Ben Wray

Ben Wray

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Conter is publishing a series of reflections on the movement for Scottish independence. In our first piece Ben Wray argues the Scottish National Party leadership’s relationship to the British state means it is not pursuing independence as real objective.

Tom Nairn once described nationalism as being like the Roman god Janus, who stood over gateways looking both backwards and forwards. “Thus does nationalism stand over the passage to modernity, for human society,” he wrote. “As human kind is forced through its strait doorway, it must look desperately back into the past, to gather strength wherever it can be found for the ordeal of ‘development’.”

The value of this theorisation has been subject to widespread debate, including by the late Neil Davidson. I do not wish to make any assessment of those debates here. Instead, I seek to borrow Nairn’s Janus metaphor for the purposes of contemporary political analysis of what Nairn called “neo-nationalism”; nationalist movements that have emerged at a more advanced stage of development when the economy is already capitalist in character.

Forty-five years on from when Nairn wrote ‘The Break up of Britain’, Scottish neo-nationalism does look both forwards and backwards, only now from a different perspective, shaped by its experience of being a party of the state. The SNP’s Janus face is a contradiction that strikes at the heart of the independence movement in 2020.

Rupture v preservation

On the one hand, independence is a project to break the unitary UK state and forge a new democratic polity in Scotland. Generally, the ruling class of any state will fight to hold on to its territory. It requires rupture with an established order to forge a new nation-state where one already exists. That is why, apart from those nation-states which emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, there has not been a new nation-state in Europe since 1945, despite there still being many more nations than there are states.

On the other hand, the leaders of the independence campaign are also the leaders of the Scottish Government, and thus are part of the existing state structures of the UK. The SNP has been in power for 13 years now in Holyrood; it would be impossible for the party leadership to have avoided becoming a new political establishment when holding the reins for so long. The SNP leadership’s politics broadly reflects this establishment position – they believe in the established liberal international order that the UK has done so much to shape and are committed to pursuing statehood within legal-constitutional norms.

This is the SNP’s Janus-face; the party looks forward to independence through a rupture with the British state, while at the same time gazing backwards to preserving the power it has accrued as part of the established liberal-democratic order.

Which side – forwards towards rupture or backwards to preservation – will win out? For Nicola Sturgeon, the answer is very clearly preservation. Whether it is in her initial response to the pandemic, which tailed that of Boris Johnson, or in her advisory group for Scotland’s economic recovery, which is led by the chief executive of Buccleuch Estates, her first instinct is towards the safe-ground of establishment politics. And on indyref, she has left no doubt that the only route to independence she is willing to countenance is one which works within mechanisms consented to by the UK state.

“I want and consider that the basis of the referendum should be the same as the last time,” Sturgeon said last year. “[The] legal basis in future should be the same as the legal basis in the past.”

The problem with this is that politics is moving forwards, not backwards. The Edinburgh Agreement in 2012, which was the legal basis of the 2014 independence referendum, is highly unlikely to be repeated, and certainly not soon. A cursory glance at the political balance of forces is enough to explain why: at the time of the Edinburgh Agreement, the most recent poll gave No a whopping 24 points lead, with Yes on just 28 per cent. David Cameron relished a referendum as an opportunity to strike what he thought would be a humiliating defeat on the SNP. 

That was a bad miscalculation, and one that no Tory Prime Minister will make again, unless they feel like they have something bigger to lose from not doing so. With the four most recent independence polls showing support for independence on 52, 49, 50, and 52 per cent, Boris Johnson has absolutely no reason to risk such a referendum, and with the SNP committed to working within rules set by the UK state, he is under little pressure to do so either.

Sturgeon is well aware of this, but it is politically astute nonetheless to dangle the indyref carrot in 2021, not just to keep the party base on side, but also to unite the Yes vote behind the SNP.  A five year mandate for an independence referendum between 2016 and 2021 will soon have come and gone, but that will not stop it being floated again on the exact same terms as before.

To be clear, I do believe the SNP leadership want an independence referendum, but politicians want many things; the pertinent question is, what are they willing to risk? The Sturgeonite vision is that independence will arrive through a whopping 60 per cent plus majority, in a legally binding, consensually agreed referendum, with the blessings and full co-operation of the UK state and ‘international community’. In other words, a Scottish state will come gift-wrapped, requiring little sacrifice and even less risk.

In reality, just achieving an independence referendum would require a determined struggle up to and including breaking with the legal rules as defined by the UK state. Such a rupture is anathema to the Scottish nationalist political establishment, who have become comfortable with the power they have and don’t want to endanger it. Perhaps more importantly, they are ideologically at ease among the liberal-democratic norms of London and Brussels and would not want to damage their carefully cultivated reputation. If Sturgeon can’t get a referendum through established means, then she won’t risk seriously pursuing it. 

Neo-nationalist precedents

Many in the independence movement will deem this to be unthinkable, but actually it is a quite typical trajectory for neo-nationalist parties in the western world once they get a taste of state power. Independence ends up becoming a mere identity, not an actual political project to be pursued with conviction. Instead, neo-nationalist parties dedicate themselves to statecraft; accruing as much devolved power as they can, but always careful to remain within legal-constitutional limits.

In the Basque Country, for example, the Basque nationalist PNV, which has been in power in the Basque Autonomous Community for almost the entirety of the post-Franco era, happily offer support to the two parties of the Spanish establishment, right-wing PP or centre-left PSOE, in exchange for attractive financial packages and a slow but steady extension of devolved powers. In Quebec, two failed independence referendums led Parti Québécois to put the prospect of independence on hold since 2007, and in recent times the party’s support has declined precipitously.

In Catalonia, rupture was pursued in 2017, but it was not desired and came with little preparation. Even up to the point of declaring the Republic, PDeCAT were “hoping against hope that Rajoy would enter negotiations, or the EU intervene to impose a dialogue”, as George Kerevan and Chris Bambery have argued in Catalonia Re-Born. Since then, support for Catalan independence parties has persisted but, as I have written about in depth here, they have moved into a more defensive posture. The lesson the SNP leadership drew from the Catalan 2017 referendum was to avoid a comparable scenario at all and any cost.

Between pursuing rupture or the preservation politics of nationalist-federalism – ostensibly pro-independence but in practise seeking extended devolution – it’s absolutely clear that the SNP leadership would be more comfortable in the latter mode. The problem is that in an age of crisis and intense political polarisation around the constitution, routes to gradualism appear cut-off.

Britain has left the European Union and the Tories currently have no appetite for devolving more powers. While Sturgeon would like to get the devolution ball rolling again, proposing cross-party talks along those lines last April, it takes two to tango and Johnson isn’t dancing. 

Breaking the constitutional deadlock

There may come a time when the Tories realise that a more stable constitutional settlement could be arrived at through something like a federal Scotland. While some Scottish Labour left activists appear to believe this to be a radical alternative to independence, it actually fits with what most neoliberals want from devolution: a Scotland cut-off from fiscal transfers and responsible for its own tax & spending, while the key determinants of economic and geopolitical power remain in London. Indeed, the SNP’s Growth Commission is a case for independence that looks distinctly like federalism; independence minus monetary and financial regulatory control, thus caught between the hammer of the City of London and the anvil of the Bank of England.

For now, the Tories are happy to continue with a tough anti-indyref line, knowing that it plays well with their voter base in Scotland and that there is no political pressure from Labour to do anything different. Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell gingerly supported Scotland’s right to decide, but that’s all been washed away by the Starmer regime, along with any other hints of a democratic socialist agenda. Scottish Labour has fallen into line, competing in a battle they can’t win with the Tories for the identitarian No vote, while the real socio-economic dividing lines of the pandemic – as the poverty crisis becomes desperate while the billionaires get richer – are submerged by superficial Scottish and British nationalisms.

There is no route through this political deadlock which involves abstaining or ignoring the independence question. It is here to stay and remains a key fissure within the British state, which has been exposed yet again by its abject handling of Covid-19. At the same time, we should be honest about the fact that the pro-independence left has made few advances in recent years in building up the movement’s institutional capacity to think and act independently of the SNP leadership, at best fighting rearguard actions against its neoliberal excesses, like the Growth Commission. Lessons need to be learned.

In the context of the economic crisis, independence must be connected directly to a broader offensive for democratic control of the economy. An explicitly socialist vision for independence should be part of galvanising a ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ response to the crisis, which seeks to build worker and community organisation to resist rising unemployment and poverty.

At the same time, the high politics of independence cannot be left to the Scottish Government. The left should actively instigate debates on alternative routes to indyref, demand answers as to what the SNP will do with an indyref mandate post-2021 election if the UK Government say no again, and develop innovative ways of applying pressure on the UK Government directly over the question of Scottish self-determination.

In this way, the SNP leadership can be leveraged away from the politics of preservation and towards rupture. This is an approach that will require patience, but short-cuts will not work. Unless the next Scottish Government feel sustained and serious pressure from the movement, a second independence referendum looks highly unlikely in the near future, regardless of whether the SNP win a majority in 2021 or not.

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