The Rise of a Very Different Nation: The Emergence of ‘the Third Scotland’

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian, April 23rd 2014

The Scottish independence referendum has in the past few months become more alive and interesting. The polls have narrowed markedly and what was previously seen by many on the pro-union side as a mere formality has become a real competitive contest.

Such a swift transformation has left most of the British political classes and media struggling to catch up with events. But it has also left large parts of pro-union Scotland feeling bewildered and disorientated at the pace of change.

Scotland has slowly and unambiguously become another country. This has been a very gradual, quiet revolution, one without obvious leaders, champions or simple causes, which has happened over decades and the past century. It has been one in which the key transition points have not been simple, sudden or clear.

This different Scotland isn’t just about the normal tropes – Thatcher and Blair, the end of the post-war consensus and Empire – but about much longer term forces linked to the re-emergence of Scotland as a political force in the union and its increasing autonomy from late Victorian times onward.

Scotland’s gathering sense of itself and self-government has become interwoven with its changing society. It is a less deferential, ordered, high-bound place and culture. This is a land where the Church of Scotland’s high point of membership was as recent as 1955; the same year the Tories won a majority of the vote. It has become less institutionally dominated and elite driven, as well as less Protestant, male dominated and Labour run.

All of these factors have contributed to a weakening of pro-union Scotland and the arrival of the independence debate which itself has acted a catalyst of further change.

Take a look at the landscape of modern Scotland. Traditional authority and key reference points have collapsed or faced seismic crisis. In the last couple of years, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the fifth largest banking group in the world pre-crash hit the buffers; Glasgow Rangers FC, Scotland’s dominant and most successful club blew up, faced liquidation and is now working its way up through the lower leagues; while the Catholic Church in Scotland has been mired in sexual scandals at its most senior levels.

A longer timeframe captures even more profound institutional crisis. The Church of Scotland is but a pale imitation of that once powerful force which ruled the land and could on existing trends disappear in a generation. Similarly, the Labour Party which once held nearly as much unchecked power as the Kirk has become a sad, sullen voice. At this crucial juncture, it seems bereft of ideas and resources, only sure in its detesting of Alex Salmond and Scottish Nationalism.

Then there is the role of institutions such as the BBC who have found themselves for the last 30 years continually behind the curve of the Scottish self-government debate and even the explosion and vibrancy of arts and culture. Not surprisingly, the BBC along with most of Scotland’s mainstream media is not having a good referendum.

This is a Scottish expression of trends which are evident across the Western world: the decline of deference, rise of individualism, the crisis of traditional authority and an emergence of new ways of organising and doing culture and politics.

One result of this has been the emergence of a self-organising, self-determining Scotland. I have called this ‘the third Scotland’ by dint of it differentiating from the two establishment visions of Scotland – the new SNP one and the old declining Labour version. It has rightly regarded such a restricted choice and debate as barely adequate in a diverse, complex, wealthy society.

The ‘third Scotland’ can be seen as a generational shift with the emergence of a whole swathe of articulate, passionate, thoughtful twentysomethings. It signifies a shift in how authority and power is interpreted with people self-starting initiatives, campaigns and projects through social media and crowdfunding. Often dismissed as being middle class lefties and luvvies by detractors, the overwhelming social make-up of this group is drawn from what Guy Standing has labeled ‘the precariat’: young, educated, insecure, portfolio workers.

Its main groups include the arts and culture group National Collective, the Radical Independence Campaign, and the Jimmy Reid Foundation. There are questions about the long-term sustainability of all of these and other initiatives, but they have undoubtedly shaken up the restricted menu of Scottish politics.

Sceptics pour scorn on what this ‘third Scotland’ stands for but its political agenda is clear. It is for self-government and independence as not an end in itself, but as a means of bringing about social change. It is suspicious of the SNP’s rather timid version of independence and political change, with the former always being described as being about ‘the full powers of the Parliament’ which is hardly a language or outlook for transformational change. And they see the old mechanisms of social change such as the Labour Party, labour movement and British state as having consistently failed and colluded with inequality, power and privilege.

Beyond this there is an element of tension in this diverse movement. One part of Scotland’s new radicals choose to emphasis the country’s egalitarian, inclusive and progressive credentials, believing that building upon these offer the best prospects of bringing about change.

Another perspective takes the view that the above assumptions are comforting, complacent stories and myths which have consistently been used by Scotland’s institutional and establishment voices to maintain their position and close down debate, and that the conversation over independence offers the prospect of reflecting on this and challenging these myths.

The latter position is the view I take in my just published book, ‘Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland’ which looks at the wider canvas of social change and the independence debate, the multiple crises of Britain – economic, social and democratic – and the prospects for a different Scotland.

The scale of change in Scotland in recent years has been of historic proportions. One consequence of this has been the sense of incomprehension and even loss in parts of pro-union Scotland along with UK elites who have seen all this as the work of Alex Salmond and the SNP.

Instead, an ambitious, challenging, confident Scotland has emerged which isn’t owned by one party or tradition, and which thinks a narrow constitutional debate between Yes and No and Scottish and British nationalisms isn’t enough. This ‘third Scotland’ has arisen from the different country which has emerged, and in so doing, it is further creating a politics and culture of far-reaching change the consequences of which will far outlive the September 18th independence vote and decision.