Why Scotland has finally woken up and become a democracy

Gerry Hassan

September 21st 2014

It has been an incredible few years to live in Scotland.

Assumption after assumption about public life, society and the closed order of how politics has been traditionally done, has been turned upside down.

People will still feel raw on either side. Yes people feel deflated and disappointed; No supporters sense that they were forced into a debate they didn’t want to have. But if we step back the bigger picture is an impressive and powerful one.

It is one many of the observers from outside Scotland who came to see the independence referendum witnessed. They saw a nation having a democratic debate in dignity and respect on one of the most fundamental questions any nation could ask itself.

One group who have followed and engaged in our discussion has been English, Welsh and Irish radicals. Think Billy Bragg, John Harris, Will Hutton, Madeleine Bunting and Fintan O’Toole, all of who spoke at the recent Imagination: Scotland’s Festival of Ideas, sponsored by the Sunday Herald.

Something has shifted in Scotland which will never be the same again. This in the words of Fintan O’Toole is the belief that, ‘Ask an important question and people will respond with dignity and recognise they have power’.

There is the ‘strangers on a train’ analogy, not in the Alfred Hitchcock sense. When the polls narrowed people sensed their collective power, and the British establishment trembled. This was because the latter feared what might happen.  People looked at each other differently, made eye contact, smiled, started conversations, and generally stopped being strangers, but fellow citizens, who treated each other with respect.

The emergence of ‘the third Scotland’, the phrase I coined to describe the glorious, multi-various explosion of self-organising radical currents such as Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective and Common Weal, will have enduring significance beyond the referendum. They have brought many young people and twentysomethings into politics and activism for the first time.

A host of English centre-left writers such as John Harris and Jason Cowley, editor of the ‘New Statesman’, have expressed an admiration for this tendency and the term. They have both commented that they would love to see a ‘third England’ emerge which forged a space beyond the political parties and traditional ways of doing politics, but know for now it is far off.

They recognise the gathering storm of a problem around the British state as it strips back public services, undermines the public good, and engages in a systematic project of social engineering, openly redistributing income, wealth and power from the poor to the rich.

Will Hutton has observed that all of this is one of the main drivers of the independence debate; but he still has concerns about how sustainable a viable social democracy is in a small nation of five million people, sitting next to one of nearly 60 million. He thinks it is possible, but that such a settlement would require a very different, more bold politics than the SNP’s existing version of independence. This isn’t just about currency union, but charting a different course from the economic straightjacket and orthodoxies of the Treasury and Bank of England.

Such writers want to reclaim the radical traditions of England and challenge the idea of ‘the conservative nation’. In this they recognise the power of myths, folklore and imagination in how you go about creating and mobilising a radical community. They note from England that Scotland has travelled quite a distance on this road; and more than we may sometimes care to recognise.

The difficult ways of navigating centre-left ideas in today’s economic and social world poses huge problems. It is ridiculous to pose that it is anti-solidarity, selfish and about self-interest, to support independence. The debate in Scotland has coalesced on how to give modern expression to such ideas and sentiment: putting the values of solidarity into a lexicon of inter-connectedness and interdependence to produce a politics of inter-independence.

One way to aid this debate north of the border is for the non-nationalist voices to come together in a variety of ways to offer competition and hold the SNP to account. A culture of self-determination has to become a vibrant ecology and nurture and support an infrastructure: one with institution building and resource creating.

Some are exploring the notion of a new radical party – looser, network based, with a shared leadership drawing on the Greek Syriza and Danish The Alternative parties. This is one of several initiatives. It cannot be the answer on its own.

This is a watershed moment for Scotland and the UK. The old union is dying. The traditional stitch up of Scottish elites is more and more widely scrutinised. The British establishment knows that it nearly ‘lost’ Scotland, and that the debate won’t go away.

Scotland’s new radicals have a once in a generation opportunity to remake our politics and society. There is an SNP rather limited, timid machine politics to challenge, which is characterised by a mixture of hubris and elements of anxiety. Neither the SNP or Yes Scotland gave birth or permission to the emergence of ‘the third Scotland’, and neither do they have a controlling say now.

Some of the main issues Scotland and this radical imagination are going to face are the same as the challenges anywhere across the West. But what is exciting and what people like Billy Bragg, Madeleine Bunting and Fintan O’Toole note is that there is a profound sense of mobilisation, opening and pulling together of people.

Nobody thinks offering a different political prospectus to the SNP and other traditional parties is going to be easy. Yet, at the same time, the festival of democracy we have just created and lived through tells us that fundamental change is possible, and that it is about people power, not elites.

Scotland has finally begun the journey to belatedly becoming a democracy. That isn’t about any one moment or decision. It wasn’t predicated on the ‘right’ decision on Thursday. Instead, it was about who we see ourselves as, what the characteristics of that ‘we’ are, and how we see our collective future.

In the most profound sense, people have found their collective voice and power with all the rich, beautiful contradictions that implies. No wonder some of the radicals of these isles look on in wonder, and parts of the establishment with nervousness. It is going to be an interesting few years.