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Unionist or nationalist, Scotland's independence debate needs saving from itself

Both sides of the debate have retreated into a comforting binary, excluding new ways of thinking. We must build a more expansive framework—and show the intellectual and emotional openness that the Scottish question demands
November 11, 2022

The Scottish independence debate has been around for so long now that part of the English centre-right is bored with it. A significant number of politicians in Westminster view it as incomprehensible and annoying, which is why they are now looking for possible mechanisms to stop another referendum on the matter from happening.

Yet the “Scottish debate”—and what drives it—cannot be wished away. It is a debate without end because, collectively, the people of Scotland will continue to think about what they want their country to be in the future, as indeed will the people of the UK as a whole. In Scotland this is about more than finances, the Barnett formula and borders—important though they are. It is about how people see themselves, understand the recent past and project their hopes into the future.

It’s well-known that there is something deeply emotional at play in the Scottish independence debate. If Scotland becomes independent it will be, in the words of historian Peter Hennessy, a “familial break-up”. But still we seem to forget that Scotland was once very British and bought into the shared story of Britain. So how did that idea of Britain break, and the idea of an independent Scotland evolve?

To answer this question, we must look beyond the well-worn list of recent historical events that supposedly alienated many Scots from the Union: the unpopularity of the Tories from the 1950s onwards; Margaret Thatcher, deindustrialisation and the poll tax in the 1980s; the shortcomings of New Labour, with particular reference to Tony Blair and the Iraq War. Other factors and dynamics, which are seldom referenced in mainstream political and media discussion, point to much deeper and longer-term changes on the political landscape.  

In the mid-20th century, Scots voted for Tories in significant numbers. In the general election of 1951, the Conservative party returned to power for the first time since the Second World War. In 1955, now led by Anthony Eden and in a pact with the then-separate Unionist party, it won 50.1 per cent of the Scottish vote and 36 out of 71 Scottish seats; Labour won 34. Eden resigned in 1957, his reputation tarnished by the Suez Crisis. He was replaced by Harold Macmillan who, in turn, won its third consecutive Tory victory and a 100-seat majority in 1959.

Macmillan’s campaign theme was that British people had “never had it so good”, which seemed at odds with the experience of many in Scotland. In the previous year, unemployment in Scotland had risen above 100,000 for the first time since the end of the war. Scotland’s relatively poor economic growth rate—even as living standards improved—became an issue of concern to the British government, Scottish institutions, the media and business. During the centralising postwar period, Scotland was increasingly seen as just another “region” of the UK as opposed to a distinct country with its own traditions and institutions. But this began to shift again when official agencies commissioned new reports—such as the Toothill report of 1961—which gave rise to the idea that Scotland was once again a distinct place with specific economic needs and requirements.

On their own, such reports like Toothill’s might not have led to major change, but for two other factors. In November 1959, the United States requested a new nuclear weapons base on British soil. In March 1961, the UK government gave permission for it to be built at the Holy Loch in the firth of Clyde. Two years after that, in March 1963, the UK confirmed it would purchase a fleet of its own Polaris submarines from the US, to be based at Faslane. The US base left after 31 years, in June 1992; the UK’s own nuclear fleet remains at Faslane today.

This activity in nuclear armament coincided—from the late 1950s onwards—with a folk music revival in Scotland, aided by changes in youth culture bound up with weakening deference, the expansion of higher education and the emergence of radical student politics. Folk clubs and networks fed into political activism across the UK through organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In Scotland specifically, such activism began to overlap with the constitutional question: the Scottish National Party, then a marginal force, was the only political party that was unconditionally anti-nuclear. Labour—which adopted an anti-nuclear position briefly in 1960—returned to its pro-nuclear weapons stance under Hugh Gaitskell in 1961.

These three factors—Scotland’s relatively poor economic performance, the presence of nuclear submarines in the country and the evolution of a new youth culture—would start to change the “idea of Scotland”. Their impact was barely noticed in politics to begin with. The only signs that something was stirring were the strong performances by the SNP in two 1961 Glasgow byelections, and one in West Lothian the year after that.

But something more profound than mere politics was shifting, in the sphere of stories, voices and even songs. In the late 1960s, the Corries’s “Flower of Scotland” fast became an alternative national anthem as fans of the Scottish men’s football team booed “God Save the Queen” during home games. Within a decade, the anthem which honoured the monarchy with its base in London had been officially replaced by another calling on Scots to “rise now and be a nation again”. A new national folklore was being made.

This cultural shift, alongside the failure of Harold Wilson’s 1964 Labour government to deliver on its promise of economic and democratic modernisation, ignited the Scottish question and brought it into mainstream political debate. The UK was in an economic crisis at the time, and Wilson was forced to talk about devaluing the pound. Against this backdrop, the SNP won the previously safe Labour seat of Hamilton in November 1967. Devaluation followed 16 days later, and the government abandoned its national plan for growth.

Progressive ideas about the future of the UK were in fundamental retreat, right as this shift in the idea of what Scotland was and could be continued. After Wilson’s devaluation, British social democracy never again inspired the same confidence that it could create an egalitarian future which lifted up all the people of Britain. Labour became associated with managing crises, retreat and decline during the following decade.

By the time the Labour party won the 1997 general election under Tony Blair, it had agreed a Faustian pact with the forces of conservatism, convinced that it had to do so to win. Thatcherism had already hollowed out the idea of Britain—by selling off nationalised industries such as British Rail and British Steel, and making visible cutbacks to the welfare state—to the extent that New Labour was restricted in its ability to remake a progressive version of the country.

The idea of Scotland as an economic, political and cultural territory, distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom, emerged as any clear vision for the UK declined. At the end of the 1970s, large numbers of Scots continued to believe in and strive for a “Labour Britain”. But an evolution was underway which meant that, in 1997, a decisive majority of Scottish voters, encouraged by a cross-party consensus, chose to establish a devolved parliament in Edinburgh. In 2014, the first independence referendum resulted in a defeat for the idea of a separate Scotland by 55 to 45 per cent, but it also marked the end of Scottish faith in Labour Britain; in the general election that followed a year later, the Labour party retained just one seat.

Since 2014, some have wanted to reduce the Scottish independence debate to a clash of identity politics or even a “culture war” between two rival interpretations of our constitutional future. Gordon Brown regularly claims that SNP supporters want to hijack and appropriate Scottishness for themselves and in so doing promote a narrow, exclusive version of Scottishness synonymous with independence. He tries to tar supporters of Scottish independence with the same brush as Brexiteers, writing in the New Statesman last year that both “have a one-dimensional and absolutist us-versus-them view of the world.” And he asserts that the SNP would force Scottish voters to choose between Scottish and British identity—shoehorning people into a binary political choice. Passionate independence supporters sometimes appear to confirm this view, responding with comments such as “for once Brown is right” and “I have never felt British and want it expunged from Scotland”.

Often, the worst aspects of Scottish and British nationalism are interrelated. Brown’s position promotes a caricature of Scottish nationalism which enables him to dismiss independence without considering it seriously. In their turn, independence supporters risk alienating the many Scots who continue to see themselves as British.

This year at the Edinburgh Festival, Nicola Sturgeon reflected that she saw no problem in having a “British identity”. “This might surprise people”, she told an audience at the Fringe, “but do you know I consider myself British as well as Scottish.” Independence-supporting columnist Kevin McKenna condemned her in the Herald, writing: “It’s difficult to understand what Ms Sturgeon was seeking to achieve with her expression of dual Scottish and British nationality.”

This exchange reveals a faultline running through the independence movement: the SNP has presented independence as a means to a multicultural, cosmopolitan Scotland which is at ease with itself. Yet a small, vocal section of its supporters imagine independence as an exercise in expunging Britishness and its traditions and identities from Scotland. This, clearly, is an impossibility.

If nationalists are to succeed in achieving Scottish independence, they must reassure voters on the big outstanding questions. They must provide detail on how the finances, borders and potential future EU membership of an independent Scotland would work. But they must also address something more profound: the tone and attitude of independence, and how to bring more humility, honesty and understanding to the many shades of opinion.  

It would be humble to acknowledge that independence will not be perfect from day one; honest to concede that there are risks and downsides inherent in such major change; and human to recognise the uncertainty, doubts and reservations that many will harbour about independence in an age defined by disruption.

On the other hand, there is a strategic mistake in Unionists’ over-emphasis on the specifics they want independence to address, such as on finances. This approach can sometimes succeed in putting the independence argument in a tight spot, but it is a defensive, narrow argument that will never remake the debate or the Union.

When Unionists emphasise the issue of finances—like the Barnett formula, which is the Treasury’s way of determining the share of public expenditure given to devolved administrations—they reduce the Union they defend to a transactional relationship in which there is an implicit threat: “Stay with us or you will become a basket case.”

This is a not a positive argument. It risks implying that even if Scotland stays, a future Westminster government would exert its right on the basis of parliamentary sovereignty to abolish or undermine Barnett, destroying one of the pillars of the Union. Fundamentally, it is also fought on the wrong terrain: it is arguing about detail as if Unionists are prepared to agree to independence in principle. And fighting an argument in this way means you can never win or reset the terms.

The pro-Union argument is weakened fundamentally by its lack of a plausible plan for the UK that involves substantially reforming, decentralising and democratising it. It seems unable to acknowledge the ways the existing setup does not work, or to suggest how to build a UK-wide alliance to achieve change. As the failure of Brown’s many interventions to bring about such an alliance illustrates, a plan to transform the UK’s political centre is still lacking.

Most pro-Union voices still struggle to comprehend fully the arguments for independence—even as they talk about its failings. They do not understand its logic and think it deeply irrational, primordial and emotional. Such thinking does not help the pro-Union side make its case or address some of the legitimate questions that independence supporters raise.

Scotland is already quasi-independent, characterised by an increasing independence of the Scottish mind

Of course, the Scottish debate is not just about Scotland but the whole UK. It is about the systemic failures of successive Westminster governments and the ways power, wealth and influence have become increasingly concentrated in London and the southeast of England.

It has consequences well beyond the borders of the UK, too. Scottish independence would have huge geopolitical implications for the west: Scotland’s long northwest Atlantic coast and the GIUK (Greenland Iceland United Kingdom) gap—which determines access to the sea waters of the north Atlantic—proved pivotal in the Second World War and the Cold War.

All of this makes the Scottish question an enormous headache for the British establishment. An intelligent Unionism would recognise that independence is not just about the SNP or Scottish independence, but about democracy, misgovernance of the UK and how people see themselves and their future. As columnist Alex Massie observed upon the election of Liz Truss as prime minister: “the Scottish question, then, can only be tackled obliquely. Fix Britain and you may yet lower the political temperature in Scotland.”

In this respect, Scotland is already quasi-independent, characterised by an increasing independence of the Scottish mind—which informs how Scots see themselves, their politics and the UK.

That does not automatically mean they will embrace formal independence, but intelligent Unionism seems in short supply. The Tories who are intoxicated by Brexit seem to think that the same abrasive approach they showed towards the EU and Remainers can work against the proponents of Scottish independence. Any suggestion that a future independence referendum must win votes from a majority of the Scottish electorate rather than of those who come out to vote—as was the case in first referendum on a Scottish parliament in 1979—would be misguided. If it came from a party which gave the UK a hard Brexit on the support of just 37 per cent of the electorate, it would be even more counterproductive, and would underline the lack of strategic thinking in Tory Unionism.

It is increasingly unlikely there will be a referendum in 2023, but eventually there will be one. Behind the scenes, senior political figures in Edinburgh and London understand this. But before the day arrives, politicians of all stripes must widen the independence debate beyond the separate and competing claims of Scottish and British nationalism. Different voices and perspectives need to be encouraged: centre-left, centre-right, green, feminist, those who evade easy labelling, voters who feel a sense of doubt and ambiguity.

One way of advancing this would be to encourage people to change their views when the facts change. Many pro-Unionist voices think nationalists need to wake up to challenges such as the impossible finances of independence. Pro-independence voices have work to do to firm up the detail, guard against the risks and map the future direction of the country. But tone, openness and even the psychologies of independence matter just as much. Equally, after 12 years of catastrophic Tory government which Scotland did not choose, will some pro-Union supporters be able to say this is not who they want to be, either?

The independence campaign for the next referendum, whenever it will be, has already unofficially begun. It has a much better chance of winning the next time than it did in 2014 and, if it does win, would be a wake-up call for all the UK and perhaps even a chance for England, Wales and Northern Ireland to throw off the last shackles of a broken Westminster system. But the most important thing is that, by the time of the next vote, the debate must have moved people on both sides beyond positions of blind faith and the most reductive form of “independence versus Union”.

To help this happen, we should remember how Scotland’s idea of itself and its place in the Union have changed in recent decades and how it began to see itself as a self-governing nation with a role on the international stage. Some of this is related to the retreat and moral collapse of Britain and its own global decline. But we should encourage the parameters of the debate to evolve further still, in response to our changing politics and society, and we should allow for the possibility that people can change their mind on this as well as other issues.

As we think of the scale of the question of Scottish independence, not just for Scotland but the entire UK, both the SNP and unionist parties need to better address the rich complexity of the human imagination that this debate wrangles with. If Unionists continue to see the independence debate as being about Barnett, borders and the merits or not of being governed by the Tories, they will have fundamentally missed the point. The Scotland of today was made through stories, cultures and competing ideas of what it, and the UK, could be. The Scotland of the future will be made in the same way.