For a New Scottish Democracy

The concurrent Scottish, British and European debates go on as mostly separate, but interconnected conversations; political and economic parallel universes often seeming oblivious to the existence of each other.

The British state sovereigntists wax lyrically as if their moment has come, the Tory Party, in David Cameron’s once revealing remarks, returning to its comfort zone of ‘banging on about Europe’, while Labour slowly shift away from two decades of pro-Europeanism, and the Lib Dems and SNP fall nervously silent.

The Scottish political environment finds itself in an uneasy place in all this. There is the aftermath of the SNP landslide victory and its sense of elation, uplift and opening, which has been followed by a strange sensation of uncertainty about what happens next and for some disappointment.

Some see a profound uncertainty in the SNP about what to do next. No one expected this election result, no matter what some SNP advisers say. The all-pervasive strategy of Salmond is steady as she goes, cautious, safety-first, big tentism: the approach which benefited the party so well in minority government. This does not recognise that the political landscape has been fundamentally and possibly irreversibly changed by the election.

There is in parts of Scotland doubts about how to deal with a majority SNP Government; elements of institutional Scotland have started talking in nationalist tones: the self-preservation society of the Labour state showing its well-honed survival techniques. In other parts there is a wariness about what the spectrum of debate and criticism is in this new environment: of engaging with and dissenting with the new dominant party.

Kenny Farquharson in ‘Scotland on Sunday’ commented that ‘the SNP is better at politics than it is at policy’. Acknowledging the success of their minimum pricing proposals on alcohol, he went on, ‘Isn’t it time the First Minister showed even the slightest interest in tackling some of Scotland’s other chronic ills, such as poverty, illiteracy or welfare dependency?’ (1).

Alex Massie has questioned whether the SNP strategy post-election amounts to anything more than relying on the potency of anti-Tory Scotland. He argued that by ‘hyping the threat posed to Scotland by Conservatism, the SNP rather ironically falls into line with the depressingly negative view of Scotland as a weak and troubled place’, and in so doing is following the disastrous strategy of Labour’s 2011 Scottish Parliament election campaign (2).

Some Scottish Nationalist supporters have also shown signs of disquiet. Lallands Peat Worrier has described the SNP in office since May as ‘despairing, girning, partisan, vacuous and dreary. What a squandering of possibilities: what a waste, what folly!’ (3).

Whatever we think of the accuracy or helpfulness (or not) of these comments they reveal an anxiety. The SNP reflects many of the characteristics of Scottish society: cautious, conservative, incremental, looking to win independence while making as few enemies as possible in institutional Scotland. This begs numerous questions. Is there a radical agenda at the heart of the SNP beyond the abstract vision of ‘independence’? Is there an emerging vision of Scottish statehood? And is there alongside a nation-state building project, a complimentary one for Scottish society? Such questions cannot be left as some claim to that watershed moment: Independence Day plus one.

The Scottish Debate and the Wider Economic Crisis

The relationship between the Scottish debate, the SNP Government and the wider economic crisis, and the thinking which flows from it is seldom examined.

Despite the economic crisis being brought about by turbo charged, socially irresponsible capitalism, the crisis has now moved from the idea of ‘restoration’, getting ‘the Great British Fantasy Bubble’ back on the road to the notion of ‘acceleration’, further extending marketisation, supply-side assaults on economic and social rights, and pampering and playing up to the super-rich.

This can be seen in how we portray business and economics in mainstream politics, media and public discussions; a lack of comprehension that the two are different as well as inter-connected; the world of ‘economics’ has become conflated with a ‘business’ perspective, with the city traders, banks and hedge funds who produced the crisis presiding over the defining commentary. Witness the practice of the mainstream media with BBC Scotland having what is called a ‘Business and Economics Editor’; even ‘The Guardian’ of all places conflates ‘business’ and ‘economics’.

Thirty years of market fundamentalism, the politics and philosophy which has produced this mess, has led to an influential, vocal UK agenda comprising the Taxpayers’ Alliance, ‘Spectator’, ‘Daily Telegraph’ and right-wing think tanks calling for a ‘Hong Kong Future’ for the UK: deregulation, outsourcing, flat taxes and sitting offshore of the European Union. This warped political and economic view, more Ayn Rand than Adam Smith, is based on a distorted, simplistic economic literacy and yet at the same time it springs from a British version of political economy, business and corporate governance.

Conventions No More, Commissions No More

This powerful worldview relates to the debate on Scotland’s future but is rarely explored. The ongoing British market fundamentalist revolution is a direct threat to Scotland’s nascent centre-left political values. The debate about Scotland’s future is influenced by what kind of society people want. More fundamentally, this touches on where Scotland as a nation sits geo-politically and the huge unexplored issue of what kind of difference Scotland is posing economically and socially from Anglo-American hunter gather capitalism?

Kenny Farquharson in his recent piece concluded by calling for ‘ a new Constitutional Convention’, coming to the view, ‘That is what this moment requires’. The Convention mattered because there was in the late 1980s a profound, widening democratic deficit with the majority Scottish political establishment excluded from influence and power.

This has led to the ‘myth’ of the Convention, namely that the Scottish Constitutional Convention established the Scottish Parliament. It did not; it was one amongst many midwives, the most important of which was not Labour (‘we delivered a Scottish Parliament’), SNP (‘we began modern Scottish politics’) or that nebulous creation ‘Scots civic society’. All played a part, but the biggest factor was the conscious voting and views of the Scottish public.

Bringing about a different future entails not continually revisiting past supposed triumphs which reveal a certain paucity of imagination; instead it involves looking at how we can aid democratising the future.

This I would suggest involves affirming: no more Conventions, no more Commissions, no vague, romantic references to ‘civic society’, and no more initiatives which just narrowly address Scotland’s constitutional future from Calman to devo max and independence.

My recent experience in this area includes making the recommendation to the Scottish Government that they set up the Christie Commission; in my submission I suggested it take back the idea of ‘public sector reform’ from the consultancy classes, involve deliberative discussions and forums, be free of the ‘usual suspects’, and invite in the wider labour and trade union movement. What we got was a civil service controlled exercise and political window dressing. The Scottish political system knows how to maintain the status quo, to draw narrowly from received wisdom, and then write the story up how it wishes; we shouldn’t find that surprising. But just as democrats down south have mostly given up on public inquiries ever holding power to account after the whitewashes of Hutton and Butler, so we in Scotland should call a moratorium on Conventions and Commissions (4).

Imagining and Creating a Different Future

There are two different approaches on offer. The first entails the idea of a Scottish Citizens, creating a body similar to London Citizens which would be community led, have a significant local, grass roots focus, occupy a genuine, distinct space, not be owned by public or corporate funding, or act as a pseudo-third sector agency. Is such a body possible in Scotland given the institutional inertia and layering? That is a question many of us would like to answer; there is clearly a gap, an interest and willingness on the part of some of the committed socially conscious voices in Scotland to look at this.

What a Scottish Citizens-like initiative would address is the strange environment in which we find ourselves, in a centre-left political consensus where we can’t feel completely confident in any of our political parties all of which have compromised and bent themselves at the altar of market power. Scotland’s social democratic credentials have become lazy and complacent without challenge from radical ideas from left or right and have grown into a comfortable establishment culture which has made devolution work for large parts of our middle class.

The second is to develop an independent initiative, not a Convention or Commission, but perhaps an Independent Assembly on Scotland’s Future. This would draw on the lessons of numerous deliberative, iterative processes such as the Scotland 2020 and Glasgow 2020 futures projects I founded. This initiative would pose Scotland’s future as not just being about the constitution, but about wider economic, social and even philosophical questions.

Not being a Convention or Commission would not just be about a name, it would be about not being packed with the great and good of public Scotland and using different processes. And being independent would be about ownership and intent. It would not be owned by the Scottish Government, although there is a detailed discussion to be had about whether it should be legitimised and mandated by the Parliament. This would be a sign of faith and confidence in Scotland’s collective future; a sign the new Government knew unlike Labour ‘how to let go’ and draw from comparable examples around the world such as ‘Mission for Finland 2030’ which was initiated by the Finnish authorities, but mostly sat in its activities actioned by forces outside government such as Demos Finland (5).

These two roads could if they happened be defining for the debate on Scotland’s future and have relevance and influence beyond our shores; one is explicitly about voice and power, the other our collective future, while both touch implicitly on all of these.

Where this takes us is two-fold. The first is the common assumption of mainstream politics across the West that people are uninterested in politics, disconnected and apathetic. This is the spin world of New Labour, Cameron et al, of ‘politics as show’ which believes that people are fundamentally stupid, controllable and malleable; the late Philip Gould’s concept of what politics is about: marketing, packaging and positioning political ‘products’: an ultimately alienating, depowering process (6).

Yet from numerous examples we know that people are not so easily categorised and dismissed. When people feel confidence that processes are not tokenistic, or that they are in a genuine engagement where their voices matter, they react in very different ways from standardised consultation. People show an innate capacity to debate the most complex issues across ages and classes, to understand public policy priorities and even more fundamentally, to question and debate the underlying philosophies of public life.

Second, what flows from this is that people have an understanding of the power of forces which face governments and public bodies. They recognise that there is a deep discrepancy between the values governments and other institutions proclaim influence and shape them and the real factors which move and define them. This is the world people have to make sense of and constantly interpret: the world of globalisation as an almost elemental force and the all-pervasive nature of ‘the official future’; for all its power and reach many people don’t buy into it in their hearts and souls and yearn for an alternative narrative.

This brings me back to the public conversation on Scotland’s future. Scotland has defined itself in recent decades by a host of stories, a mix of ‘elite narratives’ and ‘myths’ which have told us an account of difference, egalitarianism and collectivism (7). These have played an important part in defining who we are in the last thirty years, but some of these have involved part wish-fulfilment and hiding from uncomfortable truths, about the narrowness and complacencies of Scotland’s supposed social democratic consensus which does not work like that for hundred of thousands of Scots in poverty, excluded, without voice or influence.

Scotland’s elite narratives have told us a comforting story about ourselves we have chosen to believe; one that both the Labour and SNP, centre-left parties, have shown no inclination to challenge despite their professed championing of social justice.

This is the crucial faultline over Scotland’s political future and one that may well shape and decide the constitutional debate: who speaks most plausibly for social justice. This is the terrain Labour has to attempt to find an authentic Labour voice which speaks to its past, present and future values; and it is the agenda an SNP which is convincingly and passionately centre-left would talk to. More crucially, a social justice agenda, talking about poverty, educational disadvantage, health inequalities, the problems young boys face becoming men, would begin to fashion a very different set of stories and solutions about Scotland than the elite narratives we have grown up with.

This has to be connected to the constitutional question to make it real to most Scots. Mitchell et al’s survey of the SNP leadership and members found a pragmatic interpretation of independence, an open mind on shared services and what is called ‘the DVLA Question’; several senior members suggested that there was ‘no such thing as independence’, only to quickly add ‘as sometimes/usually understood’. What was missing was a view of independence defined in non-constitutional terms and economic and social ideas (8).

Scottish self-government should aspire to use the crisis of the British state to challenge the Westminster sovereigntists, develop a language of political, economic and social philosophy which breaks with Anglo-American market determinism, and engage and comment on the currently unravelling European project. That’s a demanding list, but these are extraordinary times in Scotland, the UK and continent.

If we put the current debate of Scotland in historical context we have for centuries been governed by a limited, manipulated version of democracy, a kind of undemocracy where our politics and public life have been run by and for the great and good; they have run our elites, told our narratives and chosen our stories.

It is time, if this historic moment is to mean anything, to shake this up and challenge such complacencies. We have to begin democratising the future as the first step in beginning a wholesale democratisation of public life. What that will look like will be very different from today: more disputatious, pluralist and unpredictable. Central to this is the idea of imagining and creating Scotland’s future and statehood. And having the confidence to create spaces and resources different from how the old elites did things, and learning to let go.


1. Kenny Farquharson, ‘At crisis point for St Andrew’s Day’, Scotland on Sunday, November 27th 2011.

2. Alex Massie, ‘Why are the SNP Talking Scotland Down?’, Spectator Coffee House, November 16th 2011,

3. Lallands Peat Worrier, ‘No Parliament for all Seasons’, November 26th 2011,

4. This general critique of Conventions and Commissions also acknowledges that occasionally they draw together a body of expertise and come up with useful recommendations; the Scottish Broadcasting Commission would be a recent example of this.

5. Mission for Finland 2030, Finnish Government 2010. Available as a download at:

6. Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Classes, Nation Books 2010.

7. Murray Stewart Leith and Daniel P.J. Soule, Political Discourse and National identity in Scotland, Edinburgh University Press 2011.

8. James Mitchell, Lynn Bennie and Rob Johns, The Scottish National Party: Transition to Power, Oxford University Press 2011, pp. 120-123.

Comments (8)

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  1. Gerry are you saying that the SNP were not ready for their historic win and so they should have rushed a whole load of policies forward that they did not have because they did not know they were going to have a majority?

    You then appear to question the current SNP Government for having a big tent philosophy at present and then appear to suggest the solution is a different big tent.

    What the SNP Government actually have planned is out with you or me’s ken. What they have said is that all sides in the debate on Scotland’s future have a little over two years to state their case to the electorate of Scotland who will decide. While this may well bypass the chattering classes and establishment talking heads but maybe that is also part of SNP policy.

    I see a healthy debate on the issues of Scotland’s constitution and political direction going on outside of the MSM in such anarchic institutions as Newsnet Scotland or groups of like minded friends in facebook pages such as the Road to Independence and a range of blogs: Weegie Warbler is amongst the more thoughtful.

    The discussion is going on daily about a future Scotland and what it should look like. The difference is there is a sense the SNP is listening and the political move away from the EU is underway with the independent Scotland will look to Scandinavia statements, including the announcement by Fiona Hyslop that the SNP are looking hard at joining EFTA as an option instead of the EU.

    I see a Scottish Unionist establishment stunned like a rabbit in the headlights at the SNP’s success wavering, unsure, opposing for the sake of opposing McMillan of the CBI being a case in point. I see supposed national broadcasters and media in complete disarray as they either refuse to believe what has happened (BBC Scotland, Scotsman, Herald etc) or are in denial.

    In the mean time the SNP’s government team continues to out perform its opposition both sides of the borders as they flip and flop – a case in point is Micheal Moore’s ‘interview’ in the Herald today or the Labour MSP’s voting with the Tory Jackson Carlaw in support of the estimated £1 billion cut in the Scottish Welfare budget being proposed by Westminster. Yet Labour claim to be the only party which defends the poorest in Scottish society.

    The Scots are conservative socialists at heart, they do not take to ‘big gesture’ politics and the current Scottish Government has an elephant to eat to win their case. The only way to eat an elephant is in small pieces and that is what I sense the SNP are planning to do.

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    There’s a lot to assess, debate and even champion in these ideas Gerry, much of which I’d agree with in their broad sweep. But it probably wont surprise you if I don’t enthusiastically endorse the ill-judged and badly-timed “No To Conventions and Commissions” rhetoric.

    We’re three years away from a historic national referendum on whether we become an Independent sovereign state or not. Autumn 2014 (if that’s when it takes place) will be a defining moment for Scotland. This referendum correctly dominates the political landscape and will underpin every political exchange from now to then. Even when it isn’t mentioned directly.

    Unless we win this Independence referendum there is an institutional and constitutional barrier to much of what you propose. For reasons of legality – and with no electoral mandate, no Holyrood powers to pose such a question, etc – it is extremely unlikely there will be a second question concerning Devo Max, FFA, or Independence Lite. (Unless the second question referendum is passed and run by Westminster.)

    The referendum is our de facto Go! square which must be passed if we are to challenge Westminster’s institutionalised agenda. Neoliberal in its every pore. There is no way round this. You seem to wish this to be otherwise but we’re not dealing with wish lists here but the most practical and pressing of immediate challenges.

    Therein lies both a problem and a bigger challenge. The problem is that the Scottish Government and the SNP party machine are unlikely to be able to deliver a Yes vote on their own. They may have won a slim majority of seats in May 2011 but their total votes is still way below what is needed for securing an Independence majority. Most SNP members know this in their hearts.

    The immediate challenge is to create a broad based Yes campaign that is not run by nor dominated by the SNP but is a cross party/no party campaign. We’re talking civic Scotland here rather than institutional Scotland.

    At present the Scottish Independence Convention has cross party support and is in the process of restructuring itself as a broad based civic campaign whose primary goal is aimed at delivering a Yes vote. To suggest that we should go down the road of “No Conventions” at this stage is both political and tactical naivety. To try and unfocus from the coming referendum is similar.

    The nature of the Scottish Independence Convention that emerges from this campaign cannot yet be determined. But there WILL be a need at some stage for a grassroots Constitutional Convention of some sort which reaches out to civic Scotland to prepare a Constitution for what will hopefully be a new emergent state.

    None of this negates the type of civic or de-institutionalised processes you have suggested. Initiatives such as Changing Scotland and others are part of that. You are absolutely right that tapping into Scotland’s vast latent support for centre-left or progressive social democratic politics is essential to the success of the Independence referendum. Posing Independence as purely a constitutional change is a roadmap to defeat and demoralisation.

    Lest we forget it was the SNP’s social democratic agenda that got them elected in May 2011 much more than their constitutional position. If the SNP strategists forget that they are sleepwalking toward a minefield that may need a lot more that the fancy footwork of Alex Salmond to get them through intact.

    When it comes to re-imagining Scotland’s different futures it is unwise to say “There are two different approaches on offer.”. There are many. Some overlapping. Few mutualy exclusive.

    When it comes to tactical and practical priorities all roads lead to the referendum. The Scottish Independence Convention will be a key player between now and 2014.

    Similarly we should all seek to work to develop a social justice aganda outwith institutional Scotland but have the political nous to realise this will not make itself felt effectively until we have the all the enabling tools of self-government at our disposal.

    Kevin W.

  3. bellacaledonia says:

    I don’t see it as either-or.

    We need to disengage from and help to dismantle the British State (Kevin’s point) , but we also need to create a more participatory political set of structures that help people make decisions and not dissolve into a passive mass of hyper-consumerist droids (Gerry’s point, I think).

    You don’t for example rid yourself as a society and as a nation of Trident without the former approach, but equally we need to have people based in their own communities not professional politicians creating ideas, the latter.

  4. Keef says:

    The points Gerry makes are perhaps a few years too early.
    Scotland must first gain Independence before we move to the next stage of “birthing” the nation.
    Only then is it possible for this latent talent and groundswell of opinion to be heard.

    The Snp’s biggest problem today, is the daily struggle against biased media coverage. Coupled with the fact that anything they do say is invairably twisted by those who control what the public hear and see.

    The message is getting through though. It may be slow despite the media bias, but they are getting there.

  5. Indy says:

    I think it’s really important that the debate about Scotland’s future and the independence campaign is much wider and bigger than the SNP. There is an independence movement and the SNP is part of that.. But people need to remember that we are a political party and therefore we behave like a politcal party. Our focus is on fighting campaigns and winning votes. There is a lot of hard graft involved in that which to a certain extent detracts from the time available for activists to just sit and think. A lot of our time is taken up with the nitty gritty of campaigning and raising funds and some of us like to be able to spend a bit of time with our families as well!

    Folk need to appreciate there is practically no downtime in the electoral cycle any more which as I said reduces the time people have to do other things. Just to think about the past couple of years we had the Westminster election in May 2010, then the Scottish Parliament boundaries were changed and we had to re-organise all our branches to match the new bundaries, then we had the Scottish election campaign and almost as soon as that was over we had to start selecting candidates for the local government elections and start campaigning for that. So we have an electoral cycle which almost never stops cos all the elections are held in different years. And on top of that we have all the voter identification to do for the independence campaign, the task of speaking to every household in Scotland. That’s a big task and will require a huge effort. So if you are an SNP activist basically the next few years is just going to be work, work, work without a lot of time and space for much else.

    I hope that doesn’t sound too negative because it’s not meant to be. Without wishing to sound boastful or braggardly the SNP has developed a level of campaigning expertise which is second to none. But I totally agree that winning the referendum is going to take more than just a well organised and well funded campaign and that’s why it’s essential that everyone who believes in independence, and even people who haven’t quite made up their minds, gets involved and that the debate becomes much broader than who said what to who at FMQs or what figures are churned out in press releases. The independence campaign is not going to take place in the Scottish Parliament, that’s really going to be a sideshow. It’s going to take place on peoples doorsteps and in communities and it’s not going to be like a parliamentary election, it will be something quite different.I think as time goes on people will start to see that but we definitely need a forum that is wider than the SNP to go forward.

    In fact I sometimes think there is too much of an expectation on the SNP to lead. Obviously we are in government etc so we are leading in that sense. But politics shouldn’t be a spectator sport. I’ve taken part in a lot of discussions where people are talking about things like a written constitution for Scotland or what Devo Max actually means and it always seems to come down to what the SNP is going to do about it. It’s almost as if nothing can happen unless we do it. Which is crazy because everyone has a stake in this. If people have ideas about what a written constitution should look like they should start discussing that and putting forward ideas. If people think Devo Max is a viable option they should start working it up and putting it forward as a concrete proposal – whether or not it goes on the ballot paper it can only really be considered if people know what it is. If there is a desire for the debate to be broader than a party political one then the non-party political people need to join in. We would welcome that, indeed I would say get on with it.

  6. Gerry Hassan says:

    These are interesting comments everyone and I am going to read again and digest. A first reaction to one point is that I am fundamentally wary of the lets leave everything to the day/time after independence. Such an approach I think a) makes independence less likely because it makes seem less ‘real’ and more of a utopian ‘abstract’, and b) means that if we won it might produce less political change – because we havent debated what kind of Scotland, what kind of collective future as a society we want. And as one view put it above – we have to get past either/or politics. It is surely independence/statehood and the campaign for social justice and against market vandalism.

  7. A propos of putting meat on the skeleton of what an independent Scotland, I agree this is something I wish would happen, if only because I want to see the rebirth of my nation before I am recycled.

    However, we are all assuming that the necessity for this will happen instantaneously, or pretty quickly, after the referendum. Leaving aside the question of 2 or 3 questions which we have already seen is being picked over in all its minutiae, as a dress rehearsal for what do when the result is announced, the Westminster government will play every delaying tactic in the book to string out “their” oil revenues whilst they try to get an “English” economy up and running again. By English I mean non City fraudster based.

    Let us say that the referendum in 2014 is positive just, for independence, but there is also a large percentage for FFA, that will give Westminster months or years of negotiating fat to waffle with.

    My guess is that Independence Day would be about 2018 to 2020,

    That gives the Scottish people loads of time to chose, currency, defence force, political and economic organisation associations. What did Keynes say about changing his opinion? When the circumstances change I re-evaluate and adjust accordingly (my paraphrase)

    AS and the SNP need to keep their powder dry, drip feed teasers into the Media but, leave the big debates for the period of rebirthing labour of our Nation.

    The referendum is a but one step forward , albeit a big one but there is still a long march ahead,

  8. In any Scottish Constitution, the first heading and summary clauses should be along the lines of:

    “The People of Scotland are sovereign.

    In accordance with Scottish constitutional practice first expressed in 1320, entrenched in Scots Law in 1328 and reasserted by the 1689 Claim of Right; we, the people of Scotland, are sovereign.

    The sovereign people of Scotland only agree to loan their sovereignty to the Parliament of Scotland for sake of good and honest governance made in the best interests of the sovereign people and the common weal for a period of no longer than five years.

    The sovereign people retain their right to withdraw their sovereignty in cases where the Parliament or Scottish Government’s conduct does not reflect the best interests of the sovereign people or the common weal, agreed that this is so by means of a referendum after the case is established by the successful indictment of the Government of Scotland or Parliament for acting contrary to the best interests or common weal of Scotland in the Court of Session or other extra-territorial legal body that may be agreed upon by the sovereign people.”

    Something on these lines will go far to prevent the situation that is now plain at Westminster – where the lunatics have clearly taken over the asylum but the electorate have no way of bringing them to heel – while retaining strong checks and balances to prevent frivilous claims and potential government by chaos as is prevalent in, for example, Italy.

    This is not that different to the SNP’s Draft Scottish Constitution but it puts the emphasis on the independence of Scots Law to arbitrate from a basis of objective evidence, rather than the minority opposition clause in the SNP’s version to act as a check or balance which is open to abuse by the politicians and their parties.

    I believe that any Scottish Consitution should be able to say all that is needed on one side of A4 in plain Scots and readable print.

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