’ and ‘civilised nations’ we understand today. Coming from an Environmental Humanities context, I will be looking into the cultural significance of space, place and landscape in Scotland, and discussing the extent to which environmental consciousness is, or should be, considered a hallmark of ‘civilised’ society.

Have changing perceptions of Scotland’s iconic landscape altered our understanding of what exactly it is to be ‘civilised’?

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Have changing perceptions of Scotland’s iconic landscape altered our understanding of what exactly it is to be ‘civilised’?

For both of us, past perspectives are essential to understanding the current state of things. For example, the First Minister’s recent reference to ‘the very kind of society that we are’ (in opposition to the UK government’s prioritisation of the economy in Brexit negotiations), is implicitly premised on Scotland’s historical association with certain values, ideas and images. It is said that Voltaire posited Scotland as a paradigm of ‘civilisation’ (a claim Nicola will be wrestling with over the coming weeks); do such legends make possible statements such as Nicola Sturgeon’s? And if so, do we have a responsibility to challenge the complacency which often surrounds representations of Scotland as ‘a beacon of humane enlightenment’ in the current global context, as Kenneth Roy recently suggested?

In the short time we have at the Forum, we won’t be able to explore all these ideas – to talk practicalities, the biggest challenge so far has been working out exactly what is achievable. We have been given a lot of freedom in determining the focus and anticipated outcomes of our respective internships, which is very exciting but slightly daunting. (On that note, if anyone has any useful resources or pointers related to anything we’ve said here, they’d be much appreciated!) Already, we’ve had some fantastic opportunities to meet and discuss our project with various MSPs and representatives of Young Scot. We hope to develop these relationships over the coming months as we implement various surveys to gain an understanding of young peoples’ views of what it means to be a civilised nation. Our research will be used to provide early ideas from this key stakeholder group regarding what steps the government can begin to take to ensure that Scotland really is a better place for all its citizens by 2030.

On a more personal level, we hope to showcase what Arts and Humanities researchers can contribute to public policy think-tanks and to highlight the ways in which critical engagement with past perspectives can inform futures projects. We are excited to step out of our comfort zone and to build skills in designing and delivering engagement material in collaboration with young people. Benefitting from the experience of external partners including Young Scot we will be learning about the benefits and challenges associated with conventional and non-conventional survey methods and gaining experience of actually carrying out research that aims to impact and influence policy moving forward. We are also excited about the opportunities for novel ways of disseminating our findings that this internship promises. As humanities PhD students we are most comfortable with writing long essays, but over the coming months we will be experimenting with blogging our experience via text and video, visually representing our results within the Parliament building and writing short, accessible reports designed to be read by both MSPs and the general public.

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Our hope is that some of our research will influence the Scotland 2030 project moving forward and, eventually, some of the questions raised will come before MSPs in the debating chamber at Holyrood.

We’ll let you know how we get on and what exactly we managed to achieve at the end of our internship period. In the meantime, if you’d like to follow our progress more closely you can keep an eye on the Forum website where we’ll *hopefully* be posting our own blog posts very shortly. You can follow our progress on Twitter @nellwidger and @NicolaMartin14, and the Forum @ScotFutures.

The internship Nell & Nicola are undertaking are one of many internship opportunities provided by SGSAH. Keep an eye on the internships page of the SGSAH website if this is something you may be interested in applying for.

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