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10 September 2014updated 04 Oct 2023 12:02pm

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.

By Gerry Hassan

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.

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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

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