Scotland the Bold

imagesReview of Scotland the Bold by Gerry Hassan, Freight Books, Glasgow, 2016, £9.99. Available from Word Power books.

Politics is the lifeblood for some, and that is the problem with it for the rest of us. I’ve never been attracted to the visceral nature of party politics. Neither, for that matter, to heavy tomes of economic history. It always seems like there’s so much more to what it means to be a nation, a community writ large that is a community of place for its peoples. But the trouble with that standpoint, is that it leaves those of us who hold it feeling like political virgins when the chips are down. The strength of this book by the political and social commentator, Gerry Hassan, author of “Caledonian Dreaming”, is that in one rounded read it addresses many of those deficits. Whilst not pretending to be the advanced text, this book is a primer of where political Scotland is at today.

In reading it I reflected, often, on a couple of years in the late 1990s spent working closely with Canon Kenyon Wright on the People and Parliament project. At the time he was also chairing the consultative committee on the new parliament. We managed to involve some 500 groups from across Scotland by inviting them to discern three questions:

• Who are we as a people?
• What kind of a Scotland do we want by 2020?
• How do we therefore expect our Parliament to work with the people?

People said that they were fed up with “yah-boo” oppositional politics. They wanted a Scottish parliament that would be respectful, grounded and humane. In our report published in 1999, Kenyon summed up the findings as follows:

“There is deep frustration with our fragmented society, and a feeling of anger and disconnection with the present system of government and politics. Based on this, there is a profound longing for a new kind of politics and society that will listen to, care for, respect and share with, all our people – rooted in a strong sense of national identity and community, and the vision of a renewed nation in which all count and none are excluded. This is reinforced by the recurrent theme, that the people of Scotland must now learn to take responsibility for their own destiny – and mistakes – and overcome the tendency to blame others. The strong desire for a better society and community is constantly linked with the need for greater participation and partnership in power. Improvement needs empowerment.”

That call speaks to me of why Hassan’s latest book is timely and important. The cover’s strap line reads: “How our nation has changed and why there is no going back.” Chapter by chapter Hassan usefully summarises themes that people like me – who prefer doing their politics with a small “p” – tend to avoid and appreciate being briefed on. The reasons for the decline of the Labour Party. A review of the Thatcher years. A reminder of the main positions staked out by the Yes and No sides in the independence referendum, and critically, both the appeal and limits of a politics which is centred on two nationalisms: Scottish and British.

To some seasoned operators, the need for such sketches might seem obvious, but ‘Scotland the Bold’ takes us below the surface and explores many assumptions taken as unchallengeable. And to those of us who are relative amateurs; to those of us who don’t want to give our lives studying the intricacies of elections circa 1945, or the economics of shipbuilding, these chapters and subheadings help to fill in the backstory and think differently. As such, this is a book that helps to bring us up to speed – a key contribution to the politics of Scotland today.

Structurally, Scotland the Bold starts with an appraisal of where we are at this moment in history. Post-indyref. Post-Brexit. And, as has become apparent since the book went to press, on the cusp of Trump. Hassan is not afraid of melding politics with psychology. He draws out our strengths. We are “a Scotland that doesn’t give blank cheques or blind obedience to any political tradition or authority.” Yet, amongst our weaknesses we have, for example, “a serious problem with emotional intelligence … [to] recognise the feelings of others, and act beyond one’s own gut and instinctual feelings.”

Iain Crichton Smith in his essay, “The Feeling Intelligence”, outlined historical reasons for that deficit. It was not, from his Hebridean perspective, our native state. But it is where history has landed us, and if we seek to be a nation restored we need to understand, and start to heal, such wounded tissue in the body politic.

The first half of the book describes major political movements of recent decades. There is the decline in trade unionism. The loss of the local from local government. Britain’s culture of corporate capitalism. The ebb of Unionism. The rise of the Serco state. The shift from Labour to the SNP, but alongside this, the potentially crippling limitations of some of the less thoughtful mores of #the45. The conservatism of large swathes of public life is given historical context in a study of what Hassan calls “unspace” whereby who has power and voice is controlled and mediated.

I would have appreciated a more tightly themed structure, or roadmap. Not all the subsections flow together as smoothly as they might for this admitted amateur, but that is only a stylistic quibble. Perhaps it’s just the messiness of politics. For me, while the first half was informative, but the second half was where the stimulation came. Here, Hassan explores issues like Scotland as a Mongrel Nation, Scots internationalism, the need to free our minds, to examine our sense or lack of sense of culture, and totemic matters such as Trident and the British nuclear fixation. On the latter:

“The UK has historically been a warrior state. Alarmingly, in the more than one hundred years since the onset of the First World War in 1914, there is according to one study not a single year in which the UK armed forces have not been active in combat…. The UK has in effect what can be called an Empire State – a state devised for global pretensions, projection and military expeditions. It is not designed for the care or wellbeing of its own people.”

The book ends with a menu of 64 possible actions for a bold Scotland. Some state what to some of us might be the obvious. Demilitarisation, citizen’s income, land reform and control over our own broadcasting. Others are more unexpected and thought provoking, such as paying councillors properly to rise to their responsibilities. To take just some examples that involve young people, Hassan proposes schooling that is focussed on …

• Perseverance, getting on with people, problem solving, being reliable, ability to talk and listen
• Every secondary school pupil has access to a therapist if they require one
• Incorporation of Scotland’s network of elite private schools into the public sector so we have one integrated system of school education
• An international programme encouraging young people from Scotland to contribute to anti-poverty, welfare and empowerment initiatives around the world

Any book that is about current affairs is written on the hoof, and therefore few are perfect. Hassan has his blind spots. As is to be expected of one whose life has revolved mainly around Dundee and Glasgow, his vision contains little beyond the ordinary concerns about rural issues. As is found amongst most political commentators, spiritual life might be implicit but is not explicit, thereby overlooking the deep legitimising role and moral authority that has been lent, not least, by the mainline churches and figures such as Canon Kenyon Wright, Dr Alison Elliot, Cardinal Tom Winning or the late Professor Duncan Forrester. Adult and popular education could have been given more of a birl, and an index would have been a very useful edition.

Scotland the Bold is an important book, a challenge to the conservatism inherent across Scotland and to those who have bought into some of our most cherished myths without reflecting on them, and thus a contribution to beginning a more reflective, honest conversation about who we are and how we bring about change, as well as being an eminently suitable stocking filler.

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  1. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Scotland the Bold by Gerry Hassan, Freight Books, Glasgow, 2016, £9.99. Well i’ll no be reading that. When Scotland got its chance to vote for independence it chickened out. Gerry would have been better spending his time writing England the Bold. It would be a more honest title and he might have sold more copies.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Good advert, very good advert!

  2. Juteman says:

    Scotland the Bold my arse.
    We shat it when asked the question.
    Gerry Hassan doesn’t seem very bold at paying his gambling debts though.

  3. john mooney says:

    Gerry Hassan can NEVER write one word when 100 will do!Sadly his witterings are so turgid that they lose all sense of meaning in a rambling ennui inducing morass of political bullshit,”Scotland The Bold” sadly something that could never be said with regard to Gerry Hassan!

  4. MBC says:

    Thanks for this helpful summary Alastair. We’ve come a long way since 2000. I would have liked him to have said more about the rise of Green politics and also to have tackled emigration, the traditional curse of Scotland, which sadly shows no sign of halting.

  5. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Come writers and critics
    Who prophesize with your pen
    And keep your eyes wide
    The chance won’t come again
    And don’t speak too soon
    For the wheel’s still in spin
    And there’s no tellin’ who
    That it’s namin’.
    For the loser now
    Will be later to win
    For the times they are a-changin’.

    1. K. A. Mylchreest says:

      Ah, fond memories of a time past, when some of us were still young, naive and hopeful. Didn´t work though did it? We got Regan and Thatcher and always a new war … remember ¨Masters of War¨ ? Seems nothing ever changes, at least only the names change.

  6. florian albert says:

    Alistair McIntosh quotes Gerry Hassan proposing that schools should focus on pupils’ ‘perseverance’.

    Few would doubt that this is an important life skill. Likewise, ‘being reliable’.
    The problem for schools is how to achieve them.
    Do you ‘teach’ perseverance ? Or is it something you acquire while studying other subjects ?

    Curriculum for Excellence has life skills at its heart. The problem is that, ten years on, the evidence available is of regression in Scottish schools.
    No worthwhile evidence of improved life skills such as perseverance alongside clear evidence of deterioration in life skills such as literacy and numeracy.

  7. Alf Baird says:

    “Scotland the Bold”

    Terrible title. A bold Scotland would be one where the 56 SNP “roaring lions” call it a day at Westminster, using the sovereignty the Scottish people gave them to end the union in the same way it began.

  8. Redgauntlet says:

    Harry McGrath, one of the few writers in Scotland worth reading, on Gerry Hassan’s latest ego trip/book:

    Review by Harry McGrath: The Herald 10/12/16

    “GERRY HASSAN is not a man to use one word when six will do. Nouns, verbs and adjectives arrive in bunches and are conjoined into sentences of impenetrable wordiness. Even when concise, a Hassan sentence can result in a bout of head scratching. In his previous book Caledonian Dreaming, he “argued that the indyref and these other moments did not come from nowhere.”

    As it turns out, this is the language of high ambition. His new book is “about modern Scotland, what it is, what it could become and what it might entail.” Unfortunately, Hassan’s powers of prophecy desert him at the first attempt when he declares that “Trump was always likely to fail on sheer demographics alone.

    The early chapters concentrate on the present and the recent past. They feature innumerable subheadings and subjects that are familiar to the point of ennui. For instance, if you want to rehearse the reasons for the decline of the Labour Party in Scotland you can do so again here. Ditto if you need a brief overview of the Thatcher years or feel the urge to rehash the Yes and No campaigns in the referendum.

    There are repeated calls for diverse voices and new ways of speaking, including American writer Marshall Berman’s “Jaytalking”, ie the art of dangerous talking. That would be interesting if Hassan actually tried it. Instead potted analyses of problems at the BBC, the need to remove Trident or the shared Tory/Labour interest in preserving the Union, careen past without offering anything new. In fact, diverse or even new voices are conspicuously absent from the acknowledgements and the endnotes.

    On social justice and inequality, Hassan at least has some suggestions. “Making the Case for an explicit Social Justice Agenda from Rich to Poor” is a typically mystifying subheading but beneath it he promotes affordable childcare, relief from private landlords, a more humane welfare system, land reform and so on. Nobody should object to any of this, but it is not new and most of it already has more articulate advocates.

    The book ends with a “manifesto” consisting of ideas for an “alternative Scotland” courtesy of 80 invited respondents drawn from “an interesting cross-section”. Who wouldn’t want a national festival of stories held in Dundee, full adult literacy, happier, healthier lives, or a citizen’s income? The manifesto is intended to stimulate debate but it is not clear how it will do that given that most of it is either prescriptive or utopian.

    There are always better ways to do what is already being done but only independent powers can change things utterly. For that, Hassan needs to look far beyond a few chosen people scattering ideas around like confetti. His forays furth of Scotland are tentative: a ramble through modern Irish history, a sideways glance at Greenland. They do not include Canada, which is an obvious example of the transforming power of bold ideas. It had to patriate a constitution from Westminster while resisting domination by its giant southern neighbour and eventually created its own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, removed entitlement from the immigration system and reinvented itself around big ideas like multiculturalism, diversity and bilingualism.

    The confidence required to do this came from a Canadian renaissance that began half a century ago and produced great thinkers, writers and musicians. There wasn’t the same sense of an “independence journey” that currently exists in Scotland but the Scottish cultural and political conditions that pertain today are remarkably similar. In political terms, Scotland is also beginning to understand what Canada understood then: just because you are sleeping with an elephant doesn’t mean you have to mirror everything it does.

    If Scotland is to boldly reinvent itself, it will be despite books like this rather than because of them. You don’t build a nation on a hodgepodge of ideas, poorly expressed. Worse, for all its talk of hope and optimism Scotland the Bold is a depressing read. The manifesto is full of suggestions for improving Scottish education and routine moaning about Police Scotland. It has nothing to say about the work being done, say, on microfinance for deprived communities by the Yunus Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, or any of the numerous initiatives that are taking the country forward. Scotland, according to Hassan and his petitioners, is incapable of doing anything well (with the possible exception of managerial politics). The net effect is to diminish the place rather than embolden it.”

    Guys like Hassan do no favors to the case of Scottish independence…

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Redgauntlet – you offer nothing original. Just regurgitation, in full, of somebody else’s opinion. I wonder who you are behind the mask? Why would a gauntlet need a mask?

      You conclude: “Guys like Hassan do no favours to the cause of Scottish independence.” A good commentator doesn’t trade in partisan positions. To me, that is one of Hassan’s strengths. Such is a gift to the cause of real Scottish independence, because real independence issues forth from independence of the mind.

      1. Redgauntlet says:

        Alistair McIntosh, you are probably right, but Harry seems to put the matter so well on a number of points, I just couldn’t resist it. No, I don’t personally know Harry and I don’t know Hassan.

        Hassan is some kind of Scottish national treasure by this stage I would say, and like any hack worth his salt, like any huffing and puffing wordsmith, like any plodder and trier who sweats blood over the page, he must know that there is only one thing worse than somebody talking badly about your book, and that is nobody talking about it, which is always a possibility, let’s not forget it.

        The fact of the matter is we do not have even one great Scottish intellectual at his peak to articulate the case of Scottish independence. This may be why we lost. We have a number of men in their 70’s, like Neal Ascherson. who are the still the best we have got. But there is nobody with the world culture and the intellectual muscle and the disposition to articulate the case in one outstanding book. There is nobody of the time, nobody to flesh out the Zeitgeist.

        Harry McGrath, without quite intending to, identifies the problem well enough: the Canadians had an intellectual Renaissance before independence. The Scots had a “journey”, ie, the Canadians had a process of artists and intellectual engagement. The Scots, on the other hand, enjoyed something second rate, cheesy and trite: “a journey”, one of the corniest metaphors out there.

        Gerry seems to me to be the epitome of that syndrome…

      2. Redgauntlet says:

        As for this Alastair: “A good commentator doesn’t trade in partisan positions. To me, that is one of Hassan’s strengths. Such is a gift to the cause of real Scottish independence, because real independence issues forth from independence of the mind.”

        The above remark of yours is the kind of wooly headed meaningless nonsense which passes for comment these days. I can see why you get on so well with a first rate prattler like Hassan…

        1. Alastair McIntosh says:

          Hello Redgauntlet. You say: “There is nobody of the time, nobody to flesh out the Zeitgeist.” That’s an interesting and significant point, but it does beg the question as to whether this is an era for “great men” (mostly) to lead in that way. I think something much less visible, but more exciting, is happening just now in Scotland. I’m seeing such good thinking and heart in many of they youth of today (by which, being 61, I mean anything under 60). I don’t need to say how and where I see that, but it’s from a deep place tied in with my work and writing, and it heartens me. It gives me hope that a movement is building from a deep groundswell – I’d say “rooted in the spirit of place itself” – except some would maybe think that woolly.

          It is precisely the great leader dynamic that goes hand in hand with a Unionist sense of what Gerry Hassan calls the Empire state. Our Scottish alternative is grounded in the democratic intellect, and that more widely than originally envisioned. That, as the mind applied to serving the community, being in and of the community, and testing knowledge against its value to the community. But I understand that I am talking of matters that are ultimately psychological and spiritual, and I understand that has a marginal place in mainstream discourse. The likes of MacDiarmid, however, or Nan Shepherd, or Iain Crichton Smith would not have underestimated its importance.

          1. john mooney says:

            Conflating Gerry Hassan with the likes of MacDiarmid,Nan Shepard and Ian Crichton Smith? Sorry to say Alastair,I really don’t think so!

          2. I really dont think that was what Alastair was doing!

    2. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Redgauntlet,
      As I said I wont be reading it not even if you bought me it for my Cristmas but cut the guy a bit of slack, he has to make a living and the as we all know the horse is dead.

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        It’s not a conflation, John. I’m using those 3 writers to make a point that is not about Hassan. Indeed, it is a point that, in the penultimate para of my review, I’ve said that (for me) Hassan didn’t explicitly address.

        I’m puzzled by many of the comments here. It seems to me that Hassan’s strength is that he’s not beholden to any one political camp. That seems to be a cause for suspicion and attack in some quarters. I don’t see how those off us who are the 45% are going to reach out to the 55%, if that’s our attitude towards their difference.

        1. john mooney says:

          Thank you for your reply Alastair and a fair point made,that apart I’m afraid I still find Hassan incredibly turgid and far from bold.Seasons greetings and have a hopeful New Year. :o)

  9. Willie says:

    If one doesn’t rate Gerry Hassan’s writings then why read it. Surely it’s as simple as that.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Exactly.

  10. Redgauntlet says:

    Ian Crichton Smith was a huge figure in Scottish culture, not least, and first an foremost, as a writer and a translator and a poet, and from the Gaelic.

    To compare a total thoroughbred plodder like Hassan with Crichton Smith – who is by no means the best of the nation, but still, a thoroughly serious man of letters, so nothing whatsoever to do with a bum cheerleader like Disney;and Hassan / demonstrates how little you know about Scottish culture, MacIntosh.

    And you live here? So why do people like you and Hassan never fail to write, never fail to publish a book a year? Can somebody try to plot the correlation of a total absence of anything new to say with a zest for publishing it?

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      See my above comment. This feels like wilful (and anonymous) misrepresentation of what has been presented in good faith, and courteously so. That’s all. Seasons greetings, and reflections.

      1. Redgauntlet says:

        Alastair, anonymity has been used since the beginning of letters and politics, and for very good reasons, to protect individuals against the abuse of power. If you knew anything about Scottish letters, you’d know who Redguantlet was, let’s start there. And Gerry Hassan, a national anti-tresaure, a kind of plutonium for people who take the Scots seriously – wouldn’t be so much in your thoughts. Gerry has far more power than somebody like I do.

        The fact of the matter is that the people who publish books are people like Gerry Hassan, who has one poster notes above, happens to make a living from it. Anybody who has read the Scottish intellectual tradition – and there is nothing in Hassan to suggest he has, nothing at all – would spot Hassan a mile off. You don’t have to read his books. All you have to do is read one of his newspaper articles.

        But we are, after all, on the website which is proud to have as many different “new voices” writing as possible. There is no check on their criteria, they can write the most uninspiring prose about the most unresearched things, and they have a good chance of getting a gig on Bella. As for the newspapers, the columns are taken up by Scottish politicians, and – the Wee Ginger Dug apart – complete fantasists. There is very little to read in Scotland.

        This is the country of Hume, Smith, Stevenson, of MacDiarmid and MacLean. Men of steel intellectually speaking. I have read the Scottish intellectual tradition. I know it well. I’m not going to stand by and watch Bella Caledonia exalt Gerry Hassan, and there are plenty of others I would name in the same disdainful breath. What nonsense…

        No writer worth his salt can stand these imposters, which is what they are…

        1. Alastair McIntosh says:

          I think you judge Gerry Hassan harshly, but if you’re ever at an event I’m at, please introduce yourself and we can have a blether about that great constellation of writers that you name. I’m checking out of responding to this thread now. Go well.

          1. Redgauntlet says:

            Thanks Alastair.

            And you’re right, why single out Hassan for criticism? There are plenty of others you could say the same thing about, people who write books and just completely ignore, say, David Hume or MacDiarmid or RLS, as if those men had never so much as picked up a pen, in a way not dissimilar to the ant which crawls over your leg on a summer’s day, completely oblivious to your existence.

            Why bother reading them? What’s the point? Who cares? They died a long time ago and nobody else has read them anyway. This seems to be the drift of things in Scotland.

            I am hardly an expert on Hume not like, say, old Professor Berry at Glasgow University. Old Berry has spent his whole life devoted to Hume, or aspects of Hume. And you could spend your whole life devoted to Hume or RLS or MacDiarmid, and probably if you read too much of them, that can be paralyzing. Because almost anything you can say about Scotland has been said by one of those three men better than anybody else could say it.

            Believe me, Alastair, when I went to study at Glasgow University, when I fell into the clutches of old Berry, myself and my classmates knew nothing at all. Nobody knew a thing. The class under was divided into two groups. Those who knew there had been a Revolution in France some time in the past, without being able to specify quite when, and those who had never even heard of the French Revolution. And then old Berry set to work on us, berating us for our ignorance and then trying to explain some things about the Scottish Enlightenment to us. Almost the o0nly decent teacher I ever had was old Berry.

            But quite extraordinary the Scottish education system. An incredible system, breathtaking in its capacity to NOT impart even the most basic information about the human species and its various disastrous schemes on earth….and they say it’s got even worse.

  11. Redgauntlet says:

    Alastair, your words and a night of insomnia have made me recant.

    It strikes me I have been a bit of a Scrooge with that old battler Hassan and that, moreover, Hassan’s “Scotland The Bold” would make an ideal stocking filler for this time of year.

    And so I am going today to buy 4 copies of Hassan’s latest elucubrations and pop each one in an old sock I keep for such occasions, along with a Toblerone and an orange, and then hand these parcels of mine to my four siblings on Christmas Day as I always do, for I always get them the same book Alastair, it’s my form of revenge for being born the youngest and having to put up with them all my life, and it never fails to depress them to receive the same present.

    And then afterwards, around the (gas) fire, to discuss the book, if only the title.

    And on that matter, if I was going to use the word Scotland in the title of a book, it would be in the following way: “Scotland The….?” which I think is a great title for a book, any book about Scotland. “Scotland The…?” has a ring to it and will put no man off buying it. Maybe I will even write that book myself, McIntosh, why not?

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Ah Redgauntlet, I can see the season of goodwill is getting too much for us all, and even tempting me out of the closure of my last comment to say – what a splendid response w.r.t. that “old battleaxe” Gerry Hassan.

      Spare me the book. I’ve read it. But if you ever happen to be in the Govan area then bring along the orange (one of Lesley R’s “wee oranges”), and a Toblerone (pre-Brexit), and I’ll stand you a pint in the Brechin: and in the spirit of Scotland, afore I get too carried away in flights of seasonal rhapsody, we’ll continue there this merrie flyting.

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