Gerry Hassan, Independence of the Scottish Mind: Elite Narratives, Public Spaces and the Making of a Modern Nation, Palgrave Macmillan

ISBN 978-1-137-41413-7

Reviewed by Scott Hames

Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture, Summer 2016

The feverish upheaval of Scottish politics has gradually become its own kind of normal. On 5 May the voters practically yawned as they seized their second chance in twelve months to slaughter the Scottish Labour party. (The body-count is considerable, but it was an apathetic smothering compared to the gore of 2015.) As the SNP’s post-referendum insurgency beds down into cautious hegemony, boredom and campaign-fatigue take hold. With little prospect of a change in Holyrood government, less dynamic patterns of public life return to the fore.

It’s a good moment to reflect on how we got here, and what has and hasn’t changed along the way. Gerry Hassan’s lively and comprehensive study offers ‘a longer-term perspective on the loosening of the inner ties of the UK and weakening of British identity, combined with the rise of a Scottish political dimension and debate’. Independence of the Scottish Mind combines the merits of a richly theorised history of the developments that made devolution inevitable, a shrewd insider’s guide to Scotland’s largely invisible civic-institutional elite, and a sharp critique of the nation’s social-democratic consensus.

In the book’s opening chapters Hassan approaches the question of Scottish ‘semi-sovereignty’ from a variety of theoretical and constitutional angles, citing a range of thinkers (Habermas, Steven Lukes, Albert O. Hirschman) in tracing the emergence and reality of managerial statehood. Hassan follows Lindsay Paterson in highlighting the strength of discreet self-administration prior to devolution, and convincingly argues that the ‘managed, ordered society of institutional Scotland’ has adapted quite easily to new conditions of visibility and accountability. The densely interwoven professional interest groups which have ruled-without-ruling for many decades are largely continuous with the forms of power and consensus that characterise Holyrood governance.

In tracing these connections Hassan means to trouble more romantic ‘elite narratives’ of devolution, such as those deriving from the 1980s writings of the novelist William McIlvanney and journalist Ian Bell. (Both died earlier this year, within days of each other.) After the failure of the 1979 devolution referendum, Bell had argued, ‘Scotland rediscovered the public intellectual … Home rule was lost, Thatcher had arrived. As has been said often enough, the country’s writers, poets and (mostly) non-aligned journalists began to act as though obliged to speak’. In this version, writers and intellectuals stepped boldly into the democratic void of the ‘no mandate’ years (when Scotland suffered Conservative governments it hadn’t voted for), untainted ‘outsiders’ to the grubby mechanisms of power but credible ‘insiders’ of national representation and identity. Hassan confiscates this halo and probes the ‘mythologies, silences and evasions’ of the 1980-90s period in which devolution gained traction as ‘an establishment-based institutional consensus [supposedly] above conventional politics’. The mobilizing force of anti-Thatcherism had an important nationalising effect in this period, bringing electoral, institutional and identitarian interests into alignment behind the cause of a Scottish Parliament.

Hassan joins other scholars in skewering the myth that Thatcherism was an alien imposition of values incompatible with Scottishness. (The keen embrace of right-to-buy alone suggests otherwise.) He quotes Charles Jennings observing (in 2001) a lasting popular ‘tendency to use the word Tory as a lazy shorthand for incorrigible villainous arsehole, the cancer in the body of Scottish society’. These 1980s enmities have electoral mileage in them yet, though the strong result of the Scottish Tories in this year’s Holyrood election – displacing Labour as the leading opposition party – suggests Conservative ‘de-toxification’ may finally be underway. Sifting the 1990s debates on home-rule (to which the Tories were largely bystanders), Hassan deftly traces related ‘narratives of difference’ (cultural, sociological, political) which have been pivotal to the consolidation of Scotland as a ‘governing system’ distinct from the UK.

The book’s memorable middle chapters are drawn from extensive interviews with dozens of prominent members of the Scottish commentariat and political class. Drawn from politics, media, academia and government, Hassan’s subjects are disarmingly frank about the in-groups and myopia of the devolved establishment, and the role and limits of the Scottish press. (Something of an outsider’s insider himself, Hassan is personally acquainted with most of Scotland’s ‘community of the communicators’.) Casting a skeptical eye on devolution in practice, he coins Scottish ‘undemocracy’ to name ‘the appearance, institutional arrangements and partial discourse of democratic politics and practice’ in the absence of deep public involvement and participation. (The average turnout for Scottish parliamentary elections is 53%) The book’s conclusions are stark: judged by the priorities that shape devolved governance, Scotland simply ‘is not a social democratic country’, and ‘never has been a democracy’.

It is a rare study which busts the myths while also conveying their efficacy and appeal. This is a superb overview of recent Scottish political developments, combining theoretical and anecdotal insights in a refreshingly direct manner. Anyone curious about what’s happening in Scotland today will come away from this book with compelling answers and better questions; students and scholars will want the book for its extensive bibliography alone.