The Failures of Western Capitalism Loom Over Scottish Independence

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James Foley and Ben Wray argue that the resurgence of nationalism in Edinburgh and London reflect the weaknesses in capitalist growth in Britain and around the world.

Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence, by Neil Davidson, James Foley and Ben Wray is out in August from Verso. You can order a copy here.

Last Tuesday (28 June), Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon presented her “route map” for an independence referendum, slated for October 2023 and, crucially, to be held regardless of Westminster’s cooperation. The plan’s first act consists of asking the UK Supreme Court to rule on the legality of a new referendum on the same terms as 2014. If the Supreme Court rejects this, the SNP will fight the 2024 General Election as a “de facto referendum”.

Supporters are hailing this as a clever route through the UK Government’s constitutional lock on Scottish self-determination. And there are hints that this announcement carries more weight than the succession of saber-rattling referendum pronouncements since 2016, if only because Sturgeon has committed to a specific itinerary. However, as yet, there are few signs that the SNP has seriously grasped the hurdles to a new referendum – or addressed the barriers to their vision of independence, which remains an artefact of 1990s neoliberal growth models.

Sturgeon’s bind isn’t entirely of her making. Boris Johnson has vowed to ignore any number of Scottish voter mandates for a new referendum; and there are few signs of a different approach from the Labour opposition. Much of this mess thus says less about Sturgeon’s failings than about the contradictions of the British state as a container of four national(ist) dynamics, each of them obeying distinct political rhythms.

But having been rejected by the political arm of the British state, it’s unlikely the First Minister will have better luck with its legal arm. Prevailing legal opinion is that power over the constitution lies with Westminster and that the Supreme Court will side with the UK Government on this issue. Put bluntly, Sturgeon can reasonably expect to lose the first legal battle.

The real question is thus not about what happens in October 2023, but what happens when Holyrood loses its fight in court. In all likelihood, defeat will merely signal another effort to discipline the Scottish electorate to re-elect a party that has governed Scotland, in various forms, since 2007. To critics, it looks rather like more of the same. Neither a legal ruling nor a General Election seems likely, by itself, to shift the balance of constitutional forces towards Edinburgh.

Sturgeon knows this, so what does this new gambit really signify? The superficial answer, as charged by Labour Party critics, is party-political electioneering and the use of “nationalist” framings to distract from a host of domestic failings.

There is doubtless some truth to that critique. But there is a deeper point here: constitutional politics, which in 2014-16 was an outlet for rebellious energies, now acts as a trusted mechanism for reproducing the status quo. Far from being winner-takes-all, British and Scottish nationalism, represented by the Tories and the SNP, have become interdependent: both parties benefit from Scotland’s current state of constitutional deadlock.

North and South of the border, the recent reversion to 2014-19 constitutional conflict is no accident. In the case of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, rhetorical bluster over Scotland, Northern Ireland and Rwanda give succour to a government that neither restored British sovereignty nor “built back better” in Northern England. Johnson wants to re-animate nationalist dividing lines around easily demonised enemies, whether Brussels bureaucrats or refugees. Putting down rebellious Scots fits comfortably within that narrative of British revanchism.

For Sturgeon, a fruitless court battle serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it disciplines, marshals and mobilises a nationalist base. The SNP’s election winning machine relies on an army of dedicated campaigners, who are always willing to bankroll party operations when independence appears to be within sight. With the 2024 General Election less than two years away, turning the campaign into a de facto referendum is an attempt to unify ‘Yes’ support behind the SNP, in an otherwise unforgiving political climate.

Constitutional conflict distracts from a plethora of post-pandemic governance problems. Finance Minister Kate Forbes’ most recent spending review softened up Scottish public services for another round of austerity, while the Edinburgh government has come up with very few policies distinctive from the UK Government to tackle the cost of living crisis, refusing to use powers over areas like housing and transport to reduce the pressure on low-income Scots. A prolonged constitutional arm-wrestle could save Sturgeon’s government from a yawning crisis of purpose.

The Scottish Conservatives can likewise expect to profit from Sturgeon’s announcement. The party was decimated in Scotland by Thatcherism but replaced Labour as the second force in Scotland after the 2014 vote, positioning itself as the most vociferous (and most tedious) anti-independence voice in Holyrood. Scottish leader Douglas Ross has loudly declared he will boycott any referendum not sanctioned by the UK Parliament.

Labour, meanwhile, continues to falter on Britain’s new democratic and constitutional dynamics. Scottish Labour’s rhetoric continues to suggest that Nicola Sturgeon is “obsessed with independence” to the exclusion of the “day job”. This is simultaneously overly harsh and overly generous to Sturgeon. At best, it presents a jaundiced view of Sturgeon’s tenure, which has been founded less on the disruptive appeal of independence – which, said her own economic advisor, could be like “Brexit times ten” – than on preserving the status quo. That background is crucial in interpreting this latest announcement: reversion to constitutional conflict really signifies a paucity of other options in a capitalist order facing imminent depression.

Still, by themselves, constitutional and democratic questions are not mere “distractions”. In 2014 and its immediate aftermath, Scottish independence was an outlet for rebellious, anti-establishment energies which often functioned as stand-ins for a politics of social class. Back then, Scotland was alive with democratic potential. But those energies were absorbed, and ultimately formed batteries that powered the reproduction of an otherwise listless Scottish governing class.

What happens next is not foreclosed. Independence may still offer an outlet for the new dissident energies issuing from the cost of living crisis. But Sturgeon’s programme remains rooted in the boosterist growth fantasies of a 1990s capitalism that has long ceased to play its allotted function; and, as yet, there are no answers to the wicked issues of currency, borders and public finances that have long plagued nationalist strategy. Scottish Labour has learned that ignoring constitutional conflict comes with its own perils. But there are just as many risks in taking the SNP’s plans at face value.

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