Scotland the Bold: Making the Case for a Radical Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Herald, November 6th 2016

This weekend I attended a Donald Trump campaign rally in New Hampshire. It was a surreal experience – of a Presidential candidate who isn’t a professional politician, who has a limited conventional manifesto, and is running on what amounts to populist instinct and anger.

Win or lose, this offer has resonated with a sizeable audience of dissatisfied people who are looking for change and who believe that Trump rather than Hillary Clinton best provides it. Last week I was at a Clinton-Elizabeth Warren rally – the one where Warren made her ‘nasty women’ speech, and apart from that, there was much less excitement and energy than follows Trump.

Something is clearly wrong with business-as-usual politics. People across the developed world are looking for new advocates – often of a populist and unattractive kind – from Trump to Farage, from Le Pen to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

The UK and Scotland isn’t immune to this. The UK faces multiple crises – economic, financial, geo-political. The ‘British economic miracle’ has been shown to be nothing but a mirage, but still hypnotises the establishment. Even more seriously, the Brexit vote undermines British post-war foreign policy, and leaves the country facing its most profound set of international challenges since Munich and appeasement.

More deep-seated, the UK faces an existential threat to its very existence. The very nature and continuation of the UK is now under question, aided by the near-total lack of understanding of the UK which characterises what passes for British unionism- whether Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, or of no party persuasion whatsoever.

Against all this, Scotland has become increasingly politically, socially and culturally a different place –from what it was historically, and from the rest of the UK. Power and authority has shifted not just on some formal level from London to Edinburgh, but informally within Scotland as well.

Both these differences matter. No one can now claim that there aren’t profound differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK after the Brexit vote. There are also deep similarities, but the nature of ‘the greatest union in human history’ will be seen as threadbare if Scotland’s 62% vote to remain in the EU is dismissed because the question on the ballot paper only asked about whether the UK should stay.

However, Scotland cannot debate the failings of the UK and merely pose that Holyrood replaces Westminster as the centre of political decisions without some reflection. Too often the SNP reduces independence to ‘the full powers of a Parliament’ – equating this with becoming a ‘normal’ nation. It is a limiting, dispiriting version of independence with politicians at its centre.

If the UK is in major crisis, the union Scotland voted for in 2014 is no longer viable, and unionism itself is in doubt – and this is both a major opportunity and a challenge. It is even more necessary than ever that Scotland holds an open, honest debate about its future that thoroughly addresses what independence means.

It is a fact that post-indyref the SNP has held no major post-mortem on why Yes lost. Besides, wider pro-Yes opinion has not properly analysed weaknesses of the independence offer or proposed a revised proposal. It is fine and well to talk about whether to go short or long on indyref2, but as we speak there is no independence package anywhere to put on the table.

This is because the SNP is speaking to various, very different, Scotlands. The first is to radical and left-wing independence supporters who it went out of its way to court in the first indyref. There is now an SNP assumption that many of this group are so disaffected from the union and Labour, and onboard for the independence project come what may. The second group could be called insider Scotland and are looking for continuity and reassurance about independence as well as the maintenance of their place and position.

The premise behind SNP thinking is that, post-Brexit, ‘independence is the new normal’. This has attractions. It seizes the middle ground. It defines independence as a new commonsense. And it moves the debate on to thinking differently about independence.

Yet independence as the new normal has problems. For starters, it positions Scotland as a place that doesn’t need to discuss its economic, social, inequality and democratic deficits. It gives undue weight to what could be called Alphabet Soup Scotland – the received wisdom of the likes of CBI, SCDI, SCVO, STUC and others – the complacent insider class who yearn for access and status around government.

Most importantly, it offers reassurance that everything is somehow just going to be alright – if not in the world, then in our bit of it. That just cannot be said – considering the state of the planet, future challenges, and Scotland.

Instead we should consider independence as the new normalcy – an attitude, spirit and mindset open to acknowledging our collective shortcomings and limitations, and the difficult debates that we must have. That doesn’t happen naturally but is a continuous process, and not aided by closing down debate until after independence. For example, any future independence offer has to be different from last time, honest about the risks, straight dealing on economics and the currency option, and candid that there will be difficult choices – particularly in the early years.

The role of the SNP is critical. They have contributed enormously to public life over the years, but there is a contradiction between their risk-averse, trust-us politics and a society that has become more diverse, questioning and demanding of authority.

This tension was apparent in the indyref between the official Yes Scotland and the home grown, grass roots campaign. It touched a cultural and generational divide seen across the West – between politics as technocratic, ordered and institutional, and a more diffuse, creative and human centred approach. It isn’t an accident that many of the leaders of the former in the SNP found their way to independence in their teens and the 1980s, and keep faith in a view of the world from that era, whereas today’s millennials have little reason to believe that government and the state has their best interests at heart.

Independence as the new normal, and a safety-first Scotland, makes sense to the first group, but not to the second. Instead, for them, the world is about constant change and upheaval, and that is how they see independence. The status quo nation – of the SNP, Alphabet Soup Scotland and insiders – just doesn’t seem attractive or viable.

This leaves the question – what kind of change and disruption will emerge in the future, and who will gain from it? One possibility is a regressive, reactionary vision: of public spending cuts, greater inequality and systematic outsourcing and privatisation. It will have post-independence powerful advocates in the SNP leadership, civil service and business and consultancy firms.

Another possibility is to see disruption as a positive – as progressive and liberating – and to use the upheaval to call time on insider Scotland. Our closed order elite society hasn’t empowered people, aided redistribution, or looked after the most vulnerable. At the least, change offers the prospect of bringing this into the open, challenging those powerful groups, and proposing that people and communities take more direct control of their lives and decisions.

The above requires work. Insider Scotland has resources, access and a language of faux progressive change. The DIY Scotland of self-organisation and self-determination has enthusiasm, energy and drive, but its shortcomings are obvious – from weak business models to its own unrepresentative nature.

What is missing is an ecology of self-determination and making real what I have called an independence of the Scottish mind – reflecting the increasing autonomy of society and that in many respects we are already quasi-independent. If this is so then we need to take the leap and start consistently acting like it: and that means getting serious, strategic and engaging in difficult discussions.

This requires creating non-party, informed resources, such as independence-supporting think tanks, aiding the work done by Common Weal and others, and an ideas and cultural journal. This is not a project that the SNP seem interested in, as they prioritise the party as the means to independence, but also because they view independent minded ideas as something of a threat. Without these and other initiatives we are invited to take independence as a leap of faith and to worry about detail later.

Scotland has to have a debate beyond the SNP – and SNP good/bad – about what independence means in the early 21st century, and about its constraints and opportunities. For some, all that matters is being a sovereign, independent country, but that constituency isn’t a majority and nor does it deal with the nature of globalisation and interdependence, which in effect makes independence into interindependence.

We have to talk about policy, practice and ideas to create the Scotland of the future. For my new book ‘Scotland the Bold’ I collected policy ideas for a different kind of society – whether we are independent or not – from over 80 people representing insider and outsider Scotland. Some of the aspirations were:

  • First, we need a citizen’s income or basic income – a signal to everyone in Scotland that they are equal and matter. This would counteract the deep divisions in the labour market and society, aid younger people, and address the future challenges of technology and greater automation. There could be a specific citizen’s income for those in the artistic and cultural community. This would alleviate the impoverishment of many of even our most well known artists, and be a national investment in our creative future.
  • Second, local government needs urgent attention. Its status needs protection but we have to look at the size and number of councils, and fiscal reform is required. Scotland’s domestic rates have not been revalued since 1991. A land value tax linked to property size would be a fairer system, and less prone to prop up the housing bubble.
  • Third, a Citizen’s Chamber should be set up as a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament that urgently needs revision to reduce badly drafted laws. Different methods of election or selection could be considered – including a random selection of 50-100 people regularly renewed on the same basis as a citizen’s jury.
  • Fourth, a working committee in Holyrood giving the direct voice of local communities should be established. This would not include any councillors, members of public bodies, or professional NGOs, but instead focus on involving members of the public.
  • Fifth, encourage a culture of public openness across Scotland. This would cover everything from ownership of companies and land – addressing offshore and shell companies – to publishing everyone’s tax returns, whether individual or corporate, as happens in Norway.
  • Sixth, a future Scotland should not just focus on closing the attainment gap in education – the new mantra that is all about exam performance on leaving school. We should embrace other attributes required for life and work such as perseverance and resilience, getting on with people, problem solving, and the ability to talk, listen and empathise.
  • Seventh, every police officer, social worker and teacher should spend 100 hours working in a youth club in an area of multiple deprivation before professionally qualifying to ensure that they fully understand the challenges facing many in Scotland.
  • Eighth, every secondary school pupil should be guaranteed access to a therapist or counsellor if they require one. All pupils would receive a mental health assessment to ensure that they have resilience and confidence to make their way successfully into the world.
  • Ninth, we should make a national priority the aim to get our country truly multilingual so that we can be global citizens at home and abroad – expanding opportunities and perspectives across generations and geographies.
  • Tenth, establishing an international programme encouraging young people to contribute to anti-poverty, welfare and empowerment initiatives around the world should be a primary goal. This would benefit greater global understanding, and contribute to Scotland’s future being more outward looking and interconnected.

A number of common threads emerged through this ad-hoc harvest of new thinking. People want to see the power of central government limited, greater decentralism, and an emphasis on education in the widest sense. There is a wish for greater experimentation across all policy, developing pilots and different models such as self-governing state schools.

There was a quiet sense of disappointment with the SNP’s domestic record over nine years, including perceived caution and a ‘don’t scare the horses’ approach, along with centralisation and the rise of a ‘Czar class’. One person observed that ‘The municipalism and paternalism of Glasgow City is now reproduced in Holyrood.’

Bringing about a different Scotland requires a whole constellation of actions and activities. As a pre-requisite it needs national debate and interest in details. It requires moving beyond tribalism, blind loyalty and faith, and it needs more than signing blank cheques to the SNP leadership.

It necessitates nurturing a political philosophy which goes beyond the limitations of nationalism – which are too evident here and across the world. Scotland is now a place that contains the claims of two competing nationalisms – one Scottish, moderate and civic and ‘out’ as a nationalism, and one British, increasingly intolerant, xenophobic, distrustful of the modern world and in denial that it is a nationalism. There is a huge difference between the two, but a choice between two nationalisms is still restrictive.

Nationalism, as the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole reminded us, is a powerful ‘rocket fuel’ which can get you to where you initially want – namely, to setting up an independent state. But it burns up quickly, involves too many assumptions about ‘us’ and ‘them’, and does not provide a road map for what to do with independence. Nowhere has it done so in the world; not in Ireland, India or South Africa to name a few examples.

Instead, we have to think about the future Scotland which is comfortable and confident enough not to have to assert continually its nationalism. That future nation is more than likely going to come about with independence, so why don’t we start creating it now? It would not continue with the neo-liberal delusions of the British establishment, but nor would it be content with the timid social democracy which passes for much of our current politics.

Scotland could choose a different path. It could decide to embrace a mindset of self-determination – individually, collectively and as a set of communities and society – addressing how we best practice autonomy, competence and relatedness in a complex world.

It isn’t going to be enough in the next few years to say ‘Not in My Name Britain’ – and to cite Thatcher, Blair and Brexit. We need to look at ourselves, at our institutions, elites and practices, and embrace a national debate that could be summarised instead as ‘Not in My Name Scotland’. This would say that we take individual and collective responsibility for ourselves and our society, and we dare to say that our health inequalities, educational apartheid, legal establishment, closed elites, and partial democracy are not good enough for the citizens of modern Scotland.

Scotland has a unique place in history and ideas and can proudly hold such a position again in the future. As one academic reflected on the past: ‘Scotland is unique because the community deliberately gave up political independence to maintain itself.’ They went on to say: ‘Scottish writers rewrite everyone else’s history as a version of Scotland’s story.’ These insights, in the Scottish Enlightenment and elsewhere, created many of the concepts of the modern world such as how we understand civil society and the market. This offers us an opportunity to rethink the idea of the nation, state and self-government.

This vision of modern Scotland would be true to the idea that all power and authority is contingent, and that we choose to embrace a Scotland which is a republic of the mind: where the substance, not just the symbolism of power is held by the people, for the people. Who knows, once we find we like it and increasingly trust each other, we might find that we want to become a formal republic too. There are big, tantalising issues that require proper and grown-up debate. That Scotland of the future is close and within our grasp.

Gerry Hassan is author of ‘Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Has Changed and Why There is No Going Back’ published by Freight Books £9.99 on November 14th.