Scottish independence: denial is no way to ward off divorce

The British right cannot answer the case for nationalism because it does not understand it

July 14, 2020
Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Archive
Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Archive

How should unionists answer the case for Scottish independence? The first step is to admit they have a problem. Many unionists have spent so long greeting independence with condescension that they find themselves unable to empathise with, and rationally respond to, the attractive argument for democratic self-determination that underpins Scottish nationalism. The latest efforts to save the union being plotted from Downing Street provide a case study of the intellectual vacuum on the unionist side.

As the SNP continues to ride high in polling for next year’s Holyrood election, and two recent polls have placed Scottish support for independence as high as 54 per cent, the Conservative government in London is planning a counterattack which looks heavy on clunky symbols.

Alongside Boris Johnson’s adoption of the title “Minister for the Union,” the strategy seems to be to rein in the centrifugal tendencies of devolution by asserting a more muscular British state, which will deliver British-badged infrastructure projects to Scotland and extend a stronger sense of British identity across government. Everything is figuratively to be wrapped in a union flag, with a disconcerting lurch from a red, white and blue Brexit to—as it were—red, white and blue bridges and public buildings.

Inspired by the think tank Policy Exchange, this “muscular unionism” is set to be driven forward by a new Cabinet Union Policy Implementation Committee chaired by Michael Gove. Apparently without irony, the government’s plan is to copy the EU by ensuring that any transport improvements or new buildings funded by the Treasury carry signs that credit the British state for its largesse.

This noisy new unionism bears testament to how poorly the British right understands Scottish nationalism. Despite their own leading roles in the famously anti-technocratic Vote Leave campaign, Gove and Johnson are now staking everything on the imagined soothing properties of infrastructure investment, rather than summoning up anything of comparable emotional power to the ideas about democratic self-government articulated by Scottish nationalists.

As I show in my book, The Case for Scottish Independence, Scottish nationalism is too often caricatured as a superficial and nativist tradition by opponents who thereby end up ill-prepared to rebut its claims. Over the last 50 years, supporters of independence have been crafting an effective critique of the British state, and Scotland’s place within it, which draws on scrupulously social democratic ideas about economic equality and popular sovereignty. 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.

What is the core of this political case? Fundamentally, it is that independence would guarantee that the government of Scotland would be elected solely by the Scottish electorate and would therefore reflect more directly Scottish interests and policy preferences. The wider drift of British politics under Margaret Thatcher and since has made this argument increasingly persuasive to Scots. The rise in support for Scottish independence is not, as the Conservatives seem to think, due to Scots forgetting about the dynamic qualities of the British state. Rather, it has been driven by the actions of the British state.

The divergence in voting patterns between Scotland and England during the 1980s and early 1990s heightened the appeal of the nationalist case for popular sovereignty, since opposition politicians, both Labour and SNP, found it irresistible to argue that Scotland as a democratic community had not voted for the policies being imposed on it. Equally, the differences between Scotland and England could now be more effectively construed in political rather than cultural terms, as a contrast between social democratic and neo-liberal values. The progress of Thatcherism rendered deeper historical and cultural questions about Scottish identity less relevant: the new model of nationalism pragmatically conceded that while the union had in the past not necessarily impeded, say, the rise of Scotland’s industrial economy, it had nonetheless become a block on Scottish potential as the 21st century dawned.

The problem for unionists is that this nationalist construction of the recent past continues to be sustained not just by the social memory of the 1980s but also by the presence of the Conservative Party in government at Westminster since 2010. The introduction of devolution in 1999 was a serious attempt to answer the nationalist critique of Britain. But it ultimately proved unable to assuage the legitimacy problem posed by the return of Conservative government on a minority of the Scottish vote. Conservative austerity was not a promising backdrop to the 2014 independence referendum, precisely because it was an agenda that the Scottish electorate had not voted for. Britain’s decision to exit from the EU despite Scotland’s solid vote to remain illustrated anew the problem of democratic consent that now afflicts the Anglo-Scottish union. Even if Johnson’s Conservatism is more economically interventionist than David Cameron’s, a government elected by only 25 per cent of Scottish voters is at some point bound to run into a fresh clash between the British and Scottish democratic mandates.

The terrain on which Scottish nationalism must be confronted is treacherous. Answering the nationalist challenge will require systematic attention to the constitutional fabric of the British state and its democratic legitimacy. It will not be answered by decorating new bridges and roads with the union flag. The leading lights of British government, one might have thought, would recall that plastering road signs with the European circle of gold stars on dark blue in the end did nothing at all to save the EU.