Scotland's independence debate is about many things. It is about democracy, government, how we see the future, different interpretations and memories of the recent past, the stories we collectively tell as a society and nation; issues of how we address risk and who we most trust; and how we see the future prospects of the UK.
Language matters and at the weekend Nicola Sturgeon said on the BBC Laura Kuenssberg Show
that: 'I detest Tories'. Her full comments were: 'If the question to me is would I prefer a Labour Government over a Tory Government, I detest the Tories and everything they stand for. So it's not difficult to answer that question'.
Her logic had been to establish a clear line and differentiate from many in the party who had been suggesting some kind of equivalence between Labour and the Tories, which is not a great take in large parts in Scotland.
Yet, in making that distinction, she seemed to cast all Tories as the same – something part of independence opinion intuitively agrees with. Within hours and much heated discussion in Sturgeon's team, she qualified this saying that her beef was with the Tory Party and not with Tory voters. In the meantime, a host of Scottish Tories: Ruth Davidson, Murdo Fraser and Andrew Bowie, as well as others, had condemned Sturgeon and her language.
The initial Sturgeon position had led to all sorts of different SNP positions: Mike Russell agreeing, Shona Robison saying she detested what the Tories did in office, and Ian Blackford saying he did not detest Tories: 'No, I see them as a political opponent'. Pat Kane took the line that 'you should stop hating Tories – particularly as it blinds you on how to oppose them'.
All of this points to how the language of politics is turbo-charged, can lead to heightening difference, and quickly fall into othering those you disagree with. This is something Scotland has experience of – not just on independence, but how Tories and the SNP have been historically portrayed by opponents. At least no-one has yet followed Nye Bevan's infamous 1948 speech when he said the Tories were 'lower than vermin' – said to have cost Labour hundreds of thousands of votes in the close 1950 election.
Seven takes on the independence debate
In my recently published Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence,
I explore the terrain of recent times, the present contours of debate, address and layout the case for independence and the case for the union, and examine the near-future in Scotland and the UK.
Seven thoughts and takeaways from my book. First, there is a case for independence and it is, while understandable, one which a significant part of pro-union opinion wants to willfully not understand – caricaturing it, demeaning it and portraying it in Mel Gibson Braveheart
terms – as all about emotion, romanticism and the past.
Second, there is a case for the union. It is one which a sizeable part of the independence community dismiss or pretend does not exist. A section of independence finds it bewildering that anyone in Scotland can agree with the maintenance of Scotland in the union and hence thinks they have been brainwashed or disorientated by the media, BBC in particular, and unionist establishment.
Third, a politics where independence and the union could comprehend and concede that each had a valid argument and prospectus would have the chance of offering a better politics and future. It would speak to a wider Scotland. How we get there will require a lot of effort.
Fourth, Scottish nationalism versus British nationalism (which is what unionism is) as the main tenets of debate has the prospect of degenerating into a 'my nationalism is more virtuous than your nationalism'. It reinforces an attitude of politics centred on blind faith, relegating all other values and outlooks – social democracy, conservatism, feminist and green politics – to secondary ones in the constitutional debate.
Fifth, a politics which is about the union unconditionally or the case for independence, irrespective of what the consequences are, does not address many of the questions which Scotland's future should be about. Earlier this year, I caused journalist Kenny Farquharson to blow a fuse – which had not been my intention. He had asked what it would take for independence supporters to change their mind on the issue. I pointed out that the opposite is equally true: given the moral debasement of the UK, what would it take for pro-union supporters like Kenny to change their opinion?
The terrain I was trying to get to was not to assume a moral superiority in independence, but to pose that a politics about the union versus independence unconditionally is not very healthy and crowds out lots of people. It also reinforces a political world of absolutes and fixed identities, when that is not how modern life and politics is for most folk.
Sixth, independence is about the notion that decisions about Scotland should be made in Scotland and related to this that Scotland has a right to decide its own future. Implicit in this is that independence takes on trade-offs and difficult choices – economically, socially, on the role of government, and geo-politically. Too often, the SNP version has shied away from these truths to present as 'Big Tent', a vision of independence as possible which has an element of 'trust us, it will be alright on the night' and lack of candour.
Seventh, the voices of Scotland beyond those of certainty have in recent years tended to be crowded out. On the independence side, there has been a tendency to not recognise the Scotland beyond it and yet to be convinced. Instead, there has been a propensity amongst some to 'other' those who are anti-independence or still sceptical: demonising Tories and Labour (red Tories) and suggesting an equivalence between the two – which is not a very helpful view. The Tories last won the popular vote at a UK election in 1959 under Harold Macmillan; with Scottish Labour, it was 2010 under Gordon Brown.
The problem of gatekeeping Scotland and its caricatures
Then there are those who act as gatekeepers, keeping the debate simplistic and defined by the caricaturing of their opponents. First, take the Scottish-British identity question. Many on the independence side want to deny and expunge British identity in an independent Scotland, which is neither healthy or pluralist and puts barriers up to people supporting independence.
Scottish people may, over the past 40 years, identity as more Scottish but they also feel by a comfortable majority British, and do not feel any need to choose between the two. Yet, when Nicola Sturgeon recently said she was comfortable with this state of affairs, she was criticised by commentator and independence supporter Kevin McKenna, who wrote: 'It's difficult to understand what Ms Sturgeon was seeking to achieve with her expression of dual Scottish and British nationality'.
A second strand is found by pro-union commentators who find it helpful to portray independence as hopelessly ill-equipped for the modern age, drawing from Braveheart
emotions and irrationality, and with no economic literacy or prospectus.
There are copious examples of independence being taken to task and admonished but one example will suffice. In a piece in last week's Times,
commentator Magnus Linklater turned to the state of independence pre-SNP conference. In so doing, he briefly mentioned three perspectives: the late Ian Hamilton (of Stone of Destiny and much more fame) who passed away last week, Nicola Sturgeon and myself and my book Scotland Rising
Linklater had the hot take that the three of us: Hamilton, Sturgeon and myself, are all united by a politics of independence that is one of liberation and fantasy. He wrote of Sturgeon and by inference Hamilton and myself: 'Sturgeon offers a liberated Scotland, free of Westminster control, forging its own destiny, but with no detail on how its economy will be sustained'.
Leave aside that the SNP under Salmond and Sturgeon expressly ruled out the language of a liberated Scotland, and that there are lots of detail already, with more needed. Linklater goes on and states: 'the argument for independence remains much where it was in Hamilton's day – a great vision of the future, but still short on convincing evidence. Nor does Hassan's book supply it'.
This is a strange take on modern Scotland. To assert that there is little difference in independence between the Scotland of 1950 and the present is risible. For one, in 1950 'British Scotland' was at its peak, the SNP a miniscule force and independence a romantic, far-off prospect. None of those are true today. And, equally, while Scotland Rising
cannot address every question for everyone, it explores the politics of trade-offs and choices inherent in independence which the SNP avoid. It addresses the many different Scotlands, including those who feel it difficult to find a voice and place in this debate.
This is part of a prevalent mindset of caricaturing Scottish independence as hopeless, unsuited for serious consideration, and only worthy of condescension. In such an attitude, we all lose as we do with the othering of Tories and Westminster, which hems in and restricts the ground where a more nuanced, thoughtful set of discussions could take place.
I wrote Scotland Rising
to push at the conservatism and voices of caricature, intolerance and noise, which characterise too much of our public life. Independence cannot be synonymous with the SNP and entail an uncritical defence of their record. Nor can independence, as many seem to think, merely win by default and the degeneration of Westminster. It has to make the case for change and win it positively.
Likewise, the case for the union has to engage with the actual nature of the union and multiple crises of British Government, politics and society. It has to come up with realistic plans for changing the nature of the UK and addressing the debasement of British Government and politics and its deliberate erosion of the social contract which underpins society.
Scottish and UK politics face huge challenges. The competing claims of Scottish and British nationalism do not have the qualities, diversity and ecologies to address the big questions. We have to face up to that and make the case for a terrain which is about a Scotland not defined by nationalism or the exhausted mainstream ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, and instead addresses the huge challenges of the future.
This is a world yet to be fully understood, explained and named, but which will be post-nationalist, post-socialist and post-social democracy, informed by the implosion and hubris of the neoliberal era and its narrow, doctrinaire economic determinism. The values of this for those who are centre-left have to be more human, humane and humble, informed by understanding the damage humans can do to each other and the planet – green, feminist, anti-authoritarian – while creating new ideas and philosophies akin to the 21st century rather than the forces of 19th-century industrial capitalism.
The Scottish question has been one which in the past 50 years has been about how we see ourselves and how we see our place in the world. We have to consciously resist those who want to narrow and caricature our debate, and inspire a discussion about more than the mutual claims and counter-claims of two nationalisms.
Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence
by Gerry Hassan has just been published by Pluto Press, £14.99, and is available from the publishers