'Independence is about cultural and societal transformation': an open letter to Alex Salmond

As the 100 week countdown to the Scottish independence referendum begins, Alex Salmond must take the opportunity to break from the establishment and open the space for a national engagement with the question of self-government.  

Gerry Hassan
15 October 2012

Dear Alex,

This week you will address the SNP Annual Conference, closer than ever to what you have strived all your political life for: Scottish independence.

You need to give a speech like you have never done before. Here are some suggestions.

1. Stop using the same template to shape your speech. Some of us have noticed that you have a habit of giving a rather similar speech year-in, year-out.

There is a reference to a cultural figure, usually the Makar, Edwin Morgan. Then there is always tribute paid to a prominent left-winger who passed away in the previous year. A year or two ago it was Jimmy Reid, this year it will be Campbell Christie.

Then there is the evoking of ‘the community of the realm’ to showcase our different values and traditions. And finally, just to show you mean business and are radical not conservative, you mention that moral blot on our landscape: Trident.

2. Here’s a thought. Have a look at Donald Dewar’s speech on the opening day of the Scottish Parliament in July 1999. In this powerful oration, Dewar said, ‘In the quiet moments today, we might hear echoes from the past: the shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards; the speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land’.

This was lyrical and poetic; but also, in its acknowledgement of Wallace and Bruce, the Enlightenment and more, it was the voice of cultural nationalism. It was also, dare I say it, a rather old-fashioned sentimental nationalism, looking to the past.

3. Your nationalism needs to be lyrical at points, have soul and imagination and respectability, but it could be daring. You could reflect back on Donald Dewar’s nationalism and compare it to the nationalism of the mainstream SNP - forward looking, internationalist and of the future. To do this you could address what a self-governing Scotland would be like. Give us a couple of indicative examples: an Oil Fund for the Mind on creativity; a commitment to prioritising the child poverty which blights ‘forgotten Scotland’. Some parts of our society need to hear you talk more explicitly about injustice, inequality and the fairness you believe in.

4. Some are a bit suspicious of your embrace of parts of civic Scotland. You need to show that you understand that some of our civic leaders do not talk or represent the diversity of civil society, which is a very different proposition. One of Scotland’s features in the union has been its truncated democracy; it would be great to hear you grasp this and embrace the need for a radical democratisation blowing through our society, renewing it and sweeping the cobwebs away.

5. Begin to define independence and the difference it can bring. Stop posing it as some kind of continuity of the present day state of affairs. One Scottish Government minister told me, in all seriousness, that all independence entailed was the gradual extension of the Scotland Act 1998 until every aspect of public policy fell under its auspices.

Alex, you gave the same impression when you said in your recent interview to the ‘LA Times’, ‘All that’s happening is that instead of controlling 60% of spending in Scotland, we’d control 100%. Instead of controlling 12% of revenue in Scotland, we’d control 100’.

6. We need a different language and philosophy of independence, with less talk about the Parliament ‘gaining full powers’ or ‘civic Scotland’, and more about wider change. Independence isn’t just about politics; it is about cultural and societal transformation.

It is about responsibility, our maturing as individuals and a society, and recognising we can do more together, junking the culture of gripe and grievance, and instead taking power into our own hands. And to do that we need a two way deal between politics and public life: we need leaders like yourself to imagine a different kind of independence and social change, and you need those of us in public life to create spaces and possibilities to begin to make this real. In short, the transformation needs to begin now, not wait until Independence Day.

7. And to inspire us we have to create a wider tapestry of innovators, inventors and imagineers than we usually do, drawing both from our past and present. A rich mix would acknowledge some of the great radicals from our past – Adam Ferguson (who invented the modern understanding of ‘civil society’), Adam Smith, Robert Owen, Mary Brooksbank and Patrick Geddes.

It would draw from esoteric, creative Scotland (as opposed to the bureaucratic diktat of ‘Creative Scotland TM’) from voices such as Janice Galloway, A.L. Kennedy, Louise Welsh, Liz Fraser, Alan Bissett and many others. And it would dare to speak in a female and feminising voice.

Then there is the global Scots contribution to the world of ideas. Maybe in this watershed moment of our history and in his 80th year, you could acknowledge one of our greatest iconoclastic and original voices, a Scot hugely influential on where we are now, but also cited in academia and intellectual discussions from Prague to Mumbai to Rio de Janeiro: Tom Nairn.

Scottish nationalism and the SNP have contributed immensely to the richness of our society and politics these last 40 years. Looking back over this period, there is much for you and your party to congratulate yourselves on: from the highs of Hamilton and the two Govans, the 1974 twin peaks, and surviving the 1979 reverse and fallow period of the early 1980s.

It is now time to focus less on celebrating that past but use it to have the confidence to change tone, style and content at the moment of your greatest strength. That is the mark of successful, innovative, radical political parties the world over; ones which know themselves which moments in their history to challenge and that their tradition and philosophy need to be constantly changing. 

Don’t become the voice of Scotland’s establishment, whether it is the quangocracy, civic society or wider institutional elites. Now instead is the time to be a bit more imaginative and radical, to keep your opponents guessing, and to shape the political landscape. Give voice to the Scotland that is emerging which wants to be self-governing as a nation and society, taking responsibility and decisions in our own lives. Dare to do the above and you may or may not win in the independence referendum, but you will shape the political agenda and contours towards 2014 and beyond.

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