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The ‘forward march’ of Scottish nationalism

Gerry Hassan

 

Just as Labour and the left had to analyse and even empathise with Thatcherism post-1983, so Labour and unionists are faced with a similar set of challenges in Scotland today.

 

Scotland has been changed dramatically and fundamentally. The SNP landslide victory has resulted in a completely different political map of Scotland.

This is a wider set of changes than just a northern, near-foreign politics of little real interest to the Westminster village. For a start there is the demise of the Labour hegemony north of the border. This is part of a deeper crisis of the British political class and state, British identity and the demise of a popular British story that connected people and power. This is a major loss of faith and confidence in left and right, which is only just beginning to unfurl, awakening the possibilities of addressing the English question and nature of the UK.

 

The changing face of Scottish politics

The SNP’s election victory is a historic watershed in Scottish and British politics. The SNP won 45.4 per cent of the constituency vote to Labour’s 31.7 per cent, a lead of 13.7 per cent, and 44.0 per cent of the regional list to Labour’s 26.3 per cent, a lead of 17.7 per cent. This is after four years of Alex Salmond leading a minority SNP Government of 47 seats to Labour’s 46 in the 2007 Scottish Nationalist narrow victory over Labour: the first ever national triumph of the SNP. The 2011 elections resulted in an SNP majority with 69 seats to Labour’s 37 in the 129 member Parliament; the First Past the Post map of Scotland is now emphatically SNP with 53 members to Labour’s mere 15, with the result only made more respectable by the regional list.

Devolution was meant to be about legitimising the existing Labour state, its one-party apparatus, nomenklatura class and extension into every aspect of Scottish public life. This became, under eight years of Labour-Lib Dem Executive administration, a rather insipid, uninspiring world. Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell provided Labour’s three First Ministers who despite their various skills could or would not change. Instead, Labour rule became associated with a minimalist, dismal form of politics centred on authoritarianism, telling people off, and inspiring no one.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Devolution ‘was meant to kill nationalism stone dead’ claimed George Robertson in the distant past. The Scottish Parliament electoral system was devised with the intention of preventing one party ever having a parliamentary majority. The Scottish Nationalists were seen by Labour unionists as a party out of touch with the modern world; one which would be exposed by the pressures of devolution. And the idea of Scottish independence was an eccentric, maverick demand which didn’t deal with reality.

Instead, Scottish voters have chosen to elect what they see as a Scottish Government, a body that speaks and aspires to lead the Scottish nation. The SNP represent and reflect Scottish identity in a manner that Scottish Labour has shown itself unable too. Then there is the leadership of Alex Salmond as First Minister, who has transformed how the Scottish Nationalists are seen, and shown a form of national leadership none of his Labour predecessors had or were given the opportunity to show.

Then there is the message and psyche of the SNP: one representing the potential of a mature, evolving, self-governing Scotland. This has in the last few years shifted from the politics of gripe and grievance about what is wrong to one of emphasising positivity. This was a change in the Nationalists which disorientated Labour in 2007, but did so again in 2011 because Labour has such a powerful, entrenched sense of caricaturing and stereotyping the SNP.

 

Life in a northern country: a different Scottish political environment

All of this has contributed to a dramatically changed Scottish politics. Scotland has for the first time a majority administration. The Nationalists have established an impressive hegemony in the Scottish Parliament which looks to be long-term and a permanent re-alignment of Scottish politics. Scottish Labour now looks bereft, having lost nearly two dozen of its parliamentary constituencies, all of its heartlands, and much of its talent. It has the fall-back of still looking dominant for the foreseeable future at Westminster.

We have a government committed to Scottish independence and holding a vote in its five year term on this. In the meantime it wants to address the issue of more powers and the inadequacies of the current Scotland Bill going through Parliament, which is the result of the unionist cross-party initiative the Calman Commission (Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2009).

This is the high point of the Scottish Nationalists, a party which has come a long way from its first electoral victory at Motherwell in 1945 just before Labour’s landslide victory and Winnie Ewing’s breakthrough in 1967. British commentators tend to view the SNP and wider Scottish nationalism as an episodic, wave-like phenomenon; as one which blows hot and cold through various upturns and downturns: 1967-68, 1973-74, 1988-89, 1992 and 1998-99. This suits a British media uninterested in Scotland or life beyond Westminster, but also misunderstands the nature of today’s SNP. The party’s appeal pre-devolution was profoundly episodic, seen by voters as a protest party, or a means to send a shockwave to the Scottish and British political establishment. Now with a Scottish Parliament, its character and nature is very different: a permanent feature on the landscape which the British media have not adapted to.

This changed Scottish political landscape has consequences not just north of the border, but for all British politics, the state of Britain, and even more for the continuation of Britain itself. In many senses, we are witnessing a profound crisis of Britain and the end of Britain as we have come to know it (Gardiner, 2004).

This is an existential crisis of unionism in Scotland and across the UK. A majority of Scots may still be committed to the union and anti-independence, but the unionist side have been in serious decline and trouble since Thatcher was elected Prime Minister and her aggressive unionism went down poorly in Scotland (although its problems are so long-term and deep seated that they long pre-dated Thatcherism). In the last decade or more, the unionist case in Scotland has come to rely on a series of negative scare stories about independence: Scotland is too small, poor, oil-dependent, divided or connected to England to stand on its own two feet and make it as an independent nation.

One of the dominant arguments has been that Scotland is subsidised by the rest of the UK through the Barnett Formula, and that Scotland has a structural deficit with the rest of the UK. What has been missing in these arguments has been a positive argument for the union, one which emphasises shared histories, values and connection. And when this has been attempted by Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander, it has sounded forced and threadbare (Brown and Alexander, 1999; see Hassan, 2008).

Maybe even more fundamentally at the heart of the British political class, unionism is in deep crisis. There used to be a potent, popular story of Britain which had a Tory version, a Labour version, and more importantly, a general people’s story, all of which have been diluted to the point of no longer really existing. This has had consequences for a sense of unionism, which no doubt the Westminster political classes are still believers in, but which is not matched by any sense of feel and emotion on their part, or wider, by any gut, primordial unionism on the part of the public.

Look at the response of the Westminster village in the aftermath of the SNP victory. David Cameron talks the language of a conciliatory, responsive unionism, which is probably tactically correct. But neither he nor Ed Miliband makes one significant speech or contribution in the weeks after the SNP’s landmark triumph. This is noteworthy, because this is not just a Scottish moment and change, but an altering of the state of Britain, and neither of the two mainstream parties feels it worthy to comment at their most senior level.

Scottish politics and society has moved beyond such considerations. It has in many respects begun to transcend the simple unionist vs. nationalism binary mentality. In Scotland, despite much of the rhetoric, unionism and nationalism don’t sit as two antagonistic, separate tribes at war with each other as in Northern Ireland. Instead, they cross-cut and cross-fertilise each other; it has long been possible to be a unionist and a nationalist: think of Donald Dewar or Tom Johnston before him; now it is possible to be a nationalist and a unionist. Just as we now talk of a ‘banal nationalism’ (Billig, 1995), so we should now equally be able to talk of ‘banal unionism’ (Kidd, 2008), such is the degree to which both nationalism and unionism have shaped and defined each other and Scottish society.

Scottish nationalism’s greatest triumph and unionism’s biggest challenge for a long time, could paradoxically become an opportunity for unionism. This is because the direction of travel of the SNP and Scottish nationalism is not towards some ludicrous ‘separatism’ of Gordon Brown’s worst fantasies, but towards a post-nationalist politics which acknowledges the multi-faceted identities of Scotland and these isles, and entails some kind of union, or multiple unions. Therefore, a politics of unionism has its place in whatever emerges as Scotland’s constitutional status: a partnership with England, ‘the social union’ which will remain, and institutional and political arrangements across these isles. The SNP have long been thinking along these lines, and vacated the simple, binary politics beloved of opponents. It is unionism which has failed to develop and evolve, and at a Scottish level to understand the SNP, or at Westminster to adapt to the realities of the modern world beyond its horizons.

 

The end of Labour Scotland

The widespread scale of change this represents and reflects in Scotland has barely begun to be understood. For what in effect has crumbled is the era of Labour Scotland (Hassan and Shaw, 2011). This is distinct from the Scottish Labour Party, but played the most important part in the party’s long hegemony in Scottish society.

Labour Scotland was a society shaped and dominated by the people’s party. This found institutional expression in three pillars of Labour rule: council housing, trade union membership, and local government. In the 1960s and 1970s these all emerged as sectors which represented majorities of the Scottish population, and thus allowed Labour’s one party rule to look and feel impregnable, reshape society, and utilise a politics of patronage and preferment which took in most of the population. At its heart, the Scottish Labour Party was weak, not well resourced, with few members, little money and institutions, but it was the centre of a well-developed network of power and clientism.

From 1979 onward these three pillars of Scottish Labour’s house began to fall; council housing was sold off, while trade union membership declined, and the last of the three to change, was at Labour’s own hand, when the Lab-Lib Dem Executive introduced the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of proportional representation for local government. This single-handedly at one stroke removed Labour’s huge advantage and control of much of Scottish local government, and removed the last pillar of Labour dominance.

Scottish Labour was always going to face more rocky times after this, challenged by an increasingly confident SNP, and facing the handicap of not fully being ‘the Scottish Labour Party’. In 1994 the party changed its name from the Scottish Council of the Labour Party to the Scottish Labour Party. There was an expectation that more autonomy and powers would flow northwards, but it didn’t; Scottish Labour remained instead a brand and aspiration, and the branch operation of a British party.

The party did not adapt and evolve under devolution. As it now faces the prospect of electing its sixth leader in just twelve years from a shrunken, atrophied pool of talent, even the post of Scottish Labour leader is a misnomer. The actual leader of Scottish Labour is one Ed Miliband; the post called Scottish Labour leader is in fact, ‘the Leader of the Scottish Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament’. This environment reflects the tensions between Scottish and British Labour, but as pronounced are the differences and disagreements within the party between Westminster Labour and the Scottish Parliament Labour; both of these despise one another with several of the former believing the establishment of a Parliament to have been a complete mistake which has created a body controlled by Labour’s opponents. These tensions and conflict aid the inability of the Scottish Labour Party to become something more than a name.

The party that approached the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections was not then one in good health or state of mind. Yet it thought that a campaign invoking the threat of the Tory bogeyman would be enough. That combined with a negative message of fear about the Nationalists, and the return of a populist authoritarianism. These were after all some of Labour’s favourite old tunes.

It didn’t work, showing the paucity of thinking and talent in Scottish Labour. This was to some the failure of ‘modernisation Labour’, of a party which broke with traditional attitudes and embraced the new conservatism of New Labour. Then there was the articulation of ‘fear Labour’: a politics of law and order, populism and scaremongering about the Nationalists in the equivalent of Cold War rhetoric. John McTernan, former Blair adviser, was one of the leading proponents of this approach, which took him into a dark alley of negative politics, advocating Labour going hard on law and order, ‘knife crime’ and ‘jailing neds’ (McTernan, 2011). And then was ‘miserablist Labour’, which showed how the party misunderstood the mood of the nation. Alf Young dismissed the election as ‘the per cent longest yawn in living memory’ (Young, 2011), while Ross Martin talked of it as ‘a political sham’, ‘deceit’ and ‘delusional’ (Hassan, 2011). Even before polls opened, Labour politicians were blaming the voters and other parties for their predicament.

Scottish Labour came out of the election shellshocked and reduced to a parliamentary rump. Its constituency vote share at 32 per cent might have only fallen by 0.5 per cent but the party’s remorseless decline since the 1960s has been one way and all the more striking for its lack of spikes, and steady incrementalism. The party can take succour in its impressive 42 per cent at the 2010 Westminster election and its bunch of FPTP seats. And even those more internationally minded such as Denis MacShane claim what’s the fuss: this is what happens with nationalist parties the world over in devolved elections (MacShane, 2011). However, the party should realise that the dynamic of Scottish politics and Scotland’s future won’t be decided at Westminster, but instead will be determined at the Scottish Parliament, something the SNP have grasped from the first devolved elections. Labour has to start dealing with that reality.

 

The modern faces of Scottish Nationalism

The long march of the SNP and Scottish nationalism from its seismic breakthrough in 1967-68 has shaped how a large part of Scottish nationalism sees itself. Its electoral triumphs are totems in a long struggle, Motherwell, Hamilton, Govan twice, and its heroes emblematic: Robert McIntyre, Margo Macdonald, Jim Sillars. This shouldn’t be too difficult for Labour to understand, for it corresponds to the formative years of the Labour movement.

This can be seen in one important way. Just as there was once a belief in ‘the forward march of labour’, so there is a ‘forward march of Scottish nationalism’. Once Labour saw progress and history as leading to the future being its own, so Scottish nationalists tell themselves a similar story. It is true that the ‘forward march’ thesis in Labour always had its critics who saw it as too mechanical, militaristic, and limited a politics, but it also caught a collective sense of belief. And that, combined with a sense that the future can be created, shaped and made, which used to be central to left politics, is part of the Nationalist psyche.

The rise of Scottish nationalism is directly related to the decline and demise of the post-war consensus; the SNP’s first major breakthroughs in 1967-68 and 1973-74 correspond to the slow unravelling of this settlement and the beginning of the end of British social democracy. This has articulated itself in the decline of Britain as an economic power and an idea. This decline can be seen as linked to the lack of faith Scots have shown in the British political centre and their preparedness to believe in the salience and power of the Scottish political voice at this centre. Scots know that voting SNP and expressing themselves as Scottish nationalists is a careful, negotiated politics, and one which in many ways is profoundly British in manner at least. Scots have consistently voted for the social democratic politics which had begun to unravel in 1967 with Wilson’s devaluation, and even more fundamentally the 1976 IMF crisis, before Thatcher or Blair. Some observers have long argued that Scottish nationalism is an expression of wanting things to stay the same: the managed British society of the immediate post-war era (Finlay, 2004).

Scottish nationalism is an expression and reflection of Scottish identity and society. Therefore, it isn’t surprising to find that it is cautious, conservative and happy to accommodate the institutional, top-heavy nature of much of Scottish public life (Hassan and Ilett, 2011). In other respects, it is open, generous, welcoming and pluralist as a political force. It has, like any widespread, disparate movement, its dark, denouncing voices, sometimes summarised as ‘the cybernats’ who pursue, hector and condemn opponents. Mostly though, from the grass roots to the leadership, this is a party of ordinary Scots, which differentiates it from the narrow classes of the Labour state. They are welcoming of incomers, Asian Scots, the English, other Europeans, and deeply pro-European and conscious of Scotland’s links and contribution to the wider world.

There are still Scottish Nationalists who want to define their world by Scotland’s long gone past, by Bannockburn, Braveheart and Bruce, and by an attachment to flags, symbols and totems, but they are a small, declining minority. Yet the more mainstream, prevalent Scottish Nationalist sentiment is a desire to see Scotland as a self-governing modern nation taking its place on the international stage, taking its responsibilities seriously.

This is a post-nationalist understanding of the world, as James Mitchell’s fascinating study of the SNP membership and leadership shows (Mitchell, Johns and Bennie, 2009). The SNP are relatively relaxed about such issues as sharing sovereignty between countries, and finding a form of independence which is relevant and realistic in an interdependent age (MacAskill, 2004). The intransigent nationalists have become the unionist fundamentalists found in Labour; this shouldn’t be that surprising for Labour was always the party of the central state from the 1920s onward. Once it abandoned any pretence of socialism under Blair, it retained the means: command and control, not understanding the UK and a lack of any real grasp of how to nurture coalitions and alliances of change.

Scottish nationalism has supplied over the last thirty to forty years several of the leading thinkers on Scottish politics: Tom Nairn, the late Neil MacCormick, Neal Ascherson and several more. The contrast with Scottish Labour could not be more pronounced, who after the premature death of J.P. Mackintosh in 1978 have been bereft of any big thinkers. Any referencing of Gordon Brown in this terrain would acknowledge that from his election as an MP in 1983 he saw his political stage and world as Westminster, not Scotland.

This nationalist renaissance in ideas has been seldom understood or engaged with by Scottish Labour or other unionists. The writing and thinking of Neil MacCormick, for example, which has addressed issues of flexible, fluid, shared sovereignties and how this is expressed from a Scottish to European Union and international level, played a huge part in influencing the SNP Government’s approach to constitutional change (MacCormick, 1999; 2005). This influence could be seen in the White Paper published on Scotland’s constitutional future, which was informed by a very pluralist, pragmatic sense of what Scotland’s status could become (Scottish Government, 2009). This again was a politics of nuance and shades of grey, which the mainstream unionist parties refused to recognise, instead taking comfort in invoking the threat of ‘separatism’ and constitutional upheaval.

Scottish Nationalists do face significant challenges. The SNP for example, like most successful parties, are a ‘catch-all’ party, ranging from social democrats to neo-liberals. The party has since 1979 proudly and unashamedly positioned itself on the centre-left and in the social democratic tradition, but it has a less than in-depth understanding of this tradition, and has come to it just as its long-term crisis has become toxic. The SNP’s soul, its modus operandi, isn’t about being centre-left or positioning itself on the left/right spectrum, but Scottish statehood. This gives the party flexibility on the constitutional question, but begs the question: what is the party’s economic and social vision?

The SNP have always negotiated a fine balancing act between leaving independence as the ultimate political fantasy and the need to address what kind of Scotland this might involve. The political success of the SNP to date now necessitates that the party explore both areas more fully, fleshing out the detail of independence, and the Scotland of the future economically, socially and culturally. This will entail, as all ‘catch-all’ parties have to, making choices between competing interests and values. So far the SNP leadership have tried to ride the tiger of aspiring to a Nordic social democratic politics of welfare and social solidarity, and Irish pre-crash deregulation and competitive business rates. This is not a tenable medium or long-term position.

If this is to be the case, then the SNP’s unionist opponents are going to have to come to terms with the modern Nationalists, and start taking them seriously, instead of inventing phantom demons to scare the children. The Nationalist stereotypes of separatists, romanticists and sovereignty obsessives has to be binned as unhelpful to modern politics and to the unionist cause. Instead, they have to stop demonising and dehumanising the Nationalist movement and understand its facets and faces with more subtlety. Just as Labour and the left had to analyse and even empathise with Thatcherism post-1983, so Labour and unionists are faced with a similar set of challenges in Scotland today.

 

What is left of Britain?

All of this has profoundly altered Britain and yet at the same time it has not changed or altered the perceptions and beliefs of those at the apex of the British political class, whether they be politicians, civil servants, media or think-tanks. This makes the scale of the crisis, disengagement and prospect for radical change even more likely, rather than unlikely, given the political centre’s lack of comprehension.

This is part of the demise of the British story and crisis of unionism across Britain. It can be witnessed in the Cameroon Conservatives and their lack of grasp of what to do following the SNP victory. Their operating principle seems to be to not follow in the footsteps of Thatcherism, and to express a broadly conciliatory politics to the wider forces of Scottish nationalism in the hope of restricting the SNP’s appeal.

British Labour seems to be in an even more difficult position. The party of centralisation became the party of devolution without giving up its centralisation and without any collective credo to hold it together. Gordon Brown’s various attempts at invoking Britishness as the new ‘moral compass’ after socialism and social democracy were widely seen as unconvincing (Hassan, 2008; Hassan, 2009). However, in opposition the scale of the problem can be seen. The main Labour post-election perspectives which have so far become evident have nothing to really say on the nature of the British state and its multiple crises. Maurice Glasman’s ‘Blue Labour’ (Glasman et al., 2011) and the ‘Purple Labour’ of Progress (Philpot, 2011) are silent on these issues, mostly completely ignoring them or mentioning them in superficial passing. The Compass group has provided the best intentions in beginning to acknowledge and think about these issues, but even their numerous prospectuses show they are struggling (Lawson and Harris, 2010).

Why is Labour flailing on this new terrain of an evolving, looser union? First, we need to acknowledge the historic problem Labour has had in this arena. Labour has been the party of the British state as an agent of change, viewing it as progressive, and the means to a fairer, more equal Britain. Second, the party took this attitude towards the state in an ad hoc manner, which didn’t develop a theoretical model, but instead reinforced the party’s conservatism and empiricism on constitutional issues. Third, the politics of devolution, first in the 1970s and then the late 1980s, were a reaction to events, which even by the time of New Labour, were part of political pork barrelling: squaring off the Scots and Welsh, and not part of a wider political settlement. Fourth, the debris of New Labour is a major factor which across the board the party is having trouble coming to terms with. This includes the dramatic transformation of the British state, through the cumulative change of Thatcherism, Blairism and now Cameroon Conservatism into a neo-liberal state.

One arena which Labour and the left struggle on, apart from the nature of the British state, Scotland and Scottish nationalism, is the question of England. For many reasons, the British and English lefts have long been uncomfortable with the subject of England, seeing it as synonymous with racism, xenophobia and reaction. This seems at times a George Orwell-like caricature of the majority people of the UK, written off as hopeless and politically unsavoury unless they can be held in the union as part of a ‘progressive majority’ against their will. This is sometimes the brutal logic of the British/English left’s dismissal of nationalism on these isles, even from such eminent thinkers as Eric Hobsbawm in his exchange with Tom Nairn on ‘The Break-up of Britain’ (Hobsbawm, 1977; Nairn, 2003). This problem with England needs to be addressed, not just in Labour and the left, but across the political spectrum.

 

Rise now and be a nation again: the English dimension

The recent SNP victory has brought forth numerous centre-left and liberal commentators struggling to make sense of the new world, and in particular address the English issue. Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian struggled with the territory of how the English can evoke a ‘liberal, cosmopolitan and multi-cultural’ politics – all of which sounded like an intervention and lament which would not have sat out of place in the 1980s (Bunting, 2011). David Mitchell in The Observer made the observation that ‘If Scotland ever goes it alone … the British will have lost their country’ (Mitchell, 2011): the sort of comment Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has continually made when she has shown her complete lack of grasp of Scots and Welsh nationalism and the multiple identities of the UK.

This confusion extends to more seasoned political thinking. The Compass group, and in particular Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford, have explored the silences and nervousness of the left on England, and begun to ask some of the questions needed, such as why has Labour and the left made England the nation that dare not speak its name (Cruddas, 2011)? Who gains and who loses from such an untenable position? And why would anyone think it should be part of a radical imagination and politics?

However, where the Cruddas and Rutherford interventions fall down is that they evoke an old-fashioned sepia-toned Englishness. This is a land filled with progressive totems and symbols which the left is meant to feel more comfortable with: a world of post offices, village shops, and a long tradition of localism and small town life. What is conspicuously missing, which any nationalism or national identity has to evoke, is a sense of England as a modern, lived country, and an understanding of the history of the crisis which brought us to this present impasse.

England is clearly, despite its folklore, myths and conservative embrace, a modern country, but accounts of it as such are missing from most of our politics. This is understandable in contemporary Conservatism, for they have a self-interest in myths and legends and the maintenance of the ancien regime. What is stranger is Labour and the left’s collusion with this, which goes back to its problems with the British state and Englishness per se.

The ahistoric dimension reinforces all of this. What we never get in the Bunting and certainly not in the Alibhai-Brown interpretations of England is any real backstory of how this all came about. We do often get a centre-left/liberal ‘Ladybird Book’ list of things such as Empire, ‘forging of the nation’, ‘the world island’ nature of Britain and England, but it fails completely on two areas. The first is the nature of the British state, this strange hybrid which isn’t a nation, but is a state; which isn’t a unitary state, but ‘a union state’ or what has been called a ‘state of unions’ (Mitchell, 2009). Then there is the challenge of Scottish nationalism, and alongside it Welsh nationalism, to the British body politic. The phenomenon of these minority nationalisms in the context of the UK has contributed to the current English impasse. And that involves a forty-year debate, politics, institution-building and cultural imaginings, which in Scotland has created a deep reservoir of thinking, being and doing.

This needs to be understood by English radicals and those who want to begin articulating an English counter-story. The ingredients of this would involve starting from the premise that a collective English story needs to be voiced, not an English regionalist debate. England needs to think, imagine, act and dream as a nation: not be the one nation on earth which is viewed incapable of engaging in self-actualisation and self-determination. And from where we sit this seems to entail starting with basic building blocks: people need to bring ‘England’ into the open from the covers of the Ukanian state, naming ‘England’ as a space, place, community and nation. Some of this is basic institution-building, developing democratic bodies and practices which hold the tangled web of the state to account, and some of it is cultural expression, of artists, cultural figures and imagineers engaging in the fuzzy, messy, contradictory activities of ‘England’s dreaming’.

This is a bumpy, difficult road, but there can be no shortcuts to a politics of democracy, national identity and making an English voice. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish radicals can offer assistance and help, but ultimately this is a journey which it is up to the English. What won’t help our friends in the south is for them to invoke a simplistic, romantic version of Scottish nationalism which has everything worked out and is the envy of English democratic voices: the Billy Bragg position (Bragg, 2006). This is the corollary of seeing Scottish nationalism as a cardboard cut out caricature of Braveheart essentialist ‘blood and soil’ nationalists. Scottish nationalism may be mostly modern, forward looking, pluralist and deeply European in the best sense of the word, but it is a complex, diverse set of opinions. It has a conservative side, and like any nationalism it has a totalising project, which aspires to put most aspects of Scottish public life into its national mission. Maybe this is asking too much of the Billy Braggs of this world, but what is needed is acknowledgement of ambiguity, doubt and shades of grey in Scottish nationalism like every other political philosophy.

 

What happens to the United Kingdom?

Fundamental and far-reaching constitutional change is coming to the UK. Several Scottish scenarios are possible: federalism, confederalism, sovereignty association, different expressions of statehood, and of course, full independence (Keating, 2009). Numerous contemporary examples exist across the world for the Scots to draw on and seek inspiration from: the Catalans and Basques, Puerto Rico, Greenland, as well as two dozen newly independent states from the demise of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

All of these, apart from the traditional idea of independence, would co-exist with some kind of institutional arrangements and connection to a pan-British political system. Any such agreement has to deal with the question of what the rest of the UK decides, and the problematic issue of England and its attachment to the idea of a unitary state politics. This last point is one of the potential sticking points in any remaking and reconfiguration of the nations and politics of the UK.

Federalism has long been dreamt of by many reformers, from Lib Dems pre-coalition to Charter 88. It does not address what happens to England and whether it is a single national voice with all that entails in one union, or an exploration of English regionalism. Federalism entails remaking the entire character of the British political system, state and constitution.

Confederation would entail some kind of institutional arrangements across the terrain of the UK. These would be developed politically to keep Scotland in some kind of political union with the rest of the UK. However, most experiences point to confederation being a staging post to something else. Examples would include the post-Yugoslavia experience of Serbia and Montenegro, while the European Union has some confederal features; others think the slow crisis of Belgium may result in confederation.

Sovereignty association allows for a political framework which is neither full independence or an incorporating union. An example of this is Puerto Rico, which has the status of a freely associated state with the USA and which is neither completely independent or incorporated into the USA. Similar demands have been made by the Parti Québécois in Quebec and the Basque National Party.

Other expressions of statehood include the radical home rule model found in Greenland, which first gained home rule from Denmark in 1979, and then further self-government in 2009. Greenland also held a referendum and then left the European Union in 1985, hugely reducing the EU’s land mass and fisheries areas, while Denmark has remained in the EU.

What motivates the Scottish dimension in all of these is the desire to achieve a degree of self-government which expresses Scottish statehood and tackles the condition of being ‘a stateless nation’. Scottish statehood is an expression of developing a national identity and voice which has a degree of sovereignty and a distinct public sphere and public realm. There is in the SNP a significant degree of being relaxed about the exact form of such arrangements, with all sorts of possibilities of shared, flexible, fluid sovereignties possible, different degrees of union, and a high degree of co-operation envisaged between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

This vision of Scotland would be one that would be post-nationalist, while also accommodating and incorporating unionist thinking. Scotland would exist in some kind of union, a very different union, and an environment in which the binary simplicities of unionism versus nationalism weren’t relevant.

The problem with all of this is the entrenchment in the British state and political classes of a rather narrow, doctrinaire idea of power and sovereignty: one in which the latter is absolute, undissolvable and not shared across nations and territories.

This British environment needs to be accurately portrayed because underneath the radar there is an element of subtlety and ambiguity. On the one hand the British state in its conservatism has a flexibility and deftness in how it can respond and accommodate to any events. The famous ‘unwritten constitution’ allows British elites to a great extent to make things up as they go along if they have the political will and self-interest. A good example would be the question of who can hold a Scottish independence referendum. A literal interpretation of the Scotland Act 1998 was that with the constitution a ‘reserved matter’, Westminster was the only body which could call a vote. This was the argument put forward by literal legalists and still by unionist fundamentalists such as John McTernan. What this omitted was the political realities on the ground, of the body which decides Scotland’s constitutional status being the Scottish Parliament, and any Scottish referendum coming from Holyrood. This is a position post-Scottish election now accepted by David Cameron and Michael Moore, Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland.

Such political statecraft is more complex in written constitutions with protected provisions. The Spanish debate about Catalonia and the Basque Country is shaped by whether either territory has the right to hold referendums on their constitutional status, or whether only the Spanish Government can do so.

This has advantages and disadvantages. It means if there is political interest on the part of the British political class in accommodating Scotland in a radically different union, it will make the effort. This also has the potential of allowing Scottish statehood or even conventional independence to be accommodated in a way which allows for the maintenance of the conservative order. Such radical, seismic change doesn’t automatically bring the rotten ancien regime crumbling down; for example, if the British state was able to negotiate and survive the political defeat and humiliation involved in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, we should not underestimate its capacity for survival.

The alternative prospectus is to see how radical Scottish constitutional change can aid and further the defeat of the ancien regime. Scottish statehood and independence have to be posed as a radical rupture to the existing order, with radicals and democrats across the UK making common cause. There are two routes here: one being an expression of shared sovereignty, while another is traditional independence.

The latter would be a profound body blow to the idea of ‘Great British Powerism’, and the status and illusion the UK still likes to and partly manages to portray on the international stage. Such a development would be a historic event; not reducible to five million people leaving a union of sixty million, but one-third of the UK’s land mass with huge geo-political, defence and security issues, while the political union between Scotland and England is as close to foundation law as the UK has ever managed.

The sociologist Michael Mann dismissed the consequence of ‘stateless nations’ exploring statehood with the question, ‘Does it finally matter whether Quebec remains part of Canada, or Scotland part of the United Kingdom, or Catalonia part of Spain?’, and concluded:

If Quebec, Scotland or Catalonia separate from their imperial ruler, people will not die or be driven from their homes. Rather they will worry about the consequences for investment and employment, what languages they will learn, or whether a tiny country would ever qualify for the World Cup finals … For the past decade the Quebecois, Scots and Catalans have been dithering at election time, unable to decide whether they really do want independence. It doesn’t matter much, one way or the other, either for them or for their supposed exploiters. (Mann, 2005, 525)

Scotland has had a privileged experience in the modern age both in comparison to many places in Europe and even more the world. What Mann’s remarks don’t take into account is the challenge to the British state possible in Scottish independence, but what they offer a salutary reminder of is that independence could be accommodated in the existing conservative order of the UK.

The political environment we currently sit in has Scottish, nascent English and British dimensions, alongside an international set of consequences. All of these factors are inter-related and influence each other. What the Scottish journey has already done, apart from change utterly politics north of the border, is begin in certain quarters long overdue English and British considerations.

For many of us in Scotland our exploration of self-government, wider self-determination and statehood, is not part of a politics of isolation or separatism. The exact opposite is the case; it is about developing more fully and appropriately a politics and nation fit for the modern age than the decaying, decrepit embers of the Ukanian state.

That means that Scottish statehood has an interest and responsibility for the politics and values of whatever form the rest of the UK takes. It would seem a small gain if Scotland went off trying to evolve into a northern social democracy, while England or the rest of the UK was reduced to some Rupert Murdoch ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ of marketisation, deregulation and representing the global classes of new wealth and power.

One of the aspirations of Scottish self-government and statehood is to dissolve the ancien regime and its modern expression, the neo-liberal state, and the bowdlerised, bastardised politics and economic vision which comes from it. This requires that radical democrats, nationalists and post-nationalists across these isles, realise the stakes we are playing for. This is a once in a generation opening for reform not just in Scotland, but across the UK, and a chance to be the gravediggers of that conservative order which has proved so unconducive to centre-left and progressive politics.

 

 

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