Hey everyone One of the legacies of the independence referendum apart from the birth and growth of this blog is the fact that it has introduced me to many voices whose writings I may not have had the chance to explore had this event not taken place. One such voice is the political commentator Gerry Hassan whose columns on the way forward for Scotland for both Bella Caledonia, and Scottish Review I have found and enlightening and entertaining. Hassan writes with a clarity which makes his work both intellectually rigorous and easy to understand and by doing so articulates a message with which his readership can connect. In this first part of my review of his book Caladonian Dreaming The Quest For A Different Scotland I will seek to explain why I believe the thoughts and arguments contained within these pages will be of value to supporters of an independent Scotland at the time of next referendum whenever it may be. It is at this stage I would like to thank Gerry Hassan for his generosity in sending me a complimentary copy of this book.
Right from the first page this is a book that challenges the reader to think big. It makes you ask questions about our nations past, about where we want Scotland go in the future and most importantly it asks us to consider where we are today and what has brought about the circumstances which make this such an exciting time to be Scottish.
In the opening chapter of the book Gerry Hassan argues that Scotland is a nation in a state of flux. the old certainties of our past are not as relevant to our lives as once was the case. Yet despite this the socially conservative forces of unionist Scotland tries to camouflage any evidence of it by claiming that events such as the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland and Rangers Football Club were one offs which were due to individual weaknesses at the top of the house rather than viewing them as the result of greater cultural forces. This as Hassan states is ‘a culture of restoration the kind of keep calm and carry on approach so favoured by David Cameron and the Conservative British establishment. This is an establishment favoured by all parties of the union and their friends in the press and media an establishment they will do whatever they must to protect.
This I would argue includes the demonisation through the press and media of both the Scottish National Party and their allies in the independence movement. This was quite clearly seen in the way the independence debate was viewed by those with vested interests in preserving the union. As Hassan states ‘It was presented ‘as a set of narrow set of constitutional changes unrelated to the kind of society we want to live in. This was in my both disingenuous and indeed fraudulent as to me as a yes supporter that was exactly what the debate was about that and nothing else. To claim otherwise was a deliberate distortion of the truth and the unionists know it all too clearly.
As if to prove my point Hassan questions how unionists can disassociate the circumstances which brought about the referendum and pretend that everything is still the same as it ever was. To be honest many of them know this can’t continue and there are harsh realities which need to be faced if the union is to survive in the long term. One of those realities is that they need to realise that many of their supporters were primarily responsible for the negative tone of the debate. Indeed far from the bullying cybernats that the unionist political class would have you believe were the main culprits in this, Hassan provides evidence of that they themselves are far from perfect. Citing the words of Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and Ian Davidson not to mention the reckless threats from the late Tory grandee Lord Fraser he illustrates that career unionists were no angels in the debate. Indeed I would go as far as to suggest that given their prominent positions in Scottish society they were actually by far the greater aggressors.
The author also says that one of the key reasons for this combative behaviour was the lack of women in the discussion. As a member of women for independence I have to say I agree with this assessment. One only needs to look at the TV debates not just on independence but on other more civic matters to see that what Hassan refers to as ‘Male Only Scotland is still very much alive and well and this institutionalised sexism needs to be tackled now to create a more creative political dynamic. Hopefully the fact we now have a woman First Minister in SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and women leaders of both main opposition parties Kezia Dugdale (Labour) and Ruth Davidson (Conservative) and there are a significant number of woman amongst the newly elected SNP MP’s such as Mhairi Black, Anne McLaughlin, Alison Thewliss, Angela Crawley, Carol Monaghan, Kirsteen Oswald, and my own MP Natalie McGarry, this will help to change this ingrained macho attitude.Hassan however argues that until we tackle the six myths of modern Scotland creating this dynamic will be almost impossible.
The six myths which Hassan wants us to examine have been embedded in to the fabric of our national culture for so long that challenging them will not be easy. It will be no doubt seen by some on all sides of the political debate as an attack on our national identity but tackling the idea that Scotland is a democratic egalitarian land where we all enjoy access to educational opportunity where we hold authority to account have a social democratic tradition and live in an open society is essential if we want to bring about a better more equal nation so many of us claim we’d like to see. To do this Gerry Hassan argues that we need rid ourselves of this cosy comforting image of ourselves and face some uncomfortable truths about our past and indeed our present.
One such fact is the our country has been throughout our history has been run by elites and that for all the claims to contrary our people are not active citizens in the public realm of our nation. I back up with my own personal experience as an active political campaigner for the SNP and various equality based causes over the years. No matter how I’ve tried to explain the importance of involvement at personal, community, and national level I have more often than not been met with a leave it to others mentality in what was until the referendum this passive land I call home. Too often I heard the mind numbing refrain it’s not for the likes for us and it makes no difference to me or the even worse there only in it for themselves kind of argument which I quite frankly find distasteful to all of us on all sides of the political debate. As I said to a woman earlier this year I always attend my party meetings because without the likes of me and others like me none of those you call them would ever be elected to office.
The fact I am educated to honours degree level and my joint honours degree is in Geography and Politics is I find often used against me by small minded people who no doubt wish to live in the comfort of the cosy myths Gerry Hassan correctly identifies as holding Scotland back from realising our potential. This is unfair not only to me but to many others like me who came from working class families like mine and indeed our author’s who put a value on education and lifelong learning long before it was a buzz phrase for governments and the civil servants who work for them.
In the next chapter Gerry Hassan having set out some of his core arguments as to the challenges we face and the changes we need to make to build a different Scotland fills the reader in on his own background and the circumstances that shaped him. Born to educated, well read working class parents the young Gerry grew up in Dundee with a dad who though a communist by inclination was more of an armchair activist than an active campaigner and a mother who had read the works of authors such as Orwell and Greene. Hassen says his parents believed in Britain and saw Scottishness as old fashioned. Again this chimes at least partly with my own upbringing as these were similar sentiments to those expressed by my mother and some of my aunts and uncles.
My dad however had a very different view shaped by his Dundonian-Irish ancestry he believed not that Scotland should be free but that it had to be if we were ever to change the view of other countries that Scotland was inward looking colonial backwater unfit for proper nationhood. These differences in how Scotland was perceived in the years of my youth and indeed has been viewed ever since both have powerful narratives and to understand them one has to look what the United Kingdom was and what it has become.
One of the reasons why the idea of the United Kingdom still attracts a certain kind of socially and culturally conservative Scot is due to the way its image is presented by the British establishment. Hassan supports this by stating that ‘it likes to stress its unparalleled degree of continuity’. This he says is only one view of the UK but it is a view which many people have bought in to over the years. This demographic which tends to be but is not exclusively older has doubts that Scotland could provide them with the same safety and security as mother Britain even though many will admit not having looked in to the idea. This group tend not to like what they see as change for change’s sake and may ignore their own country’s history and traditions in favour of a more anglo-centric version of events.
Changing this mindset is a challenge for those of us who want to embrace change especially when the elites whose views these people accept almost as if they were tablets of stone have such an unshakeable belief in their own superiority. This has made the road to democracy a much slower one than we would want to walk and in many ways a journey we are still a long way from completing. The fact that the UK finally gave the working class and eventually women the right to vote does not give Britain the right to call itself a democracy. The elites Hassan argues, were in charge at every stage of the political process, and that it is just the way they like it.
The implications of this for Scotland were and still remain a very significant factor in how Scotland is perceived not only by others but more importantly by ourselves. It has long been the establishment view that a good Scottish or Brit-Scot cringe as I prefer to call it is essential if you want to serve both colony and yourself at the Westminster table of imperialism. It is I think no accident that demand for independence or at very least a much stronger home rule than devolution can provide has grown significantly in the last three decades as Britain has shifted further and further to the right. We may not as the author has already pointed out be the egalitarian social democrats we like to believe we are but the fact that we believe our own self made myth has to some degree pushed this agenda forward.
The United Kingdom is however a country shaped by its past and the story of that past no matter how mythical it may be has over time had a huge impact on how we as a nation see ourselves and how we view our relationship with Britain. Not for nothing does the too wee, too poor, too stupid mantra resonate so readily with so many of our country folk. Britain we are told used to have an empire, like we didn’t know that already. For me, the key words in the sentence are used to It doesn’t anymore. The union in my opinion is an economic arrangement which has outlived its usefulness but the British elites and most especially the political classes perhaps not surprisingly do not share that view. Indeed as Gerry Hassan correctly points out they use the past as a powerful political weapon and the fact they use the monarchy in the same way is no accident. The past, the empire, the monarchy and other establishment organisations such as the press and media and armed forces are in many ways most of them subliminal are the mythical and mystic ties which bind Britain together. The fact that Scotland is not despite what we are told a fully fledged democratic state helps to maintain this status quo and makes it more difficult to challenge.
Hassan states that the myth of popular sovereignty in the sense of power lying with the people is exactly that and had it existed Scotland would have been able to stop the poll tax and other measures not to its liking. Hassen argues that had the concept existed in reality rather than just at the level and mythology Scotland would not have dominated by The Labour Party or indeed the Liberals for before them for anywhere near as was the case. The author goes on to say that Scotland has never used the idea of popular sovereignty to democratise and empower people or develop a vision of society which is in any way radically different from the status quo. Hassan says that whilst we may have the trappings of democracy such as free elections and multi party participation the fact that there is a missing Scotland which is predominately located in the poorer less affluent parts of our nation tells us much about our real democratic deficit.
This is a deficit you will seldom hear mentioned at elections where parties tend to focus on the core votes they know will turn out to support them and the floating voters who will definitely vote at elections but whose votes may be up for grabs and that makes them key voters meanwhile the voice of missing Scotland of low electoral turnouts voter apathy and political disconnection remains ignored and unheard.
Indeed as Gerry Hassan points out there is a culture of learned helplessness in Scotland and this means that people don’t see themselves in the political discussions of our nation and any conventional methods used to reach them fail. This is much to our nation’s detriment and is something which needs to be improved before people even begin to believe in the notion of Scotland ever becoming a real democracy fit for the purpose of serving our people.
To further enhance this argument let’s look at as the author does at Civic Scotland. This was a term which Gerry Hassan points out which was closely identified with the fight for devolution it was also one I never liked. Civic Scotland may have identified that Scotland is different from England one has to ask as our author does, was it too polite to fight on those matters which could and still can really change our country for the better and on many issues the answer appears have been yes.
If I had to sum up Civic Scotland in a sentence or a paragraph I would say that in many ways it would be the political equivalent of my mother. Those involved would talk about the things that shocked them, angered them, or even outraged them but just like my mother it wouldn’t do too much about them for fear of holding themselves up to the light and finding they may not be as perfect as first thought. In fairness Civic Scotland did some good raising awareness amongst those of us who were already or were always going to be part of active Scotland but it did nothing to engage disaffected voters in areas of low voters it did nothing too engage apathetic Scotland, the neglected Scotland the Scotland forgotten by the political elites. It may have talked about the decimation of mining communities and other industrial areas or the impact of the poll tax but it didn’t live in those areas. Civic Scotland and what remains of it was and still is a child of Bearsden rather than Baillieston of Morningside more than Muirhouse. That to me was and remains its most fundamental problem there is a disconnection to those who don’t live in the comfort zones but who are far more in need of empowering than those who do.
From Civic Scotland Gerry Hassan moves on to the Stories of Radical Scotland. This is a story with I closely identify having learned of the radical tradition from my maternal grandmother who was a keen supporter of the Independent Labour Party and in particular of John MacLean the man who was the public face of what become known as Red Clydeside. Indeed my first political hero as a child was Jimmy Reid who I saw as a hero for fighting for people’s right to work. Jimmy Reid was if you like my own political version of Superman.
This opinion was probably formed because as Gerry Hassan states at the beginning of this chapter socialism and centre left politics have been the defining feature of Scottish politics in the last century. However as he goes on to inform us radical Scotland pre dates Socialism in Scotland and the Liberals were the dominant party for much indeed most of the 19th century but as the Liberal influence became diluted it was the Labour Party who became the new home for Scotland’s voters. Hassan however also reminds us that Scotland had a strong communist tradition particularly in mining areas which has only died out in the last 30 years or so. This evaporation of communist support parallels with the rise not only with the decline of mining and the other traditional industries such as coal, and steel, on which much of Scotland depended but also with the rise of Thatcherism and the culture of individualism which has whether we like it or not become a part of the fabric of our contemporary Scotland.
This development surely implies that Scotland is moving away from its radical roots or at least it does if you listen to unionists. I however do not pay much attention to the negative mutterings of the pro British political establishment, my grandmother’s stories captured my heart and imagination in a way no unionist has ever managed or for that matter come close to managing. The Thatcher years in which Scotland was vandalised and the Blair years in which we were patronised only served first to develop my interest in the idea of Scottish independence and then to support it by voting for and then after my gender transition eventually joining the only party I have consistently campaigned for.
Of the two most influential Prime Ministers of my lifetime it is fair to say I probably loathe Blair to a far greater degree than Thatcher and I never thought I could be detest anyone more than her. How wrong I was, you see to quote my late and very left wing granny the Tories may have hearts of darkness but at least you will know what your going to get if they get elected, they will promise you nothing and deliver exactly that. Labour on the on the other hand will patronise you with false words smiles and flattery before putting on their masks to rob you. Labour are not a radical party she once told me they are the party who want to keep the radicals in line. Remembering those words I would say that my personal radicalism is viewed through the lens of wanting to make Scotland not only a restored nation but also for the first time in our history a real democracy with genuine citizen participation.
There is however a slight stepping stone which I think with the benefit of hindsight which is always a wonderful gift to have perhaps cost yes victory in last year’s referendum. This is picked up by Hassan who says that ‘there seems to be an abiding faith among those of a pro yes persuasion Scotland could become the first democratic socialist country in the world’
This image of a socialist utopia in my view at least turned off almost as many voters as it attracted and I for one found it a problem on the doorsteps or in discussions with friends or acquaintances. The missing Scotland is it would seem not just on left
The rise of Scottish identity as a left wing identity especially from the 1980’s onwards was also important in creating among many a shared sense of Scottishness. This was partly due the rise of Thatcherism in the rest of the UK but it was also because Scotland had different core beliefs to the rest of the UK or at least that’s what as a nation we collectively began to believe. Gerry Hassan is in my view right when he says that Thatcher and Thatcherism were symptoms of the of the collapse of British post war consensus rather than the cause of it but to many Scots that didn’t matter, what mattered was the fact she and her government did not share our views, our values, or our visions either individually or collectively. To many of our people Thatcher’s Britain could never be our Britain her Scotland could never be our Scotland.
Love And Best Wishes