A guide on how to become an independent nation-state

Matt Qvortrup (2022) I want to break free: A practical guide to making a new country, Manchester University Press, Paperback: £12.99.

Reviewed by Hannah Graham.

Dressed like James Bond at a cocktail party, communicating with humour and clarity, Professor Matt Qvortrup is immediately more engaging than his academic profession might otherwise imply on paper. He is not your typical academic and his new book is all the better for it. At his book launch in Glasgow University Union, instinctively I find myself liking how he blends the interesting (style) with the intellectually informative (substance) in discussing how to create a new country. I message a Scottish political scientist to say I’m at the book launch and their view (knowing much more of his scholarly work than I do) resonates, “I like Matt. He is well worth listening to.” I sit with my neighbours from our block of flats in Glasgow, whose verdict at the end is the same, “very interesting and informative, well worth going out in the rain to hear him.” 

Indeed, the Preface and Introduction of I want to break free have the same effect as hearing the author communicate in person: he holds your attention with vibrant stories and lucid rationale, capable of detail minus the minutiae, leaving no need for convincing to read on. 

Qvortrup did his PhD on independence referendums and is an internationally recognised authority on them. Since then, he has had a seat at many a top table – and the book is inflected with some of the coterie conversations that form part of such international travel and political advising. He describes this book as ‘a book which serves to give the game away’ (page xiv), like a ‘DIY political divorce kit’ and ‘DIY guide to creating a new country’ (page xii). This alone is likely to pique the interest of readers with a view on Scotland’s future, whichever direction of campaigning that may align with.

Alongside lively stories, musical metaphors and witticisms are woven through the book. After a skillful historical introduction to self-determination in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 ‘Start me up: how to establish a movement and win support’ spans political communication, the arts, sociology and psychology, considering how to win hearts and minds towards independence. Eurovision, The Proclaimers and Robert Burns feature. Finlandia, written 18 years before Finland’s independence, is another example, serving as a hymn-like invocation of togetherness and galvanising national courage in times of struggle, now played in solidarity and protest against the worrying backdrop of their neighbour’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The third chapter: ‘What’s law got to do with it? The legal side of creating a new state’ does what it says on the tin, in some depth, as one of the longer chapters in the book. The following chapter: ‘The power and the passion: the international politics of creating a new state’ is shorter, putting the issues of the last legal chapter in comparative context, illuminating the political choreography and power dynamics that can permeate procedural legal matters.

There then follows ‘Constitution building: Rebuilding the ship at sea’ which offers sage advice and warnings on democratic processes and public involvement in constitution drafting and creating new nations. This chapter and indeed the entire book sparks fascinating thoughts and questions about how the SNP might fare with realising its raison d’etre – in the words of Rob Johns and James Mitchell (Takeover, 2016: page 221) with the SNP as ‘the safe pair of hands on the tiller’ at Holyrood, the ‘hands that rock the boat – almost to the point of capsize’ at Westminster, and then potentially the hands that, among others, help ‘repair the boat at sea’ in an independent Scotland, to use Qvortrup’s anology. Given the SNP’s capacity to ‘campaign in poetry, govern in prose’, what will be the state of their poetry and their prose if in government in a newly independent Scotland?

‘Shake your money maker: The economics of becoming a new country’ (Chapter 6) is a challenging area to broach for a politics professor writing for a general audience, one which he tackles adeptly by using stories, examples and concepts, rather bombarding with dense and daunting statistical charts. A need to negotiate and ‘give up some of the family silver’ in secession processes is broached. Unsurprisingly, Scotland, the UK, and paying the bills feature in this chapter.

This book is better on communicating about nationalisms than it is on populisms. Given his expertise and international experience, Matt Qvortrup would know much about the complexity and plurality of populism as a contested concept and the diversity of forms it can take. A gentle critique here is that readers would have benefited if there was more precision in parts of this book, by directly explaining what he means (and doesn’t mean) when advocating populism and populist strategies. Many of the practical examples he gives from other countries are apt.

However, a striking case in point is the unnervingly under-caveated advice in Chapter 2 on ‘winning a referendum.’ After criticising the Scotland’s Future white paper in the 2014 indyref as not working because it was ‘factual and comprehensive’, Qvortrup presses readers to consider the ‘success’ of Brexiteers and the Leave campaign in appealing to emotions, lacking in detail, ‘speaking to prejudices’ and ‘bending the rules’:

Before you become independent, you usually need to win the support of the people… The leave campaign was characterised by simplistic claims, which were at best based on weak (if existing) evidence. That worked. You might not like individuals like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Don’t let antipathies get in your way. You learn from those that are successful, never mind what they believed in. And then you copy their methods. (Qvortrup, 2022: 34-35).

Except the methods of Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, and Nigel Farage weren’t successful in Scotland in the Brexit referendum, nor in elections. Even Donald Trump gets a mention. Opinion polls show that Scots really don’t like nor trust these types. Who and what might convince (some) people in England to force us all to leave the EU is not necessarily who and what might convince people in Scotland to leave the Union, unless it’s as a recruiting sergeant for independence. 

Qvortrup’s advocacy of populism and ruthless Rasputin-like characters that ‘bend the rules’ and ‘sometimes have to play rough to succeed’ may seem realistic, taken at face value. Politics is not for the faint-hearted; it gets gritty and messy and campaign strategists and leaders need to be able to hack it when it does. Yet his advice provokes in me a weary intersectional feminist urge to reiterate that other means and ways are possible, without, inevitably, the rest of us paying a costly price for being led by disruptive and dishonest ‘move fast and break things’ macho political types. 

While we could do with more thinkers and strategists at the top tables, Scotland does not need more Svengalis to guide her towards referendum success. New nations are built on much stronger foundations than the emotive false prospectus of such characters. Other, more social democratic populisms are possible.

Overall, this book is refreshing and excellent, making it easy to recommend. It renders visible and accessible to a wider audience things that would be easily recognisable to specialists – to campaign strategists, special advisers, political scientists, or the Hanbury Strategy and Charlotte Street Partners of these isles. For those of us outside of the small circles of the Scottish and British insider political classes, looking in from diverse standpoints, I want to break free clearly explains what is possible and, in general terms, how. It doesn’t play down how hard it is, and it doesn’t dumb down nor back down from the difficult issues. In thinking about ‘the now’ and the ‘not yet’ in Scotland, such a pragmatic contribution is very welcome.


Comments (4)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Mr Qvortrup has a regular column in the magazine Philosophy Now, it is light-hearted and witty, but, nevertheless makes cogent points. It is always worth reading.

    Changing attitudes is a subtle multi-faceted task and, while important, facts and logic are of themselves not enough. The emotions need to be engaged, too. The dishonesty of the Brexit campaign and the mendacious ‘blokeishness’ of its two main public faces, – Farage and Johnson (alumni of such peoples’ establishment Dulwich College and Eton), should not be deployed in the cause of independence, but it is indeed, worth examining for the things which ‘struck chords’ (but failed to do so here in Scotland despite the propaganda of the BBC and much of the press.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Alasdair Macdonald, well quite, who benefits from post-referendum Buyer’s Remorse?
      If people feel the process that resulted in Independence was inherently flawed, it can only sap the confidence of people in making post-Independence decisions (on Constitution and government etc.) thus opening the door to dictatorship by disengagement, deference and default.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I should add that in my limited experience of academic political scientists I detected a reactionary bias, their prescriptions often tame and even bland reheatings and reworkings of the status quo (which had after all rewarded them with tenure, platform and status). Like academic economists, they may be surprised by events and struggle for insight into new forms of politics which have seen through and discarded the old (like paradigm shifts in science, perhaps).

    There are more recent frameworks for development which might be applied to political systems (and I’m not talking about move fast and break things here), along with a more first-principles philosophy of science approach, which might be capable of delivering the radical shift in systems thinking needed. That, and without a multi-disciplinary approach that takes into account whole-Earth systems, political scientists often don’t appear to understand the problem their prescription needs to solve (solutions to yesterday’s problems won’t cut it in our fast-moving, complex, adaptive and precarious world).

    I favour the viewpoint of looking at what an Independent Scotland will give to the world, what role it could play, in what ways help human and non-human life alike, what useful patterns it could generate. If you start from there, it is unlikely you will end up with a political system dominated by our stale and corrupt parties/feudal overlords.

  3. James SCOTT says:

    Recently a telephone interview with Prof Qvortrup was posted on the Catalan pro-independence webiste ‘Vilaweb’ in which he gives his advice as to how the Catalans might act to secure their independence.

    He recommends, in summary, a realpolitik strategy of cosying up to the USA, UK [!] and France and forgetting about the EU.

    He fails however to make mention of the fact that, since Northern Catalonia is in France, the chances of support from that particular quarter are more than somewhat remote.


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