The age of independence


by Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman

Scotland has a very different political landscape. A majority SNP administration. A decimated Labour Party in complete confusion. An independence referendum on the cards. A UK Government intent on making concessions at least for the moment. Things will never be the same again.

Scottish nationalism as a broad force beyond party has become the defining force of modern Scotland. It has replaced the once potent Labour story. But there are significant limits to its appeal. Its reach, like Labour Scotland before it, does not take in every nook and cranny of Scottish public life, and it should act accordingly at the moment of its greatest power.

There is a crisis of Scottish unionism. Some blame it on Mrs. Thatcher, Thatcherism and her brand of uncaring Toryism. This is just inaccurate and unhelpful.

Scottish unionism’s decline is part and parcel of a long story which can be traced back to the demise of Empire, shifts in post-war Scotland, in society, culture and the economy, how we view ourselves and how we see the world. The relative decline of Britain, its economy and standing in the world plays a part in this, and the unravelling of the post-war consensus, which Scots were very attached to, and whose crisis long predated Mrs. Thatcher.

A whole number of players have to take their role in the decline of unionism: Harold Wilson and ‘the pound in your pocket’ devaluation of 1967, Jim Callaghan and the IMF crisis in 1976, and Tony Blair and his invasion of Iraq in 2003. All of these, all Labour politicians, have together played a role at least the equal of Mrs. Thatcher. If it were down to one Tory politician and her ism, unionism’s crisis would be easily reversible, but it isn’t and won’t be.

A referendum on Scottish independence is now inevitable. It has gone over the course of a few years from a maverick, eccentric demand, ridiculed in places, to something that many argued with the arrival of the Parliament was beyond its powers of competence. Now the only argument is over whether the Nationalist side can win a majority. The direction of travel has been in one direction only.

To start with, lets challenge two arguments put forward. One is that the UK Government should bring matters to a head; this is the Michael Forsyth nuclear option. It argues: lets just call the slippery separatists bluff, and blow their cover; bingo union saved and Nationalists scuppered. This will not happen. Such behaviour would aid the unionist side losing any referendum and end the UK, which is not exactly an ideal unionist position.

Then there is the position taken by some expert opinion that Scotland needs two referenda votes for independence which needs challenging.  This is the position of Robert Hazell’s academic Constitution Unit. Apparently we need a pre-negotiation vote and a post-negotiation vote. This is wrong, or at the very least,  extremely debatable.


The two-vote argument is a recipe for instability. What happens if we say yes in the first vote, then after negotiations, we say no, which could be for all sorts of reasons. Would be partially independent, or sitting in some sort of constitutional limbo?

More important and damningly, not one country anywhere in the world has held two referenda on the road to independence. The two dozen new states which emerged from the fossilisation of the Soviet bloc. Kosovo. Southern Sudan. Not one.

When I asked Robert Hazell about this last year he made various vague noises about how it might not be absolutely required, but Scotland should aspire to be ‘an exemplar of good practice and democracy’. That’s all fine and well, but lets not set up traps and false precedents. We need one vote and that’s it: a simple, clear mandate for independence.

There does need to be serious thinking in pro-independence opinion. First, an independence referendum is only a tactic, a means to an end. Second, there are already signs that a multi-option referendum might be the preferred option of the SNP leadership rather than a simple ‘Yes/No’ vote. A multi-option referendum would put independence, ‘devo max’ and the status quo to the vote, and has the advantages of reflecting the plurality of public opinion, but it makes majority support for one option, and thus independence, near nye-impossible.

It is highly plausible given the cagey, cautious Salmond strategy that he sees a multi-option referendum as the best and incremental way to continue slowly and gradually advancing towards his ultimate destination, building a majority coalition for the maximum change as he goes along. It has the advantage of increasing the chances of the SNP being on the right side of the argument, but it does mean that we could put off into the distant future, ever having a ‘Yes/No’ vote.

SNP thinking is that a UK Government which gives significant concessions to Scotland will reduce the difference between independence and ‘devo max’, making that final leap less risky. Alternatively, if the UK Government stalls in offering substantial powers, this makes the case for independence.

There is something more fundamental in all this. More important than what kind of referendum Scotland has, or the differences between independence and ‘devo max’, we need to start a national debate and discussion about what kind of Scotland we want.

This debate is one which the mainstream political classes, shaped by the long influence of social democracy, and the dark shadow of neo-liberalism and global groupthink, have chosen in the first decade of devolution, to conspicuously not engage in. Their collective silence has been profound.

We need to urgently open it, and begin a dynamic, vibrant, generous and pluralist conversation about the kind of Scotland and sort of future we want to live in.

Implicit in all Scotland’s deliberations over the last three decades has been an often unstated belief that we have it in our own hands to shape and make our collective future. Now this needs to become explicit and public.

The constitutional debate has to be led by concerns and motivations about the nature of Scottish society and our economy, not the other way round. That’s the only way such a debate can be relevant and catch fire beyond the political classes.

All of this is possible. To do so we need to do some immediate, straightforward things, and some longer-term, more ambitious things. First, we need the new SNP administration to set the tone of the new political terrain by, in a couple of significant issues, not acting in a party manner, but bringing the Parliament and all its parties together and speaking with one voice.

The obvious area to do this in how we deal with the Scotland Bill currently going through Westminister, and the need for more powers. A small, symbolic start would be the election of the Presiding Officer of the Parliament this Wednesday. This needs to see a non-SNP MSP returned; anything else will look like arrogance and over-reach. The tone and feel of Alex Salmond’s utterances from the moment the scale of the Nationalist landslide became evident on Friday morning, must give us reason for hope and optimism.

Second, those of us outside Parliament, who are pro-independence and sympathetic to the Nationalists, have a responsibility to rise to this occasion. We have to get active, involved and creative not as flag wavers in a party cause. We need to get out there as activists, campaigners, dreamers and political entrepreneurs.

We have to start institution building, and create a diverse ecology of agencies, bodies and resources which aid and inform and make real self-government and self-determination.

It is time to start living a little dangerously and take risks. To think and act beyond tribes and labels. To reach out beyond party affiliations at key points. To begin dismantling the nomenklatura state. To start thinking of policy and ideas in different ways, which do not necessarily involve civil servants or experts always taking the lead.

Instead, we need to develop new forms of engagement, discussion and debate, developing spaces, forums and places which aid this. This is a time for courage, humility and listening, for trying a different kind of politics. It is time to start living, breathing and taking part in the new Scotland.

Independence has the power and potency to stir emotions, create stories, songs, works of art and beauty. Devolution never did, and certainly the rather dismal form of devolution offered by Labour when they ran Scotland, never could. This is a time for us to dare, dream and be hopeful. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Article first published at The Scotsman