Rising More Slowly?

John Wood reviews Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence by Gerry Hassan (Pluto Press, 2022)

Gerry Hassan has made timely and valuable contributions to our political discourse for around three decades now.  His most notable volume remains The Strange Death of Labour Scotland (co-written with Eric Shaw in 2012), examining the decline of Scottish Labour, from which the party is yet to show real signs of recovery.  Many readers of Hassan’s latest offering Scotland Rising: the Case for Independence will hope this book does not once again accompany the death of its subject as Scotland’s independence movement continues to tread water and prospects of another referendum fade. 

Scotland Rising begins by trying to find common ground in the debate, mostly focusing on the large menu of challenges Scots currently face: eroding trust in public institutions, increasing levels of inequality, the damage caused by Brexit, a weakened geopolitical position, climate change, the continued destructive force of global capitalism, and international turmoil. We truly are spoilt for choice! Five sections then run through the historical context and recent history of the independence movement, exploring contemporary arguments for independence and updating them for a post-2014 world, before exploring paths to that ultimate goal and how an independent Scotland can be delivered in a way that meets aspirations for a better nation.

In contrast to the explosion of campaign publications during the excitement of 2014, Scotland Rising is written with a refreshing humility. Hassan credibly reviews a range of perspectives, including the case for the union, while being unashamedly pro-independence. The result – a jargon-free and accessible book – should appeal beyond the zealots.

Indeed, there is much that sets this book apart from the 2014 (and subsequent) genre of pro-indy offerings. Fresh perspectives are taken on the implications for Scottish independence on the rest of the UK, considering these implications with respect for existing pro-union arguments.  In weighing these views, Hassan acknowledges that those who will really determine the future of this country are not those who ‘take up the most oxygen on social media’ but are those ‘soft’ Yes/No voters or indeed those with a general interest in politics rather than in tribalism.

The book avoids  obsession  with political parties, simply noting that their responses to current crises and constitutional questions are equally inadequate. Inclinations to see the case for ‘Yes’ from the narrow frame of the SNP or anti-Toryism should be resisted and do the debate a disservice.  However, it will always be difficult to read even the most scrupulous book about Scottish independence with detachment from current politics.

Scotland Rising is also distinguished from other publications on independence and certainly from the current ‘Yes’ movement is its consideration of how the structure of a newly independent Scotland would have implications  for communities, localism and local democracy. An independent Scotland would enjoy ample opportunity to create a new distribution of power beyond and beneath the nation-state as an antidote to the general sickness within UK (and Scottish) democracy.  Hassan could go further in explaining how the current SNP government has hollowed out local democracy (mostly through savage council cuts) to its worst state in decades, in a misguided attempt to centralise power and shirk responsibility for falling standards of community life and public services. This ultimately undermines the case that an independent Scotland would automatically be any more democratic than the UK.  

While Scotland Rising offers fresh perspectives in an often tired debate, ‘outside the box’ options on Scotland’s future are left largely unexplored.  ‘Devo max’ is dismissed (and rightly so in its widely-understood form) while Gordon Brown’s ‘federalism’ is equally rejected as an option which lacks any detail. However as the traditional nation state comes under threat from supranational entities and global firms more powerful than states, it might soon be time to look beyond the binary ‘Yes’ / ‘No’ constitutional question.

Hassan ends on an optimistic note for the movement and for the country, but is forceful in arguing that in order to live in a better Scotland there is work to be done, not only to deliver independence but to create a new story about ourselves as a nation. Arguing that we have done this before within the confines of the UK (referencing the building of the NHS and urban improvement under ‘Labour Scotland 1945-65’), Hassan believes that we can and must harness nationalist myths about Scotland being a country based on egalitarian principles, and make them a reality. The myth that Scotland is somehow exceptional in its ‘common decency and expectation of treating everyone the same’, inspired by the lore of Robert Burns, etc. has no empirical basis, he admits, but can become a helpful blueprint for a better nation.

Despite (or indeed as a result of) the current SNP turmoil, debate around Scottish independence is arguably at its least febrile for some years, so this might be a good time to read up on our constitutional future. Hassan presents a scrupulously fair and well-informed offering on a subject that will undoubtedly flare up again in the months and years to come.

John Wood is subeditor of the Scottish Left Review