David Jamieson

David Jamieson

The End of the ‘NeverEndum’ is Coming

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The SNP leadership’s phony independence campaign is entering its final stages after the Supreme Court decision. We need rigorous honesty about what went wrong and what comes next for Scotland, argues David Jamieson.

Most Scots didn’t know that the Supreme Court was set to rule on whether the Scottish Parliament could hold a referendum on independence. Now that the judgement has landed with a resounding ‘No’, after just six weeks of rapid deliberation, the response is muted.

This tells you much about the status of the national question, and the health of the independence movement. Just a few years ago Scotland still had its largest political movement in modern history, with regular marches of tens of thousands, and the SNP remains hegemonic at all levels of Scottish politics. Yet a surreal, lethargic air surrounds the whole matter. A culture of managerial elitism, a concerted effort to run-down extra-parliamentary momentum, an absence of strategy and a litany of broken promises from the SNP leadership have reduced Scottish independence to farce.

The national question now essentially belongs to a thin layer at the top of Scottish society – politicians, journalists, academics, and top civil servants. It is they who are responding to the Supreme Court’s predictable conclusion – that the Scotland Act should be interpreted as it is written, reserving matters of constitutional change to the UK central state.

To understand the enduring power of the myth of a new independence referendum, you must understand that everyone in Scottish public life is united under its sign. Pro-independence politicians need it to supply popular legitimacy for their government. Unionist opponents need it to mobilise their own supporters. The media need it to attract interest to their publications and broadcasts. Various outriders and grifters on all sides need it to furnish their micro-celebrity status and crowdfunding initiatives.

Public interest has waned somewhat after years of the circus. But it remains the only show in town that can draw a crowd. It has become structural to the entire economy of civic life and to break away from the conceit that there is a live debate on independence in Scotland is to wander off into the wilderness.

Would Scottish Labour or the Liberal Democrats last very long if they simply announced they no longer believed the SNP’s bid for independence was real, leaving the Scottish Tories to hoover-up the unionist vote? Calculations like these can be found in every nook of the Scottish establishment. This is true even as it finally appears Nicola Sturgeon and her cohort may be running out of road.

In her press conference, Sturgeon announced that she was disappointed by the Supreme Court decision. In truth, she probably expected it. In any case, a verdict approving the Scottish Parliament’s right to a referendum wouldn’t have changed very much. This, by the Scottish Government’s own admission, would have been a consultative ballot without legal effect. It would still have relied on Westminster consent that would not have been forthcoming.

Tellingly, the press was assembled in a room emblazoned with SNP logos. This process began as a referral to the court by the Scottish Government, representing a devolved nation and its institutions, and ended with an election campaign launch for a political party. Sturgeon’s ‘next step’ is for independence supporters to vote SNP in a forthcoming UK General Election.

The terms will be debated at a party conference next year. But already Sturgeon has outlined its most essential features. She told the press the SNP is “not the only part, but the substantial part” of the independence movement. This strongly implies that votes for ‘insubstantial parts’ – the Greens, Alba, SSP or anyone else who wants to stand on the ‘de facto referendum’ ticket – will not be counted.

She also asserted once again that 50 percent plus of SNP votes would be the necessary threshold to claim a mandate to negotiate independence with Westminster. This is the crucial question, because it is extremely improbable that this threshold can be met in a UK General Election. It wasn’t even met in 2015, when the SNP reached its electoral peak powered by a mass movement and the collapse of Labour. Achieving more without that movement, and with Labour a party in contention again at a British level, is simply not feasible.

In the meantime, Scotland and Britain are hammered by recession and cuts. The day before the Supreme Court judgement, the Scottish Government scolded teachers for resisting a real terms pay cut. That government is now entering into conflict with hundreds of thousands of workers and has pledged to cut tens of thousands of jobs from the public sector even as they prepare for a supposed referendum. None of this adds up, unless our assumption is that the constitutional conflict is now mainly a cover for cynical party-political advantage.

Independence supporters need to move away from the comfort zone of simply protesting the undemocratic character of the British state (which is not in question), or aping SNP leaders in pronouncing empty slogans like ‘democracy will prevail’. Entirely corrected criticisms or sentiments can turn into fetters when they distract us from the the need to be rigorously honest about where we are.

It is not just Sturgeon and her centralised clique who have failed to supply a meaningful strategy towards Scottish independence – it is the entire tradition of Scottish constitutional nationalism with all its most basic assumptions and practices. These include the endless pandering to transnational authorities like the EU and Nato, the fossilised economic orthodoxies of the SNP Growth Commission and, centrally, an extreme naivety about the nature of the British state, so on display during the Supreme Court case.

The SNP leadership has kept the prayer wheel spinning longer than anyone imagined possible back in 2007. Since 2014, Sturgeon has proven particularly skilful at inflating hopes for elections before managing-down expectations for periods of elitist rule. But everything comes to an end, and it looks like the political cycle that opened in 2014 – and was derided by Unionists as a ‘neverendum’ – may soon close.

This phony campaign for independence, launched all the way back in 2016, is likely to pose problems for all who want to reconstruct a viable independence movement in the future. We will need to be rigorously self-honest about this in the months to come, as what look like the final, sorry chapters of this saga play-out.

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