Scotland, England and Britain: Gerry Hassan debates Nick Pearce

The United Kingdom's national questions will come to the fore of British politics over the coming years. But it is not often that an English policy expert addresses Scottish politics. Nick Pearce of IPPR did so, and Gerry Hassan from Glasgow takes him to task and he replies.
Nick Pearce
16 February 2011

The following two-parter [UPDATE four-parter] contains Gerry Hassan response to IPPR Director Nick Pearce's recent blog post on the coming elections in Scotland and their potential impact on Labour south of the border. It is followed by a reply from Nick Pearce and a further exchange.  

Gerry Hassan 

The nature of the United Kingdom, the territorial dimensions of its politics, and the national questions of these isles are going to come to the fore of British politics in the next few years.

Tony Blair post-Cool Britannia and his anxieties about multi-culturalism, Gordon Brown and Britishness, and now David Cameron mowing both lawns at the same time in Munich, all indicate the sense of uneasy and nervousness in the political class since Labour’s constitutional reforms and 9/11. At the same time John Denham, Jon Cruddas, Frank Field and David Miliband are among the Labour MPs who have begun to talk about one of the major no-go areas of British left politics: the English question.

It is welcome then that Nick Pearce of IPPR, one of the most interesting and thoughtful voices on the British centre-left, came north of the border to examine the different political dispensation. It also should be acknowledged that alone among the Westminster obsessed think tank world, IPPR has attempted to address the politics of devolution and the territorial dimensions of the UK.

Pearce’s northern travels see him find a world where voters are coming home to Labour in droves: a land where Labour is connecting to popular concerns and offers Ed Miliband’s Labour a glimpse of a progressive future. There is the potential of a Lib-Lab politics in Scotland which he thinks could offer signposts to a more pluralist left across Britain.

Sadly the reality of Scottish Labour and Scottish politics is more conservative and limited than this and it has been Scottish Labour that has done all in its power to keep it this way. It does not offer a vision of a positive future or road map for radicals.

Pearce recognises, like everyone else, that in the forthcoming Scottish elections in May:

Labour will now go into the Scottish election as the party claiming it is best-placed to protect Scotland from a Conservative-led government in Westminster

He then goes on to claim:

… the SNP will suffer from incumbency and a sense of drift over the last two years by comparison with their energetic start after winning in 2007.

This is a partial truth; the SNP Government have in many respects run out of steam, ideas and been bereft of an economic policy since the politics of the crash removed the party leadership’s case for independence – which was a kind of Scot Nat New Labour strategy. But there is no evidence that the Nationalists are going to suffer from incumbency. The SNP Government has been generally popular with voters, Alex Salmond hugely so as First Minister, and if, as is likely, the SNP lose on May 5th nonetheless their vote will remain the same or be higher than what they polled four years ago. If so, it will be quite an achievement and the reason they are likely to lose is the swing of Lib Democrats and even Tory voters to Labour.

Pearce addresses the options open to Labour if it wins and becomes the largest party – but well short of a majority: either governing as a minority or in a Lab-Lib coalition. While he acknowledges many of the party faithful would favour the former, he opts for the latter – for the reason that it would tidily fit Westminster machinations:

It would give substance to Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour can practise a more liberal and pluralist politics, while allowing Liberal Democrats to argue that they remain an independent force, capable of working with both parties.

My argument with Nick Pearce is when he comes to address the future challenges of Scottish politics. His argument is revealing and omits major issues.

He states that: ‘the real challenge for both parties is the development of a new progressive political agenda for Scotland’, meaning Labour and the Lib Dems. In fact the central tension in progressive politics in Scotland lies between Labour and SNP. Both lay claims to represent Scotland’s social democracy. Their continued bitter conflict has not aided its state. Pearce’s interpretation does not address this. 

He writes that Jim Gallagher will be set out in a forthcoming issue of the IPPR journal why in Scotland ‘the political debate needs to escape the gravitational pull of the independence issue’.

This is a contentious statement on every level. Potentially it pins IPPR to a narrow, partisan, Labour unionist agenda north of the border. This is a shame given IPPR’s record and certainly is not what Scottish politics needs.

For a start, Jim Gallagher is symbolic of the Labour establishment and nomenklatura who have continued to govern Scotland under devolution and even under the SNP administration. He is a former civil servant, who served as Secretary to the Calman Commission, and who now, in what many see as a conflict of interest typical of Labour in Scotland, has become an adviser to the Scottish Parliament committee overseeing the scrutiny of the Scotland Bill, inspired by Calman. Wendy Alexander, who first came up with the idea of Calman, chairs the committee even though many across Scotland have disquiet about her partisan style. It isn’t progressive and you don’t have to be a black and white Nationalist to notice the way Labour treats Scotland. Before it has even returned to office it has returned to the good old practices of the past. 

For Scottish Labour is a party of patronage, preferment and clientalism. It has not modernised or renewed itself under devolution, or after defeat in 2007. All of Scottish Labour’s five leaders since 1999 – from Donald Dewar to Iain Gray today – have chosen the path of least resistance when it comes to the traditional Labour state way of doing things. Today behind Gray a small army of quangocrats, academics and serial consultants plan to renew the way they have governed Scotland since the 1950s; indeed most of them have continued their roles since the SNP came to office, but clearly the return of Labour will provide more opportunity for reward and the expansion of their entitlement culture, even in tough times.

Then there is the troubling phrase about how we ‘escape the gravitational pull of the independence issue’. This is the Labour story of just not understanding the Nationalists and the constitutional dimension. It’s a failure that has been going on since the arrival of the modern SNP in the mid-1960s. Such a phrase just doesn’t help anyone in the long run: it validates Labour bunkerism and its inability to understand the SNP which is much more significant and disfiguring than how the SNP views Labour. 

A better use of IPPR’s time and resources would be to look at a wider, more generous politics of shared-sovereignty and post-sovereignty relations of the people’s and nations of these isles. And that is an agenda the SNP could creatively contribute to which could ultimately remake the British state in a way which aids a progressive future.

Pearce then moves on to the interesting ground of why devolution has not seen an explosion of ideas, talent and creativity in Scotland:

Devolution did not produce the flowering of a distinctly Scottish public sphere, as many had hoped it would … it was too much to expect that Scotland would undergo a second Enlightenment ….

This is a theme I looked at recently in OurKingdom: the narrowing and lack of dynamism of the Scottish public sphere.

Pearce looks at the some of the predictable accounts on offer such as the size of Scotland’s state and its ‘dependency culture’ and calls rightly for ‘a more nuanced account’ which takes account of:

… what happened to the wellsprings of Scotland’s politics as the animating force of the Scottish working class receded in the 1980s; the failure of its civic institutions to build on the momentum created for a Scottish Parliament in the early 1990s; the lack of a more distinct middle-class popular culture; and the relative weakness of the classic institutions of the public sphere in Scotland, such as its universities, media and civic organisations.    


He then states that these are questions IPPR ‘hopes to answer’ in the near-future. If so it is a very partial and incomplete list, which needs adding to. Pearce does not identify many of the most important reasons why devolution has indeed proven to be a ‘safety-first’ politics.

These include the strange nature of Labour: the leading party of conservatism in Scotland, a one-party state like the Mexican PRI or Pakistan People’s Party; then there is the caution and timidity of the Scottish Nationalists, a party profoundly British in its limited politics, and in Scotland, which has attempted to win over the Labour extended state and civil society from Labour as a party. Then there is the nature of ‘civic Scotland’: that overused phrase and its lack of pluralism and diversity. And there is the absence of resources and dynamism in the policy community.

But the biggest issue in all is the nature of devolution itself. Devolution wasn’t meant to bring about wholesale change to Scotland. Instead, devolution was about institutionalising and legitimising the Labour state and nomenklatura who run Scotland; the Jim Gallaghers of this world as they move seamlessly from one area of public life to another. It is not an attractive, democratic or sustainable form of politics: because it is based on control, manipulation and the denial of the popular will.

Just as England cannot be the one country in the world which is governed without its own government and parliament, Scotland cannot indefinitely have a Parliament and the trappings of a political system, and not have a democratic culture and politics.

This is where Pearce I think misses the big questions. There may not be a Scotland ‘fizzing with new energy and ideas’, but outwith the Labour payroll state there is a growing impatience and disquiet with this mini-devolution politics of cynicism, control and authoritarianism. A new collection published in a few weeks, ‘Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination’ edited by myself and Rosie Ilett, brings together a broad and impressive range of voices: nationalist, post-nationalist and radical, challenging this minimalist vision. It makes the case for a politics which focuses on addressing self-determination as a society, and how we diffuse and redistribute power across Scotland – a politics which has to entail the dismantling of the Labour state.

This is but one example of a wider constituency outwith of Labour which wants to face up to these issues in a mature and considered way, looking for a politics which challenges the new devolution establishment and its limited, ossified worldview.

I would hope this would be a politics, journey and set of conversations in which IPPR might be interested in being an active partner, rather than just trying to shore up a discredited Labour politics north of the border. A dialogue which engaged with Scottish Nationalists rather than dismissing ‘the gravitational pull of independence’ without discussion and debate.

If IPPR were open to a politics of self-determination rather than devolution, it could have rich rewards. A radical approach in Scotland, talking about England, and addressing territorial politics, nations and democracy across the UK might just unlock a different future for Britain that allows us to break out of the Empire State.

Nick Pearce 

Gerry Hassan has written an insightful critique of a blog I posted last week following a trip to Edinburgh. He generously credits the IPPR with being unique amongst think-tanks in taking an interest in the world beyond Westminster through our series of publications, Devolution in Practice, and the creation of IPPR North. But he takes me to task for some of my observations and conclusions on Scottish politics.

I defer to Gerry’s greater knowledge and experience of these issues; mine is a view informed by far less insight and commitment than he possesses. But he is wrong to interpret my contribution as one designed to “shore up a discredited Labour politics north of the border.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the conservatism of contemporary Scottish politics, expressed in different ways by the SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats, is my first point of departure and concern. It ranks as one of the most pressing challenges the country faces, and it helps account for why Scotland has not witnessed a more extensive, enriching national renewal since devolution.

To take just one example: Scotland should have much stronger, participatory and high performing public services than it does. You do not have to be an unreconstructed uber-Blairite to believe that Scotland’s public services should achieve far more, given the resources they have had in the last decade. Reform debate has too often been inhibited by the Dutch auction between the political parties as to who can provide more “free” services to citizens, whilst policymaking and public administration remains dominated by professionals, civil servants and insider groups. That must change if Scotland is not to face rapidly declining public services when spending cuts bite.

Unlike Hassan, however, I do not believe that devolution was a project expressly designed to institutionalise and legitimise the “Labour state and nomenklatura who run Scotland”, as he puts it. It was a unionist project, to be sure, just as the Scottish people remain unionist in their expressed preferences.  But devolution has hitherto been a story of a relative loss of Labour control, since the party has either shared power or lost it within the proportional electoral systems under which Holyrood and now Scottish local government elections take place. Labour politicians might not like these electoral systems (and I know from personal experience just how opposed the majority of Scottish Labour MPs are to any shift to the Alternative Vote for the House of Commons) but they are certainly no longer able to sit atop one-party fiefdoms.

That may be too formalist for Hassan, since it does not capture the style, political practices and personnel of the “payroll state” politics he describes. And it is certainly true that a big part of the story of democratic reform in the UK since 1997 has been the transfer of power from one set of governing elites to another, as Vernon Bogdanor has argued. But to locate the main problem as one of the “patronage, preferment and clientalism” of Scottish Labour, and to equate these with the devolution project itself, is to miss the point, in my view. There are deeper factors and bigger forces at work – some of which I tried to sketch towards the end of my blog and which Hassan himself refers to en passant – which account for the lack of democratic and civic renewal in Scottish politics. Simply dumping it all at the door of Scottish Labour (or people like Jim Gallagher, for that matter) will not do.

For all that, I share Hassan’s commitment to a more democratic, pluralist and open-minded Scottish politics. So far from wishing Scottish politics “tidily [to] fit Westminster machinations”, my hope is that the backwash from progressive change in Scotland might influence London’s politics for the better. True, I skate over Scottish nationalism and the electoral prospects of the SNP too readily; that is a lacuna in my brief blog. But as things stand, and unless Alex Salmond can pull something dramatic out of the hat, the choice in May will be between a minority Labour administration and a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. My argument is that pluralism in the UK as a whole is better served by the latter.


Gerry Hassan

Dear Nick,

Many thanks for your thoughtful response.

1. Devolution was not just a ‘unionist project’. That is much too simple – just as it was never a Labour project on its own. The midwives of the Scottish Parliament are many: a Labour story, a nationalist (or accurately a Nationalist and nationalist) story, and the account of what for better words we can call ‘civic Scotland’. Its parentage and its point is a pluralist, contested one.

2. The primary account of devolution became a version of ‘legitimising the Labour state and nomemklatura who run Scotland’. This is about a politics and mindset which goes beyond party colours, and is about identification, preferment and attachment.

Labour ‘losing control’ of the Scottish Parliament via its electoral system does not defeat this argument. The only reason the case for electoral reform for the Scottish Parliament was won inside Labour is because it was a new institution and there were not Labour MSPs in place to act as roadblocks to reform. PR for local government is a different matter – an exception to how Labour ran Scotland: showing leadership, courage and principle, not words associated with Scottish Labour. It was the only major occasion in eight years of Lib-Lab devolved government where Labour stood up to the worst instincts of its party members.

3. Sadly you misrepresent one of my arguments – claiming that I place ‘the main problem [of devolution] as one of ‘the patronage, preferment and clientism of Scottish Labour’’. This is a huge problem, but I specifically list five problems:

  • The strange nature of Scottish Labour;
  • The caution and timidity of the SNP;
  • The nature of ‘civic Scotland’;
  • The absence of resources and dynamism in the policy community;
  • The character of devolution itself.

And put the greatest emphasis on the latter. This is a position I have held consistently from pre-devolution in a Fabian Society study of the potential of devolution (1) to the present day (2). I would have preferred to have been proven wrong by events.

4. Then there is ‘the gravitational pull of independence’. You'd don't seem to recognise that using such language takes IPPR into partisan politics and small minded Labour unionist terrain – which is counter-productive to everyone in the long run.

This is the world of Wendy Alexander, fourth Scottish Labour leader, lecturing the Nationalists on the need ‘to park the constitutional question’. We cannot do this as a political community and nation without debating and engaging with these issues first. Asking an entire political tradition to ‘park’ its views or have its ‘gravitational pull’ resisted is just plain partisan politics. And is located in the deep Labour lack of understanding or any empathy for the Nationalist tradition; this has to eventually change for Labour’s good and for the betterment of Scottish politics. As Robert McNamara says in ‘The Fog of War’ the first rule of conflict is to ‘empathise with your enemy’.

5. I more than agree with you on the seriousness of the challenges Scotland faces: as a society, public services, economy and democracy. Scotland tells itself a comforting story of itself as a social democratic country; the Parliament, our politicians and public life are all meant to be an expression of this.

It has become a cliché to talk about ‘Scotland’s social democratic consensus’, but that doesn’t mean it is a reality. How could Scotland be a social democratic country with our inequalities, poverty, exclusion and public health record: the last being the worst in Western Europe? Instead, what Scotland is in its public life is a place with an institutionalised, ossified, authority dominated society where the professional classes claim to speak and act in the name of the people and talk the social democratic talk. A brief examination of our health and education outcomes – fully devolved areas – would tell you Scotland isn’t a social democratic country.

Of course Scottish people in numerous surveys identify with social democratic values, but so did England in the 1980s. And we can’t claim that England then or now is a social democratic nation. A start to the Scottish debate would be recognising that we are not a social democratic political community and the power and reach of the professional classes.

6. Briefly to conclude: where do we want to go? I think Scotland has to break out of the union/independence bind and have a debate about the kind of Scotland and society we want to live in. And from this then engage in the pluses and minuses of Scotland’s constitutional status and whether we want to be independent or not.

It is also strange that many unionists don’t understand Scottish nationalism – given there are many common characteristics between parts of them. Both have in places a belief in absolutist sovereignty and of course unionism is a form of nationalism – British nationalism. This is the worldview of Labour politicians such as Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown, but is a little unfair on a large part of the SNP who are perfectly comfortable in the world of post-nationalism and shared sovereignty. In fact, the old-fashioned nationalists of Scottish politics are generally Labour unionists, not the SNP.

As crucial is how we understand the UK. How can we aid the British political discourse and that of its classes away from the unitary state mantra of Britain? In this I don’t think we have been helped by many of the senior constitutional commentators who help shape this debate. People such as Vernon Bogdanor, Anthony King and Peter Kellner have almost become part of the ancient British constitution, and are peddling a view of Britain that is triumphalist, partial and part of the problem. Bogdanor calls the SNP ‘separatists’, Kellner that the British ‘invented liberty’, while King dismisses the need for any further substantial constitutional reform.

Stein Ringen provides one of the best accounts and starting points for what has happened to British government and society in recent times, analysing the Blair-Brown style of ‘command and control’ from Whitehall and Downing Street; there is a direct relationship between this kind of politics and what he calls the ‘society of entrenched inequality’ which Britain was in 1997 and which a decade on was ‘a yet more unequal one’ (3).

All of this is the culmination of three decades of Thatcherism and New Labour and now the Cameroon Conservatives. The political establishment account of Britain is a major part of our problem, and the legitimisation of the bastardisation of the British political centre and transformation of the British state into a neo-liberal state. We need to shift the Scottish debate, but we urgently need a different British perspective and counter-story.

We have also just had the sensation of an IPSOS Mori opinion poll in the Scottish version of The Times which has shown the SNP ahead of Labour in both the constituency and regional list votes: by 37% to 36% on the first and 35% to 33% on the second (4). This is after several months of double digit Labour leads and many of us assuming that Labour were odds-on favourites to return to office. It may be a rogue poll or it may be indicative of a new trend, but it is absolutely going to shake things up a bit!


1. Gerry Hassan, The New Scotland, Fabian Society 1998

2. Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett, ‘After Devolution: The Search for Radical Scotland’, in Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett (eds), Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination, Luath Press 2011,

3. Stein Ringen, The Economic Consequences of Mr. Brown: How a Strong Government was Defeated by a Weak System of Governance, Bardwell Press 2009.

4. Angus Macleod, ‘Salmond surges into Hollywood poll lead’, The Times Scottish edition, February 16th 2011.


Nick Pearce

Dear Gerry,

Once again, thanks for your reply. I found it very stimulating. Here are some points by way of response:

1. A small clarification: by “unionist project” I simply meant that, in fact and law, Scotland’s Parliament remains within the United Kingdom, and was designed as devolution of power within the union. The devolution project is unionist, therefore, even if its parents had a range of perspectives, including nationalist ones.

2. I think if you want to claim that the “primary account of devolution” was about a governing mindset and a practice of politics which span a number of parties and go beyond formal politics into the character of the state, you should not use the phrase “legitimising the Labour state and nomenklatura” to describe it. It is either about Labour, its people and statecraft, or it is something else. Incidentally, you then go onto say that the fact that Labour has shared or lost power doesn’t defeat your argument by reverting back to an account of Labour politics, which I think proves my point, not yours.

3. You claim that I misrepresent you by stating that you lay the blame for the failure of devolution to realise the promise it might have held at the door of the Labour Party in Scotland, whilst ignoring a longer list of factors which you adduce. But you go on to say that, of these factors, the most important is the “character of devolution”, which in your original critique is almost entirely explained as a problem of the “Labour payroll state”. Unsurprisingly, I took this to be the burden of your argument. I think you would do better to advance your wider case more systematically and not get so drawn into the personnel politics.

4. On the question of independence, I will concede that I know too little about the Scottish nationalist tradition and that I skated round it in my musings. But to the point: I am not in favour of independence for Scotland or a Federal United Kingdom, even though, like you, I am very interested in the English question, and its modalities and potency. However, I am not sure from your critique whether you are in favour of independence, even though you are clearly against a unitary state. You appear to make a Habermasian argument for giving all political actors an equally legitimate role in a deliberative process of addressing Scotland’s future, from which a range of constitutional frameworks might emerge. I am sympathetic to this. But I’m not sure any of these frameworks would be “post-nationalist” in the sense Habermas would understand it. An element of sophistry creeps into your argument at this point.

That said, I think one of the biggest challenges for contemporary progressive politics is to better understand and connect with communities of attachment and identity, including national identities, whilst at the same time advancing the case for stronger forms of pooled sovereignty and multi-national action, including in the European Union. On this we can probably agree.

Finally, the poll you cite is potential dynamite. If things stay that way, much of what I originally posted becomes redundant, whilst a whole set of new dynamics open up.

With best wishes


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