An Exchange with ‘the Economist’ on Scottish Independence

Gerry Hassan

April 2nd 2015

‘The Economist’ has a problem with Scottish independence from its infamous ‘Skintland’ front cover to its editorial view and general language it chooses to use. In the last three years, it has consistently used a pejorative language to describe the Scottish independence case, moving me to write pointing this out. They did not publish my letter, but felt moved to reply attempting to rebuff my points.

March 12th 2014

The Letters Page

The Economist

Dear Sir/Madam,

In your coverage of David Cameron’s positioning with regard to Labour and SNP and a ‘deal/no deal’ after the UK general election (‘Downtrodden Labour’, March 14th), you continue your seemingly ingrained practice of calling the SNP and pro-independence opinion, ‘secessionist’.

For starters, ‘seccessionism’ is a pejorative and loaded word, unworthy of ‘The Economist’, and similarly loaded like ‘separatist’ and ‘partition’. It is also inaccurate in the context of Scottish independence: ‘seccessionism’ being internationally illegal and very different from independence.

I cannot think of another country where the independence case has got this consistent dismissal – from South Sudan to the two dozen new states that emerged from the end of the Soviet bloc.

This terminology does not do ‘The Economist’s’ usually sober analysis any good and situates your publication with an ill-judged identification and defence of the British state as it currently exists – one that is increasingly failing a majority of its citizens economically, socially and democratically. Given the issue of Scottish self-government is likely to remain a hot political issue for the next decade or so, perhaps you should reach a more measured accommodation in the language you choose to describe it?

Gerry Hassan


March 24th 2015

Dear Gerry,

Thanks for your letter dated March 12th.

You are right to observe that we use “secessionist” and “secede” among our descriptions of pro-independence aspirations in Scotland. I have to confess, however, that I struggle to see why you think these are unfair.

The OED definition of secession is: “The action of withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body, especially a political state.” Is this an inaccurate or loaded portrayal of the goals of Scottish nationalists?

As for your point that secession is “internationally illegal”, I refer you to this extract from Open Democracy, an excellent site to which I note you regularly contribute:

“Internationally, secession in the final analysis has been a question of practical political recognition by states of states. If a seceding state gains enough international recognition of its status, it attains legitimacy and de facto independent statehood.”

Similarly, I do not understand why you think “separatist” and”partition” are loaded, negative terms. That is certainly not how we use them. For example, we deployed both (along with “secession”) to describe the independence of South Sudan, the case for which we described as “irresistible” in a leader calling for the new country to be “wholeheartedly welcomed.”

Although I welcome your interest, therefore, I am not convinced that we need to alter the language in our coverage of the Scottish independence movement.

Thanks again for writing.


Jeremy Cliffe

The Economist