At the SNP’s virtual conference next month, delegates will once again debate the path to independence. Conter editor David Jamieson argues we need to think more expansively about how independence can be achieved.
The debate about how Scottish independence can be achieved has stagnated. In the absence of any signs of strategy from the leading faction of the SNP, some critics have once again demanded discussion of ‘Plan B’ – an alternative approach that can circumvent the refusals (of both 2016 and 2020) of Westminster to agree to talks on an independence referendum.
Defenders of ‘Plan A’ do not permit an alphabet of options. They continue to insist that 2014 is the established and only model for a referendum, and that it is the only approach which buys recognition from the much vaunted ‘international community’.
Plan B proponents look forward to a debate on their proposals at the forthcoming virtual SNP conference. It is likely to be as brief and meaningless as this same debate in Aberdeen in 2019, when advocates were roundly insulted and voted down.
Regardless, plans A and B are essentially the same, taking place largely within the same broad perspective. Both plans imagine independence a singular but non-ruptural ‘act’, based purely on consensual and legal procedures. Indeed, many versions of Plan B simply involve ‘exploring’ legal options and alternatives. Plan B advocates for the forthcoming SNP conference say they want the legal question of whether Holyrood could stage a referendum without Westminster consent settled, with an option for treating the 2021 Scottish election as the de-facto poll.
Curiously, something rather substantial is missing from both these approaches: the independence movement.
In recent years we have witnessed the development of a mass independence movement. Self-organised and autonomous from professional political actors (who have largely ignored or patronised it), this movement is unique in Scottish history.
Yet this broad-based independence movement is not instrumental in either plan. It’s job is to turn up at certain junctures and provide support – voting, door chapping, or even just providing the background noise. When it acts on its own, it is often derided as endangering potential pro-independence conversion.
It is scarcely more important to Plan B than A – indeed in the 2021 de-facto scenario the movement doesn’t even get to directly campaign and vote for independence, as it did in 2014. Were Plan B to win out at the forthcoming conference, it would leave just months to prepare the independence movement and wider Scottish public for an unprecedented and historic event this coming May.
For some Plan B advocates, this debate is clearly just an initial skirmish in a longer debate. Still, its starting point and orientation is lacking the necessary broader perspective.
The closeness of these two approaches is a product of the intellectual limitations of ‘official’ Scottish nationalism, as represented chiefly by the SNP leadership. As we have sought to outline on Conter, the Scottish national question is inseparable from the class nature of Scottish society, the British state and the wider world system.
The peculiar version of Scottish independence we are being offered – without its own currency or central bank, and dependent upon accession status to both Nato and the EU – is based upon an understanding of the balance of class power in the contemporary system. Though they would likely articulate this politics as ‘common sense’ or ‘realistic’, leading thinkers in the SNP leadership have tailored their approach to the interests of powerful elite actors and ruling institutions.
The fundamental problem for independence campaigners is that those actors and institutions do not have the best interests of our movement in mind. A minority may offer equivocal support under certain conditions. Most will be consistently hostile, no matter how vigorously they are courted to accept the ‘safe’ character of Scottish independence.
We do not need to guess here. We have direct evidence that even when, as in the case of Catalonia, democratic rights are directly repressed by an established European state power, no significant force of the European or global establishment will intercede.
There is another option for independence supporters – making the independence movement itself the central strategic actor, as George Kerevan recently argued for on this site.
Though the consistency of the independence movement has been its strength – organising (among a raft of other activities) huge, regular demonstrations for years before the pandemic cut them short – the full capacity of the movement, or anything like it, has yet to be deployed. What the movement needs is an independence strategy – one that incorporates a range of tactics, deployed together to put pressure on the British state.
Even if elections alone could create the necessary pretext for negotiations on an independence referendum, the British state would seek to establish poisonous clauses, or to split the movement between those determined for independence and those willing to accept a compromise. This is how the British state has traditionally dealt with national independence movements.
We should not expect a return to the cavalier approach of David Cameron, a hate figure in the British ruling elite after the calamity of 2014 and the Brexit referendum. We should expect a more intransigent British state operation from here on in.
Nor can we place all our stock in legal wrangling. The legal system (including Scots law and the Scottish courts, as is sometimes forgotten) is an artifice of the British state. So is the Holyrood parliament. Institutions of the British state were not designed to break-up the state, and both their structures and personnel will resist their use in this purpose. That resistance can be overcome, but not by clever lawyers or politicians.
None of this is to say that we have no use at all for lawyers (especially those accountable to the wider movement), or that elections are not part of the road to independence. But it is to relegate these matters to tactical questions, rather than elevate them to the place of strategic solutions as is currently the practice.
There’s no need here to outline exactly the types of tactics, or over what timescale or to what calendar of events they are deployed. This requires wide debate and activity throughout the movement. But this strategy would benefit enormously from the participation of a Scottish Government prepared to progressively withdraw consent and participation from central UK authority as democratic mandates were denied or insulted.
Until that can be secured (and the present Scottish Government leadership show no sign of being interested in any such thing) the focus must be on accruing more autonomy of action and leadership for the wider, extra-parliamentary independence movement. Without that, debates about how to achieve independence will remain theoretical.