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Parallel Universes

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Aggressive feminine certainty?


In this still-liminal land, everyone is groping about to find meaning, clarity, purpose in the post-referendum Scotland. Longer-term strategies are being explored, schisms resisted, new-energies sought.

We thought it was dawn but it turns out it was nightfall. Then as soon as we settled down for a long sleep the sun rose.

As everyone tries to grapple with these new realities some basic questions keep re-emerging: what is the nature of the Yes movement? How does the desire for independence work with the idea for social justice? What, if any, of our institutions and structures are ‘fit for purpose’?

Political commentator Gerry Hassan has offered grist to this debate for years, but his most recent essay for Scottish Review ‘Time travel: the parallel universe of post-ref Scotland’ raises some extraordinary questions about Scottish politics which need addressing.

Gerry is at his most over-reached in this essay, which spans history, social movement, psychology and religion and accuses people of ‘defeatism’ ‘bunkerism’ and ‘blame’ whilst practicing each in full flight. There is ‘a whiff of smugness and self-certainty’ we’re told, in stridently self-certain terms.

He writes: “The power of black and white Scotland is empowering …but it is a fleeting, unsustainable feeling. In its simplicities and over-assertion, it often spills over into bitterness, disappointment and defeatism” before putting the boot into Ruth Wishart and Joyce McMillan and slating most of the independence movement. This is a bizarre lack of self-consciousness that is riddled with a closed-world defeatism and a narrow political prospect.

Luckily ‘Kirsty’ enters the frame half way through. I’m not sure if she is a construct or a real person.  She is riven with confusion and lies to her ‘Yes and No friends’ telling them each a different story about how she voted.

He writes: ‘Kirsty took the easy option with her friends of telling them what they wanted to hear. But in so doing she also came as close as she could in a binary vote to addressing that she was nearly equally divided between the two options. There is also in all probability something about how some women deal and negotiate with the masculinist aggressive certainty of parts of our public and private lives.’

This is an odd gender binaryism. It’s like an academic version of ‘Eat Your Cereal’. If I was WfI I’d have you for breakfast. But what is this? Is it confessional?

I’m not sure how deciding you want a fully functioning democracy and to embrace the sovereignty enjoyed by most nations throughout the world is ‘masculinist aggressive certainty’. Nor does the picture painted describe the doubt-filled and complex argumentation often led by articulate women in a campaign filled with feminine iconography.

He continues: “These inner voices, fears and doubts were silenced and excluded from most of the independence debate, yet they touch on some of the deep psychological dimensions which political change of the magnitude of independence has to address, and which for the most part, the ‘official’ SNP and Yes campaigns, tried to ignore.”

I’m not sure what is being proposed here. Is Hassan suggesting that Yes should have run a campaign on doubt?

The referendum movement was exhaustive in exploring every angle and nuance of self-determination. To argue that ‘fears and doubts’ were silenced is  a sophomoric curio.

So, who’s to blame?

It’s the Left’s fault, apparently:

“The same has been true for much of the left throughout its history. Reinforcing this has been the left’s sense of itself and its history which has foreclosed it understanding the limits of its own message, tribalism and who it is including and excluding in such musical charges as ‘Which Side Are You On?’ and ‘The Red Flag’ (‘though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the Red Flag flying here’).”

In campaigning over five years I never once heard these songs at any indyref events. This is a projection of some other dispute Gerry / Kirsty is having. He goes on to assert:

“Any honest, sustainable radical politics in today’s world, whether in Scotland or elsewhere in the West, has to speak in a very different way from the lefts and radicals of previous generations.”

Why this is true we’re not told. Gerry says it. You could call it simplistic over-assertion.

In packed finale we are told:

“The future of tomorrow’s radicals has to be based on going with social change and trends, understanding that individualism and neo-liberalism aren’t the same thing, and that new forms of collectivity and being political have to emerge which are different from the past. Fundamental to this is embracing an outlook of possibilities, of optimism, hope and positivity, which stresses that the current constrained consensus, vested interests and elites can be taken on and defeated, and a different set of values, ideas and practices advanced.”

Actually the indy movement had some of these kernels within it. We were (and are) racked with doubt, there is a flourishing individualism and diversity and new forms of collectivity are being expressed all over the place. I’m not sure why Hassan is blind to all of this.

Where is the Commonweal in this analysis? Where are RIC? Where are the self-organised Yes shops, the alliances, the cross-fertilisation of ideas? Where is Business for Scotland and the sharing and mingling of trade unionists and manufacturers? Where is the huge cultural movement which drove forward a large part of the movement? Where are the forums and alternative media that grew up out of nothing to champion new thinking? Where is the massive role played by Women for Independence? Where is the youth movement? Where are the endless endless debates? Where is any of this spontaneous energy in Gerry’s world?

It’s all absent in this one-dimensional caricature.

The independence movement was (and is) full of optimism hope and positivity – but it is not struck by a naivety that going back to Devo options are a genuine way forward. The referendum campaign was a watershed about where power lies in our society. It gave hundreds of thousands of people clarity for the first time. This shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘bunkerism’ or ridiculed as ‘aggressive certainty’.

If we don’t want real change, or believe in it, then we are really defeated. In Hassan’s view we are already doomed by wider forces: “There is a powerfully and noisily articulated feeling in parts of Scotland that we have somehow successfully resisted these forces, and can do so more in the future. This is seen in the pale version in the nostalgia for the British post-war settlement, and in more radical expressions that Scotland can challenge neo-liberal orthodoxies and embark on a radically different progressive course, which no-one else has yet succeeded at.”

This appears to be a recipe for doing nothing. Neo-liberal orthodoxies can’t and presumably shouldn’t be challenged, as they can’t be defeated. And no radically different courses are available. If this is the case, I’m not sure what is left on the table, nor why Kirsty / Gerry were so confused.

To the idea that  ‘Another Scotland is Possible’, the response seems to be : no it isn’t.


Comments (23)

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  1. Angie says:

    Dear Mike,

    I signed up to receive your news alerts back in September and I enjoy receiving same.

    I am just wondering why I do not see a “from” on said email alerts. All I can see is a very small “dot” and the first few times it happened, I deleted the email without looking thinking it was spam. So then I had to go back through my deletes after I opened one of them and found out what it was.

    Don’t understand this. Can you explain?

    All the best,



  2. Justin Fayre says:

    What on earth is happening to the Scottish Review in general and Kenneth Roy in particular. My god it hurts to discover your idol has feet of clay.
    What used to be a hard-hitting, fearless, seeker of truth has, in recent weeks into a Scottish Government bashing pinball machine.Non stop attack after attack and that’s before you include the rabid rants of Dr Stevenson I presume.
    Every single article Kenneth Roy has published up until recently has always offered the ‘target’ or ‘targets’ the opportunity to comment. His last two or three haven’t;
    Enough said?

  3. Graeme says:

    I am delighted, *delighted* that this rejoinder has been made. I read the Hassan and thought it specious and, well, just so damn patronising: tonally and politically. The high-priestliness – it IS the Scottish Review – is increasingly grating. Plus, the logic throughout was wet paper bag. The irony is there is nothing neoliberalism likes more than the claim that ‘old left’ ideas are dead and buried. (Strangely ignoring the amount of novel ideas in indyref). It loves the fetish of ‘nuance’ and ‘complexity’, not because it employs them itself, but because these can be spun into associating ideas such as ‘collectivity’ and ‘nationalism’ or ‘commons’ with dinosaurism. AS if there is no ‘nuance’ to be had within them. These ‘old left’ ideas (that so many seem to rather like) are cast as ‘ideas’, for in a world of TINA carry the notion of an economy that is political and gettable rather than, well, THE economy cannot be disseminated. Hassan’s article read like it has caved to these. It reads like New Statesmanspeak to me. The pontificating is unbearable. Who ever won a campaign on uncertainty? Folk who were swaying only needed an admission a Yes-ser was ‘uncertain’ to swing back to a no. Perhaps the level of certainty was what got SO MANY votes. That a possibility?

    1. Really like your point about the way that the right (including those of the right who think they’re on the left) uses the ideas of ‘nuance’ and ‘complexity’. I’d go a little further, however. Unnecessary ‘complexity’ and ‘nuance’ are generally signs of confusion and lack of understanding. Or hypocrisy and stupidity, if one’s being uncharitable. As relates to Scottish independence, I realised the importance of making that case just a couple of days before the referendum:


      Thus far, though, I’ve never yet got round to facing squarely the history of right-wing /neoliberal / New Labour abuses of the word ‘New’, and its associated hurrah term, ‘modernisation’. It’s a subject with a vast and squalid history, but key actors are Ramsay MacDonald (‘New’ Socialism for the 1929 election campaign), Mosley (the ‘New’ Party), Marxism Today (‘New Times’), Gaitskell (modernisation), Callahan and – of course – the Blair crew.

  4. Jim Bennett says:

    Kenneth Roy is a nasty piece of work who is fixated on an anti-Scottish Government agenda. Gerry Hassan is a different kettle of fish though. I think Mike has been a touch too harsh with him and his article. Please read it before commenting, people!
    Hassan makes good points about mythologising the left in Scotland as well as poking at the conspiracy theorists post referendum. YES is a big tent and Gerry Hassan will always have a place in it!

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Yes is a big tent and Gerry has and I’m sure will continue to make a massive contribution. I agree with much of what he says but I’m merely stating that this piece is riddled with contradictions and his attack on the left seems odd, incomplete and evasive. Happy to engage Gerry with dialogue on this.

    2. Barbara McKenzie says:

      No, Mike has not been too harsh. And you can navel-gaze about mythologising the left, but the rest of Scotland is focused on the upcoming general election, on devolution and independence.

      And actually, first-world countries have automatic mechanisms for examining election and referenda procedure , after EVERY election – I would always look sideways at anyone with a problem with this.

  5. Agree with you Jim but I also think Gerry whilst not as negative as Kenneth Roy is coming from the same place ie it’s all to difficult and anyone expecting to do better than what we have now is kidding themselves.
    Gerry can’t IMHO get over Labour’s failure and ‘if thae cannae dae it’ nor can anyone else??

  6. kate says:

    Middle class/academic concerns over lack of complexity often lead back to covertly approving the status quo. The current system serves them well and the incentive to radically change it is very small.
    Socialism in new more democratic gender equal forms would be unlikely to bring middle class academics and artists (or socially mobile working class ones) more materially or in terms of institutional power. Usually,scratching the surface,the worry is more that socialism might happen than about factors that could prevent it happening.

    Inaction against austerity will not lead the comfortably off anywhere near a food bank, so they can afford to be detached & light hearted as they the survey options which are so extensive for themselves and so limited for many.

    i agree there seemed great diversity and plenty of individualism in yes campaign.
    i’m not sure what GH really wants to see happen & have wondered that before.

    Re his Guy Fawkes effigy Salmond tooke the opportunity to confirm that he was going to be a threat to the Westminister establishment and if they were worried , then they were right. Not really a statement of the SNP’s intention to play dead.

    The SNP (with Greens, welsh & irish nationalist) seems likely to get a lot of bargaining power and may constitute a de facto anti austerity coalition after the election, so what do people want them to do with it ?If SNP too helpful to Labour will end up another default austerity coalition.

    Depending on what the stakes are there will probably be a full scale MSM war against SNP, Greens, Welsh & Irish nats after the election. There is a small one now with Scottish Labor (& Ukip) as the great hopes of MSM to stave off further attacks on neo liberalism in Scotland, London & rUK.

    MSM loves Ukip, showing they have no fear of nationalists as long as right wing, but only of anti austerity & environmental politics.

  7. Barbara McKenzie says:

    Thanks for this Mike, and the link, I think. Unlike for some of your readers, Hassan’s article strikes me as an appalling piece of writing, flabby, contradictory, intellectually dishonest and at times incomprehensible in terms of its intentions.

    ‘There is nationalist, left and even Nordic romanticism, which is grounded in revulsion at the realities of Anglo-American capitalism and yearning for change.’
    What does he mean by the weaselly expression ‘the realities of Anglo-American capitalism’? Is he talking about the disgraceful behaviour of bankers and the support offered to them by Blair, Brown and Cameron? The protected elite paedophile networks? The huge social inequalities which make Britain unique in Europe? Is he condemning these realities or favouring them or sitting on the fence?

    ‘a rather unattractive mindset has come to exist in parts of the left and nationalist cause which believes that stating it and calling it so equals political change.’
    How does this square with the dynamism shown by the Yes campaign and the positivism and activity evident now?

    ‘Thus, a culture of hyperbole and over-inflated rhetoric leads to exhortations, hectoring and declaration which becomes a parallel universe world which loses grip with reality.’
    Is he talking about the political campaign? Just how often was the Yes side faulted for dishonesty and bogus threats, compared with the No campaigners?

    ‘There is the detesting and dismissal of the Scottish Labour Party which is always bad political judgement. This learns nothing from how Labour’s historic hatred of the SNP hurt how it engaged with it. Bunker mentality politics never work well or turn out as the bunkerists imagine.’
    How can someone say so much and yet so little at the same time? A sizable percentage of Scottish Labour supporters voted No, some at least out of party loyalty. Surely it makes sense to address the role of Scottish Labour, even if it is difficult to do it with a straight face.
    I note the use of the word ‘detesting’, where an honest commentator would use here words like ‘derision’ and ‘contempt’.

    Well, the Yes campaigners seen to have all the psychological weaknesses don’t they? Smugness and self-certainty, bitterness, disappointment and defeatism, whatever. I would have thought there were other qualities worth mentioning, such as positivity, good-humour and focus, but there you go.

    1. MBC says:

      In common Scots parlance, such lofty, intellectually dishonest, fact-free ‘creative’ writing like Hassan’s is called ‘guff’.

  8. MBC says:

    Thanks for this piece Mike. I confess I gave up on reading Gerry Hassan some time ago. He is a bit hit or miss. I confess my eyes glazed over reading this latest piece of fact-free miserabilism from the Scottish Review. I think Kenneth Roy must be ill – I hope not, poor man – but the mind and the body are one, and when people take this negative tone they are sadly not long for this world. I remember my Dad lying on the sofa all winter, saying, ‘I’m sick of life’, and in the spring he began suffering from the symptoms of the terminal illness that would claim him. Was it the cancer speaking that winter? Or did his miserabilism so weaken his immune system it let the cancer get a grip? What’s the chicken, and what’s the egg? I’ll never know. But there’s a difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism seeks the truth, in a robust way, with committed vigour, precisely because it feels the truth exists, and that it is transformative. Cynics however don’t believe there is any truth to be found, and that transformation is therefore impossible; we’re all doomed. The only solution to dealing with the infirmities of life is to expect nothing. Cynicism is very Zen. So Kenneth, (and Gerry) if you are reading this, for the sake of your own health (never mind Scotland’s) for God’s sake snap out of it and get a grip. Life as well as death, is a weapon, in the battle for justice and freedom. Therefore choose life always. Choose hope over despair. The Yes movement mobilised transformative amounts of energy and positivism. Change happens when people acquire the drive, the chutzpah, for change. That energy and power for change, that challenging of the shibboleths of pre-ordained expectations, is what historians call a ‘paradigm shift’. A paradigm shift has occurred. People have begun imagining a better world, a fairer Scotland. A ‘can do’ moment has arrived.

    1. MBC says:

      ‘Choose life, choose hope, choose change’ paradigm = ‘aggresive feminine certainty’.

      1. Gary says:

        You seem to be saying that those who have a different perspective from you are terminally ill? I agree with most of what Gerry wrote and feel absolutely wonderful.

    2. lawrenceab says:

      Excellent. So well put. Choose life. It seems to me that this is what has characterized the Yes campaign. I don’t deny the happy clappy sometimes hectoring aspects that turned some off some sensitive souls but hey, there was a lot to fight against. In its essence, Yes is vibrant for a reason. No is not.

  9. muttley79 says:

    Gerry Hassan seems to resent Joyce McMillan and Iain Macwhirter for some reason. He usually takes pot shots at them, rather than the Cochranes, the Gardham’s, and the Peterkin’s of the MSM.

  10. CW says:

    Kenneth Roy has the peculiarly Scottish disease of being a pessimist to an extent which sometimes transcends all logic. Gerry Hassan is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. His basic sentence construction and grammar are often an absolute mess, and that’s before we even consider his ideas.

  11. Lochside says:

    Gerry was a reluctant camp follower of ‘YES’ but always hankered for Labour to experience a Damascene conversion to socialism,. He never seemed to accept that Labour, and particularly Scottish Labour, if it ever existed, always was a corrupt form of municipal cronyism steeped in bigotry and regionalism.
    The ‘YES’ campaign embraced a spectrum of people and backgrounds and inspired people in a way that the Labour party of today could only dream about.
    Gerry exhibits the classic chattering class characteristic of moral cowardice. Now’s the time and now’s the hour!..YES as a movement is alive and kicking…and Labour is on the receiving end!

    1. Barbara McKenzie says:


    2. Ken Waldron says:

      Yup. Kinda like Kevin Mckenna…

  12. Alastair C says:

    I just thought it was good to hear Gerry challenging ‘bunker mentality politics’. That’s not remote academic guff, just good sense

    1. MBC says:

      ‘bunker mentality politics’ – meaning the dead end that Scottish Labour is currently in? Gerry doesn’t exactly enlighten us on the meaning of this enigmatic phrase,

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