Scotland: on the eve of a historic choice: review of Gerry Hassan's "Caledonian Dreaming"

Gerry Hassan's new book, Caledonian Dreaming, the quest for a different Scotland, encourages a grounded hope in Scotland, and is a must read for all interested in the country's future.

Joe Lafferty
5 September 2014

Illustration: Courtesy of Greg Moodie

On the eve of a historic referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014, Gerry Hassan’s Caledonian Dreaming is a landmark book. He articulates, with incisive political and historical analysis, the landscape of what has taken the UK and Scotland to where they are today. And at the same time, this is a profoundly human book.

Hassan is no stranger to serious and heavyweight political analysis with a number of books under his belt from The Strange Death of Labour Scotland to editing the collection Scotland 2020: Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation. Also, Hassan was behind a major project in Glasgow that resulted in a book – The Dreaming City: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination – where many people across the city articulated their dreams for their city. His desire to create opportunities to connect people to their dreams, where they may find their voice, is a continuing passion for him as a writer and activist.

To be picky, the book feels at times like a collection of essays, rather than a cohesive whole. However, when he comes back to a topic, Hassan takes the opportunity to deepen his analysis and comment so it does not feel repetitive.

Also his attempt to make the book readable by avoiding academic referencing and footnotes can be frustrating. Hassan uses a number of terms which are not always well defined and can be confusing. For example, “Civic Scotland”, “High Scotland”, “Missing Scotland” and “Professional Scotland”. He does define these terms later on in the book, but this requires the reader to stay with him a bit.

Having said that, he draws on a wide range of sources for his writing, and manages to pull off the tricky feat of creating a readable book while at the same time enriching his narrative with quotes and perspectives from a diverse range of thinkers down the ages.

In his opening chapter, Hassan sets the scene for his book. He attempts to write something that is not an “answer” but rather he opens up possibility which becomes the beginning of many conversations.

Firstly, he argues that independence is not a yes/no binary question but rather a process. Scotland is becoming more independent, and has been for some years. He draws on “tumultuous events” with the pillars of public life in the UK crumbling, and how people are losing faith with old elites and traditional bases of power and authority.

He critiques much of the debate in the referendum: it’s black and white or too negative or overly optimistic. The debate is amongst narrow elites with a presentation of two “accountancy versions” of Scotland, or defined by a politics of naming and labelling – a tribalism that excludes most of us. If you have been following either camp on social media you will have seen the extremes of this “chatter” – where the camps are essentially speaking to themselves, leaving most undecided voters disinterested and disengaged.

Hassan argues that the conversation cannot be divorced from what people in Scotland and the UK are living through now. He confronts the reality behind the stories we tell ourselves. You may disagree with some of his list of six “Scottish myths”, but you can’t miss the challenge. They lead us to blame others for our woes, and idealise ourselves: a kind of perverse mix of self-deprecation and pride, like the old Scots saying: “Here’s tae us, fa’s like us? Damn few and there aa deid!” In reality we are not more democratic, more egalitarian or better educated. Nor do we hold power more to account. Nor are we more socially democratic or have a more open society in Scotland according to Hassan’s evidence.

This is what O’Toole touches on in his excellent introduction – Hassan is challenging Scots to face their own self-deception. This is a call to be part of a maturing nation, to grow up and take responsibility.

At the same time Hassan is aware that the combination of the negatives lead some to collude with the “too wee, too small, too stupid” caricature of Scotland. He provides a sound perspective on the fact that “Scottish culture encompasses a profound, deeply embedded sense of loss, and because of this, of melancholy and pessimism”, and why this mindset has developed and become ingrained.

This is also a book where Hassan is present, while not making the book about himself. This is illuminating and helpful and supports a key part of his thesis that the personal is political. He tells of how growing up in Dundee shaped his world view, speaking warmly and honestly about his communist father and activist mother.

As well as painting a landscape to help readers consider where we are now at this vital stage, he also carries out wider historical and political analysis of what shaped us and what took us to where we are. Articulating this is not a narrow debate about esoteric constitutional matters, but a vital development in how we citizens in Scotland see ourselves and consider the possibilities for the future, no matter what the outcome of the vote in September.

I was particularly drawn to two elements Hassan focuses on in the foundation of his writing: empathy and hope. This takes the book beyond a mere political analysis to something more human, more real. He exhorts us all, and endeavours himself, to get beyond ourselves; to seek to understand the other, with respect, even if we disagree – a vital point in what has been at times a fractious and aggressive debate.

He distinguishes hope from optimism. Optimism is a cognitive state which may be linked to self deception: a blind optimism. He also shows the links between optimism and the mindset essential for capitalism. Hope, however is something much deeper. Hope is at the centre of the human experience. Hope requires courage.

He concisely outlines the origins of the British state giving a powerful rationale for why it has been pretty impervious to reform, nimbly synthesising what made Britain “great” and how some “narrow elites” perpetuate core myths that retain this narrative and their power. This ignores much of the rich historical and political development of the countries of these isles.

Hassan argues that the UK has gone from being a pre-democratic state to a post-democratic state without ever being democratic. This may seem like an extreme view, but reading his analysis of “The Slow Non-March of British Democracy” it’s hard to argue with this. He also concludes that “the British Empire state in its hyperbole, sense of its own importance and unreformed nature at the centre is with us to this day”, demonstrating the power of this mindset and the impact on UK politics and Scotland in particular.

At the same time, “Britain has changed in dramatic ways in the last three decades”. Hassan draws a metaphor moving from the TV shows Yes Prime Minister to The Thick of It. We have moved from an elite civil service which has to thole and manage incompetent ministers to a centralised, power mad, PR-dominated, foul-mouthed, aggressive inner elite that are ruled by non-elected “spin doctors”. If you watched the Danish TV series Borgen you will have noticed that the English term “Spin Doctor” and the role itself has even crossed over to Europe! While this may seem mildly humorous, it points to a centralisation of power in the hands of a different kind of narrow elite, with the values of self-promotion and self-preservation and not service.

He argues that there is “an existential crisis of the UK as a geo-political entity” and how all unionist parties seek some form of “restoration” to a kind of “Fantasyland Britain”. This can be seen with all the celebrations of the “glorious past”: World War 1, World War 2 and next year Osborne announcing a 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. Hassan shows that the rationale for this narrative is to demonstrate that “this union offers the protection, security and shared risk, which being a smaller, self-governing entity just doesn’t offer.” However this leads to “Britain as Disneyland” which ignores the chasm between these stories and the “stark reality” of what is facing much of the population with “diminishing welfare and social provision, and diluting or privatising the public nature of public services and public goods” initiated by the acts of Cameron’s government.

I imagine Hassan will stimulate criticism in some aspects of how he approaches gender issues in the book. I don’t feel qualified to make a considered analysis on this, but think it is important to offer a view.

He frames the impact on Scottish working class masculinity by Thatcher’s destruction of Scottish industry as a gender issue because Thatcher is a woman. I’m not sure about that. She was commonly addressed as “the best man for the job” and not always ironically!

Just in case you were rubbing your hands in glee at the critique of British nationalism, Hassan also analyses Scotland, drawing the stark conclusion that “Scotland is not a democracy.” He points to the growing “centralisation and standardisation” of Scottish public life which has “accelerated under the Scottish Parliament” and has led to an increasing feeling of “burgeoning democratic deficit”. This highlights a problem for Scotland, and also explains why much of Scotland is missing from the political debate and activism which shapes our society.

Scotland joining the union was a marriage of convenience between two elites. This left “a Scottish identity and public life which was depoliticised and about administration and bureaucracy, and where imagination, innovation and boldness were left to the numerous inventors or the Scottish imperialists who went off and ran the British Empire.” We can see this replicated today with political “heavy hitters” going down to Westminster rather than remaining in Scotland, and to a lesser degree, the “London Scots” in the media, and BBC journalists coming back to Scotland to “commentate” on the referendum.

He deepens his analysis outlining the impact of Thatcher and Blair and exploring “The rise and fall of Civic Scotland”, and “What went wrong with Professional Scotland?” Hassan also has an honest reflection on “the stories of radical Scotland”. The tapestry is widened by some discussion that “A Different Kind of Politics is Possible” drawing on creativity and imagination. This, and “the Emergence of ‘the Third Scotland’”, gives us the opportunity to go “beyond labels and the official story”. Hassan argues we can “become the change” if we can connect and release “the power of dreams”.

Caledonian Dreaming is about grounded hope. This is a book that will inform, educate and illuminate. Alasdair Gray said: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. While this is engraved in the Canongate Wall of the Scottish parliament building, Hassan has brought it to life in this wonderful book.

Caledonian Dreaming, the Quest for a Different Scotland, is available from Luath Press for £11.99.

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