Anatomy of a Scottish Revolution: The Potential of Post-Nationalist Scotland and the Future of the United Kingdom
Political Quarterly, July-September 2011
The face of Scottish politics has been utterly changed. The political map of Scotland which was once uniformly Labour red across the Central Belt is now nearly completely SNP yellow with small pockets of Labour representing a battered, seemingly defeated army.
Why has Scotland changed so dramatically, and what does this mean for Scottish politics? What has occurred in Scottish society, identity and the politics of nationalism and unionism? What are the likely consequences and evolution of Scottish and British politics, and ultimately the prospects of independence? And is the way Scotland is portrayed by the British political class and media symptomatic of a union which has lost the will to survive? Or is something afoot in Scotland which could be a catalyst for more far reaching British change?
The Changing Face of Scottish Politics
The SNP’s emphatic victory in the Scottish Parliament elections is of watershed proportions. The SNP won 45.4% of the constituency vote to Labour’s 31.7%, a lead of 13.7%, and 44.0% of the regional list to Labour’s 26.3%, a lead of 17.7% (1). This is after four years of the SNP heading a minority government following their one seat victory over Labour in 2007. The 2011 elections resulted in an SNP majority with 69 seats to Labour’s 37 in the 129 member Parliament which everyone had assumed, with its mixture of First Past the Post 73 seats and 56 Additional Member seats, would not produce a one party majority.
Despite this emphatic result some commentators take succour in Westminster Scotland still being overwhelming Labour. There is an assumption in these views that Westminster is where the real action is. Peter Kellner stated that ‘the SNP borrowed Labour voters for this particular election to Holyrood’ (2). This implies the primacy of Westminster politics in Scotland which cannot be assumed.
The election result should be read carefully; the SNP’s 45.4% was won on a 50.4% turnout, the third consecutive Scottish election at such a level; this represents 22.9% of the electorate, only marginally ahead of the third tarnished New Labour mandate of 2005 on 21.6% of electors. Then there is the different dynamics between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster (see Tables One and Two), with the SNP now emphatically dominant in the former, and Scottish Labour entrenched in the latter. Which speaks for the authentic Scotland, or do both?
There is a short story to how this landslide happened: Alex Salmond’s skillful leadership, the ineptness of Iain Gray, Labour leader, a professional SNP campaign and a shockingly amateurish Labour campaign. The longer story is of more importance. There is the emergence of the SNP and Scottish nationalism over the last forty years; the decline of Scottish Labour and its inability to develop a politics of devolution; and the long-term decline of the Tories to the point they became a toxic identity. All of these factors point towards the articulation of an anti-Tory Scotland: a story of Scotland as a society and political community which sees itself as not only centre-left, but distinctive from the rest of the UK and primarily England.
A corollary of this is the deep crisis of Scottish unionism. This has to be qualified and put in historic context. A majority of Scots are still according to all survey evidence, for the continuation of the union, but how this is publically articulated is in trouble. The wider context needs to be stressed. Not all of Scottish unionism’s travails are down to Mrs. Thatcher or Thatcherism. It was already facing crisis and uncertainty in the 1960s and 1970s; witness the rise of the SNP, decline of the Scottish Tories, and emergence of a Scottish politics from the end of the 1950s diverging with England (3).
Table One: Scottish Parliament Election Results 1999-2011 (% of Votes)
Year 1999 2003 2007 2011 1999 2003 2007 2011
SNP 28.7 23.8 32.9 45.4 27.3 20.9 31.0 44.0
Lab 38.8 34.6 32.1 31.7 33.6 29.3 29.2 26.3
Con 15.6 16.6 16.6 13.9 15.4 15.5 13.9 12.4
LD 14.2 15.4 16.2 7.9 12.4 11.8 11.3 5.2
Gr 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.0 3.6 6.9 4.0 4.4
Oth 2.7 9.6 2.1 1.1 7.7 15.6 10.6 7.7
Source: SPICe Briefing, Election 2011, Edinburgh, Scottish Parliament 2011.
Table Two: Westminster Election Results in Scotland 1997-2010 (% of Vote)
Year 1997 2001 2005 2010
Lab 45.6 43.2 39.5 42.0
SNP 22.1 20.1 17.7 19.9
Con 17.5 15.6 15.8 16.7
LD 13.0 16.4 22.6 18.9
Oth 1.9 4.7 5.1 2.4
Sources: Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, British Electoral Facts 1832-2006, Aldershot, Ashgate 2006; James Mitchell and Arno van der Zwet, ‘A Catenaccio Game: the 2010 Election in Scotland’, in Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge (eds), Britain Votes 2010, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2010.
The primary narrative of Scottish politics from 1979 onward has advanced how distinctive and different Scotland is. However, when we look at any of the detailed surveys of Scottish public opinion we find that in values and policies Scotland isn’t that different from England. The only area in which there are consistent differences is education, one of the main historic pillars of Scottish public life since the union (4). What this points to is that through the 1980s and 1990s Scotland was as social democratic as England; the difference was that Scots found expression in their politics of this sentiment whereas in England politics were shaped by Thatcherism and its three election victories.
The rise of the SNP and Scottish nationalism from the 1960s onwards is directly related to the changing nature of post-war Scottish society, the economy, expectations, and the long-term decline of Britain. After 1945 Scottish society, like the rest of the UK, became more open and filled with opportunity, mobility and prospects for working class people. In Scotland, this began the slow shift from a politics of class to one involving identity as well. A host of groups began to become less Labour inclined and more likely to support the SNP: younger voters, people living in the post-war New Towns and those most discontented with the existing political system (5).
Then there was the relative economic performance of Scotland in comparison to the rest of the UK which saw Scotland experience higher unemployment in 1958-59 and Scotland shift towards Labour in 1959 from the high point of the Scots Tories in 1955; and in 1964 as the UK returned a Labour Government with a slender majority Scotland shifted even further to Labour. The trials and tribulations of the 1964-70 Labour Government illustrated the limitations of British social democracy, the inadequacies of the National Plan of better economic growth funding redistribution, and Britain’s economic weakness.
The 1967 devaluation effectively ended Labour’s ambitious growth and redistribution plans and began the slow retreat of British social democracy. In Scotland two weeks before devaluation Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election in what had been Scottish Labour’s fifth safest seat; Scottish politics were never ever to be the same again. The SNP didn’t live up to expectations in the 1970 election, but broke through in 1973-74 aided by the discovery of North Sea Oil, ‘Its Scotland’s Oil’ campaign and the salience of the issue in Western economic considerations shaped by the Yom Kippur War. The 1967 and 1973-74 crises were huge challenges to the self-belief of the British state, and have to be seen in the context of the retreat from Empire, the search for a new post-imperial role and Wilson and Heath’s attempt to enter the European Economic Community (EEC). British social democracy was built on the certainties of Britain as a world power, and using it for different moral and social ends, and these shocks were a huge blow to it. The journey from the 1967 crisis through 1973-74 to the 1976 IMF crisis was the eventual end of the post-war dreams of social democracy; something many of the participants at the time such as Tony Benn and Tony Crosland, were deeply aware of.
All of this influenced Scottish nationalism and the SNP, which were aided by this crisis and decline of British governance, the state and economy. In many respects, Scottish nationalism was an attempt to find security and certainty in a world where Britain could no longer guarantee such things. Some have even argued that Scottish nationalism in this was a profound search for maintaining the post-war managed society and welfare state, and with the British state looking shaky, many Scots felt the best way was to develop a Scottish version of this state (6).
Anatomy of a Landslide
The SNP’s empathic victory has changed the face of Scottish politics. YouGov’s final opinion poll on polling day (actual figures in brackets) gave on the constituency vote the SNP 42% (45%), Labour 35% (32%), Conservative 11% (14%), Lib Dem 8% (8%) (7). The SNP won in every age group, social class, men and women; they also won across all eight Scottish regions which the country is divided into for the Additional Member System of the Scottish Parliament. They won 53 out of the 73 First Past the Post System to Labour’s 15, whereas people had previously surmised Labour’s grip on these seats gave them an insurmountable advantage. In the regional vote looking at it on constituency level the SNP finished ahead in an impressive 69 out of 73 seats: only failing to finish in the lead in three Labour seats (Coatbridge and Chryston, Glasgow Provan, Renfrewshire South) and the Lib Dem Shetland (8). The SNP are truly a national party in the way Scottish Labour never were.
There were significant differences. The SNP won the support of 44% of men and 39% women on the constituency vote illustrating the sizeable gender gap of recent years. The SNP had 13% leads in both the 18-24 year old group and 25-39 year olds; while it had a 4% lead in both the 40-59 year olds and 60 year old pluses. Therefore there is a significant age divide somewhere between 40 years and the mid-40s with those younger much more pro-SNP and those older less SNP. It may be that one of the defining features of this generational divide is still the issue of Mrs. Thatcher and Thatcherism and how that aids your perceptions of the world.
The SNP won ABC1 voters 41% to 30% for Labour and C2DE voters 43% to 39% for Labour. Across all social groups and ages the Conservatives and Lib Dems were marginalised; the highest vote share for the Conservatives was the 13% they won in the 60 pus age group (they did manage to win 16% of this group on the regional list vote); the Lib Dems were unable to get into double figures with any section of the electorate.
This is a strikingly different Scottish political environment from what we are used to. The nature and extent of the SNP appeal has been transformed, as has Scottish Labour’s in the opposite direction, while the Conservatives and Lib Dems have been reduced even more to the margins.
The Auld Enemies: Scottish Nationalism and Scottish Labour
The Scottish Nationalists have been transformed by the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. First, pre-devolution the nature of SNP support post-1967 while never disappearing was characterised by an episodic waves of surging, euphoria, retrenchment and disappointment: 1967-68, 1973-74, 1988-89 and 1992. These were usually triggered, but not always by a Westminster by-election victory: Hamilton and Govan in 1973 and 1988. Second, the SNP was always playing catch-up in Westminster politics which are about the election of a UK Government. Labour could say that the SNP were irrelevant in the big show of who would win at UK level, and that the important point was Scotland voting Labour to defeat the Tories. Third, the Scottish Parliament made the SNP into a party of first opposition, then government, and one with a significant range of staff and resources as it has become a more professionalised party.
In the 1999 election, the SNP established themselves as the main challengers to Labour who resisted the Nationalist threat with an uncompromising unionist message, ‘Divorce is an Expensive Business’ to play up the costs and uncertainties of ‘separatism’. This worked in an election which was slowly moving away from the SNP to Labour, but underlined in the longer-term the paucity of Labour thinking and ideas; what it did do in hindsight is bought Scottish Labour time to begin developing a politics of autonomy and positive devolution, which it conspicuously failed too.
The SNP struggled in those early days of devolution with an enlarged SNP parliamentary group to develop a strategic way of challenging the Labour-Lib Dem Executive. It was still surprising that one year into the Scottish Parliament Alex Salmond after a decade as SNP leader resigned, although this looks less of a surprise in retrospect. This was followed by John Swinney’s interregnum of four years in which the party continued to struggle to make an impact in Parliament, while facing internal party problems. However, during this period Swinney put in place a set of structures which more professionalised the party, candidate selection and policy development.
The SNP under Swinney’s leadership retreated further in the 2003 Scottish Parliament, with Jack McConnell winning a mandate for the Labour-Lib Dem Executive. After further poor results in the 2004 Euro elections, Swinney resigned the leadership, and Alex Salmond returned with Nicola Sturgeon as deputy leader.
This was the beginning of the turning point in the SNP’s electoral fortunes. Over the course of the long run into the 2007 elections, the SNP changed its appeal and Salmond altered his style of politics. The SNP began to tell a story of the potential of Scotland as a self-governing, independent nation, instead of its previous stance, of girning about what was wrong in Scotland. In this they undertook intensive work on their campaigning and message development which contributed to their becoming a very different kind of party. They drew on the work of American psychologist Martin Seligman and his ‘positive psychology’ who has argued that elections are won by parties stressing positive messages (9). This contributed to the transformation of the SNP’s appeal and raison d’être in the 2007 elections; Alex Salmond openly talked of his ‘mindset change’ and the party’s shift completely wrong-footed Labour who still competed against the negative Nationalists they were familiar with from days of yore.
The SNP’s victory in the 2007 elections was by the narrowest of margins; 33.9% to Labour’s 32.2% on the constituency vote, 31.0% to 29.0% on the regional vote, and 47 to 46 Labour’s seats in the 129 seat Parliament (10). Alex Salmond adopted minority government after it became clear the Lib Dems would not countenance coalition and an independence referendum. What at the time was part accident and seemed risky turned into a masterstroke for it allowed the SNP to take all the credit of running a competent, decent administration.
Labour didn’t help matters by publically calling the election ‘a draw’ for a month after the election, while going after the SNP’s ‘broken promises’ from day one. There was little recognition by Labour that the SNP’s victory was a potential game changer for the Nationalists, and irrespective of future events, for Scottish Labour.
The first SNP Government can be split into two distinct periods. First, there was the period of the 2007 election to the end of 2008. This was the period of Salmond versus Wendy Alexander as Scottish Labour leader. She had a definite sense of what was wrong with Labour, the need for urgent reform, and addressing the Scottish dimension of politics, and yet her political feel was always lacking. This period was even more characterised by the Nationalists stressing their positive message of the potential of an independent Scotland, and it was brought abruptly to an end by the banker’s crisis and global crash.
This threw the Nationalists in a number of ways. First, the case for independence aided by siding up to the financial sector and banks in Scotland was left in disarray. Second, the referencing of Scotland’s northern neighbours as being an ‘arc of prosperity’ from Ireland and Iceland to Norway, Sweden and Finland was left in tatters; as Ireland and Iceland hit huge crises this was renamed ‘the arc of insolvency’ by opponents (11). This shift left the SNP with a less plausible argument for independence and without a convincing way to talk about political economy, the knowledge age and globalisation.
Thus the second period of this Parliament began also shaped by a change of personnel, with Salmond facing Labour’s Iain Gray. The SNP began to find things less comfortable, as a newly combative Labour learned more effective opposition. This was evident in the difference in the Glasgow East and Glenrothes Westminster by-elections, only a few months apart. Glasgow East held in July 2008 saw the SNP’s John Mason win a slender majority of 365 votes over Labour in its third safest Scottish seat weeks after Wendy Alexander’s resignation. Then came Glenrothes, the first major test of Gray’s leadership in November 2008 with the SNP having momentum on its side. Yet Labour turned in an effective campaign, eventually ending up comfortable winners with the party’s Lindsay Roy having a 6,737 majority over the SNP.
This was seen as a vindication by Labour of its newfound attitude, which was underlined by the Glasgow North East by-election in November 2009. Labour continued to go after the SNP in office, labelling the Salmond administration as ‘anti-Glasgow’, whereas Labour portrayed themselves as standing up for the city. Labour’s Willie Bain held on comfortably with a 8,111 majority over the SNP who increased their vote by a mere 2.3% and shed votes on a lower turnout, the worst SNP performance in a Labour/SNP seat for over 30 years.
Labour believed this tranche of by-elections had turned the tide; opinion polls for the Scottish Parliament backed this up with Labour leads over the SNP of 10% plus in 2010 culminating in a TNS-BMRB poll in January 2011 which gave Labour a 16% lead in the constituency vote and 14% in the regional vote (12). Labour thought the Glenrothes and Glasgow North East Westminster by-elections was a turning point similar to 1978-79, an interpretation aided by the 2010 UK general election in Scotland which saw Labour win 42% of the vote to the SNP’s 19.9% with Labour winning 41 seats to the SNP’s mere six; Labour easily won back Glasgow East from the Nationalists and Dunfermline and West Fife from the Lib Dems.
Labour became a victim of believing their own propaganda aided by their animosity towards the Nationalists. The narrative of Scottish Labour became that the success of 2010 showed in Iain Gray’s words that ‘we fought back and won’ and ‘one million Scots saying yes to Labour’ (13). While Labour told themselves this comforting story, the SNP quietly began finding its voice. The party refound its earlier positive ethos, and developed post-crash a new message which emphasised green jobs, renewables and revenues from the Crown Estate which contributed to a post-industrial vision of the Scotland of the future.
This Nationalist revival found a sense of spirit and zest as in early 2011 the polls suddenly and sharply narrowed and a Labour lead which had been assumed by many to be settled just disappeared overnight. This gave the Nationalist campaign a deep sense of purpose and fight, of playing the populist underdog, and choosing to emphasise their refound vision of the potential of Scotland.
In the official campaign, the SNP had a professional, focused campaign which created a sense of momentum with celebrity and public figure endorsements, and a manifesto which emphasised with its pictures of SNP births, deaths and weddings that this wasn’t a conventional political party, but a movement and family (14). And they were faced by a Labour Party which seemed to believe it already won, and which misjudged the mood of voters.
The Paradoxes of Scottish Labour
The SNP’s sense of purpose and confidence in the 2011 election was met by a Labour campaign which was unfocused and amateurish. The party had chosen to believe following Glenrothes, Glasgow North East and the 2010 Westminster contest that it was on the road back to power in the Scottish Parliament, that the SNP had run out of steam and could be ignored, and that the main enemy was the Tories and opposing the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government. Ed Miliband said that the Scottish election was about ‘sending a message to Westminster’ (15).
However, Scottish Labour didn’t end up with its worst Scottish election result since 1931 in FPTP representation and 1918 in the popular vote because of the election campaign. Instead, this is a story which goes back before devolution. The decline of Scottish Labour is about the demise of ‘Labour Scotland’, the society the party presided over and dominated, and how it has evaporated (16). This was built upon three pillars: council housing, trade union membership, and Labour dominance of local government. All of these represented majority coalitions of the Scottish electorate, but from 1979 onward each fell; council housing was 52% of housing tenure in 1981 whereas twenty years it was 22% in 2001; trade union membership retreated into the public sector; and finally Labour brought proportional representation into local government overnight abolishing its one party hold over swathes of Scotland (17).
When the three pillars of Scottish Labour’s dominance were finally removed, the party was left exposed and open to challenge. There was also the paradox that this seemingly omnipotent one party state, ‘the machine’ which was constantly referenced in media and public discussions, was at its core, an atrophied, shrunken entity, with few members, resources and policy making capacity.
Then there was the centralising tendencies of British Labour built on a century of belief in the British state, socialism and the unionism of the trade union movement. Scottish Labour was spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of devolution with every one of the party’s leaders unable to emphasise its Scottish credentials or consistently differentiate and stand up to ‘London Labour’. Scottish Labour is away to its sixth leader in twelve years, a record which would be comparable with a struggling Premiership football club. Yet the situation is worse that the analogy. It took Labour until the fifth leader, Iain Gray, to have an open contest and full election, something it didn’t feel necessary with Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell or Wendy Alexander (18). And ‘the Leader of the Scottish Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament’ is the post which is referred to as ‘Scottish leader’; the official leader of the party in Scotland is Ed Miliband. The Scottish Labour Party which only rebranded itself in 1994 from the title the Scottish Council of the Labour Party, is in effect still a branch line operation of the British enterprise.
This has handicapped the party under devolution. But the party has faced even more pressures, for despite having Scottish home rule in its soul from the days of Keir Hardie, and having consistently campaigned for a Scottish Assembly and latter Parliament from 1974, the party spent little time thinking what it was for. In the first instance, the Assembly of the 1970s was about stopping the Nationalist juggernaut; then in the 1980s it became about protecting Scotland from the onslaught of Thatcherism. At this point, Scottish Labour was meant according to popular accounts go from supporting a Parliament as expediency to it becoming integral to its politics. This was partly true, but strangely the party put no effort into addressing what was the Parliament for, what kind of politics and what vision of Scotland was it meant to be advancing? And this meant that Labour fell back into its default position of protecting the Labour extended one party state of patronage and preferment which had grown up around its networks and influence in Scottish society.
This is the party which entered the 2011 elections with the Tories in their sights and whose first line in their manifesto stated, ‘Now that the Tories are back …’, a 96 page document which couldn’t bring itself to mention the Scottish Nationalists once (19). That strategy didn’t emerge from thin air; it emerged from the longer story of devolution and the preceding decades, of Scottish Labour believing its own hype, that it was a people’s party, that modernisation, renewal and thinking about external factors didn’t matter compared to the inner world of Scottish Labour. The party won with a ‘core vote’ strategy in 2003, thought it could do again in 2007, and when it didn’t, thought it would work in 2011 aided by the spectre of the Tory bogeyman. The ineptitude of Scottish Labour’s 2011 election campaign was symptomatic of a party which has lost its way, which didn’t understand how Scottish society had changed, or the dynamics of the Scottish dimension. As things currently stand, this doesn’t point towards a rosy future.
The Other Scotland: Tories, Lib Dems, Greens and What’s Left of the Left
The Tories and Lib Dems aren’t in a better position. The Tories are now long marginalised in Scottish society, a rump party defined by the folk memories of Thatcherism and the 1980s (20); despite a spirited 2011 election campaign by Tory leader Annabel Goldie it had no political effect leaving them as the pariah party they are seen by many voters. The Lib Dems have suffered a different fate, having suddenly become unpopular and disliked due to being in coalition with the Tories at Westminster. They have wiped out decades of slow, incremental advance and digging in across numerous constituencies; for the first ever Scottish election since 1959 the Lib Dems don’t hold a single mainland First Past the Post constituency.
The new Parliament is far removed from the ‘rainbow Parliament’ of 2003 when the Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists significantly broke through in votes and parliamentary representation. The Greens remained stuck on two MSPs, the number they returned in 2007. The Scottish Socialists and Solidarity remnants of the hard left were blown into oblivion after the debacle of the Tommy Sheridan court case against the ‘News of the World’ and then his being charged and found guilty of perjury (21); they were beaten across Scotland by Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party while George Galloway’s latest political venture, standing on the Glasgow regional list, ended in abject failure (22). After the 2003 elections, the state of the Scottish hard left and Trotskyism attracted international attention, whereas today they have descended to a level of minuscule support making them irrelevant. The Scottish Greens have at least over two elections survived as a force which may have a brighter political future.
Understanding Scottish Nationalism
How Scotland is perceived is influenced by a number of factors: history, culture, politics, and individual factors of connection, engagement and knowledge. One of the main ways Scotland is seen is through the wider lenses, both positively and negatively of Scottish nationalism, associated with the SNP and beyond.
The SNP is often interpreted as being a party of ‘separatists’ and ‘separatism’: one shaped by simple-minded romanticism and old-fashioned notions of independence no longer relevant to the modern age. To some Labour unionists the SNP is obsessed with flags, symbols and myths, and the ancient battle rights of Scotland from Bannockburn and Bruce to the Declaration of Arbroath (23).
The modern SNP, its professionalism, profile and success is seen by many as being down to the skills and role of Alex Salmond; various commentators use disparaging terms such as ‘El Presidente Salmondo’, but this doesn’t get to the core of Salmond’s style of politics. Salmond is clearly a polished performer and first rate politician, but he is also part of a leadership team, an experienced group of people including Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney who have come of age, and share a common set of objectives.
David Torrance’s sympathetic biography of Salmond is like all accounts of the man, an attempt to explore the motivations of someone who has spent three decades as a public figure but is very private and reserved about what really drives him (24). Not for Salmond the contemporary political cliché of making his personal life into a narrative of making it from humble upbringings in a Linlithgow council house. ‘Portillo on Salmond’, a post-election documentary of one big political beast meeting another illustrated how tightly Salmond follows this (25). Then there are accounts like Tom Gallagher’s rather unreliable guide to the modern SNP from a once pronounced Salmond admirer (26).
How we understand the complex world of the SNP and Scottish nationalism is by noting the importance of the long march of the party, its supporters and wider movement starting from the margins of Scottish society and miniscule levels of support until the 1960s. The SNP has, because of this and the institutional top-heavy nature of much of Scottish public life, for long seen itself as having a non-institutional, outsider view of Scotland (27). This manifests itself in a number of ways such as the party’s scepticism of the widespread Scottish entitlement culture of public life, evident in the plethora of organisations, business bodies and pseudo-public agencies; from this perspectives the views of CBI Scotland with their automatic assumption that their rather predictable opinions of reducing regulation and red tape is the antithesis of everything the SNP stands for; not because the SNP are not pro-business, but because of the conceit of CBI Scotland as an insider voice which believes it has to be listened to.
The party’s outsider position may not endure the scale of the SNP’s political landslide and the propensity for the party and its key supporters to eventually become part of the new post-devolved establishment; but it is likely to continue in the medium term. This has to be seen alongside the notion of what is within the SNP’s soul which throughout the party’s history has been about the achievement of Scottish statehood. This is the common thread which animates the party faithful even more than the idea of independence which is the central means to expressing this goal and Scottish sovereignty.
Understanding and Misunderstanding Scotland
How Scottish politics and Scotland is perceived matters, and in particular by the Westminster political classes, media and think tanks. Pre-election a number of commentators from this world, including a centre-left background could not contain themselves in seeing the Scottish election as part of the return of Labour and through the narrow prism of Westminster. Nick Pearce, head of IPPR, commented that a Labour victory ‘would give substance to Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour can practice a more liberal and pluralist politics’ and with the Lib Dems develop ‘a new progressive political agenda for Scotland’ (28). Pearce’s comments ignored that the main contest about progressive politics north of the border is between Labour and the SNP. Jim Gallagher in partisan tones argued that Scotland and ‘the political debate needs to escape the gravitational pull of the independence issue’ (29). Such comments add to the Labour unionist lack of understanding of the SNP, the constitutional question and Scotland. In a league of its own were Matthew Taylor’s comments, head of the RSA who decided that it was appropriate to compare and contrast the challenges Scotland faces with Japan post-earthquake; his judgement was to find Scotland wanting. ‘Japan’s crisis is profound and urgent’, he wrote, ‘Scotland’s is less obvious and will take longer to unfold’ (30).
Post-election the scale of commentary escalated, as part of the Westminster class judged it open season on Scotland. Tim Lott saw Scotland’s ‘passionate nationalism’ as something ‘fed on the national myth of historical exploitation – built on the reality of North Sea oil appropriation, the Highland Clearances, the evils of empire and so on’ (31). Simon Hoggart commented, ‘Scottish independence is a win-win situation’ (32). Then there is the English dimension with Madeleine Bunting reflecting that ‘if Scotland goes, all we’ll have left is the Englishness we so despise’ (33).
To other less ‘liberal’ voices Scotland is portrayed even more negatively, as the land of the Barnett Formula, a bloated public sector and subsidy junkie culture. This is Andrew Neil’s view on the BBC ‘The Politics Show’:
When the money flowed freely, the Scots didn’t bother to reform public services. They just used the dosh to say no to university tuition fees, create free care for the elderly, and on Friday as prescription charges went up in England, they were abolished in Scotland.
He then offered the following simple summary of life in England and Scotland, ‘Cut, cut, cut, may be the dominant theme south of the border, but up here it is still spend, spend, spend’ (34). On the same programme BBC anchor Jon Sopel turned to his studio guests and commented to Mary Ann Sieghart that this ‘highlights the mismatch between the lives English taxpayers lead and what seems to happen in Scotland’. Sieghart replied, ‘Absolutely. English taxpayers are going to be pretty annoyed if they see Scots getting more and more free services, while we are losing our libraries and Sure Start services’ (35).
Such caricatures and simplistic assumptions are now commonplace in how Scotland is portrayed in the British media. This is without mentioning one of the other archetypes of how Scotland is seen: the West Lothian Question and Scottish MPs voting on non-Scottish matters, a position which leads some to call for ‘English votes for English laws’ (36).
The Future of Scottish Politics
The direction of Scottish politics, society and institutions points towards the continued evolution of Scotland as a distinct political community. The SNP and wider Scottish nationalist movement are not, despite the stereotypes, traditional or old-fashioned nationalists. Instead the SNP are post-nationalists in that they embrace a politics of nationhood shaped by shared sovereignty, alliances and flexibility and fluidity. Scottish statehood and independence would have a role for a unionist dimension: a social union of the UK, but also political co-operation and arrangements at a union level. This thinking has been well flagged up in the writings of one of the main nationalist thinkers of the post-war era, Neil MacCormick (37), and also in the writings of one of the most senior SNP politicians, Kenny MacAskill (38). This is backed up by detailed survey evidence of the SNP leadership and membership which shows a relaxed attitude to what independence and statehood are (39). There has even been a Scottish Government White Paper on this subject (40).
What is revealing is that these open signals do not penetrate the prejudices and distortions of the British political class. This is in part because the politics of the British state is informed by a narrow, doctrinaire view of the world, one which is a nationalism itself – British nationalism – which like most majority nationalisms of the world does not see or understand itself in such terms which has been called ‘unionist fundamentalism’ (41). It is much worse than that for a sizeable part of the British political classes are despite devolution captured by the politics of an out of date nationalism, one obsessed with defending parliamentary sovereignty, the ancient rights and rituals of the partly democratic system, and obsessed about Europe and its encroachments into public life.
Once upon a time there was a powerful, popular British story which connected up the state, statecraft and people; there was a rich Tory version of this, a Labour account, and more importantly, a people’s story which saw Britain as aiding progress, fairness and making the world a better place. Outwith the narrow confines of the Westminster class, that story is in a bad way, diluted and humiliated by the successive acts of Thatcherism and Blairism.
Despite this the certainty and over-reach of parts of the British state goes on. Robert Hazell’s think tank, the Constitution Unit, has tried to make unarguable that there have to be two Scottish independence referendums: one pre- and one post-negotiation. Hazell can offer no precedent for this anywhere in the world, and when asked has stated that Scotland and the UK should offer an example of ‘good practice’ and other vague aspirations (42). Vernon Bogdanor similarly tried to use the complications of the Czechoslovakia ‘velvet divorce’ to argue that this showed the need for two votes when it does nothing of the kind; it does make the case for a referendum (43). Perhaps Hazell and Bogdanor are just being naïve, but they are being used as part of a systematic campaign in the British press to engage in disinformation and scaremongering in the run-up to a Scottish vote.
The nature of much of the British commentary on Scotland and the UK is deeply insular, arrogant and ill-informed by what has happened elsewhere in the world. Thus the argument put forward by Hazell and Bogdanor that Scotland would have to have two referendum votes to become independent blithely ignores that not one nation in the world has followed this precedent. Two dozen states have become independent from the Soviet bloc and none of them has had two votes. Yet this argument is put insistently and with some force by such observers.
Scotland’s Journey and the Future of Britain
Scotland is on a political and constitutional journey, one informed by Scottish nationalism, post-nationalism, and a set of possibilities which don’t see nationalism and unionism as binary opposites and two warring camps which sit facing each other as in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. Instead they cross-sect and cross-fertilise each other, and a future Scotland will have a politics of unionism and nationalism whatever its constitutional status; the mindset of zero-sum games and absolutes is that of the Westminster world.
The economist John Kay is a member of Salmond’s Council of Economic Advisers and it was illuminating that in a series of post-election pieces he choose to, in a careful, nuanced way, criticise the economics of independence. Kay’s take on independence is that ‘the gain in sovereignty would be limited by the realities of globalisation’ (44). This is the politics of assessing gains and loses, rather than the black and white politics of traditional unionist bluster. And in an challenging post-election piece in the ‘Financial Times’, Kay offered a prospectus of a Scotland shifting from the politics of ‘a spoiled infancy’ which characterised the devolution era to one maturing into ‘tentative adolescence’; the half-thought out measures of Calman’s partial fiscal autonomy are he believes ‘transitional’ and don’t answer Scotland’s desire for ‘greater autonomy with tax raising powers and borrowing capacity’: what he describes as ‘freedom with responsibility’ (45).
Another subtle analysis addresses the state of the world, its power plays, anachronisms and compromises. Fred Halliday trying to make sense of the map of the world commented that it does not relate to ‘any fundamental principles’. Instead, it ‘is not drawn according to ideas of natural justice, divine or even historic entitlement’. It is rather ‘arbitrary and contingent: a result of power politics; accidents; wars; state crises; and hegemonic, colonial (in the case of the Central Asian Republics of the Soviet Union) ideology’ (46).
Halliday talks of ‘post-colonial sequestration’ by which some nation states emerge and become independent, and others such as Tibet and Palestine are subjugated by oppressive regimes. That isn’t the case for lots of other places such as Scotland, Catalonia and the Basque Country, and that may effect their eventual destination he believes:
The reason why such entities as Bavaria, Catalonia, Crete and California (among others) do not in their majority favour independence is less because they lack a good case in principle and precedence, and more because their major goals (including democracy, respect and economic prosperity) are deemed by the great majority of their citizens to be better realised by remaining part of the larger entity. The same may, apply, in the end, to Scotland. (47)
Scottish politics, nationalism and the SNP aren’t about the ridiculous stereotypes of separatism, isolationism and ‘ripping Scotland out of the United Kingdom’. The SNP moved away from such simplicities decades ago, and implicitly it has always had a grasp of complexity and subtlety. The people who still seem to be defined by black and white views of the world are the Westminster sovereigntists who inhabit the political parties, media and think tanks, and who seem to believe some partial story of the United Kingdom as a unitary state where power is absolute and indissolvable as if we still lived in the age of the divine right of kings (48).
The problem for the future of the United Kingdom does not come from the SNP and Scottish nationalism, but from such unreconstructed, pre-modern views at the heart of the British state. The potential and challenge of the Scottish election results and SNP landslide victory is that it offers a host of us the opportunity to frame the ridiculous nature of such primeval views, and begin a genuine pan-British set of conversations about remaking the British state, its institutions and values it embodies, democratising them and basing them on a more modern, pluralist notion of sovereignty and power.
This seems an exciting, liberating, hopeful prospect; one which aids Scotland to become a better, more decent society, and which offers similar openings to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have to ensure that this historic door isn’t slammed shut by those who want to maintain the ancien regime, and those on both sides of the border who wish to peddle bigoted rhetoric and prejudice. No one but the forces of the status quo and the friends and advocates for the UK’s truncated and battered political system gain from such behaviour.
1. SPICe Briefing, Election 2011, Edinburgh, Scottish Parliament 2011.
2. Peter Kellner, ‘What Salmond will do next’, Prospect, June 2011.
3. William L. Miller, The End of British Politics? Scots and English Political Behaviour in the Seventies, Oxford, Clarendon Press 1981.
4. Catherine Bromley, John Curtice, David McCrone and Alison Park (eds), Has Devolution Delivered?, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press 2006.
5. Jack Brand, The Nationalist Movement in Scotland, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1978, Ch. 10.
6. Richard Finlay, Modern Scotland 1914-2000, London, Profile Books.
7. YouGov, ‘Final Call: Scottish Parliament’, May 5th 2011.
8. Scottish Parliament 2011 Election Figures, unpublished data.
9. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Mind, New York, Pocket Books 2002; Gordon Guthrie, The SNP Electoral Systems Review, 2003 unpublished paper; Gerry Hassan, ‘The Making of the Modern SNP: From Protest to Power’, in Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
10. Robert Johns, David Denver, James Mitchell and Charles Pattie, Voting for a Scottish Government: The Scottish Parliament Election of 2007, Manchester, Manchester University Press 2010.
11. Typical of the ‘arc of prosperity’ phase was ‘Alex Salmond; Scotland can be one of the world’s richest nations again’, Daily Record, February 6th 2008.
12. UK Polling Report, Scottish Parliament voting intentions.
13. The Scotsman, June 14th 2010.
14. SNP, Re-Elect: A Scottish Government Working for Scotland, Edinburgh, SNP 2011.
15. Iain Macwhirter, ‘It’s time for Labour to walk on the wild side, The Herald, May 1st 2011.
16. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, Edinburgh University Press 2011 forthcoming; Gerry Hassan, ‘When the Party is Over: The Strange Story of Scottish Labour, Scottish and British Nationalism and the Politics of the Future’, Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture, Summer 2011.
17. Gerry Hassan and Douglas Fraser, The Political Guide to Modern Scotland, London, Politico’s Publishing 2004, p. 6.
18. There was a narrow contest of the party elite between Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell in 2000 which McLeish won which was meant to go to the wider party for confirmation and never did. McConnell in 2001 and Alexander in 2007 actively encouraged the stopping of any open contest.
19. Scottish Labour Party, Fighting for What Really Matters, Glasgow, Scottish Labour Party 2011.
20. David Torrance, ‘We in Scotland’: Thatcherism in a Cold Climate, Edinburgh, Birlinn 2009.
21. Gregor Gall, Tommy Sheridan: From Political Hero to Zero? A Political Biography, Welsh Academic Press 2011 forthcoming.
22. James Doleman, ‘The Scottish Left and the Scottish Election’ , Bella Caledonia, May 16th 2011, http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2011/05/16/the-socialist-left-and-the-scottish-election/
23. John McTernan, ‘Remember Bannockburn, I’d rather not, thanks’, The Scotsman, June 25th 2010.
24. David Torrance, Salmond: Against the Odds, Edinburgh, Birlinn 2010.
25. ‘Portillo on Salmond’, BBC One Scotland, May 15th 2011.
26. Tom Gallagher, The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland under Nationalism, London, Hurst and Company 2009.
27. Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett (eds), Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination, Edinburgh, Luath Press 2011.
28. Nick Pearce, ‘Scoping Scotland’s Future’ , IPPR, February 11th 2011, http://www.ippr.org/Blogs/NickPearce/ScopingScotlandsFuture.aspx
29. Jim Gallagher, ‘Where next for Scottish devolution?’, Public Policy Research, December 2010/February 2011.
30. Matthew Taylor, ‘Japan, Scotland and the Social Aspiration Gap’, RSA, March 16th 2011,
31. Tim Lott, ‘Good riddance to this unequal union’, The Independent on Sunday, May 15th 2011.
32. Simon Hoggart, ‘Scottish independence is a win-win situation’, The Guardian, May 14th 2011.
33. Madeleine Bunting, ‘If Scotland goes, all we’ll have left is the Englishness we so despise’, The Guardian, May 16th 2011.
34. The Politics Show, BBC One, April 3rd 2011. Quoted in Gerry Hassan, ‘The New Market Man of History and the McCliche View of Scotland’, April 7th 2011, https://www.gerryhassan.com/blog/the-new-market-man-of-history-and-the-mccliche-view-of-scotland/
36. One supporter of which at an earlier age was Gordon Brown; see H.M. Drucker and Gordon Brown, The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution, London, Longman 1980, p. 127.
37. Neil MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty: Law, State and Nation in the European Commonwealth, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999
38. Kenny MacAskill, Building A Nation: Post-Devolution Nationalism in Scotland, Edinburgh, Luath Press 2004.
39. James Mitchell, Robert Johns and Lynn Bennie, ‘Who are the SNP Members?’, in Hassan, The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, op cit.
40. Scottish Government, Your Scotland, Your Voice: A National Conversation, Scottish Government, Edinburgh, Scottish Government 2009.
41. James Mitchell, ‘Breaking up has become less easy’, The Scotsman, May 20th 2011.
42. Gerry Hassan, ‘A once in a lifetime chance to change’, The Scotsman, May 10th 2011.
43. The Daily Telegraph, May 27th 2011.
44. John Kay, ‘Breaking up the Union may have a greater financial impact than the SNP wants’, Scotland on Sunday, May 29th 2011; ‘To the brink, but no further’, Prospect, June 2011.
45. John Kay, ‘Time for Scotland to move from infancy’, Financial Times, May 4th 2011.
46. Fred Halliday, Political Journeys: The Open Democracy Essays, London, Saqi Books 2011, p. 239.
47. ibid, p. 243.
48. Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism, Glasgow/Melbourne, Big Thinking/Common Ground 2003 3rd edn.; Tom Nairn, Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom, London, Verso 2002.