We need a Spirit of Independence to shape the Scotland of the Future

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, September 19th 2016

No one needs reminding that Sunday represented the second anniversary of the indyref. It was a significant watershed: a passing of time from being in the shadow of the 2014 vote to looking to the future.

If that’s true, then an awful lot of attitudes are fairly entrenched. While that’s true of both pro-union and independence opinion, it belies the forces of change to more ruthlessly assess, be honest about failings and foibles, and change and adapt to be successful.

Take this weekend’s polls in ‘Sunday Times Scotland’ on whether voters want a second indyref. It is constantly cited that voters don’t want another indyref anytime soon. The ‘Sunday Times’ front page declared emphatically that ‘Scots against second vote on leaving the UK.’ Ruth Davidson and David Mundell say it all the time – so it must be true.

Trouble was the poll the paper cited said nothing of the kind. The Panelbase survey cited said that, for an indy vote in the next two-three years during Brexit talks, 33% were in favour; in about two-three years after a Brexit deal 21% would support it, and not for a few years 46%. That’s a 54:46 majority for an indyref in the next three years and even the 46% No wasn’t absolute on the wording of the question.

Cue Scottish Secretary for State David Mundell giving an IPPR Scotland address on the Saturday. He repeated as inarguable that ‘the Scots don’t want another independence poll.’ But it isn’t true. It’s also true that most Scots for the next couple of years don’t want another indyref: they would prefer a quiet life, see what Brexit entails and then consider the merits of another poll.

Mundell laid out the argument for the current union with the authority of the UK Government. First is the pedant argument that Scotland didn’t vote to remain in the EU because that wasn’t the question on the ballot paper. Instead, argued Mundell, the 62% of Scots voting to remain in the EU were merely voting for the UK to remain part of the UK. No more, no less. No wider democratic interpretation or meaning.

There was also some torturous logic about Scotland being part of the UK and British politics being decided at a UK level and UK European politics being decided at a UK level. I hope you follow that. What it seemed to mean was that the Scottish Government should stick to the areas it has devolved to it. Greatest union in the world, eh?

Mundell didn’t stop there stretching logic to breaking point. He reminded us that the best way to keep Scotland in the EU in September 2014 had been to vote No. Yes involved Scotland being thrown into a constitutional limbo or even hell. Yet, some people now dared to mutter due to Brexit that they had been sold a false prospectus in the indyref on the EU.

But no, this wasn’t so, he said. In case you missed it, what actually happened was that in January 2013 David Cameron made his Bloomberg speech outlining he was going to have a EU referendum. So you see we all knew this when we voted for Scotland to remain in the UK in the EU in September 2014.

If you remember according to Mundell, Cameron et al – it was an independent Scotland that would have been thrown out the EU. They made that case in 2014. He was still saying it this weekend with no embarrassment, when a Scotland that voted 62% to stay in the EU is said to have no choice but to leave because that’s the way UK works. This shows the mess unionism is in. Making convoluted and contradictory arguments which undermine your own case. This really is the last ditch of unionism.

With this being the case independence supporters have to honestly debate how to move on, what went wrong last time and how to change the contents of any future indy offer. Lets look at what’s missing from the indy side. There has not been anywhere a proper assessment of the reasons why Yes lost. That’s always helpful in any defeat. We have not looked honestly at the limits of the Yes offer. And most importantly, the work hasn’t begun on updating and revising the independence offer. Time is running out on some of the above – particularly any post-mortem on indyref1 as we begin the beginning of indyref2.

As important in all this is the tone, culture and diversity of the independence movement. Yes we like to tell ourselves we are tolerant and diverse – part of our rainbow coalition nation. It was that sort of spirit which animated many of the events over the weekend including the Scottish Independence Convention rally held at St. Luke’s in the Calton, Glasgow.

This was a packed uplifting event: an expression of the slightly chaotic, but vibrant DIY culture of parts of the indyref. Wonderfully MCed by Elaine C. Smith it had music, comedy, speeches, culminating in an emollient Alex Salmond. Then a social media storm broke about the all-girl rap group Whitsherface in a performance calling Ruth Davidson ‘Ruth Dykey-D’ and making disparaging comments about Davidson and Kezia Dugdale.

I missed the words but a twitter tsunami broke afterwards. The Scottish Independence Convention tweeted saying: ‘It appears we upset CyberBritNats with our democracy today… you know we must be doing something right!’ (which was subsequently deleted). Without dwelling on the specifics of this incident, that’s not a great response to criticism on a subject where until recently Scotland was a society scarred by homophobia, prejudice and the silences and evasions of too many issues in public life (the SNP and Labour having pretty awful records here until the turn of the century).

The Scottish Independence Convention issued a statement on the issue saying: ‘In response to small section of an act that was Tweeted earlier we want to be clear that the SIC does not condone homophobia in any way. This was a satarised act written by a gay woman and performed many times before by the excellent women’s group. We apologise to anyone who may have taken offence, not our intention, it has been a wonderful day of entertainment reassembling for indy!’

All of this is really a storm in a teacup but it points to a Scotland that between two vocal tribes, in numerous public spaces, and social media, finds it difficult to do shades of gray. To say, hang on, can we just talk and reflect on this? Is this really a great way of talking about a leader of a party? And for those who just say it was fine, how would they feel if the leader of the SNP was an out lesbian or gay man – and described in these terms? Some of those people would go ballistic. We have to be able to bring these issues up. No-go areas and taboos in areas of public debate and interest aren’t generally healthy – and we should know as we have had lots of them.

In too many attitudes there is a propensity to believe we are self-evidently the good guys. No in-depth self-reflection of motives or actions are required. But everyone in the world, including the most extreme examples of evil, go around thinking they are doing good. The good guy/bad guy dichotomy with its in crowd identification and love, and out crowd disassociation and hate, does not help political judgements. It disfigures them and ultimately leads to ruin: left politics are littered with such examples: splits, schisms, supporting conservative politics and most recently, the Corbyn phenomenon.

That is not the best approach for a movement which needs to understand the hopes and fears of No voters. The psychological and confidence dimensions of how people voted in 2014 needs to be understood. We know that many No voters last time liked the idea of an independent Scotland – but felt the offer had too many flaws, didn’t like Alex Salmond, or felt it was the wrong time. But there was an undoubted positivity and goodwill to the idea of independence – which is a fundamental change in our nation.

That’s a spirit of independence we have to build on. We need a language and strategy for winning over the floating voters who will give independence a convincing majority next time. I would suggest that one of the central pillars of that is being more honest about the tough choices which will be inherent in the early years of independence. People intrinsically know this, so lets talk about it and work out priorities. All the twenty-four independent states which have emerged from the end of the Soviet bloc had in their early years some shaky times and hard choices. Scotland starting from a better place with lots of advantages will be no different.

An independence movement has to be about more than telling ourselves we are the good guys and that we can win by tribalism and berating the other side. We also need to debate difficult subjects from the lack of democracy in Scotland to the fact that all that is wrong in this country isn’t due to Westminster and external forces. Some of our shortcomings are the result of our own decisions, politics and elites: the state of our legal profession being a good example or how education and health are run.

The paucity of the case put by Mundell post-Brexit is both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is a self-governing nation taking charge of its future, but the challenge is that we are playing for high stakes. That means we have to not believe our own hype on how special and unique we are, and that we can somehow do the hard stuff without serious work. Do we really just want independence as changing the signs on the front of the building, or we are we aspiring to be a different kind of society? The fate of the future is decided in the here and now; not on Independence Day plus one.


Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Publishing on October 20th.