Analysing the pro-indy left. Photo: Getty
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Gerry Hassan is wrong – radical Scotland has left its ghetto

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.

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.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt