Caledonian Dreaming

Gerry Hassan’s Caledonian Dreaming is one of the most original and tough-minded contributions to Scotland’s independence debate I have read.

Like so many books about the referendum it is written from the perspective of a long-time Scottish radical excited by the possibilities independence might offer for the building of a truly progressive Scotland. But despite its title Caledonian Dreaming is refreshingly unsentimental. Winning independence would be one thing, but developing a Scotland worthy of the Yes campaign’s soaring hopes would be quite another. The ills of Scottish society for which independence is proposed as the cure cannot be blamed wholly on Scotland’s current entanglement within the Union. They are the product of Scotland’s own shortcomings as much as the interventions of unwanted British governments.

Scottish myths

Hassan argues that Scotland is both inspired and restricted by its ‘national myths’, the stories it tells about itself to define its sense of collective identity and nationhood. These are not without substance, expressing fundamental truths about the kind of place Scotland is. But like all myths they are partial truths, describing an ideal Scotland rather than the reality. Like every other nation Scotland is prone to seeing itself as it would like to be, not as it is. As Hassan puts it:

These myths have, for understandable reasons, differentiated us from the rest of the UK and England in particular, and externalised many of our problems by absolving us of responsibility for our situation. This is a kind of quasi-Brigadoon – a fictional political and social community which does not correspond to the reality of the country we live in.

He identifies six intertwined Scottish myths:

  • First, Scots are fiercely democratic, adamant that everyone has a right to be heard and to participate in local and national decision making.
  • Second, Scotland is committed to a thoroughgoing egalitarianism, intolerant of excessive disparities of wealth and rank.
  • Third, Scotland upholds a proud tradition of the ‘democratic intellect’, the belief that educational opportunity should be available to all.
  • Fourth, the Scots disdain social deference and unearned privilege.
  • Fifth, Scotland remains committed to the social democratic settlement of the post-war years in spite of the efforts of successive governments since the first Thatcher administration of 1979 to break it up, through privatisation, deregulation and the restructuring of the welfare state.
  • Sixth, Scotland, which has always been a nation of emigrants, welcomes the stranger, making itself hospitable to all wishing to settle here and make a contribution.

Hassan acknowledges the truth in each of these beliefs. The shape of Scottish politics, dominated by two left-of-centre parties, reflects Scotland’s social democratic persuasion, with the Conservatives confined to the margins. There is strong support in Scotland for public services, one recent poll finding that two-thirds of Scots believe public services are better run by the state than the private sector, as against one third of English respondents. The ideal of universal education is valued, as shown by the current Scottish government’s resistance to university tuition fees. And immigration is nothing like as potent a political issue as in England, there being no evidence in Scotland for a surge in support for UKIP or other reactionary parties.

But there is plenty of evidence that Scotland’s commitment to its high ideals only goes so far:

  • Scotland is as unequal as England. In 2012 it was estimated that Scotland’s wealthiest households were 273 times richer than the poorest. And notoriously Scotland has the worst health inequalities in western Europe.
  • Educational opportunities across Scotland remain deeply uneven. The Pisa educational tables of 2012 put the richest 25% of Scotland’s 15-year-old pupils in third place, with the poorest 25% in coming 44th. A similar proportion of Scottish pupils are educated privately as in England, with some regions having very high rates of private education (in Edinburgh the figure is as high as 25%). And Scottish universities are dominated by the middle-classes, with very few students of working class backgrounds.
  • Scotland’s professed dislike of privilege exists alongside a powerful landed gentry: half of Scotland’s private land is owned by just 432 estates.
  • Scottish social attitudes are only marginally more progressive than in England. A recent survey found that 78% of Scottish respondents – as compared with 74% in England – agreed the gap between high and low incomes is too large, with 43% supporting redistributive taxation policies as against 34%.
  • Scotland may not have a UKIP or BNP but there are tensions over race and immigration. Parts of western Scotland are still troubled by sectarianism, and levels of violence against ethnic minorities are similar to those in the rest of the UK.

Hassan refuses to let Scotland off the hook by blaming its failings on successive British governments for which it did not vote. Insensitive Westminster policies must bear part of the blame, but in the last analysis these are Scottish problems with Scottish roots. And at the heart of them all, Hassan maintains, is the hard fact that Scotland has never really been a full democracy, which has made it hard for it to confront and address its inner demons:

[S]cotland has not, and never has, been a real political democracy. Our society has historically been run by elites; and the people are not, for all the rhetoric, genuinely active citizens in public life.

‘High Scotland’

Throughout the Union’s 300 years Scotland has been run by a governing class that has accumulated political and administrative power to itself, keeping the wider population at a remove. This secretariat has accomplished much, but a lack of proper democratic scrutiny and a readiness to mistake Scottish myths for fact has made it complacent, blind to the hard truths about Scotland. Only in recent years, with the arrival of the Scottish Parliament, and now, of course, the referendum debate, has Scotland started to wake up. Holyrood has facilitated some measure of democratic accountability, and the intense debate over independence has energised the nation, revealing to many Scots what real political engagement feels like, and exposing the compromised, partial nature of what had previously passed for Scottish public debate.

Hassan’s closely argued central chapters study the character of Scottish political governance since the Act of Union. The Act opened great opportunities for Scotland, allowing the nation to prosper through enthusiastic participation in the expansion of the British Empire, but it came with a cost. The pooling of sovereignty with England meant that Scotland became a stateless nation, with an administrative rather than democratic understanding of political authority.

Scotland’s administrative institutions expanded massively through the 19th century to meet the challenges of industrialisation and imperial expansion. Developing in the absence of democratic accountability they became vast, remote instruments of government administered by a secular clerisy. This patrician bureaucracy morphed into what Hassan calls the ‘High Scotland’ that administered Scottish affairs during the decades following the Second World War, the technocracy of professional planners that designed Scotland’s post-war social democracy. Hassan shifts briefly into autobiographical mode to speak with great affection of the undoubted achievements of this idealistic, high-minded Scotland, recalling how his working class Dundonian family were among the many to benefit from the provision of good social housing, a comprehensive education system, free health care and the state’s commitment to full employment.

But he is clear about its failings, arguing that political historians have tended to idealise post-war Scotland as a social democratic golden age callously dismantled by the Thatcher governments:

In the last couple of decades our collective stories have been told increasingly through the prism and experience of Thatcherism, her ideology and the ‘alien rule’ of her government … [T]he Scotlands of pre- and post–1979 are the equivalent of hinges in how many see the economic, social and political changes of modern Scotland, with 1979 reduced to the equivalent of a ‘Year Zero’.

Hassan the socialist radical agrees that the 1980s were indeed traumatic for much of Scotland, a period of rapid deindustrialisation, widening inequalities, and, as if as punishment for the inconclusive devolution vote of 1979, the ever greater concentration of political authority at Westminster. But he argues that demonisation of the Thatcher governments has become another Scottish myth, convenient camouflage for the uncomfortable truth that pre-Thatcher ‘social democratic’ Scotland exhibited many of the same failings as post-Thatcher ‘neoliberal’ Scotland: entrenched inequality, uneven educational opportunity, the concentration of land ownership, and, despite the creation of a Scottish Parliament, technocratic government by remote insiders. Scotland’s problems existed before Thatcher, and they exist now, more than 30 years on.

For Hassan these chronic issues persist because the democratic deficit at the heart of Scottish political culture has still not been addressed: even after devolution Scotland is governed by an elite that isn’t properly held to account. He argues that the establishment which ran post-war Scotland wasn’t destroyed by Thatcherism but simply went underground, re-emerging when the Scottish Parliament opened. During the long years of Tory government leading up to the establishment of the Parliament it found expression in ‘Civic Scotland’, a broad movement that campaigned for a devolved assembly through initiatives such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the Civic Assembly, the Civic Forum, and the post–1997 Consultative Steering Group. The Parliament presented the perfect opportunity for Scotland’s governing classes to reassert themselves, with all their strengths and weaknesses, their technocratic professionalism and centralising tendencies.

Hassan argues that while the Parliament has facilitated a healthier Scottish political culture, it has not lived up to its founding promise to work for the development of a truly participative democracy. Scottish political life is highly centralised, focused on the Parliament at the expense of local tiers of government. Post-Holyrood politics has been dominated by a clique: two technocratic establishment parties of the centre-left; a powerful civil service; a succession of commissions run by the great and good; and a nexus of established interest groups representing business, the unions and grant-funded voluntary organisations. For Hassan many of these groups have outlived their usefulness, clinging on through patronage:

Any civil society should be characterised by evolution, creative innovation and destruction, with institutions rising, becoming successful and influential, and once they have begun to decline, fading away and dying. This cycle of institutional growth and withering seems to be something with which the idea of ‘civic Scotland’ feels uncomfortable, preferring a public culture littered with organisations which have long past their sell-by-date, but which struggle on, failing to adapt or die.

Establishment Scotland’s closed, conservative character is reflected in the sterility of the debate between its two major parties, which represent competing wings of the same political class. Both are managerial soft-left parties dominated by politicians with similar backgrounds. Scottish Labour’s character changed profoundly during the New Labour years when, purged of its radical elements, it became a pragmatic party of the middle ground. The SNP isn’t much different. Unlike Scottish Labour it doesn’t have to answer to a triangulating UK party obliged to appeal to a conservative English electorate, a freedom that has allowed the 2007 and 2011 Salmond governments to be somewhat bolder. But the SNP’s essential conservatism is manifested in the emphasis its referendum campaign has placed on what would remain the same after independence, rather what would change.

Scotland, then, for all its passionate egalitarian rhetoric, remains a rather conservative place. The challenges confronting it today are recognisable as those that it faced back in 1979. It is still an unequal nation governed by a mandarin class unable to face up to the kind of thoroughgoing reform that would be necessary to transform Scotland into the kind of participative social democracy it says it wants to be.

The radical imagination

Hassan argues that the kind of bold progressive change that is needed can only come about through reinvigorating the dormant imagination of the Scottish left. Scotland needs a bold new politics that allows itself to dream. Traditionally, of course, Scottish Labour has been the repository for those hopes, but Hassan is doubtful that the current party is capable of striking out in a radical new direction. He draws on his earlier book The Strange Death of Labour Scotland to chart Scottish Labour’s gradual transition from an agent of the political imagination to an establishment party of the centre.

He believes the party was at its most inventive during the first half of the last century, when it was part of a broader labour movement woven of many colourful strands. Early Labour represented a radical ethical socialism influenced by the Independent Labour Party, aspects of 19th century liberalism, and now largely forgotten movements such as the crofters. The party’s Fabian element became more influential after the war, which introduced a certain rigour at the expense of colour and imagination:

This shift produced many notable achievements from the Attlee Government with the setting up of the NHS, the welfare state, nationalisation of key utilities, and achieving full employment, but at a price. The language and values of earlier socialists – of emphasising freedom, liberation of mankind’s potential, and decentralisation – were pushed to the side. This allowed the right to claim the mantle of freedom and portray socialism as crushing individualism, liberty and freedom and being authoritarian.

Post-war Scottish Labour continued to be enriched by the influence of complementary and competing traditions of the left, such as the Clydesiders of the early 1970s and a powerful STUC. Hassan also notes the contribution of the Scottish Communist Party, now largely forgotten, but for many years a lively force on the far left of Scottish politics which produced eloquent figures such as Jimmy Reid, Mick McGahey and Jimmy Milne. Although its credibility was damaged by a chronic tendency to idealise the Soviet Union, the Communist Party’s commitment to ideas, theoretical rigour and political education expanded the dimensions of the Scottish left.

In more recent decades the breadth of the Scottish labour movement has narrowed. Trade union membership has declined, small but influential fringe parties such as the Communists have disappeared, and the demographic of the Scottish Labour Party itself changed, becoming more metropolitan, middle-class and professionalised. This sundering of the party from a broader base has made it harder for it to think in bold, imaginative terms:

[T]here is this fear in elements of the left that ‘the people’ cannot be trusted with the revolutionary role they have been entrusted with. This is what leads to the invoking of them as an imagined community, one step removed, rather than a reality; so that they can be constantly conjured up and invoked as a cause and claim, rather than seen as the contradictory force they really are.

The independence debate has shaken things up, showing that Scottish politics can still generate imaginative, utopian thinking, but Hassan notes that all of the most interesting developments have happened outside the mainstream political parties. During the campaign a ‘Third Scotland’ has emerged, a group of grassroots political movements energised by the possibility that independence might break open Scottish politics. These include the National Collective, a loose coalition of artists for independence; Nordic Horizons, an open forum for exploring what Scotland might be able to learn from its Scandinavian neighbours; the Radical Independence Campaign, an alliance of left-wing groups wanting a radical political agenda; and the CommonWeal vision set out by the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

These groups indicate what a truly participative Scottish democracy might look like. They have emerged independently of establishment Scotland, have engaged large numbers of previously non-political participants, and operate within decentralised, horizontal structures. For Hassan this Third Scotland represents ‘an embryonic ecology of self-government, which shows people self-organising, mobilising and resourcing their own lives and priorities, leading to a culture and practice of self-determination.’ Hassan insists that, whatever the vote on 18 September, the evolution of Scotland’s political framework must be an open process, invigorated by new voices beyond the established groups that have hitherto set the parameters of Scottish political discourse:

All of these examples illustrate that it is possible if we wish to break out of the Groundhog Day Scotland of endlessly proposing yet another Constitutional Convention, or another Commission.

Clarifying the question

The book concludes with a list of 50 suggestions for the kinds of radical policies that a new, energised post-referendum Scotland might be able to contemplate, designed to confront Scotland’s democratic deficiencies and intransigent economic and social inequalities. These include:

  • The recommendation that every Scottish citizen should have opportunity to contribute to and help shape a new Scottish constitution, not just the ‘great and the good’ appointed to a Constitutional Convention.
  • The selection of parliamentary candidates through open primaries.
  • The rebuilding of strong local government through the breakup of large, remote councils into smaller, more localised assemblies entrusted with powers to set their own budgets by adjustmenting rates of local taxation.
  • Community ownership of renewable energy companies.
  • The replacement of means-tested benefits with an unconditional Citizen’s Income.
  • The introduction of mandatory highest to lowest pay ratios.
  • The replacement of GDP as the baseline marker of economic progress with something like Oxfam Scotland’s Humankind Index, which measures prosperity according to a much wider range of indicators.
  • The requirement that government commissions include representatives of those who stand to be directly affected by policies, as well as professionals.

Hassan’s acute appreciation of the tangled complexities of Scottish politics make Caledonian Dreaming one of the most valuable books about the independence debate: one that will still have currency after all of this is over. If Scotland is to make the most of independence, or, in the event of a no vote, some form of enhanced devolution, it needs to acknowledge the extent of the work it needs to do to live up to its honourable ideals and develop a more participative democratic culture. Otherwise the historic pattern of Scottish politics will reassert itself.

Elements of his argument are painted with too broad a brush. The ‘traditional’ Scottish political scene is more diverse than Hassan gives it credit. The SNP and Scottish Labour leaderships might be cautious, but there is lively debate below the surface. Consider, for example, the ongoing dispute within the SNP over the direction of its economic policy, with its strong advocates both for Scandinavian-style mixed economy and Irish-style deregulation. And a new set of parties have emerged to replace the old parties of the far left: the Greens have developed an imaginative agenda that has won them a solid presence at Holyrood, and the Scottish Socialist Party has been revitalised through its strong contribution to the Radical Independence Campaign.

One might also wonder whether there is indeed such a broad constituency in Scotland for radical change as he assumes. It is true that the Scottish political outlook remains broadly progressive, but it is unclear there is sufficient support for the kind of thoroughgoing social democratic agenda that Hassan believes the nation is trying to find a way to embrace. As Hassan himself notes, Scotland’s commitment to the national myths he identifies is equivocal, and there are wide differences of opinion as to how they could best be realised. For some, a commitment to greater equality necessarily requires a socialist programme; for others some measure of market liberalisation is necessary to generate the wealth that can then be redistributed. Political parties have to appeal to the electorate as it is, not as they would like it to be, and need to trim their programmes accordingly.

But Hassan’s book has helped clarify the terms of this debate: independence, or even some form of devo-max, would give Scotland the chance to make a new start, but it will only be able able to take that chance if it recognises and finds a way of resolving its own ingrained paradoxes.

Caledonian Dreaming, by Gerry Hassan is published by Luath Press.