A Scotland Beyond Yes and No: My Journey to Yes

Gerry Hassan

National Collective, June 26th 2014

I want to live in a Scotland which is not defined by Yes and No – a world of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – of politics, families and friendships reduced to the emotions of football supporters and tribalism. I want to live in a world of one Scotland and many, multiple, diverse Scotlands.

This is a time of many different debates in our nation; about the nature of our constitutional status and the meaning of independence, about who has power and authority in an age of constant change, the meaning and challenges of globalisation and interdependence, and the concentrations of wealth and status in the new global rich.

For some this current debate is very narrow: centred on competing claims of nationalism (Scottish and British), but for many others, it is about what kind of Scotland and society we want to live in and the discussion over what is the best route to get there. In this, the independence debate is an opening to a wider, generous and outward looking set of possibilities.

Generational Stories of Scotland

There are many different stories in our current Scottish discussion and one of the most illuminating is recognising the potency and vibrancy of inter-generational accounts. There is the Scotland and Britain of the immediate post-war years filled with hope and security; the political anger and opposition felt by first the Thatcher generation and then the Blair era; and now the emergence of a whole new generation of radical voices. All of these have validity and should be heard and respected.

My journey in this referendum has been one which started from the hopes and vision of Labour Scotland. My parents, Jean and Eddie from Dundee, were representative of the working class generation who in the 1950s and 1960s had secure employment, rising living standards and a better quality of life.

My parents believed that society was getting fairer, that the future would be better and all of this was synonymous with the idea of Britain. They were of the generation who believed in Britain and saw it as being intrinsically about the future, progressive change and feeling optimistic about their lives.

Such was the strength of my parents abiding faith in Britain as the means of bringing about social change that they voted against the then European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1975 referendum, judging it ‘a capitalist club’ and that the best means of advancing socialism was at the level of the British state. That wasn’t an uncommon viewpoint then.

Then in the first Scottish devolution referendum of 1979 my parents both voted ‘no’, again because of their belief in the idea that Britain was the best means to advance social change. They even felt that any move towards Scottish devolution was a regressive move, associating the idea of Scotland with reactionary opinion and outdated ideas. Britain was the future, whereas the very notion of Scotland was linked to the past. It was, of course, unwittingly, a very Scottish view of feeling uncomfortable about large parts of your own history and culture.

Let’s Talk about Britain

Look at the state of Britain today and it is far from the hopes and dreams of that generation. It is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. It is also one of the most indebted countries – when state, corporate and individual debt is added together amounting according to the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies to 470% of GDP – the second highest of all the leading economies after Japan.

Then there is the increasingly imbalanced and unsustainable regional inequities of the economy and society. London, which is 12% of the UK’s population, produces over 22% of GDP, is ‘crowding out’ the rest of the UK, and has got its sights on expanding further. Behind those figures there is a deepening dislocation between London and the rest of the UK, and within London, between the new rich, super-wealthy and their hangers-on and apologists, and the vast majority of the population.

This state of affairs is not the product of the Cameron Government, or what thirty years of post-war Labour Governments have and have not done (including many things lots of us can still be proud of). Instead it is about much deeper, longer-term factors: the power of elites in Britain, the nature of the City and how it emerged from Empire, the legacy of its anti-industrial ethos (because ‘gentlemen’ didn’t do dirty work like make things) and the tax havens around the globe which are a part of ‘the global kingdom’ which are linked to, but outside the UK. All of this is entrenched by the limited nature of what passes for political democracy.

This is all far removed from the vision of Labour Britain which inspired my parents and many of their generation, yet this political settlement was built upon the above, and proved to be an uneasy and eventually unworkable compromise with the institutions, power and privilege of ‘the conservative nation’. Labour sought to build its post-war ‘new social order’ on the castles of undemocracy, the British state and centralisation, rather than take head on such reactionary values and bodies; this proved illusive in building a coalition for progressive ideals, and disastrously gave the right the terrain of ‘freedom’ and anti-statism.

Many of us who have become increasingly critical of the state of Britain and the minimal potential for radical, progressive change, do so with some element of sadness and reflection. We have not come to this judgement lightly or based on short-term factors.

Change is What This is About: What, Why, How

Given the above it should not be surprising that the case for change has become increasingly self-evident at a Scottish and UK level; yet it is increasingly blocked at UK level.

In Scotland the means for achieving change and securing it have not yet been agreed. The what and the why are increasingly credible. The issue is more and more now about the how: the scale and extent of Scottish self-government.

Now to non-nationalists this question needs to be posed openly. Federalism across the UK might seem attractive, but the only problem is that this does not look achievable in the foreseeable future. England does not show any desire to have a Parliament. While English regions have shown little interest in devolution.

This debate cannot be and must not be narrowed down to such one-dimensional caricatures as Scotland not voting Tory, resisting Thatcher, and what we thought of Blair. The Scotland of 2014 cannot be about what we now think Thatcher did in the 1980s, or Blair and New Labour post-1997.

It is about democracy. One that is much wider and deeper than who we vote or don’t vote for. But is about how we hold authority to account. And slowly Scottish society is becoming one more democratic and pluralist.

This touches on the pivotal question of responsibility – both individual and collective. And how we mature, grow up and stop blaming others, and take a good, long look at ourselves.

It is really not about the past. Or being defined by the past although clearly the role and power of collective memories, stories and folklore matter. The place that seems trapped in a version of the past – and an imagined, recreated version of the past is the UK. Instead, this debate has really awakened people to look at how we see ourselves and how we feel we can shape the future.

The Importance of Growing Up and the Power of Values

The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole wrote a foreword to my book ‘Caledonian Dreaming’ which he looked at Ireland and Scotland. In a piece he previously wrote on Scottish independence he stated:

The options are not economic misery under the union or permanent boom-times under independence. They lie more in the realm of collective psychology. Do you want to have the safety net of an auld enemy to rage at when policies don’t work and the world turns mean? Or do you prefer to look at yourself in the mirror, in all your glories and stupidities? (The Times, June 5th 2012)

This seems one of the central dimensions of the debate. Are we brave and strong enough to take charge of our own fate? To look at ourselves and our decisions and reflect that many of the things wrong have been as a result of our actions and that of our elites. To say that our shaming health inequalities or educational gap are not the fault of the union, but of complex factors our elites have had control over.

Power has been shifting across the United Kingdom and within Scotland. It has been shifting from London to Edinburgh. For some this is enough – whether it is the various definitions of devolution or some versions of independence – and in particular ‘the full powers of the Parliament’ approach of the latter.

Change is already coming to Scotland. A politics which has to address ‘the missing Scotland’. A society where the old elites have weakened and hollowed out. Where many once powerful institutions and public bodies have less power.

Large sections of professional and middle class Scotland find all of this and the current debate a little uncomfortable. This isn’t surprising, and they should be gently asked what are the public values that they embody in their institutional and professional settings, in what way these are progressive, and critically, the link or not between action and deeds.

Part of Scotland has for too long had a guid conceit about itself – once that its paternalism was enlightened and far-reaching, then with the advent of Thatcherism, that these same values and personnel were suddenly social democratic and an expression of ‘civic Scotland’. It has never been good enough, and an element of this debate has to get into the territory of values, the disconnect between how we often portray ourselves and the reality which disfigures much of Scotland, and the systematic way elites never want to talk about the power they have.

The Danny Dorling Question: Do We Trust Each Other?

Two weeks ago in Edinburgh, the UK’s foremost expert on inequality, Prof. Danny Dorling of Oxford University concluded his Wreford Watson lecture at Edinburgh University by asking of us in this debate:

How much do we believe we trust each other?

It is a simple and powerful question.

About us – all of us, not Yes or No, not ‘us’ and ‘them’. All of us – as a society, community and people. About how we relate to each other, build, nurture and cherish relationships, and have an emotional and social intelligence which informs us both in private and public.

Living in a culture where we don’t belong to closed tribes and fixed mindsets. Where men don’t grow up thinking it is appropriate to be ‘warriors’, and we don’t see people we disagree with as ‘our enemy’. Sadly, this still seems to be beyond some.

It is about the prospect and capacity for change, knowing the status quo is not only not good enough, but fails large parts of our society and our citizens, and believing and knowing we can do better.

It is for all of these reasons – the multiple, historic and deep-seated crises of Britain, the prospect of Scottish opinion mobilising for a very different kind of politics, the linking of the constitutional question into the wider economic and social and exploring the what kind of society do we want to live in, and to make a better democracy, society and culture, that I will vote Yes.

Scotland can be a modern, progressive, European nation – characteristics increasingly foresworn by the direction and intention of British politics.

Scotland is setting out on an exciting direction, where not all the detail is clear or yet in place, but our intention is unambiguous: of forging greater self-government with a mission and purpose for economic and social justice. To quote the words of Winston Churchill what is required from our politics is ‘a lighthouse, not a shop window’.

  • Yes to opening, not closing the debate;
  • Yes to one Scotland and to many multiple Scotlands;
  • Yes to hearing the yes in No and the no in Yes;
  • Yes to listening to and hearing doubt, ambiguity and uncertainty and respecting it;
  • Yes to standing up to challenging our complacent stories and elites, and ‘the hard wee men’ who think they have the right to tell us all off;
  • Yes to admitting mistakes, learning and facing up to our individual and collective shortcomings, and acknowledging ‘our glories and stupidities’;
  • Yes to the emergence of new voices and ideas coming centrestage and ‘the missing Scotland’ who have been excluded for most of the last generation;
  • Yes to a future shaped by the people of this nation: a culture of self-government, self-determination and inter-independence.