David Jamieson

David Jamieson

Self-determination: 2014 is dead

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Conter editor David Jamieson argues that the dispersal of the British state’s legitimacy means that the politics orientations of the 2014 referendum are defunct.

Brexit may have temporarily turned Scotland into a backwater of the British state crisis. Yet the sudden return of the Scottish self-determination issue to prominence in UK politics indicates that the country remains a major barometer of the crisis’ intensity.

The long back and forth between the Scottish Labour leadership office and it’s counterpart in London seems to have resolved itself, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell ignoring Richard Leonard to insist that a Labour government would not block a referendum on Scottish independence voted for by the Scottish Parliament.

It remains unclear how this position has been arrived at; it has been Jeremy Corbyn’s position of principle and one suspects is now McDonnell’s position of opportunity, and at least partly about the possibility of a future coalition government.

In any case it offers a vector around Tory intransigence. But not one that can lead to re-enactment of the 2014 campaign and referendum.

The strategy of centre-left positioning and constitutional gradualism cautiously, if sometimes falteringly, incubated by Alex Salmond over decades has come a cropper in the few short but chaotic years since 2014.

This is because, paradoxically, it was a strategy for separation from the British state that relied in the large part on the very legitimacy of that state.

But this contradiction was only consummated when Nicola Sturgeon, as part of her quiet factional conflict with her one time mentor, ruled out any route to independence besides an Edinburgh Agreement style legally binding referendum, including a Section 30 order granted by the UK Government.

Aimed, like so much of Sturgeon’s leadership, at a largely illusory ‘middle Scotland’ it has disarmed the Scottish Government in its confrontation with the state’s central authority. This problem has been made more, not less, acute by the unwinding of the UK constitutional order under Brexit.


With the state vacated of much legitimacy – its legislature humiliated and in disarray, its executive unelected and essentially without programme except for a risky confrontation with the EU – there is little else for a weak and frantic Johnson government to do but say no to any further requests for an independence referendum.

Were a future Labour government to accede to a Scottish Parliament backed referendum, the authority of that process would immediately come into question; by the political establishment, the media, the industrial and financial elite. Indeed, by all the forces that would be ranged against a left Labour government in general.

The idea of a Scottish independence movement functioning within the declining hegemony of neoliberal globalisation is a fiction the Sturgeon leadership has senselessly cultivated, and the broader independence movement can ill-afford.

The only viable independence movement is one that now exchanges the futile allegiances of the post-2014 years of drift for the real forces of social change.

Simply imagining a hypothetical coalition government including Labour and the SNP makes clear what those forces are. Such a government would of course hold offices of state, and would seek to guide the state and economy.

But that government could not hope to survive through the institutions of the state. Instead, it would need to be based on popular movements across the British isles, not just on constitutional questions relating to the crisis of legitimacy, but on social and economic questions as well. That means a set of alliances combining working class people across these islands and beyond, and the end of the institutional strategy that relies on failing instruments like the British state and the European Union.

In the political cosmology of the 80s, 90s and 00s it was possible for the strategists of the independence movement to see the institutional life of British and European capitalism as a kind of firmament, holding together items of a broken and changeable civil society, largely unmoored from a popular class politics.

Now that structure is warping. If the independence movement in Scotland, and a wider body of radical politics including around the Corbyn project does not move decisively in to play, forces on the radical right will take the initiative.

Pictures: PicturesofScotland, Garry Knight

Enjoy reading this article?
Join our mailing list
Subscribe now