Comments by former Yes Campaign strategist Stephen Noon may indicate shifting attitudes in the nationalist leadership. David Jamieson argues further devolution is not a meaningful response to Scotland’s democratic impasse.
It’s been all quiet on the Scottish independence front for months now. This was supposed to be the final summer but one before a referendum next autumn. The silence of the non-campaign is providing the opportunity for some to question the future of the independence movement.
The latest is Stephen Noon, leading strategist of the official Yes Campaign of 2014, in an interview for the Times arguing independence supporters should be prepared to agree to further devolution of power to Scotland, in lieu of independence.
Noon’s principal theoretical contribution to the movement of 2012-14 was his claim that only ‘positive’ campaigns won elections, and that the task of Yes was to project an inspiring vision of an independent Scotland. This attitude, maligned by critics as ‘Prozac nationalism’ was based on a misreading of Barak Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ and ‘Hope’ adorned 2008 Presidential campaign. Like all such campaigns, it contained a deluge of attack ads and partisan rancour. But in those days Obama was still a magic word for some.
The independence movement itself made most of its progress once this narrow outlook had been discarded. The moment called for a populist pitch – opposition to austerity and the degradations of economic orthodoxy, a spirited defence of the NHS and public services, and a rejection of the British state’s record of disastrous wars and toadying for the US.
Noon puts the cooling of his passions down to a subsequent intellectual engagement with modern Catholic theology (he’s been on a journey). But one could argue there’s a straight line between Prozac nationalism and an aversion to the political conflicts involved in a mass national independence project. Therefore, we should take Noon’s arguments as a real barometer – if not of strategy at the top of the SNP, then of a certain feeling.
He says out loud what many of us have suspected is the real credo of SNP gradualism: “The SNP is not the referendum party. The SNP is the independence for Scotland party. And so a referendum should be part of the journey, but it doesn’t have to be the next step.”
Faced by the stagnation of capitalism, the feral motions of international markets and the spread of war and geostrategic competition, the leadership of the SNP have baulked at the prospect of national independence. If ever there was a debate in nationalist circles as to whether calm or crisis was the opportunity for independence, it is now over.
Faced by rapid change, Sturgeon has refused to engage. Her new independence papers read like historical documents – difficult even to decipher without a memory of prior decades. She, like Noon, is running scared from present circumstances, even as she maintains a pretence of trying to achieve independence in the immediate term.
For now, the pretence must hold. Sturgeon is systematically exhausting opportunities for mandates – first at the UK Supreme Court, then at a General Election she intends to turn into a ‘de facto referendum’. But once both these approaches have failed, and (presumably) Sturgeon herself has left the scene, could a ‘new approach’ be vaunted by her successor, one that countenances a further transfer of powers? It cannot be ruled out.
The problem with this, is that it simply misunderstands the character of Scotland’s democratic malaise. Devolution is the problem, and there’s little reason to think more devolution is the solution.
On his own blog, Noon contrasts the original ideas of devolution to our current, bitter scene: “…a politics that runs counter to the supposed founding principles of the Scottish Parliament – a parliament that was meant to break from the binary, confrontational approach of Westminster. Doing difference differently was meant to be part of the Scottish Parliament’s DNA.”
He’s right of course. Famously even the horseshoe arrangement of the parliamentary chamber was supposed to imply a new respectful ethos, a departure from the debating club format in London.
But really this new departure represented a degeneration. The late 1990s, when the parliament was conceived and born, was the peak of ‘post-politics’. The trade union movement was crushed. The collapse of the USSR – whatever the real character of that system – had signalled the foreclosure of historic alternatives to western capitalism. The establishment had won forever and therefore a democracy of contest between classes with opposed interests was redundant.
In its place would come negotiation between selective affinities of individuals, single issue campaigning and new cults of charity and moral improvement. Technocrats and experts – not ideologues – would design policy. Politics itself would rush into a centre-ground ruled by agreement on all fundamental questions.
What the intelligentsia received as nirvana, the public experienced as disenfranchisement. Millions drifted away from official politics altogether.
The rot of this managed democracy attacked every major public institution. But few were marked from birth like the Scottish Parliament. Every Scottish Government for 23 years has pursued the same pro-capital policies drizzled in a centre-left goo of emotive false advertising. Education and pro-business policies, as per the New Labour mantra, would progressively abolish class through social mobility.
Against the claims of Alex Salmond and his acolytes at the time, the movement was not simply an extension of devolution, but also its negation. The independence movement was indeed contentious, even angry. That is what democracy is – a conflict. Democracy only exists because conflict is an intractable part of society. We had to fight to get it in the first place.
The suspicion is Noon would be as disappointed by any new devolution settlement as by the present one. It would not quell the unrest we see breaking out in workplaces and on the streets in response to the worsening economic situation. The utopian hope of a public life characterised by harmony is dying from natural causes.
It would also be unlikely to quell discontent over the national question. To understand why, we only need to look to the Scottish Government’s response to inflation. Increasing and dishonest pleas that Sturgeon is powerless to meet the demands of the population due to the restrictions of the devolved settlement will not be silenced by any new tranche of powers – no matter how expansive. It would be a typical naivety of the newspaper classes to think more tax raising powers would end the buck-passing so important to modern post-political and transnational structures of governance – from Devo era UK to the European Union and far beyond.
None of this is to say that devolution itself is simply a mistake, or that it can be regressed back into a more centralised UK state – hardly the acme of democratic life. Forward is the only direction we can go. It should be forward to an independence rooted in a democratic and popular sovereignty, rather than the elitism and managerialism that characterises both Noon and Sturgeon’s approaches.