Flag-waving British nationalism has nothing to offer Scotland. Photo: Getty
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Independence of the Scottish mind has shown up the failure of British nationalism

Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 18 September, a different Scotland has emerged and found expression. The idea of independence has taken hold.

Something has changed in Scotland in the last few days. It has been a long time coming and building, but you can feel it in the air, in the streets, and in the looks of strangers acknowledging each other. Scots are growing aware that they have a collective power and confidence which Westminster fears.

The British political elite and establishment have now woken up to the prospect that all this is real. For the past three years, from the SNP winning in 2011 to the Edinburgh Agreement of October 2012 between the Scottish and UK governments, the latter viewed Scotland as a non-event, a problem contained and controlled. The “referendum” they continually referred to was not Scotland 2014, but the still-hypothetical vote on Europe in 2017.

Suddenly, Cameron, Miliband and Clegg have realised that Scottish independence is possible. They don’t like it, obviously, but they don’t understand it either, nor have they been paying attention. Cameron has played a famously low key role in the campaign, sneaking in and out of Scotland speaking to the few audiences where he can be guaranteed a friendly response. He refused to debate with Salmond, which now looks a disastrous decision, but was a realistic recognition of the “toxic tartan Tory” brand.

Ed Miliband has played a worse hand. He and his invisible shadow cabinet have hardly put any effort into saving what is meant to be a Labour heartland. Miliband has not until recently received regular briefings on Scotland. His approach has only been excelled in ineptitude by the Scottish Labour Party, which still hasn’t adapted its defeat in 2007 – the seachange of Scottish politics. It is still stuck in its pathological detesting of the SNP and Alex Salmond, which has clouded its judgement for years.

Now Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are travelling north to save the union. They are making their way to Scotland separately like a bunch of furtive characters ashamed of what they are up to, or afraid of being apprehended. If there were a criminal offence for being an incompetent politician all three would be charged and put up in Barlinnie Prison. Once they have arrived north of the border, they dare not even contemplate sharing a platform.

This goes beyond dislike of Tories. Rather embarrassingly for Labour, Cameron and Miliband have the exact same levels of trust in Scotland: 23 per cent. The supposed saviour of the hour, Gordon Brown, is on 32 per cent (the same as Alistair Darling). First Minister Alex Salmond has a 42 per cent rating after seven years in office and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, 44 per cent.

There is an increasing problem with nationalism. British nationalism. It seems obsessed with an imagined past, a continual parade of military anniversaries, hyperbolic rhetoric (“greatest union in the history of the human race”), symbols and flags. They have become vexo nats, to coin a phrase from vexology, the study of flags. How appropriate that as the UK’s fate hangs in the balance, Cameron decides to fly the saltire from Downing Street, and Miliband joins him inviting Labour councils up and down the land to do the same. Who knew it? Never mind the bedroom tax, foodbanks, or the grotesque self-interest of the City, Cameron and company understand and “love” Scotland, and don’t want us to leave. They plan to show it by lots of flag-waving.

One opinion poll with a Yes lead has produced wholesale panic and sudden announcements of new plans and goodies. This, when people have already started voting. When the debate isn’t just about the constitution. When it isn’t just about Scotland, but the problem with the capture of British politics and the state by corporate class groupthink. And when the Scottish debate reflects genuine discussion about how much room for maneouvre and choice it is possible to have in the face of market fundamentalism and globalisation. Scottish public opinion trusts the Scottish government more than Westminster to defend the social compact. All of this runs much deeper than what Scots think of Cameron and toxic Tories.

Last minute pro-union suggestions of giving more powers to Scotland fail to understand, as constitutional expert Peter Hennessy observed, that there are British consequences from such proposals. Greater Scottish self-government in an asymmetrical union eventually affects the intricate balance of the entire state. With the Scotland Acts of 1998 and 2012 on the statute book, that point has now been reached, once more raising the prospect of the West Lothian question and the voting rights of Scottish MPs at Westminster.

Whatever the result on 18 September a different Scotland has emerged and found expression. The “idea” of independence has dominated and defined the campaign. Even lots of No voters talk fondly of the notion saying, “I would like to believe we could do it, but. . .” That is a generational change.

Scotland has an independence of the mind. It is on the verge of formal independence. That then brings forth all sorts of fascinating questions. Can the hopes and energies released by pro-independence forces continue post-Yes? What of the SNP’s rather timid, cautious version of independence with its economic straightjacket connected to the Bank of England and Treasury? How will Westminster react to its biggest peacetime crisis if a Yes happens? Will they understand that Scottish voters have rejected their discredited economic, social and political system?

Last weekend, with Roanne Dods, I organised Imagination – Scotland’s first ever Festival of Ideas on Glasgow’s Southside. It was firmly non-aligned and non-partisan on the independence question, but embodied a living, real culture of self-determination.

Over a thousand people were present at the weekend. With an atmosphere of curiosity, energy and generosity, constitutional lawyer and adviser to both the Scottish and British Tories Adam Tomkins talked openly of the fundamental failings of No. They heard Will Hutton hesitate and admit that if he lived in Scotland “he would be sorely tempted to vote Yes”.

Thoughtful discussions took place on the challenges facing Scotland both post-independence and as part of the union. Former Salmond adviser Alex Bell warned of the dangers of Scotland being governed post-independence by “the same Marks and Spencers suits”, Robin McAlpine eulogised the virtues of Common Weal, and filmmaker Eleanor Yule spoke of the role of gatekeepers in limiting cultural self-confidence.

The closing discussion took place in the beautiful, dilapidated Govanhill Swimming Pool, scene of a famous Glasgow battle between the council and local people, which saw the pool shut and then given back to the community after a decade. Janice Galloway moved people with her heartfelt and deeply personal “Journey to Yes”, while Billy Bragg and Fintan OToole wished the independence cause well. 

Bragg played two numbers, the first of which, “Take Down the Union Jack” brought the house down. He then observed, looking at England and Scotland: “We don’t have agency. You do. Don’t let us down.” O’Toole commented that “Scotland has already won by the common assertion of dignity. The question is can you be good winners?” It all felt like a mature, reflective democracy calmly discussing its future choices.

Scotland has grown up these last few years. That is a change which is about more than whether the people vote for independence. The same cannot not be said of Westminster, which is increasingly broken and represents a discredited, narrow, nasty political culture. No wonder more and more Scots think that we can make a better fist of it governing ourselves.

Maybe, just maybe, the immense changes and upheaval about to take place could see a progressive-minded country and culture governing itself with compassion and decency on this island of Britain. It might just give hope to the people of the rUK to summon up the energy and force to challenge the entrenched forces and assumptions which have dominated Westminster and British politics and society for the last three decades. It is time to break free, not in some nationalist sense, but from the vested interests and orthodoxies which have so dominated British society and public life for so long.

Dr Gerry Hassan is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland and author of “Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland (Open Scotland)” published by Luath Press, £11.99

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.