The 2019 General Election will have many far-reaching consequences. The most urgent in Scotland is it’s capacity to accelerate the constitutional crisis. We must address the heart of political developments on these islands, in the profound democratic crisis argues David Jamieson.
Much has been said, since Black Friday of December 2019, about the apparent divergence of politics between Scotland and England. It’s an idea which marries easily with the characteristic world view of Scottish nationalism (as distinguishable from simple support for Scottish independence), that it is cultural, social and political difference that makes Scottish independence legitimate and desirable.
The idea is being re-enforced by the faithful of the London liberal commentariat, making a pilgrimage (one hopes merely intellectual rather than physical) to Scotland in search of the grail of Scottish exception. How has it been achieved: the survival (and thriving) of a liberal, centrist and Europhile governing party north of the border, which they would dearly like to emulate for the whole UK.
The answer to the riddle is of course the national question. And yet it is precisely through that vector the SNP harnessed similar political energies to those which animated Boris Johnson’s thumping victory in England.
It was often asserted that the rise of Corbynism from 2015 onwards might retard the development of the Scottish independence movement, since it offered an alternative avenue for the reform of the British state. At the turn of the new decade, there is little evidence that this ever threatened to happen. The refusal of Scottish Labour to accept the cause of national self-determination blocked any such development. And this fact alone suggests that the Scottish national question was simply not for parking.
Even had Corbynism met its promise in the restoration of a fighting Social Democracy, there is little reason to believe it would have halted dissipation of the British state form. Indeed, the Corbyn project, or rather what it had morphed into by late 2019 election – a formula of electoral triangulation and constitutional status quo largely obscuring wider policy – could not even slow its own, now very familiar, structural decline.
Nonetheless, it is certainly true that the last ‘official’ channel to British reform has now closed. And on 12 December it slammed shut before the eyes of millions. The effect of this in Scotland would have been less complete had the SNP not had such a strong showing.
It is, of course, true that the party recorded 45 per cent of the vote, and that this tallies uncannily with the 2014 vote, implying stasis. Yet it was still an historic result, winning the party 80 per cent of Scottish seats. In real political terms, if not numerical, the victory was more profound than even that of 2015. It proved that the national question(s) remain the defining matter half a decade after the referendum.
Yet the obvious truth, which the afore mentioned liberal pilgrims have so far refused to countenance, is that rather than bucking the UK-wide trend, Scotland forcefully confirms it.
England voted to Leave the EU four times: in the 2016 referendum, the 2017 General Election, the 2019 European elections and the 2019 General Election. In each of these votes, Scotland voted to Remain in the EU, albeit partly as a proxy conflict over the Scottish national question itself.
In both nations, a single question has dominated politics; do our votes count? Does our say drive the direction of politics on central matters?
In 2017 Labour campaigned with the answer ‘yes’, and was rewarded with the largest Labour vote since 1997, and the largest increase in vote share since the historic 1945 Labour government. In 2019 they answered ‘No’ and lost a staggering 2.6 million votes. Of the 54 seats they lost in England and Wales, all but two voted Leave in 2016.
In Scotland in 2019, the SNP answered ‘yes’ and won the stunning victory described above, with an increase of almost 263,000 votes. In other words, whatever its other particularisms, on the matters of the national question and democracy, Scotland is apiece with a political mood which shapes both the UK and much of the wider western world.
The roots of this question run into the recent history of capitalist globalisation, which has been organised to grossly undermine the power of the vote, and to erode the cultures – both real and projected – of national sovereignty which cohered nation states in the post-war era. What we are witnessing, then, not just some demented nationalist spasm, neither in Scotland, nor, for that matter in England or Wales. Though sometimes inarticulate, or even admixed with illusions and items of ruling ideology, it is an organic response to democratic decline.
The difficult question for anti-capitalists is how this energy can be effectively harnessed. Difficult because – no matter how critical anyone on the left was of that project in aspect or in total – Corbynism’s final mutation and defeat has handed a weapon to all those, both on the right and in the centre, who want to insist that the national question is divorced from both class and the wider case for social transformation.
And yet there is no explanation for the national question, and no future course for the Scottish independence movement, which does not relate, directly and indirectly, to the morbid contradictions of the global capitalist order which have so shaped the last decade: financial crisis, exploding inequalities of wealth and power, the collapse of democratic consent, environmental emergency, and war.
It should not be remotely controversial to say that Scotland’s 2014 referendum represents a healthier orientation on the national orientation by the left than occurred over Brexit – whatever else cannot be agreed about these two items of Britain’s constitutional crisis.
In Scotland, we now begin what may be a long second phase of the independence movement. Long, and dogged by troubling new questions, which can only be answered on the march and amid the new forces brought together after Black September.
Conter will seek to host a series of articles and events exploring the new landscape of the national question in Scotland in coming months. Contributions welcome – email [email protected].