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Conflicting fantasies of Scottish independence - and building a reality

Scottish independence has long been a political fantasy. Before the elections, the SNP allowed for conflicting visions of an independent future. Now, whatever the referendum result, we must listen and engage with each-other's hopes for Scotland
Gerry Hassan
24 May 2011
OurKingdom's debate on The Scottish Spring

The last two weeks in Scotland have given many of us a glimpse of a different kind of land: one filled with light, hope, optimism and possibilities. And the weather was even nice for a while.

It isn’t an accident that it has been called by myself and others ‘a Scottish Spring’, but we always need to be careful not to transpose our own hopes onto wider political and national canvases. The turnout at the Scottish Parliament elections was just over 50%, and in parts of Glasgow, barely a third. Of those that voted, the SNP won 45.4% of the constituency vote – an impressive feat but one which shows the clear limitations of the Nationalist appeal.

Just as in the election campaign, the post-election period has showcased another version of Scotland which we need to note and not shy away from. This is one which profiles the dark side of our culture and society: namely the age old saga of the sectarian issue, the issue of ‘the Old Firm’ and the Scottish obsession, and in particular, Scottish male obsession with football.

It is the final league programme, and Rangers and Celtic can both win the title, while Rangers have their noses in front and are favourites; apparently it is the crucial 54th title for Rangers versus Celtic’s possible 43rd. To put this into context, in the 120 years or so of the league, non-Old Firms have won a total of 18 titles.

Rangers win the title at Kilmarnock and thus Ibrox celebrations and Celtic commiserations at Parkhead ensue. The closing part of the programme has Pat Nevin, who I have enormous respect for as a football commentator, and Billy Dodds, look back over the season.

Now this is where it gets interesting in my mind at least. They turn their eye back on a season which will be remembered less for the football and more for everything else: the referee’s strike; Neil Lennon’s and John Reid’s outbursts; the death threats to Neil Lennon; UEFA taking Rangers to task over sectarian singing; the Old Firm getting a bit too excited during and after a game. And finally, the rest of Scottish society growing weary of the whole circus, and saying, enough is enough. To their credit Nevin and Dodds talk about it.

Dodds mentions ‘the problems of sectarianism and racism’, while Nevin goes further, welcoming UEFA’s action against Rangers. Reflecting on a recent Hearts v. Celtic league game, he talks of the audible, voluble ‘IRA singing from Celtic fans’. He comments that something is going to have to be done finally by Scotland’s football authorities about what most of us regard as ‘Scotland’s Shame’. And that seems more than anything else to be his test of next season!

I remember when football programmes tried to pretend they existed in a bubble and didn’t acknowledge the real world. In the 1970s I distantly recall Scotland playing Chile in a stadium in Santiago that Pinochet had used to torture and kill people. The Scottish media response was ‘football and politics shouldn’t mix’. We played in the Argentina World Cup of 1978, which everyone of a certain age can remember, but do we recall that we did so while Argentina was a brutal military dictatorship? But never mind that, when we can reminisce yet again about Archie Gemmell’s rather wonderful, but over-familiar goal!

Well done, then, to Pat and Billy and ‘Sportscene’. We are making a start, a slow start, but a start nevertheless. Why then do I feel a sense of apprehension and nervousness about this part of Scotland and our ability to confront it?

I think it is because of the strange Scots characteristic of wanting to over-inflate and then damn our hopes and dreams. While our society is changing in many ways for the better, there are many deniers and loudmouths out there who want to shout down opponents. After the ‘Sportscene’ programme I posted some Facebook comments welcoming Pat and Billy’s intervention – and had a couple of Celtic fans, one of whom I know, who took exception to being challenged about singing IRA songs.

I feel that Scotland has come far these last thirty years. We have a Parliament. We have a more mature public debate. And we are becoming more honest about our shortcomings and our failings.

We have still have to get past seeing the world in simplistic black and white terms and one of binary opposites: left v right, unionist v nationalist, Celtic v. Rangers, Catholic v. Protestant.

We have to stop searching for enemies amongst ourselves, stop dividing our nation and society into different camps and sides, and begin to feel comfortable about mature differences of opinion. To do so we have to show courage and bravery, as we have to take on the moral authoritarians and those with bunker vision, who seem to think only their opinion is valid, and that it is perfectly justified to intimidate, hector and bully people.

This entails creating a Scotland which is comfortable with diversity, pluralism and conflicting views. A world without bogeymen, monsters and demons. A society in which people dare to listen, engage and respect each other, and most importantly, empathise and connect with people who they disagree with.

To most Nationalists many things come to the forefront of their minds when they picture an independent Scotland. One is a proud, self-governing nation taking its own decisions. Another is an ethical nation in international affairs not engaging in ‘illegal wars’. A further strand is a society that better cares for its people, and addresses inequality and injustice in a way contemporary Scotland conspicuously fails to do.

Scottish independence has always been a kind of ultimate political fantasy: a blank canvas which people can project hopes onto. Many in the SNP have for long wanted to keep this prospectus suitably vague, for fear of offending any of their ‘big tent’. Yet independence has always been about this balancing act between constitutional politics, internationalism and economic and social issues. And now these issues are going to have to become more explicit.

If this is a national moment for Scotland it is also a moment of a deep crisis of unionism, even though it could be its greatest opportunity for decades. (Anthony Barnett recognises this tension in his piece on how to discuss Scotland and the future of the Union.) Within Scotland, unionism and nationalism don’t sit as two separate, simmering tribes. This is not Northern Ireland; they cross-influence and cross-fertilise each other. What the British political classes have to grasp is that it is their narrow, dogmatic account of Britain that is a huge part of the problem. They see Britain as a unitary state when it never has been. They worship parliamentary sovereignty as if it embodied the necessity of divine right. And then they have the cheek to lecture Scottish nationalists on not understanding the complexities of the modern age, globalisation and interdependence. 

Scottish nationalists aren’t the separatists of old, or in any sense ‘little Scotlanders’. But the Westminster focused class, on left and right are ‘little Britishers’, still hung up on defending the archaic rights of a political system which seems stuck in a time-warp. The entire AV referendum campaign – from its conception as an elite deal to its humiliating public endorsement of a voting system that is patently undemocratic but lauded by red-tops for its delivery of ‘strong government’ – confirmed the time warp (and also the shadow it still casts over Scotland). 

At the heart of the British dimension is England and how the English deal with change. There are also possibilities of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish co-operation (and maybe even the London Mayor getting in on the act) to challenge Westminster.

Second, there is the European dimension. Does Scotland remain part of the UK’s tortured, semi-detached relationship with the EU? Or does it aspire to be part of the core, integrated project, assuming it survives its current crisis?

Third, there is the world of the American-Atlanticist dimension. This can be seen in the defence and security concerns about Trident and the NATO military industrial complex that sits in Scotland. It is also about economic and social values and the American-style market fundamentalism that has subverted politics across Britain.

Finally, there is the northern European dimension, focused on the connection between Scotland and the Nordic social democratic countries, many of whose characteristics we share. At the moment this is probably the weakest of all four dimensions, but it is the one with most future potential.

Whichever way Scotland expresses its political will, all four of these dimensions will have a bearing on how Scotland sees itself, acts in the world, and is seen by others.

Who knows where it might lead? We may need a different name for the space that was once called ‘the United Kingdom’. After the British political system we currently know, all sorts of new openings may emerge, and in particular, the issue of England’s  lack of democracy and voice. We may even need a different name rather than ‘independence’ for the emerging Scottish statehood. Inter-independence, perhaps?

Scotland’s journey to self-government will involve our country rethinking and repositioning itself just as other nations have done from Finland to Turkey. This is the start of something bold, exciting and liberating. A nation and political community beginning a journey to articulate a national mission, purpose and story.

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