James Foley examines the rise of the Scottish national question, and argues its lessons challenge many traditional assumptions on the Scottish and British left. This challenge will be essential in navigating the years ahead.
Anyone wishing to understand the contemporary meaning of Scottish independence might begin by casting their minds back to 1st May 2007, the tricentenary of the Anglo-Scottish Act of Union. The events of 1707, in Michael Fry’s words, were “for good or ill in the two millennia of [Scottish] recorded history…one of the keys to understanding what Scotland is and what Scotland means”. But the anniversary itself was marked neither by street parties nor protests. Instead, an all-round apathy prevailed. Perhaps the nearest thing to spontaneous enthusiasm was the farcical sight of the English Democrats trouping past Downing Street with a coffin draped in the flag of St George; that aside, commemorations were limited to dusty museums and lecture halls.
Within a week, Scotland had gone to the polls for its devolved elections and, for the first time, elected the SNP as the parliament’s largest party. They would go on to establish a minority government, in Scotland’s biggest breach with Labour hegemony since the 1950s. Yet the election only seemed to reinforce how little anyone was bothered by constitutional questions. Voters, at least according to media interpretations, had elected the SNP in spite of their declared ambition of establishing an independent state, a pretension that nobody seemed to take seriously. One respected reporter noted: “You would have been lucky to hear anybody on the buses or the underground discussing the advantages and disadvantages of independence.” While rising distrust of the Westminster establishment was a feature of politics at that time – it was still the era of Iraq – few anticipated that it would prefigure the breakup of Britain.
Opinion polling seemed to confirm this impression, with support for independence sometimes falling as low as one in four. Constitutional affairs, just as strikingly, ranked near the bottom of voter priorities, which were dominated by seemingly more practical questions of the NHS, jobs and immigration. Even the sense of an exclusively Scottish national identity was, according to some measures, shrinking, as an increasingly mellow, liberal electorate expressed comfort with a hybrid sense of nationhood. Equally, despite the electoral breakthrough, the diehard minority struggled to mobilise their forces behind the core cause. Movement activity was patchy at best. Marches were dreary, attendances were small. The SNP internally was a medium-sized, ageing party, and while the prospect of electoral victory brought a fillip of activity, there was no invigorating influx of fresh recruits.
Cynical observers might have reflected that this lethargy precisely demonstrated the Union’s enduring strength: whereas independence relies on mobilising passion, apathy was all the endorsement the British state had ever needed. And elsewhere in the United Kingdom there was likewise little evidence of coming ruptures. In Northern Ireland, after decades of civil war, power sharing and the peace process were entrenched. As economic ties flourished with the neoliberal Celtic Tiger, active mobilisation for a united Ireland retreated to the extreme margins. In Wales, 2007 was a good year for Plaid Cymru, but that should not disguise the truth that 80 percent of the vote belonged to unionist parties. In England, the Conservative Eurosceptic tradition faced annihilation after bruising defeats under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. The election of David Cameron promised electability by embracing New Labour’s progressive “centrist” neoliberalism. Everything pointed to the state’s resilience to centrifugal challenges. Even the SNP’s breakthrough looked precarious. At the General Election of 2010, they performed worse than expected, as Labour rallied to secure 41 Scottish seats. In 2011, until the final week, polls and pundits were predicting that Salmond was destined to lose power. That he not only clung on, but gained the first ever Scottish nationalist parliamentary majority, reflected a streak of ruthlessness absent in his Labour opponents, a willingness, in particular, to jump on a bandwagon of resistance to Cameron’s austerity programme, including a last-minute decision to exploit resistance to the Conservative-Liberal agenda of hiking tuition fees in England.
And even then, when Salmond and Cameron subsequently struck the Edinburgh Agreement, the foundation of the 2014 referendum, there was no sudden shift in public sentiment. Support for independence still fell, in some polls, below 30 percent. Salmond had been telling American donors that so-called “devolution-max” was a “very attractive” alternative to establishing a sovereign state. Scotland’s destiny, it seemed, was heading towards the type of post-political halfway house observed by Scottish political scientist Michael Keating, where nationalist movements dominated regional parliaments and pursued business competitiveness at the expense of official sovereignty. The SNP was part of the furniture in what passed for a Scottish state, but only fundamentalists and paranoiacs saw the nationalists as a realistic threat to Britain’s constitutional integrity.
The centrality of independence to Scottish politics is thus a modern phenomenon, which can be dated, quite specifically, to the period around 2014. There is nothing coincidental about this historical break. On the one hand, this was a period, across Europe, where old social democratic parties conclusively ceased to play their function of disciplining working-class voters to the status quo. The political-economic origin of this was the failure of neoliberal globalisation to offer rising living standards; the ideological origin was the contemporary left’s failure to imagine anything beyond the “rules-based order” of global market liberalism.
On the other hand, 2014-19 was the occasion for a succession of historic blunders by the British state elite, beginning with the austerity programme and ending in two plebiscites that offered abundant prospects for populist, anti-establishment mobilisation. These factors coincided to all-but guarantee the hegemony of Scottish nationalism.
The SNP, which became, almost overnight, one of Europe’s largest parties per capita, is so entrenched in Holyrood that any other government seems unimaginable. They have won numerous electoral mandates calling for a second independence referendum. Comfortably established as Westminster’s third party, despite contesting less than one-in-ten Commons seats, the fate of any conceivable centre-left UK government will likely rest in their hands – assuming, of course, that Scotland remains in the Union long enough to see another General Election. Their historic rivals, the traditionally dominant Scottish Labour, have been all but obliterated as a serious electoral force.
The 2014 referendum, especially the mass social democratic Yes movement, has also left a qualitative legacy, a decisive shift in the meaning attached to political representation. This is most clearly demonstrated with assumptions about parties and social class. Previously, an old-fashioned sociological imagination persisted in left-leaning commentary on Scottish politics. The SNP was still derided as a party of petit-bourgeois “Tartan Tories”, reflecting an impression of rural, Jacobite strongholds that has lingered since their breakthrough in 1974. Relatedly, leftist intellectuals in Scottish Labour continued to ruminate on finding a balance between “class” (their own party) and “nation” (everyone else), and to believe that they spoke for “the communities” and “the doorsteps” even as the party’s public relations professionals fantasised about luring ever larger tranches of swing voters in affluent commuter suburbs. Importantly, this impressionistic take on class politics continued to form the basis of received strategic wisdom even on the far left: I can recall attending meetings of Marxist sects during the formative election of 2011, and being reassured: “the working class always returns to Labour in a crisis”.
Since then, amid a sustained crisis of capitalism that has been politically disastrous for social democrats everywhere, Scottish Labour’s support has collapsed across the class spectrum. However, the vitriol was concentrated in “Labour heartlands”, disengaged, peripheral estates in central Scotland where voting “for the left” had become an inherited, fatalistic ritual. In the 2015 election, where Labour lost 39 seats, all but the bourgeois villas and student flats of the Edinburgh South constituency, activists gloomily reported that households in working class Paisley were refusing to even accept their leaflets. “The disillusionment with Labour, evident during last year’s independence referendum, has turned into an absolute rage, one that Labour MPs frequently describe as bordering on the irrational”, reported the Guardian. “Anger was palpable on the doorstep”, one activist recalled. “When we weren’t being sworn at, we were being laughed at.” The imagination of Scottish politics shifted accordingly: in the lexicon of demotic political insults, “red Tory” replaced “tartan Tory” (with Scottish Labour having elected the neoconservative-adjacent Jim Murphy as its leader, the slur was not entirely without foundation).
Snapshots of historical change always risk missing many crucial nuances. In retrospect, Scottish Labour never really spoke for “all” of the working class, nor is working class nationalism entirely a new phenomenon: indeed, Labour’s turn to devolution was partly an effort to shore up their base against democratic pressures arising from North Sea Oil, Thatcherism and the failure of the 1979 referendum. The Tartan Tory insult was never well founded, given that the SNP has rather often opposed Labour from the left since 1979; to add to the irony, since Red Tory has entered the lexicon, Labour has tended to oppose the SNP from the left. To further reinforce the irony, under Sturgeon, the SNP, for all its strength in working-class seats, increasingly orients on the professional managerial class, from which most of its parliamentarians hail. To critics, who now just as often come from inside the party as outside, they are treading the adulterous path of New Labour, in assuming the loyalty of working-class supporters while making eyes at “floating” voters.
Nonetheless, the impression of disenchantment from Labour is well founded. One Scottish Labour insider, commenting on the 2015 election, said the shift in working-class sentiment had the appearance of “a flock of starlings changing direction”. Allowing for fluctuations, the change seems permanent. There is certainly no returning to the received sociological wisdom of 2013, where Labour monopolised working class and socialist tradition in Scotland. A “natural” relationship between class politics, the state and ameliorative reform has broken down under the pressure of decades of Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite “reform”.
Thus, while independence may be cast as a local, specific and even parochial matter, for the radical left, it bears on a central political dilemma: how to build alliances when the traditional sociology linking the working class to old social democratic parties has broken down beyond repair. The SNP’s rise belongs in this wider context, where peripheral voters have sought autonomy from the lethargy as much as the metropolitan biases of the old parties of social democracy. It illustrates the general rule that centre-left parties can no longer discipline working class voters to the status quo.
Rather too often, the left has met newly mobilised electorates with proposals for ameliorative reforms, i.e. injections of public spending. This proved inadequate, time and again, for working class voters demanding agency, accountability and respect. Corbyn’s electoral disaster in the 2019 General Election was only the latest proof that this mistake can be fatal. Given the accumulation of distrust about politicians in general, which was only accelerated by austerity, the left first needed to win consent for economic reform by presenting itself as a break from the post-democratic, remote state – tackling what political scientist Peter Mair has called the “void” separating politicians from the public. Scottish Labour’s disastrous fate should have shown Corbyn the danger of ignoring the “merely democratic” and “merely constitutional” side of the crisis of neoliberalism. Failure to learn these lessons means that Scottish independence is the last remaining mainstream outlet for leftist energies in Britain and, in that context, the danger is that the left, having lost legitimacy during a decade of capitalist failure, lacks the ideas to differentiate itself from Sturgeon’s neoliberal programme for independence.
Conversely, the truly puzzling question for any Scottish political scientist is how smoothly the SNP has assumed New Labour’s mantle. Having emerged as a force of anti-establishment rupture, they consolidated as one the West’s last governments of centrist continuity (and arguably, of all, the most secure from the winds of electoral pressure). Sturgeon’s style – combining big business, expert administration and liberal feminism – has proved an electoral liability almost everywhere else it has been tried. This belies the convenient fiction of Scotland as a liberal lion in the north: the deep foundations of SNP hegemony lie in the disruptive “populist moment”. If Sturgeon bucked the trend of centrist failure, it was only by becoming parasitic on the energies that destroyed centrists everywhere else. She was an exception that proves the rule.
What, then, of Sturgeon’s latest efforts to reinvigorate the independence cause? On the one hand, there are considerable grounds for scepticism. A referendum in 2023 is a non-starter. Given the UK’s constitutional tradition, anything but the Supreme Court siding with the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament would be tantamount to judicial revolution. Moreover, as the civil servant who negotiated the Edinburgh Agreement observes: “Even if the Scottish Government manages to persuade a court to allow for some form of independence referendum, no court can compel unionists to take part, and no court can compel the British Government to recognise the result and facilitate independence.” He goes on to observe:
A 2023 timetable is just about technically feasible, albeit quite tight. Best practice in the UK includes things like three months for testing the question and at least six months for local authorities to prepare to administer the election once legislation to hold a vote has been passed. A recent example is the Brexit referendum: the Conservatives won the election in May 2015 and the referendum was held 13 months later. But the prerequisite for a smooth, fast timetable in this case is a swift agreement with the UK Government to replicate the 2012 one. That, quite clearly, isn’t going to happen. So I don’t think anyone should, or does, seriously expect a referendum in 2023.
Our attention, therefore, should be less on the Supreme Court and more on the forthcoming General Election. Rather ironically, the new “Plan B” proposals, which mean treating an election as a “de facto” referendum, are largely those long championed by Sturgeon’s factional opponents and the Alba Party, which her cohort have always dismissed as risible distractions from the “legal route”. The attractions of Plan B have always been obvious: it offers an outlet for popular sovereignty in circumstances where the Westminster parliament – effectively, the sole authority – refuses to recognise successive mandates. But the downsides haven’t changed either. “It is far from clear why the UK Government would accept the SNP’s interpretation of the election as a referendum,” notes constitutional specialist James Mitchell. “The SNP cannot begin independence negotiations if the UK refuses to negotiate. And there is no prospect of the international community accepting a majority SNP vote as a mandate for a unilateral declaration of independence.”
Nonetheless, the biggest barriers remain programmatic rather than constitutional. Their proposals for what independence would look like remain, at best, messy: motley commitments to a British currency and a seat at Brussels, NATO membership and nuclear disarmament, Keynesian growth and ordoliberal prudence, are difficult to square even as a proposal to establish a cynically post-democratic “normal state”, quite aside from any quibbles about socialism or sovereignty. Taken at face value, the proposal for an imminent referendum would mark a breach with Sturgeon’s cultivated reputation as a measured, managerial, detail-oriented politician.
So what is going on? One interpretation, common to unionists and hardcore nationalists, is that Sturgeon is finally showing her true character as a hell-bent crusader for independence. Accepting this requires us to take a revisionist approach to the last eight years of post-democratic Holyrood governance, which becomes an exercise in playing the long game. Appealing though this might be to various factions, it stretches the imagination too much. The optimal moment to push for a constitutional breach was several years ago, with a mobilised independence street movement and polls showing Yes at 58 percent. These proposals emerge, by contrast, against a backdrop of demobilisation, demoralisation and declining support.
It might thus make sense to interpret this as a sop to the activist faithful. An exercise in base-building to shield against coming storms. “Tactics borne of frustration may have short-term appeal to the party faithful but longer-term consequences need to be thought through carefully,” argues Mitchell. “This looks like a last desperate throw of the dice from a leader aware that her record in government is increasingly coming under question and seeing independence support stalling, having failed to rise as expected after Brexit.” Yet this only adds to the puzzle. Sturgeon had seen off internal rivals and was under no pressure from an autonomous independence movement – which she has helped dismantle – or from rivals such as Alba, which came nowhere near electing an MSP last time and has shown no evidence of gathering subsequent support.
It is perhaps better to take a longer and wider view of nationalist hegemony in Scotland. Many of Sturgeon’s media cheerleaders and most vociferous critics have united in assuming that the SNP/Green coalition would settle for being Edinburgh’s natural governing class. They assumed that, with the turbulence of 2014-19 over, there would be a natural turn to preserving the status quo. This view was supported by the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing cost of living crisis. There appeared to be a consensus that the governing class should focus on the “day job”, on delivering “bread and butter”, rather than frivolous populist posturing. Indeed, Sturgeon’s (perhaps undeserved) reputation for prudent managerialism centred on exploiting this stylistic preference. And public opinion seemed in accord, with polls showing the public wanted these crises addressed first before any consideration of the constitution.
Yet this narrative forgets why Scottish nationalism succeeded in the first place. It might be the case that the contemporary SNP forms its base from the preservationist instincts of professional managerial cadres rather than the anti-establishment working class. It is also true that there is no settled majority for independence, and certainly not for an imminent referendum. But this does not mean that the SNP’s success can exist without independence on the horizon. Retro centrist managerialism of New SNP variety cannot retain popular consensus without a “populist” supplement. Provocative as this may seem, Sturgeonism may need independence more than the independence movement needs Sturgeon.
This highlights the importance of considering the SNP within the broader trajectory of “centrist” politics. What, after all, would Sturgeon’s legacy be without the independence component? It would surely appear as a litany of broken promises and half-baked rhetorical responses to endemic social problems. Commitments on supposed priorities, like child poverty, the poverty-related attainment gap, energy, drug deaths and housing, have been scrapped or watered-down beyond recognition. Compared to Salmond’s term, her own time as leader has seen few concrete policy achievements, which says less about her predecessor’s qualities than it does about how governing parties run short on ideas, especially in times of post-neoliberal retrenchment.
Her reputation for competence rests on style rather than accomplishments. None of it would add up without the easily (and, often, plausibly) demonised antagonist of Conservative Westminster, which appears as the barrier to “progressive Scotland” (as opposed, say, to Scottish middle-class resistance to higher taxation). However, as Scottish Labour found, negative anti-Tory scaremongering is not sufficient to form a stable platform. The SNP’s addition to the formula was the promise of achieving a true breach with generations of Conservative dominance. Minus that promise, and with few concrete accomplishments, the politics of national victimhood would wear thin.
Consider also the prospects for coming years. Predictions of a new wave of industrial unrest are no longer confined to Panglossian Trotskyists. Edinburgh’s governing class, just as much as London’s, will be forced to face down a succession of pay claims that attract majority public support. Consider how this could appear without the referendum promise: a geriatric governing class, in power since 2007, beset by regular scandals, failing in its core commitments, intent on breaking a rising movement of protests and strikes. By contrast, a prospective referendum ensures that party-politics, in coming years, will fall into the established constitutional binary. The beneficiaries will be the SNP, naturally, but also Scotland’s beleaguered Conservative bloc.
If this analysis holds, the question remains of how socialists might respond. As of today, many are drawn to two polarised camps, each formed of faulty analysis. On the one hand, there are those who, regardless of experience and of the obvious barriers, rush headlong towards Sturgeon’s plans. This camp is formidable: it includes not just the obvious party loyalists, but also coalition partners the Scottish Greens and even, in some scenarios, the Alba Party, who are trapped by Sturgeon’s unexpected willingness to embrace their proposals. But obedience imposes a stark dilemma: the reproduction of Scotland’s political-economic status quo depends on the appearance of constitutional conflict, due to the disciplining effect of polarisation. With class conflict in the offing, false constitutional wrangling may become an actively conservative force.
On the other hand, there are those who have defaulted to a Labourist position. “Labourism” here is less about the actual viewpoints and positions of Scottish Labour, which, in practice, boil down to crude unionism (“Sturgeon hell-bent on independence”). The more persuasive Labourism, by contrast, is less about unionism than about seeing questions of democracy as distractions from the true struggle in workplaces or (to use their preferred rhetorical appeal) “in the communities”. Labourists have long hankered for a class struggle to rain down and wash all the constitutional scum off the streets. However, just as their hopes were raised by the RMT strike, Sturgeon’s announcement has been the rudest of awakenings. The next phase of British politics may look very like the last, with nationalisms trading blows from Edinburgh and London, while Labour looks on redundant.
Where events continually defy expectations, often there is a deeper flaw in the analysis. Labourists are correct to observe that the SNP’s formula of anti-Tory demonology, faux-progressive playacting and false referendum promises distracts from a host of Scottish-specific policy failures and endemic social miseries. But two points are missing here. In believing that class struggle can only follow the trammels of communities to workplaces to Labour Party governance, they fail to consider that 2014 and 2016 were class-based revolts precisely against Labour-voting which offered no agency to “the communities” when the debt-based neoliberal good times came to an end. Perverse and populist they may have been. But these revolts had a class-based foundation that was not merely founded in “nationalist delusion”.
More importantly, these provincial “heartland” revolts were founded in more than just understandable grievances. They contained an inarticulate core of analytical truth. There can be no surpassing the post-neoliberal malaise without some properly “constitutional” disruption of the state’s current form. Conversely, Labourists believe they have all the policy answers within the current boundaries. Their problem, as they understand it, is that they lack the communitarian supplement to gain mass consent.
They are thus restlessly in search of this communitarian dynamic to support their policy plans. But, again, this is founded on a faulty diagnosis. The problem is not simply that the “communities” routinely reject Labourist policies or struggles in favour of constitutional ones. The deeper problem is that those instincts are not ill-founded: policy progress (even just in the old fashioned, limited sense of “progressive taxation”) will require disruption to the state form and the settled order, especially its “globalised” aspects. Labour’s unwillingness to reckon with this imaginatively is symptomatic of wider failures, of the intellectual carnage of the Third Way.
There is a compounding problem with those Labourists who do attempt to solve the constitutional problem with proposals for progressive federalism or devolution max. Undoubtedly, Labour needs a distinctive constitutional proposal. However, these proposals are arguably moves in the wrong direction, for two reasons. Firstly, there is a confusion between popular sovereignty and “more powers”. Providing the latter without addressing the former could make Holyrood governance less, not more, accountable. Secondly, there is an underlying sense of trying to demobilise the energies of independence so that “normal” class politics can shunt back into gear. This still starts from uncorrected assumptions that the recent mobilisations are delusions or distractions, without any corresponding effort to address the crisis of post-neoliberal parties of social democracy.
It would be futile to talk of a “true socialist position” these days. But certain methodological rules should apply when confronting Scotland’s political crisis today. Firstly, policy and politics should proceed from a foundation of rigorous analysis rather than wish fulfilment. To borrow that often misquoted cliché, pessimism of the intellect comes before optimism of the will. The fact that a conclusion might appear ugly, depressing or pessimistic is no reason to disguise it. Subordinating truth to mobilisation has been a generational disaster for the left. It carries the ongoing risk that boosting the hopes of others eventually becomes self-delusion. Given our minority position, we have the luxury of founding our expectations in realism and, more bluntly, of being able to tell the truth with few costs.
There are the obvious dangers of collapsing into Team Nicola or, conversely, indulging unionist mythmaking of a Sturgeon hell-bent on independence. Many socialists really do inhabit these camps. But others have fallen for more plausible and thus more dangerous mythologies. The Labourists, discussed above, are of this genre. But so are those proposing a socialist “vision of independence”, a narrative which entirely suits Scotland’s governing class while offering cover for their actual behaviour in office. Where an objective analysis suggests that independence is not seriously on the horizon, utopian socialist rhetoric and policy promises are complicit in class reproduction.
Personally, I have unashamedly and openly supported the breakup of Britain, without wavering or obfuscation. I support a bad independence: I even support a Growth Commission independence. Much of that calculation is founded in international questions: I believe world prospects for socialism would be better with a weakened British state. However, my domestic reasoning is less about the promise of green energy revolutions or free goodies for all than about holding the Edinburgh governing class accountable for their role in reproducing Scotland’s actual (often transnational) ruling class. An independent state is better, in this regard, than the layered, post-democratic hodgepodge of devolution.
Conversely, the worst of all possible worlds is one of permanent nationalist mobilisation for an independence that is never fulfilled. Allied with reflexive anti-Toryism, this guarantees a never-ending void of accountability. Strategically, then, everything hinges on an objective assessment of likely events and forces: if independence is not a serious prospect, raising false hopes for the purposes of mobilisation, recruitment or offering succour is not just delusory, but politically regressive.
Then again, for all the Sturgeon-Murrell micromanagement, there are objective factors beyond anyone’s control that could have unpredictable consequences. After the last crisis of capitalism, constitutional politics was the channel for Britain’s rebellious energies: for structural reasons that have little to do with “delusion”, there was little prospect of them travelling through Labour.
With this new capitalist crisis, there is no guarantee that resistance, in Scotland or elsewhere, will fit the Labourist imaginary of a community-to-workplace-to-election transmission belt. Last time, when it didn’t, a generation of Labourists soured on the actually existing working class and retreated into a plump, complacent liberalism, rather than seeking to use the energies of rebellion for purposes of democratic renewal. Those mistakes saw the Labour Party wiped from its heartlands, in what was a deserved drubbing. Last time was a failure to listen; repeating the same errors would be a failure to learn.