Gerry Hassan has a piece in the Scottish Review this week – A Letter to Scotland’s New Radicals – which calls on the pro-independence left to abandon its “unrealistic” and “impossibilist” (whatever that means) approach to politics. Parts of the Scottish left, Hassan says, have a habit of trading on “a series of simplifications and inaccuracies”, including the belief that Scotland is inherently egalitarian, that the Yes campaign is fighting an anti-colonial battle against English oppression and that Britain is “broken, unreformable and undemocratic”. It’s difficult to know precisely who Hassan is talking about, because he doesn’t target any one group in particular. But he does make a few scattered references to the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), Common Weal, Lesley Riddoch’s Nordic Horizons and National Collective.
Some of Hassan’s criticisms are legitimate. For years, there has been huge complacency on the left about Scotland’s susceptibility to anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populism, and – clearly – Scottish society sits well outside the mainstream of European social democracy. But the rest of his critique falls hopelessly wide of the mark. For instance, these days, most people who subscribe to the idea that Scotland is an English colony live on the SNP’s ever-shrinking traditionalist fringes. Likewise, anyone who has read James Foley and Pete Ramand’s book, Yes: the Radical Case for Scottish Independence, would struggle to claim Scottish leftists “caricature” the British state. Foley and Ramand (two of RIC’s c0-founders) acknowledge Britain’s capacity to change and adapt, but argue that centrally-guided constitutional reform represents a kind of decline management. They have a point: does anyone really believe Gordon Brown would be talking so enthusiastically about federalism if it wasn’t for the independence referendum?
Hassan’s claim that the left presents neo-liberalism as a sequence of “external”, Westminster-imposed reforms at odds with Scotland’s “organic” centre-left consensus is equally unconvincing. I’ve heard RIC activists say repeatedly that, on its own, shifting Scotland’s constitutional goalposts will achieve little. In fact, there is widespread acceptance on the left that a determined, post-Yes effort will be needed to ensure constitutional change lays the groundwork for subsequent social and economic change, however modest. That is why RIC and other groups have spent months building support for independence in working class areas, and it’s why they are now exploring the idea of setting up a new left party after September.
But the most frustrating feature of Hassan’s analysis is its insistence that the left is oblivious to or naïve about the “myths” that shroud Scottish politics. “Scotland’s new radicals have to realise that the myths of our country have reinforced a faux social democracy and progressive politics of our elites and professional classes”, Hassan writes. “For too long, left-wingers and radicals have happily validated the limited politics, democracy and supposedly enlightened authority which have defined public life.” This is just demonstrably untrue. From the nationalist left of the 1970s, which had a sophisticated understanding of the limits of British social democracy (as well as of its own shortcomings), through to Radical Scotland in Eighties and RIC today, Scottish socialists have consistently positioned themselves at an angle to the political mainstream, challenging the centrist polices of the dominant parties, including Labour and the SNP. In so far as they have promoted the myth of Scottish social democracy, it has been for strategic reasons, to protect what remains in Scotland of the post-war settlement from the liberalising influence of successive Westminster and Holyrood administrations. (Incidentally, it’s not at all clear whether Hassan thinks the post war settlement is actually worth preserving, but that’s a different issue.)
So Hassan’s account of Scotland’s “new radicals” – the generation of activists who have emerged over the last two years, as a result of the referendum – is guilty of the very thing Hassan warns against: over-simplification. Of course political change is “complex”. No one is seriously suggesting it isn’t. Of course the left needs to challenge the “narrow bandwidth” of Scottish politics. That’s precisely what RIC, Robin McAlpine and the “Nordicists” are doing and have been doing for the last few years. There is nothing “comfy” or “couthy” about McAlpine’s (difficult and often unsuccessful) efforts to persuade people at the top of Yes Scotland and the SNP to adopt bolder policies, nor the way RIC has been organising in Scotland’s poorest neighbourhoods. The danger here is that, soon or later, Hassan’s narrative, if repeated often enough, will create a myth of its own – the myth of Scotland as a reactionary backwater, without the slightest bit of progressive or socialist potential. I can’t see how Scotland could thrive in that sort of political climate, let alone the Scottish left.