Six years on from the unsuccessful first referendum on Scottish independence the ides have turned for the SNP and other Yes movement supporters. Yet the ideological, transformative case for independence is increasingly missing.
This paradox is just one of many raised by reading Ben Jackson’s excellent, well-researched and insightful account of several decades of making the Case for Scottish Independence. It goes beyond the tactical and strategic “stasis” evoked once more by Ben Wray in sad lament for the now absent energy and spirit of 2014 (“stuck by the self-reinforcing dichotomies of constitutional posturing”).
The British state (Ukania in Tim Nairn’s memorable renaming) is rotting before our eyes, unable to even mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic via an effective test and tracing system and unwilling to stick to the principles of democracy and the rule of law it once promulgated to the world. It is a cronyist, elitist, regressive superstructure marked by “gormless authoritarianism” (Nick Cohen).
This edifice is far more corrupt in every sense than that dissected by the pro-independence New Left commentators who were active in the 1970s, 80s and 90s in the run-up to the now-at-risk devolution settlement and whose work informs the most engaging parts of Jackson’s analysis. As he puts in in his own commentary on his book: “A relatively small group of independence-supporting writers and politicians, such as Neal Ascherson, Isobel Lindsay, Neil MacCormick, Stephen Maxwell, Tom Nairn, Alex Salmond and Jim Sillars, has had a disproportionate impact by articulating independence as a political rather than a cultural objective.”
For them, independence and/or home rule served two purposes: undermining the structures of the Ukanian state, including the monarchy, and creating a modern European state resting on popular rather than parliamentary (the Queen In Parliament) sovereignty; and building a socialist Scottish republic that would decisively break with the neo-liberalism of Thatcher-Reagan-onomics, with its devastating de-industrialisation, unemployment, impoverishment and inequalities. (A similar critique underpinned the Red Paper on Scotland (1975), a largely Labour/social democratic-inspired series of essays (including by me) edited by Gordon Brown – and highly influential in its day.)
Where’s the beef?
Back in the day, SNP thinkers such as Stephen Maxwell (who died far too young and is sorely missed) tried to “yoke together Scottish independence and the egalitarian politics of the left” as Jackson puts it. Already then, however, other, overtly pro-capitalist strands of thinking were developing, often taking on anti-statist blindly pro-market tones (as in Mike Russell’s Grasping the Thistle). Salmond and, remarkably, George Kerevan (now reverting to his leftist persona) put wealth creation by the private sector at the heart of their social democratic vision.
But now very little of this radicalism or even debate remains. The SNP (an antediluvian title for a self-styled civic, anti-nativist movement) is nominally pro-redistributionist, anti-austerity/poverty but dominated in its economic thinking by the CEO of the Buccleuch Estates and the senior founding partner of corporate lobbyists who refuse to disclose their clients. It (as Kenny MacAskill points out on these pages) has not moved on the currency issue that arguably scuppered indyref1 – despite wishing to rejoin the EU. Indeed, much of its economic thinking is wishful – “enterprise and social justice are two sides of the same coin.” It avoids any serious discussion of monetary or fiscal policy.
Similarly, under Nicola Sturgeon, it has scarcely moved on since the pro-monarchy, pro-Nato, in essence conservative political stance it adopted in 2013-14. It is, as Jackson rightly says, not given to “much self-critical ideological conflict” and, arguably, not even clear what form of independence it is seeking. Where, indeed, is the “decisive rupture from the model of British politics and economics” long promised but undelivered?
As Jackson says, an open debate among nationalists (and others outwith the SNP) about independence – “its possible forms, its potential, its limits” – and sovereignty, one might add, is essential if the project is to be delivered. Relying on visceral hatred of Boris Johnson and his Scottish satraps or sheer boredom with the self-harming Scottish Labour of Leonard/Starmer may help deliver an absolute majority in May 2021 but not an equally large one in indyref2 (whenever that happens – as it must).
Ben Jackson, The Case for Scottish Independence, CUP, 2020
Further reading: Gerry Hassan, Seven stories of independence…, The National, 23 August; Mike Small, The Fantasies of muscular unionism, Bella Caledonia, 19 July; Michael Keating, Back to the unitary state?, Centre on Constitutional Change, 10 September; Isobel Lindsay, Facing the new reality, Source, 15 September