Sometimes it feels like all the possible takes on the independence debate have already been ‘well rehearsed’. Can the debate be refreshed and also gain some new subtlety and complexity? Richard Finlay assesses Gerry Hassan’s new book-length contribution and is optimistic about its possible influence.
Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence, (Pluto Press, 2022) ix+ 370 pp by Gerry Hassan
One of the depressing features associated with the current debate on Scottish independence is the endless repetition of well-rehearsed arguments that over-shadows much of the outpouring on both sides of the divide. It has a sort of pantomime quality; Scotland is subsidized – oh no it’s not, oh yes it is. This contributes to a sense of stasis in which there is no sense of intellectual travel and it increasingly looks like recitations of articles of faith that seems to be more about preaching to the converted rather than proselytization to reach out to find new adherents.
The platform for debate arguably has been a decisive contributor to what is now becoming an increasingly shallow and superficial mechanism for both the means and expression of ideas. Since the referendum in 2014, journalists have invested considerable intellectual, reputational and emotional capital in promoting one side or the other and this makes it difficult to change sides. Furthermore, there is only so much that can be said in a thousand words or so and in an endeavour to keep things fresh by providing new takes on the same issues, there has been tendency to increasingly travel into the world of the bizarre which does nothing to help the reputation of Scottish journalism for intellectual robustness. Should Downing Street’s Larry The Cat suffer some misfortune – not that we would wish that for a moment – no doubt some scribbler would herald the outbreak of collective national grief as marking the end for independence. The need for ‘clickbait’ has likewise contributed to this downward intellectual spiral and whatever its merits, social media with its inherent word limitations is not the best vehicle to put across complex issues. And the issues are complex and soundbites are a poor substitute for a weighty and in-depth analysis that has a wide array of evidence at its disposal.
For those reasons, Gerry Hassan’s contribution is a welcome one that explores the issues of Scottish independence with the kind of intellectual space that can to justice to the complexities and myriad of factors that go into making this one of the defining political questions of our generation. It may seem counter intuitive but a weighty tome is what is needed to inject some freshness into a debate that has gone stale. A proper cooked argument rather than something out the microwave. For this alone, Hassan is to be congratulated. It is a simple point but one that needs to be emphasised. A big and important topic requires and deserves a lot of words and pages.
Although Hassan is a well-known supporter of Scottish independence, he has not taken an overly partisan approach to the issues and I am sure that many nationalists will feel that he has been over-generous to the unionist case. One of the book’s key strengths is that Hassan is obviously trying to see the debate from both sides and this makes for a more nuanced and subtle discussion rather than one which is largely polemical. . Also, Hassan takes a non-nationalist perspective which postulates that there is no point in having independence if it keeps things the same. A constant critic of the SNP’s managerialist approach to politics, Hassan sees independence as an instrument that can help tackle some of the most pressing problems associated with an unfettered neo-liberal capitalism and its impact on social and economic inequality and the climate emergency.
Also, the issue of independence, according to Hassan, can be tied into wider issues about democratic renewal and the role of the state and its relationship to the local community. The book fully engages with the wider global political issues that have become such a firmament of contemporary political debate and brings a much needed international perspective on the question that transcends the usual Holyrood/Westminster focus. The global canvas demonstrates that independence is not a panacea and that irrespective of the outcome of the constitutional question, difficult issues will have to be faced in a period of global realignment where the political certainties of the past no longer hold the same currency that they once did. Hassan deftly rephrases this issue to avoid a black and white discussion as to the merits of independence or union but as to which is best capable to dealing with the new challenges of the present era.
The book is structured around five sections which broadly correspond to the past in how we got to where we are, the present in which the key issues that we face are discussed, and the future, in which the options, difficulties and possibilities are put under the spotlight. This works as a way to set out the key themes and issues which dominate the debate and the organization helps to sign post and navigate what is a complex, intricate and detailed discussion in a way that does not overwhelm the reader. This will be an invaluable source for those unfamiliar with the contours of Scottish constitutional politics. Hassan’s writing style is clear and lucid and mercifully free of jargon. This should appeal to a wide audience and for those who wish to be better informed about the debate it is to be heartily recommended.
It is engaging and the mix between detail and argument is finely tuned so that it can be read at pace. Even those who have followed the arguments in detail over the last few years will find it useful to have it set out in such a clear and structured way. There is an intellectual honesty that resonates through the book, which is in marked contrast to much of the public debate where statistics are cherry picked, quotes taken out of context and data is misleadingly presented. The reader can see clearly how Hassan has arrived at his conclusions and where he has wrestled with issues. The book reads as if it has been written by someone who had genuinely reflected on the issues. We shall wait to see if someone will do the same kind of book but more from the Unionist perspective.
Hassan’s extensive use of a wide range of empirical sources and data lends a degree of authority to his arguments and discussion, and as someone who has been at the forefront in much contemporary debate on Scottish society, he has a wealth of material to draw on. Whether or not one agrees with the arguments put forward in the book, there is no dispute that it is an informed discussion and the reader is able to take the same material cited and come to different conclusions. For example, Hassan uses social survey attitudes to point out that on a wide range of issues such as immigration, there is no substantive difference between Scottish and English public opinion. Yet, how this squares with the different electoral outcomes in Scotland and England is another matter which either suggests that the social survey material is not much use in determining political outcomes or that there is in fact substantial differences in social attitudes between Scotland and England which survey material fails to capture. Hassan frequently uses the tern RUK (Rest of the United Kingdom) which sort of ignores the elephant in the room that is England and it is the substantial change in English political behaviour that has driven much of the debate regarding Scottish independence and Irish reunification.
The discussion on the economy explores the pitfalls and problems of GERS, but in reality this is more of a sterile exercise in accountancy rather than good old fashioned political economy, which is actually one of the biggest areas of weakness in the whole debate. The importance of the relationship between income raised and public expenditure in the Scottish independence debate is completely pointless because genuine authoritative figures do not exist. To attain the necessary precision, the government(s) would have to create new accounting offices dedicated specifically to this purpose. In any case, proper arguments about political economy would centre on issues around principles. Think back to the Thatcherite argument about private versus public. It was not a debate awash with statistical evidence. A proper discussion about political economy, for example, would focus on the advantages and disadvantages enjoyed by large and small states, respectively.
All of this brings me to one final point. By following the contours of the debate as it has emerged in the public arena, Hassan has focussed on a lot of the technical and practical issues relating to the economy, society, the constitution and party politics. And although there is a valuable discussion surrounding the relationship between democracy and Scottish independence, one issue that perhaps ought to feature more, both in Hassan’s book and the wider debate more generally, is the issue of political principle. For many outsiders, the lack of focus in the debate on whether independence is the right thing to do or not, will strike them as odd. Is there a moral case for either independence or Union? The calculation as to whether people will be better off financially under independence might carry a lot of weight with politicians and pundits, but great constitutional events are rarely decided by pounds and pence and it is worth speculating as to whether the dominance of the economic dimension in the debate is used to mask a more fundamental and deeper cultural, historical and emotional commitment that is disguised by the veneer of practical politics. In other words, the idealism of being an independent nation with a strong cultural identity or the idealism of British social solidarity shaped by recent history might be the real drivers of political choice which is then reinforced with more practical arguments to buttress what is in essence a choice of identity. After all, it was idealism that created the Welfare State and the current debate in the United States about gun control is motivated by a strong sense of right and wrong. Principles matter in politics and the odd thing about the current debate about Scottish independence is that they perhaps are in danger of being obscured by the practical detail. When Conservatives opposed the creation of the Welfare State, the line they always took was that it was impractical and advanced detailed reasons why. Bogging down debate in detail is a tried and trusted method to stymie progress and create scepticism as to the wisdom of constitutional change.