The SNP leadership’s anti-Brexitism can mobilise grievance, but can’t hide the void of purpose at the heart of mainstream Scottish nationalism. Cynicism and complacency comes with a high price, argues James Foley.
In the 2014 referendum, Scotland’s pro-independence forces suffered a conclusive defeat. This fact, seemingly obvious on the surface, was easily forgotten amid the chaotic constitutional aftermath, in which independence gained an aura of electoral invincibility and historical inevitability. But precisely that momentum, and the resulting surge of optimism, has made the realisation of defeat more demoralising and the derangement more debilitating.
Doubtless, the 2014 referendum remains what it always appeared to be: a major ideological blow to British unionism. Independence support rose in two years from roughly a quarter to nearly a half of Scottish opinion. That it remains there today, for all the scandals surrounding the SNP, testifies to the serious popular foundations of anti-Westminster disenchantment. British politics has yet to fully recover its bearings. But these crumbs of comfort have merely served to delay a painful reckoning. Postponing the sting of defeat, and the resulting process of intellectual realignment, has hampered Scottish independence in the long run.
The adjustment is already well under way. Some erstwhile supporters now argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that Nicola Sturgeon was never an asset at all. But those quibbles are distractions from the deeper problem. Sturgeon’s ability to sustain, and on occasion increase, independence support masked the sloppiness and incoherence of her programme for independence. This was no accident: her popularity, a mile wide and an inch deep, was itself a product of logical inconsistency. She gained votes by making mutually conflicting promises, at the cost of denuding independence as a viable project.
The case for Scottish independence thus gained in respectability what it lost in clarity. This was legitimised, in part, by Brexit, a constitutional transformation which was itself, doubtless, founded on logically inconsistent promises. 2016 gave Scotland a genuinely felt sense of national grievance. But it was also an adrenalin shot of sheer parochialism into the national psyche. Many serious commentators simply presumed that, because Brexit was disliked, most of all by themselves, it would inevitably smooth the transition towards independence. That logic was rarely questioned – even many unionists bought into it.
Analysis was thus subordinated to hurt feelings and cultural grievances. And if the grievances had foundations in popular consciousness, the intellectual failings were founded in a slimmer stratum. Sturgeon found that, insofar as she indulged the vanities of civic Scotland, she was liberated from serious intellectual scrutiny. This was especially true when her truculence to Westminster brought glowing headlines in elite journals of global opinion, stirring a patriotic reflex in those who normally style themselves as above such things.
Still, Brexit, in retrospect, brought staggering little intellectual curiosity about the world beyond Holyrood and Westminster. There was little realistic understanding of the mechanisms of the European Union and the consequences for the economics of independence. It made Scotland more, not less parochial and less, not more “European” in its intellectual horizons. For five crucial years, this combination of cosmopolitan posturing and nationalist blinkers made the Scottish Government invincible to criticism.
The truth, obvious by now, is that Brexit has made achieving Scottish independence significantly more complicated. Prior to 2019, there was a coherent, markets-based case for separation. There was no trade-off, back then, between UK and EU trade links: indeed, the EU was precisely the guarantee of accessing the remainder UK market. This was the argument made, for instance, by Jim Sillars, when he led the case for “independence in Europe” at the expense of the SNP’s long history of Euroscepticism. You don’t have to agree to the conclusion to accept the premises. If reaching markets was your aim, the Single Market presented the full package.
Since then, the foundations of that argument have disintegrated. In the unlikely event of a forthcoming independence referendum, Scotland would have to choose between free access to the UK market and free access to the EU Single Market. RUK is a far bigger trading partner for Scotland, and, furthermore, supplies additional benefits via the Barnett Formula. Unless one aims for a very long-term trade realignment, a pro-market analysis can only reach one conclusion. Which raises the question: if your goals are avoiding turbulence and preserving trade links, why Scottish independence?
Of course, there are many other arguments and framings for Scottish self-rule. But the SNP has been coasting on a combination of nineties neoliberal nostalgia and EU boosterism that has lost any remaining coherence. In 2016 Britain split from roughly four decades of integration with the EU; Scotland and England have been integrated for three centuries. Mark Blyth was thus almost correct to observe that independence would mean “Brexit times ten”.
Hence, Scottish nationalism has tried to retain the aura of neoliberal rationalism while subtly shifting the ground to cultural grievance. Scotland was taken out of the EU against its will. Entering Europe becomes more than mere technocratic market access, but a mechanism for the free expression of the national spirit.
To disguise the cracking edifice, Scottish nationalism indulged a slew of sub-Nairnian conceptualisations of the unparalleled evil of post-Brexit Britain. What we were witnessing, they cried, was disaster nationalism, bedlam Britain and calamity Brexit. All these shrill labels for the enemy merely testified to an underlying void of purpose, symptomatic of a growing provincialism.
After all, what exactly was the UK being compared against? Trump’s United States? Meloni’s Italy? Macron’s France, in its near permanent state of civil strife? The Spanish state, which met claims for democratic sovereignty with brutal police violence and arrests of much of the Catalan political class? Even the Germans, those characteristically liberal moderates, now contend with a collapsing economy and a resurgent far-right. That’s before considering Eastern Europe.
Most anti-Brexit liberals had nothing to say about these comparators, perhaps imagining that the populist upsurge was a madness peculiar to one state and one state alone. But even those intellectually curious enough to consider the world beyond Westminster offered nothing by way of diagnosis. Beyond some doleful nostalgia for the stability of the nineties debt economy, comparative analysis of the post-neoliberal conjuncture amounted to little but self-congratulatory statements of personal and civic virtue.
Analytically, for all the surging energy of Europhilia, British intellectuals spent six years with their political imagination posting an out of office reply. It is thus convenient to blame the vapidity of Believe In Scotland’s pro-EU demonstration on younger figureheads like Kelly Given, Alistair Heather and Humza Yousaf, and harder to admit that its pallid vision reflects a decade of accumulated complacency from Britain’s liberal elite.
With respect to Brexit, it is worth remembering that Anglo-Scottish elites greeted the 2014 independence referendum itself in a similarly alarmist spirit. Many cosy people got a serious fright, decrying the Yes movement as a populist, demagogic and fundamentally illogical revolt against a beneficent status quo (the “best of both worlds”, as Scottish Labour had it). Even as Sturgeon’s rendering of Scottish independence gained unearned intellectual credibility, the referendum that was its social foundation was treated (like the Brexit vote) with disdain and condescension. This, and the spirit of popular participation that inspired it, remains a good reason to treat 2014 seriously.
But that very word, “serious”, implies a rigour and honesty that has been absent in the defeated camp. Amid the recriminations of the post-Sturgeon legacy, some will blame the SNP leadership, while others will blame a Westminster/MI5 plot. The truth is, after 2014, Scottish independence was never on the cards. Programmatic incoherence is testament to that fact: Sturgeon, renowned for her mastery of “the brief”, could never have fought on such a slim, sloppy prospectus. Nor could anyone. This hardly means Scottish independence is impossible: an absurd notion in a world of hundreds of nation states poorer than Scotland. It just means that nobody remotely proximate to power wanted to solve the programmatic riddles or take the unpopular decisions necessary to get there, which tells its own story.
And yet the hopes were not entirely delusional. This is what makes this moment so painful. The conjunctural crisis of the British state – that was real enough. Arguably, it was the biggest peacetime crisis Westminster ever had to manage. And while a repeat cannot be ruled out amid today’s “polycrisis”, the suspicion remains that Scotland’s moment has passed, and that many making the pretence of nationalism never really had the stomach for sovereignty if that meant attendant accountability. Brexit fattened Scotland’s political class on empty praise. But that was fleeting, and crucial years of a global crisis of capitalist ecology were wasted on civic self-regard.