The case for a bold, new Scottish democracy

By Gerry Hassan
October 31, 2013

We hear all the time that a 'historic decision' awaits Scotland in 2014, but so far this has seemed like a typical Scots campaign as nervous forces of change face a tetchy displaced establishment and a media unsure of its role.

All this in the context of traditional institutions declining, new ways of organising and social media emerging, and a country dramatically changed in the last three decades, which 'official Scotland' finds difficult to fully grasp.

Our traditional politics struggle with this. The SNP may exude confidence as they meet this weekend in Perth but their Fabian style nationalism – hesitant, incremental and conservative with a small 'c' – has so far made the party political weather but not yet convinced on independence.

The pro-union campaign has been aggressive, evasive and harking back to a past Scotland which doubted itself. Last weekend a 'Better Together' spokesperson even called pupils in schools singing Scots songs 'propaganda'.

The terms of much of what passes for debate feel wrong. The question being asked is 'Should Scotland be an independent country?', a straightforward one which forces independence supporters to have to explain every bit of detail of a future Scotland post-'Yes'.

This is an impossible position. The future cannot be future proofed. A utopian Scotland removed of risk and uncertainty cannot be found. And yet pro-union forces don't have this level of scrutiny about the risks of future union. Even worse, they aren't being held to account on the current state of Scotland which the union has created.

Then there is the language. Labour MP Ian Davidson's comments that the whole debate was now over and that all that was left was that 'a large number of wounded still [had] to be bayoneted' was perhaps not too surprising considering his track record.

Imagine the furore if such a comment had come from a senior SNP politician. It would have produced a national outcry, seen as a commentary on 'narrow nationalism', and the person would have been widely condemned. So far not one Labour politician has pulled Davidson up for this.

Something longer term is happening. The 'high Scotland' of deference, omnipotent elites and benign paternalism is slowly sinking below the waves, but this leaves a vacuum in how we do our politics.

The SNP's strategy so far has been to appropriate and hug close that older Scotland, attempting to pull off the double track strategy of appearing respectable while hinting at the prospects of social change post-independence.

One answer to this is provided by Andrew Wilson's Arthur Donaldson lecture at the SNP conference, where he addresses how an independent Scotland puts together a constitution.

Really what Wilson is talking about here is how we do politics and social change. His proposal is for the Scottish Government, in association with a new Council of State (a body originally set up by Tom Johnston in the Second World War) comprising former Secretaries of State for Scotland, to preside over this.

There are now a staggering ten living former Secretaries of State for Scotland: nine men and one woman (Helen Liddell), the highest number there ever have been thanks to New Labour's constant reshuffles.

Is this really the best we can do? It is similar terrain to the post-Leveson discussions ending up with a Royal Charter and the Privy Council, the latter one of the most secretive parts of British government.

A post-independent Scotland needs expert advice and authority but what Wilson is doing here is two-fold. First, creating mood music about what happens after a 'Yes' vote, and second, placing the SNP as the party of respectability and the new establishment.

This might be understandable for party leadership aspirations, but we do need more imagination and boldness in creating a different kind of democracy. We have to move beyond the committees of the great and good who have for so long clogged up public life, and its more modern version of 'civic Scotland', both of which have been characterised by an entitlement culture of self-preservation and maintaining their status in public life.

Scotland has never been the diverse assembly and vibrant democracy of, at different times, left and nationalist mythology. If we aspire to live in such a country we have to start by understanding how in the past, the closed Scotland stitched things up, and how ideas such as Wilson's are just more of the same.

There are so many different routes and examples we can draw from. There is the Icelandic constitutional model which saw a small country rebuild its democracy post-banking crash and in the process, learn, renew and validate its progressive credentials.

Another is the Australian National Convention which saw 1,000 citizens meet and deliberate on ten national priorities which the government had to formally respond to. And finally, there are even examples and inspirations we can draw from home.

What about invoking and developing 'A Claim of Right for a Scottish Good Society'? This would use nationalist mythology with a small 'n' which all those years ago Labour and Lib Dem politicians signed up for.

'A Claim of Right' invokes popular sovereignty and can be claimed as more than nationalist, but also social democratic, liberal, green, and feminist, and much more. It is the Scotland of boldness, determination and self-determination, which is bigger than labels and beyond being small minded about our differences. It is also a challenge to the fading 'high Scotland' which talks the people's talk while remaining paternalist.

With less than a year to go to the big vote the rest of us have to stop the political classes trying to get away with conducting an insular set of self-serving conversations which perpetuate their closed shop view of the world.

This debate is not just about the potential of a different Scottish democracy, but its practices, and how we challenge the failed status quo and elite rule which successive UK Governments have been comfortable to promote and maintain. That won't do any longer, but nor will just making our own Scottish version of elite rule.

* More on the Scottish independence referendum from Ekklesia:


© Gerry Hassan is a leading Scottish commentator, public intellectual, political reformer and academic. He writes for The Scotsman and many other publications. His website is:

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