The Scotland of the Democratic Future: some tentative lessons from Chile

Scotland's experience cannot be compared to a brutal dictatorship, yet there are parallels to be drawn between the debate over the coming independence referendum and the anti-Pinochet campaign as depicted in the recently released film 'NO'. Can a message of hope and fun work in Scotland as it did in Chile?

Gerry Hassan
15 February 2013
Yes Scotland.png

Image from the Yes campaign website

It has been a telling week for the contours of the future debate on whether Scotland becomes independent. Both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns contain different tones and messages within them, but what has been revealing has been the over-reach and uncompromising character of the UK Government in dealing with its pesky, upstart northern troublemaker.

We shouldn’t expect anything better. The British state has increasingly become the vehicle of a narrow set of economic and political interests, introverted, obsessed with their own worldview, and intent on lecturing the rest of us to pull our socks up, work harder and longer, look after our own pension, and not to worry about such small things as ethical banking and politics, or safe food. For them the challenges of the future are overcoming popular resistance to this, advancing uber-globalisation, and what they see as the most critical referendum, the eventual Euro vote.

In this context, Scotland is met with disdain and dismissal, along with an incremental statecraft which concedes some more powers and autonomy (the disasterous and unloved Scotland Act 2012). The UK Government’s paper launched this Monday described the limbo an independent Scotland would be put into (in a week the resignation of the Pope reminded us of the Catholic Church’s abandonment of the term), and saw the reasonable words of the UK Government’s experts James Crawford of Oxford University and Alan Boyle of Edinburgh University turned into dogmatism and a Scotland facing uncertainty and isolation (1).

All of this was, in Michael Fry’s words in a persuasive piece in ‘The Scotsman’, ‘publicity presumably orchestrated in Whitehall’ and ‘made for the sort of copy the spin doctors wanted’. This, on the tenth anniversary of the international anti-war marches of the Blair-Bush march to war in Iraq, shouldn’t be a surprise for a political elite and system which has grown used to dissembling, disinformation and deception. This is how Fry described the picture painted by the UK Government:

… an independent Scotland would need to negotiate thousands of treaties in talks bound to take years and years – meanwhile leaving the Scots as international pariahs without so much as North Korea’s nuclear weapons to defend our oil-rigs against al-Qaeda. Or, rather, we would have nuclear weapons at Faslane, but nuclear weapons not belonging to us because we would still be negotiating their removal with Westminster. (2) 

Against this background this week I saw the Chilean film ‘NO’ directed by Pablo Larraín, centred on a young fictious advertising executive René Saavedra and his role in the 1988 campaign against the Pinochet dictatorship, then in its fifteenth year. The general had been forced by international pressure to hold the ballot, which offered voters the chance to say ‘Yes’ to another eight years of legitimised dictatorship or ‘No’ to its continuation.

NO infographic.jpg

'NO' film infographic

The campaign and the public and advertising spaces created by it illustrate the anxieties, tensions and weaknesses of the dictatorship. Some of the motley coalition of anti-Pinochet supporters want to boycott the vote; others rerun the old battles of the past because they will lose; in the film version René persuades the coalition to emphasise the future, fun and optimism, and in so doing they wrong foot the dictatorship, win the campaign and the vote, and claim the future.

What is not to like in this version? Well, it was more complicated than that then and many Chilean voices have raised objections to celebrating the triumph of marketing over politics and content (3).  But with all these caveats, it is a gripping tale, and with the obvious point that Scots have never lived in a dictatorship, and voting Labour or SNP and getting Thatcher cannot be compared with the brutal experience of Pinochet, there are some interesting lessons to tease out. This was noted by David Torrance in his review of the film’s lessons for Scotland’s debate (4). 

Here then are my thoughts on the Scottish independence referendum inspired by watching ‘No’: 

1. The state and system are much weaker and more anxious than first appears. The British Government and political classes have lost the feel of Scotland and some of them know it. Cameron and Scottish Secretary of State Michael Moore this week talked the language of a Scotland which gets ‘the best of both worlds’, but Moore struggled to say what the UK part of the equation was: security, seats at the top table, and bailing out the financial disasters of, er, the UK.

2. Recognise the legacy of learned helplessness in parts of Scotland. For a variety of reasons: deindustrialisation, the way contemporary capitalism and labour markets work, how politics, economics and culture can discard hundreds of thousands of people, there is a systematic, entrenched disconnection of huge parts of Scotland: generally those poorer, younger, more inclined to rent their homes, and live in the West of Scotland. This ‘forgotten Scotland’ has been written off by the UK political system, and it is the key to the referendum (5). 

3. Breaking the Sounds of Silence. It is still not permissible to discuss numerous taboo areas in public spaces in Scotland. One is the nature of this exclusion and the marginalisation of a whole swath of communities and voices who are not represented in the media, civic Scotland or political parties. And then there is the complexity of how we reconnect with people left behind and outside the political system, not on the establishment’s terms but on the terms of ‘forgotten Scotland’.

4. We cannot continually rectify the past. Whether it is Thatcher, the poll tax, Blair, the Iraq war, or the longer perceived injustices such as the Treaties of Union or the Highland Clearances, these are irrelevant to where Scotland is now and how it debates the future. Indeed, some people are actually prisoners of this past: of a one-dimensional Scotland which was progressive and benign before Thatcherism came along and supposedly destroyed everything we had pride and identification in.

5. The Power of Optimism and Hope. These are enormously powerful messages, ones which in a very different set of circumstances disabled the Pinochet dictatorship. Here an optimism and hope about the collective power of Scots to shape their own decisions is linked to the collective maturing which we have been on at least since the Scottish Parliament was established, if not before. And this goes way beyond politics, to challenging and changing our collective psychology, to say we can stand on our own two feet, stop blaming others, and take our place in the modern world. 

6. Scotland as a country of the future. The UK is not a modern country but one fixated and permanently living in the past; that fossilised, archaic undemocratic political culture and system has allowed successive UK governments to drive through unpopular economic and social transformation in the interests of ‘Britain plc’.

Part of Scotland lives in the past as well whether it is romanticising battles or long dead fighting heroes, or football giants, but unlike the UK, Scotland has the chance to collectively decide, create and live in the future. A future that we make, decide, debate and imagine. That’s what the next 18 months are about.

7. Humour, play and generousness are fundamental. There is a law of diminishing returns in the ‘wee hard men’ to use Alasdair Gray’s words, bashing each other to smithereens, telling each other off and how the rest of us don’t match up to their ideals of ‘model citizens’, whether unionists or nationalists.

The scale of pretensions of the Ukanian state: the nuclear weapons, the post-imperial delusions, ‘the special relationship’, the UN Security Council, are all perfect targets for satire. And the British state, across banking, police, media and its political classes, has shown itself incapable of serious, fundamental reform. This is a script which may make opponents over-earnest, but which is ripe for having fun at the expense of, caricature and using our creative imaginations.

8. As in the film version of the Chilean referendum, story, song, and heroes and villains matter. They had some great, uplifting songs and mood music, which tied into optimism and fun. They had a collective story which connected to creating a collective future. And they had heroes, not just in ‘the disappeared’ but in the people prepared to break the silences of a battered, bruised society; and obviously they had villains.

The independence campaign needs all of these: songs of a wider emotional palette than the Proclaimers, giving a sense of uplift and possibilities; a collective story which goes beyond the current 'safety first' independence on offer from the SNP; and heroes and villains, which create a tapestry beyond the anti-Thatcher/Thatcher and Blair as the villains who trashed Scotland. 

The independence vote will probably be a close result. It is important that it is fought mostly by both sides in a way which contributes to changing Scotland for the better, and entrenching the culture of self-government which has been growing since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. 

In one of the most important contributions of the year so far, ‘The Guardian’s’ Ian Jack surveyed the current doubts of many Scots to embrace independence and of the SNP to satisfying define it so far. He predicted a close result in the autumn of 2014, but more importantly whichever way it went, he saw a radically changed Scotland:

Independence will develop in Scotland as the lifeboat option – a way back to a normal life, to jump into and forget about the angst over British destiny and punching above our weight. (6)

These are exciting as well as frustrating times; of the slow birth of a new more confident, forward looking, progressive Scotland. And of the slow demise of the traditional unionist Scotland – of Darling, Brown and Brian Wilson – and its dependency culture mindset that we are too small, poor, divided and unimportant to make it on our own. 

Scotland has the opportunity to make the Ukanian state history, aiding radicals, democrats and progressives across the UK. The status quo is not an option as the political class so like to tell us in other areas, and the incremental tinkering of devolution not an answer to the multiple British crises or Scotland’s journey towards greater self-government. In the next year and half, we have to begin the shift out of the decaying embers of the old, closed order and managed society of elite, institutional Scotland, and embrace, nurture and aid the light of a democratic Scotland. Change is coming: unpredictable, exciting, challenging and for some unsettling.



1. UK Government, Scotland Analysis: Devolution and the Implications of Scottish Independence, updated February 12th 2013, 

2. Michael Fry, ‘Putting a Positive Spin on it’, The Scotsman, February 13th 2013,

3. Claudio Fuentes, ‘NO: tres ideas para destruir la alegría’, El Dinamo, August 17th 2012,

4. David Torrance, ‘Can ‘No’ be positive and ‘Yes’ be negative? A lesson from Chile, Think Scotland, January 11th 2013,

5. The phrase ‘learned helplessness’ comes from the American psychologist Martin Seligman, Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death, W.H. Freeman 1975. 

6. Ian Jack, ‘Independence is an attractive word – but it’s tricky to achieve’, The Guardian, February 9th 2013,

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