Ignorant, and proud of it: the independence debate outside of Scotland

To what extent does Britain south of the border understand Scotland and the prospect of independence? A high-profile debate hosted by the Spectator, 'It's time to let Scotland go', revealed the limits of the debate: plenty of humour and bombast, dangerously little real engagement.

One of the fundamentals that we often forget in our ongoing Scottish constitutional debate is how Britain and in particular England understands or more accurately doesn’t understand us anymore.

This was brought home to me in last week’s ‘Spectator’ debate, ‘It’s time to let Scotland go’, held in London. Three people, MSP Margo Macdonald, former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and myself were asked to speak for the proposition, and three against, Malcolm Rifkind and Rory Stewart, both Tory MPs, and journalist and editor Iain Martin, with Andrew Neil chairing.

As ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ present their respective and what increasingly look like flawed prospectuses, they tend to forget the wider British picture. They concentrate on what divides Scots, something some say we have long been good at, instead of looking as well at the numerous ways Scots are united and need to unite.

‘The Spectator’ debate was in tone and style mostly good humoured and rumbustious. We had family history with Kelvin MacKenzie talking about his grandfather David Calder who was told to put a ‘Mac’ in his name or people wouldn’t believe he was Scottish and thus became David MacKenzie. Rory Stewart claimed Bryon, Scott and MacDiarmid were all made by the contrasts of the Scots and English; while Iain Martin asked jokingly, ‘when will the English be capable of home rule?’.

Beyond this what was on view was how deeply English opinion and the British political classes at Westminster have just either given up on Scotland - or worse, have a set of deep prejudices and are ill-informed, inaccurate and proud of it.

Malcolm Rifkind and Rory Stewart spoke all evening from the world of British nationalism without ever recognising it. Instead, to men of the world such as them, nationalism was something others did: small-minded people, stuck in the past, shaped by culture and tradition.

This was a world where the only reason for Scottish self-government was self-delusion. There was according to Rifkind the fantasy of being oppressed by the English. ‘Real oppression produced leaders like Gandhi’, ‘and that is why the Scots have ended up with Alex Salmond’. Rory Stewart felt the Scots were driven by ‘the fantasy of smallness’ while Iain Martin stressed the ‘dullness’ of nationalism.

Then there was the constant that all of this was got up by that evil genius Alex Salmond. According to MacKenzie, Salmond hadn’t changed his economic views since the 1970s and was still a tax and spend socialist. To Rifkind, he had changed every economic opinion he supported thirty years ago.

The political, economic and social crisis of Britain never entered the lexicon of the debate. ‘Poverty’ and ‘inequality’ were concepts which didn’t interest or bother most of the audience. MacKenzie cited that London and the South East should become independent boasting it was ‘the sixth largest economy in the world’, some feat given the UK is the seventh most powerful economy.

Not one contributor mentioned the moral bankruptcy of large parts of British corporate capitalism. This on a day Barclays were fined £290 million for fixing the inter-bank lending rate, and a few days after RBS found it beyond themselves to fix their IT glitches, resulting in mortgages failing to go through, and people who should have been released from jail being incarcerated.

What was revealing was the attitude of a significant part of the audience. One questioner thought it appropriate to compare the Scots to ‘Red Indians’, ‘both with a grievance culture, drinking and abusing themselves into oblivion’. Another talked of ‘the griping and negativity’ in Scottish newspapers, while MacKenzie stoked this atmosphere, laying into the Scots and Welsh, and fantasising of an independence of ‘just himself’; surely an attractive proposition for the rest of us.

We were asked why the Scots diaspora or all of the UK couldn’t vote on independence. Margo was criticised for making a distinction between Scots everywhere getting involved in the debate and only people living in Scotland having a vote. Many seemed to miss that even David Cameron recognised the principle of self-determination, having just cited it in relation to the Falkland Islands the previous week.

I did consistently in my contributions attempt to bring up the issues of inequality in the UK, the increased focus on London, the saga of England’s regions being without a voice, and that this was a democratic not a nationalist argument.

Given the prestigious nature of this debate this occasion tells us something about the possibilities of pan-British grown up conversations and about the state of part of England.

The British new establishment is not interested in understanding the nature of the UK, or recognising the complex mosaic, history and interests of the different nations of the union.

There was no interest and debate all evening about the issue of England apart from myself and in cartoon knock about form, MacKenzie. No one seemed to mind that England isn’t democratically governed: the last part of the UK under direct rule from Westminster.

This experience shows the huge challenges which the Scottish debate faces. Both the ‘Yes’ and ‘Not No’ campaigns are based on an evoking of the social democratic Scotland and Britain of the past; in a sense both are campaigns for all their talk of aspiration and positivity offering us the prospect of ‘Better Yesterdays’.

These two forces, the independentistas and pro-union forces have to find for all their differences, a common language and philosophy which expresses Scotland’s distinct sense of itself and a politics which points to more than a romanticised past.

We urgently have to do so because a large part of England isn’t interested in anything more than caricaturing us; and at the same time continuing their offensive of free market fundamentalism, crony capitalism, and stripping down and selling off the last vestiges of the British social contract between people and government.

Scotland cannot afford to be divided against this vulgarian view of the world, the simplistic, ideological, determinist marketeers who believe they have the forces of history behind them and that the future is theirs. We have to find a way whatever our differences to find common cause and stop the vandals at the border! 

This piece was originally publised in The Scotsman.  

About the author
Gerry Hassan is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland who has recently been awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell). His 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' was published in April 2014. His website is: www.gerry.hassan.com