A Letter to the Editor of ‘The Economist’ on Scotland and Scottish Independence

Gerry Hassan

June 4th 2015

Dear Zanny,

I am a long-term reader and admirer of ‘The Economist’.

Even when I disagree with the magazine’s position I know that I can trust it to aid myself learning and becoming more knowledgeable on an issue.

This is true across the globe, and subject matters, with one consistent exception: the subject of Scottish independence.

I am not talking about ‘The Economist’s’ anti-independence stance, which you are perfectly entitled to take. Nor would I wish to dwell on the appropriateness or not of the infamous ‘Skintland’ cover. Instead, I am talking about something much more embedded: the language and terminology ‘The Economist’ consistently uses to frame this issue.

Let me give you some examples. ‘The Economist’ rarely refers to the Scottish National Party as pro-independence, or just as pro-independence. Never an article passes mentioning the SNP without the use of the word ‘separatist’, the latest of which appears in the current issue (May 16th).

Second, the words ‘secession’ and ‘secessionist’ are used to describe the process of independence. In exact terminology, which I would have thought the magazine would approve of, this is completely inaccurate. ‘Secessionism’ implies breaking away without agreement or a legal framework, and is viewed to put it at its most mild, in some circles and circumstances, as illegal in international law.

Third, even more pejorative is the use of the word ‘partition’. There can be no positive or neutral connotation in the use of this word. It implies chaos, upheaval and even worse, and invokes the British imperial disasters of Ireland, India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine. It is also, again, completely inaccurate, for partition has the connotation of the creation of a new border as happened in all three of the above. There already is a border between Scotland and England and it is a judicial and legal border; all that would change would be the status of that border.

Fourth, if that were not enough, in a recent issue, Scottish independence was described as ‘national dismemberment’ (April 9th). There is really no excuse in a publication as respected as ‘The Economist’ for such a slip in terms of your journalistic standards and such loaded language. ‘National dismemberment’ is even worse than the above three terms, and is the sort of description I hope we can agree should be left to the ‘Daily Mail’.

I have tried to calmly raise these issues with the British correspondent Jeremy Cliffe who has written or penned most, if not all of the above, but to no avail (1). I am now writing to you because Mr. Cliffe has now been elevated to the prestigious post of writing the weekly ‘Bagehot’ column, and it would be tragic if this key column were diminished by the regular use of the words above.

‘The Economist’ is an august and highly regarded magazine across the world and many different audiences look to it for enlightenment and analysis. The cause of Scottish independence and the future shape (and indeed continuation or not) of the UK are set to be high profile issues over the next decade or so, and it would be a tragedy for ‘The Economist’ if you continued to use such pejorative language on the issue.

Instead, it would be much more helpful, and in the finest traditions which you champion, if we could have some dispassionate analysis and reflection.

I hope that ‘The Economist’ can move on in this, grow and mature, and aid all of us in Scotland and the UK, as well as internationally, having a debate which is worthy of the seriousness of the issues at play. At the moment ‘The Economist’ is, in my opinion, severely letting both itself and its readers down.


1. ‘An Exchange with ‘the Economist’ on Scottish Independence’, April 2nd 2015, https://www.gerryhassan.com/blog/an-exchange-with-the-economist-on-scottish-independence/