Changing Scotland, Differing Scotlands:
The Future of the Union After Devolution
Chapter in Gilles Leydier (ed.), La dynamique de la devolution au Royaume-Uni, Universite du Sud Toulon-Var 2008
Scottish politics has changed dramatically in the last decade. We have seen the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, the election of the Parliament by a broadly Proportional Representation system and the formation of the first coalition government made up by Labour and the Lib Dems.
Since 1999 the Scottish political environment has evolved with the development of a policy agenda and choices distinct from Westminster, while we have experienced significance change and turbulence in personalities with four First Ministers in eight years and several micro-political scandals. In May 2007 we saw the first ever election victory by the SNP in its history and the formation of the first SNP administration under Alex Salmond. This was a watershed for everyone in Scotland and of major significance at a UK level (1).
Scotland is slowly changing its position in the union. This is reflected in the politics and media of Scotland and the UK. As Anthony King has written: ‘On some mornings apart from their international coverage the Today programme on Radio Four and Good Morning Scotland on Radio Scotland could be reporting from different planets, because in a sense they are.’ (King 2007) Gradually the bonds and ties which hold the United Kingdom together are weakening, but we are unsure what configurations may arrive in the near-future.
This paper plans to address these questions and explore:
• the forces which brought about Scottish devolution – and what this tells us about the present and future of Scottish politics;
• examine differing interpretations of Scotland – from contemporary unionism, political nationalism and cultural nationalism;
• address the future contours and possibilities of Scottish politics;
• locating this in an analysis of the British state and polity.
What is the United Kingdom?
To understand Scotland and Scottish politics it is necessary first to examine the United Kingdom and then Scotland’s place within it.
The UK is both a space and a place. The UK is a state, but an unusual one – being a multinational state of four nations – Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland (2). Its founding goes back to the 1603 Union of the Crowns and 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England. What is less observed is that the UK is not a nation. While there is a sizeable sociology on ‘stateless nations’ such as Scotland and Catalonia, there is no similar body of work on ‘nationless states’, of which the UK is one. Other examples of such states – Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia – have all separated into their constituent parts.
The UK is not a unitary, but a union state (see Rokkan and Urwin 1983). From its inception it has contained two conflicting interpretations of the union: one of parliamentary sovereignty and seeing the UK as Greater England continuing the traditions of English law and custom in a Diceyian tradition; the other one of popular sovereignty – which has seen the UK as a union state and recognising the continuation of different traditions and practices in parts of the UK. These interpretations have far-reaching consequences for the nature and future of the union.
Who and what brought about Scottish Devolution?
The campaign for a Scottish Parliament was a long running one, filled with failure, romanticism and its share of eccentrics. In the 1920s and 1940s there were upsurges of activism and initiatives to no avail, but the modern day campaign can be traced back to the mid-1960s and the arrival of the SNP on the electoral plane of Scottish politics (see Brand 1978; Mitchell 1996). This in a way changed everything about Scottish politics in that nothing was ever the same again and the constitutional question was forced centrestage as one of the defining issues of politics north of the border.
If we shift from the breakthrough of the SNP in the mid-1960s to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 it is illuminating to ask what mixture of forces and movements gave birth to the Parliament, what are the tensions between them, and how have these forces fared post-devolution?
Firstly, there were the forces around the Scottish Labour Party, for long the dominant force of Scottish politics from the 1950s until recently electorally, and from an even earlier date in terms of ideas. Scottish Labour from its formative days saw itself as ‘Scottish’ and wore with pride its association with Scottish identity, culture and championing of home rule. All the early Scottish Labour pioneers – politicians such as Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and John Wheatley – were supporters of a Scottish Parliament.
However, two things happened which tell us something about the nature of this commitment. The first is that when Labour entered office in 1945 and 1964 with majority governments it did not do anything about home rule. The second is that slowly the party turned its back on home rule – doing so formally in the 1950s – to embrace the politics of centralism and the British state.
When Labour came back to supporting devolution in 1974 – it was dragged back reluctantly by the rise of the SNP threatening Labour’s electoral block and hegemony in Scotland. In fact, Scottish Labour was so resistant to shifting at this point in the 1970s that it had to do so under duress from the British Labour leadership.
What needs to be taken from this brief, glossing over of a complex history is that Scottish Labour’s return to devolution was in the 1970s a tactical change and a skin-deep conversion. Scottish Labour despite this change – went on believing in all the things which it had prioritised before devolution – a politics of centralism and redistribution led by the British state. Labour now though they could establish a Scottish Assembly without disrupting all the ways it worked and understood the British state and polity – basically continuing its Fabian gradualist centralism.
Scottish Labour’s conversion to devolution became more convincing in the 1980s under the influence of the Thatcher Government – with Welsh devolution recommitted to in part because of the Scottish situation. However, while the Scottish and Welsh proposals became more thought-through and genuinely supported than in the 1970s – at no point did Labour at a Scottish or UK level embrace the politics of Charter 88 and other groups developing a radical critique of the British state.
Secondly, there is the presence of the SNP which burst onto the political scene in the period 1966-67 shaking Labour’s hold over Scottish politics. The SNP’s vote – which rose and fell in a number of waves pre-devolution – rising in 1966-67, 1973-74 and 1988-89 before on each occasion falling back – in each wave shook Scottish politics and in particular the complacency of Scottish Labour.
It is almost impossible now to remember what Scottish politics were like before the SNP exploded onto the scene in the mid-1960s. Before this cataclysmic event the dominant thesis of British politics was the homogenisation of British politics – and the belief that everywhere from Lands End to John O’Groats was becoming similar through the prism of class. The Conservative and Labour Parties were getting more and more like each other in ideas and where power lay in each party (Mackenzie 1955). And Scottish politics – at this point was merely a branchline of a very British operation. They were characterised by a very deferential, conservative, patrician and masculinist politics. The arrival of the SNP challenged all of this.
The SNP’s vote through these various peaks and today is not solely driven by dissatisfaction with the constitutional question. People vote for the party for a variety of reasons – economic and social disgruntlement, identification with a certain kind of Scottish identity and culture, a protest vote or dislike of the alternatives. While all of this is true – it is also the case that a vote for the SNP can be interpreted as support for constitutional change and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
There has been through the history of the SNP a conflict between those who have supported independence or nothing and those who have seen a more gradualist approach whereby devolution can be seen as a stepping stone to greater change. Pre-devolution this divide was the defining one in the SNP – as the party was time and again wary of being involved in what appeared to be ‘cross-party’ initiatives, but which it saw as Labour-dominated exercises. This is how the SNP saw the Scottish Constitutional Convention (see Nairn 1989).
This debate is now obsolete within the SNP – in that fundamentalism although still much talked about by outsiders – is dead. However, paradoxically the case the fundamentalists put that the SNP could be captured and tamed by devolution is all the more a possibility. Given the SNP are in power in a devolved Parliament, if they find in the future the road to independence blocked they could find themselves trapped by the politics of devolution.
Thus, the SNP has been able to lay claim to creating a Scottish Parliament – by being the force which brought the issue back on to the table of Scottish politics and society – and forced Labour into a rather embarrassing U-turn. It is absolutely true that without the presence of the SNP and a significant SNP vote, there would not be a Scottish Parliament. Equally it is true that this is not just due to the SNP.
Thirdly, there are two forces of a wider, more diffuse nationalism. First, there is the institutional nationalism of civil society – articulated in the creation and work of the Scottish Constitution Convention. Second, there is the cultural nationalism of artists, writers, thinkers and imagineers – which contributed to imagining a very different Scotland post-1979 when it seemed as if the conventional political road was blocked.
These two forces could not be more different. The institutional forces – particularly the Constitutional Convention saw itself as the embodiment of Scots civil society – when in fact it was a gathering of Labour politicians, professionals and interest groups, and it has singularly laid claim to bringing about the establishment of the Parliament – when this was beyond the Convention’s power or reach. The cultural forces – covering the arts, theatre, fiction, music and many other forms – did play a part in changing Scottish perceptions, but it is difficult to estimate how this translates into party politics.
These differing claims of right to having given birth to the Scottish Parliament are important, not just as history, but for understanding the present and predicting the future. For Labour – the Scottish Parliament is a story of a changing union and renewed governance. For the SNP – it is about Scotland’s status as a nation and progressing self-government to independence. For the wider nationalists – both of whom had a powerful sense of voice pre-devolution and story about their place and importance in Scottish society, both have been somewhat marginalised by the Parliament.
There are in these accounts – two versions of the Parliament – one instrumental – centring on better governance and economic and social issues – the Labour and other unionist parties view; one intrinsic – seeing the Parliament as an end in itself offering a platform to secure Scotland’s place and voice.
Differing Scotlands: Three Case Studies
I want to explore a number of different interpretations of Scotland. For simplification I am going to use the perspectives of leading individuals associated with each.
Case Study One: The Gordon Brown Vision of Scotland:
Politically, our Union gives Scotland – and Britain – a powerful international voice. It allows us to lead debate in the European Union on economic and social reform which is good for Scottish jobs and good for Scottish workers’ rights. And the challenges which Scotland and Britain face which demand greater partnerships – not isolation. These challenges – climate change, international terrorism, poverty – require collective action, not just between individuals and governments, but between nations.
Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander (2007: 26)
This is an account of the world – and the economic, social and cultural changes of the last thirty years – which sees itself as consistent and having a moral compass. It believes that it is informed by the same values and desire to bring about change as thirty years ago, while recognising that different means and methods are needed. It sees itself as an explicit social democratic compromise with the dominant forces of ‘globalisation’ which argues that by opening the British economy to deregulation and a neo-liberal agenda, it is possible to further progressive policies such as moderate redistribution to the less well-off.
This compact is a profoundly British narrative – seeing the British state as a force for good – within the UK, European Union and internationally, and one which is a leading advocate for showing others the path and potential for reform. It is informed by a post-imperial notion of the position, reach and influence of the UK to achieve progressive ends, which is despite its international rhetoric, deeply chauvinist and reactionary, from its positions in the European Union to the Atlanticist dogma post-9/11.
The British state is seen as vehicle which has become synonymous with progressive ends. Thus Brown and Alexander in a recent Fabian pamphlet make the claim, ‘The Union in 2007 is now clearly founded on social justice.’ (2007: 25) This is a mindset which comes from a deep Labour tribalism and partial view of the world – which given the record of the Blair and Brown governments – can only be seen as myopic bordering on delusional. It is also – while profoundly Scottish – deeply imbued with a British social democratic politics which sees Westminster politics as the central apex of political life (Hassan 2008a).
This political perspective has run into a number of challenges in the last decade or so. For a start the changing nature of the British and world economy has forced this perspective to dilute itself from a socialist certainty in the 1970s to a social democracy revisionism in the 1980s to a compromise and ultimately fatal embrace with neo-liberalism in the 1990s. While there has been a retention of some of the references and rhetoric from these earlier supposedly ‘Red’ periods (Brown 1975) to obfuscate the degree of change, slowly the language has began to morph into a mindset which is shaped by technocratic, jargonistic world of the New Labour neo-liberals (Brown 2006) (3).
This has been combined with a politics which has realised that it needs to fight on two separate national questions: standing up to the SNP in Scotland and explaining the merits of the union, and advocating for the new union against the Conservatives. This has become an increasingly difficult task – as Labour’s fortunes have ebbed – the SNP has come to power in Scotland and David Cameron’s Conservatives have begun to regain their political touch.
Thus the Brownite account of Scotland is a firmly British worldview – one supposedly standing up to the separatists and the politics of nationalism, but profoundly British nationalist (Nairn 2006). From this follows a politics shaped by the twilight years of the Westminster model – a system which still insists on parliamentary sovereignty, is shaped by absolutism and an inability to formally share sovereignty or codify rights, and is still a reluctant, offshore European awkward partner, and a committed, blinkered Atlanticist. Indeed, these last two characteristics are so pronounced – that they form part of British national identity – being Euro sceptic and Atlanticist – the last of which permeates large parts of the British political, military and security elites.
Case Study Two: The Scotland of Alex Salmond and the Contemporary SNP:
The reality of the 21st century is that the processes of independence and interdependence are one and the same. As our world becomes ever more interconnected in terms of trade, international relations, the environment and security, the case for nations having a voice at global level becomes more compelling. It is by becoming independent that nations can maximise their influence in our interdependent world.
Alex Salmond, Speech to SNP Spring Conference (2008)
The perspective of Alex Salmond combines a very conventional nationalist logic – Scotland is a nation, therefore it should be an independent nation – what is called the ‘Scotland: Why Not?’ argument.
The contemporary Nationalist argument has attempted to put the case for independence in the language of the new world order of the post-Soviet Union and EU enlargement. This is a world where the politics of interdependence has aided the case for independence – seeing the creation of two dozen independent nations from the dying embers of the Soviet bloc.
Underneath this rhetoric, the logic of Salmond and the party leadership is actually curiously old-fashioned and conservative in many of its views. Thus, the way Salmond and the SNP leadership have consistently talked about political change post-devolution has been to posit change in the body, functions and powers of the Parliament, and usually in the manner of the Parliament gaining more powers (Salmond 2007). There seems to be little understanding that the kind of transformational change required to bring about independence – will necessitate a much more far-reaching change than just focusing on the political institution of the Parliament and its powers.
In another arena the SNP’s nationalism is a strange, cautious beast – in many ways deeply British – and as conservative as the political entity they are trying to leave. Thus, the SNP seem to have a genuine belief that the British state – or large parts of the British state – will play fair and let Scotland leave the union with no real resistance or obstacles. This seems to be a politics of self-deception and delusion. The SNP seem to have little understanding that Scottish independence has potential geo-political consequences – about what happens to Britain’s nuclear weapons and membership of the EU, NATO and other bodies.
The SNP talks the language and ethos of being a ‘nationalist movement’ and aspires to act and be seen as such, but the reality is that it is a conventional political party with few real characteristics of a ‘movement’, while at the same time perceived by many voters as being more than just a conventional party. Yet, the resources available to the SNP in the long road to power have been few. The party has in a population of just over five million – a mere 14,000 members, and has produced no real intellectuals (with the honourable exception of Neil MacCormick (4)), has no think tanks or ideas agencies connected or associated with it, and has a nervous relationship with civil society and cultural nationalism.
In the forty years of the contemporary SNP it has not contributed original thought to one policy area and across a range of issues: education, health, transport and many more – it has had nothing to contribute because what has driven it has not been ‘policy’, but ‘identity’. Across a range of equality issues: gender, race, homosexuality, it has been influenced by the most conservative elements of Scottish society – either saying nothing or (like large swathes of Scottish Labour) condoning bigotry and prejudice.
At the core of this is the SNP’s sense that you don’t need to fill in the picture of ‘Scotland: Why Not?’ too much. Scotland is a nation and should be independent. Scotland as an independent nation will be automatically morally superior. Thus, you don’t have to fill in the blank canvas of how independence will be different and morally superior. This is an approach which is both romantic and essentialist: being based on the notion – widespread in large parts of Scottish public opinion under Thatcherism and New Labour – that Scotland is somehow completely different from the rest of the UK.
Case Study Three: The ‘Break-Up’ Thesis of Tom Nairn:
As we have seen, the old question used to be: ‘Are you big enough to survive and develop in an industrialised world?’ The advent of globalisation is replacing this with another, something close to: ‘Are you small and smart enough to survive, and claim a positive place in the common global culture?’
Tom Nairn, Edinburgh Lecture (2008)
This is based on a much wider set of economic, social, cultural and political factors than the SNP’s analysis. It has looked at issues not just at a Scottish, but UK and global level, and has consistently addressed the interplay between nationalisms (both majority and minority) within the UK and the influence of global economic and political forces and the rubik of ‘globalisation’.
Nairn’s thesis – articulated in great length in ‘The Break-Up of Britain’ (2003) over thirty years ago – is a complex and nuanced one. It is a long revolution and long historical view – addressing the nature of the UK and the British state, the character of Britishness and the importance of Empire and the consequences for its demise.
To many Nairn’s thesis – whether agreeing or disagreeing with it has become one of the defining narratives of understanding the UK: the pervasive counter-story to the dominant discourse. As Neal Ascherson put it, ‘The Break-Up’ thesis, ‘has become the prevalent wisdom even when people do not know its source.’ (quoted in Aughey 2007)
His analysis is often simplified by many to its account of Scottish nationalism, but he has offered a rich prescription for the whole of the United Kingdom and its component parts. The Ukanian state in Nairn’s world is an archaic, unreformed, pre-democratic shell, incapable of reform and renewal, and more likely in its twilight days to devour its children than begin a new epoch of democracy.
In some senses it looks like Nairn’s ‘Break-up’ thesis has been proven wrong or premature, given the UK is still clearly together, but what has happened is that a significant degree of decay and deformity have vastly accelerated: witness Thatcherism and New Labour’s centralisation and authoritarianism – both prepared to ride rough shod over the time-honoured checks and balances of the once-fabled British constitution.
Nairn’s thesis while rich has fallen short on the question closest to his heart: the hows and whys of Scottish independence. Here Nairn offers no guidance or signposts, and on the crucial question of how Scottish independence will be different and the state and civil society transformed, he offers no wisdom, merely assuming it will automatically happen with ‘the shock therapy’ of independence. Therefore, the most influential nationalist scholar of the post-war era offers little of a road map to help us through the current impasse.
The Paradoxes of Scottish Devolution
Another set of dynamics have been unleashed by what I would call the paradoxes of Scottish devolution. These are centred around the strange beast that is the Scottish Labour Party. This has been the dominant force of Scottish politics electorally from the late 1950s until 2007. In the course of this period it built up an elaborate web of patronage and networks which gave sustenance to a politics of the local and national Labour state (Hassan 2004).
However, the party’s commitment to a Scottish Parliament – by bringing democratic accountability and scrutiny into areas of life previously unexamined – along with the potential of a Proportional Representation Parliament where Labour hold a minority of seats – has created the dynamic and prospect for Labour’s dominance of Scottish politics to be challenged and eroded. This is a paradoxical situation. Why has the previous leading party of Scotland presided over a set of changes which have undermined its own rule?
The answer to this is multi-layered and about the myths and stories political parties tell themselves to justify their existence. Scottish Labour has always seen itself as a radical party. or at least it did in the years up to devolution, and more radical than the British party, which had to compete with the Tories and win votes in the most non-Labour of areas to compete for power. Thus, while Labour continued telling itself how radical and distinct it was – at the same time it increasingly became the political establishment of Scotland and ossified and bureaucratised – and in the process completely misjudged its own strength.
Therefore, Scottish Labour has proven itself ill equipped for the politics of government under devolution, and spectacularly ill-equipped for the cold realities of opposition – into which it was unceremoniously dumped in May 2007. However, underneath these two statements is a deeper truth: Scottish Labour has in fact been spectacularly unsuited for the challenges and politics unleashed by devolution, and has ultimately paid the price for this by losing its first election in fifty years.
The Future of Scotland and the Four Britains of the Future
The future of Scotland and Scottish politics is intrinsically interlinked with the future of the UK and the British state (Hassan 2008b). In relation to the latter, we have travelled a long road from the high hopes of the Blair honeymoon with all its talk of renewal, modernisation and ‘Cool Britannia’.
Looking to the future we should note a number of factors. Firstly, we need to acknowledge the fundamental shortcomings of the British state and the crucial inter-relationship between it and the neo-liberal polity of Thatcher and Blair (Nairn 2003). Secondly, what is the expression of Britishness and how and where does it see itself? Where is its location and position in a geo-political sense (see Aughey 2007)? Thirdly, there is at the moment no feasible, radical democratising project at a British level in the way that Scottish home rule found voice north of the border, and to which Charter 88 aspired. Finally, following on from this we need to question how the conditions are going to be created which aid a democratic transformation across the UK? These questions lead us to some difficult conclusions for British big state nationalists (as well as for small nation ones too).
Four possible futures can be identified for the UK:
a) Fantasy Island Britain:
This is the status quo. In this Britain, the current constitutional arrangements reflect the political classes myopic view that the union is in the words of one Labour politician ‘the most successful union in history, both in political and economic terms’ (Foulkes 2008). Such a mindset really does tell a lot about the deformed state of the British state, but as importantly, the inter-relationship between the form of the state and the nature of the polity.
The British state reproduces and validates a neo-liberal polity: deregulation, inequality, an ‘over-class’ centred in the City of London and finance capital, and a public realm and service undermined by marketisation. This has been called a ‘fantasy island’ world (Elliott and Atkinson 2007), a dreamland shaped by debt and people living beyond their means. Its continuation might hurt large parts of British society and produce more ‘losers’ than ‘winners’, but it has powerful advocates in the political classes, media and City. Its mindset has become the post-Thatcherite consensus.
b) Federal Britain:
This is the dream of reformers such as Charter 88 and the Lib Dems. In it the United Kingdom becomes a federal state with self-governing nations and English regions, a written constitution, fundamental decentralism and a centre with clearly defined, limited powers.
However, there is wish-fulfilment and an element of confusion about what federalism constitutes. Thus, Labour MSP George Foulkes in a piece supporting a federal UK states: ‘We are already moving step by step towards that structure’ (2008). The federalism he invokes involves decentralism all-round between the Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English, but nothing more with no awareness that federalism remakes and codifies a whole host of relationships and how power is used.
This is a very common stance misunderstanding the recent changes in the British political system and believing that we are heading towards some federal or quasi-federal solution. A transformation of the UK from its current ad hoc, asymmetrical union to a planned, codified set of relationships would require a number of ingredients. Firstly, there would have to be popular will for such wholesale change, and secondly, there would have to be political will and elite support. For such a situation to come about would literally require the British state to enter what could be called a French Fourth Republic crisis, where the entire system is brought to its knees.
c) Break-up/Nationalist Britain:
This scenario is advocated by the Scottish Nationalists and other forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who wish to dissolve the union. It involves the SNP making the case that an independent Scotland a priori is better and morally superior to Scotland in the union. It is a very conservative, conventional expression of nationalism.
This is not a progressive case, but an essentialist and romanticising one more akin to the 19th than 21st century. Instead of focusing solely on nationhood and statehood, we need to examine the relationships and linkage between nation, state and polity. The British state now supports a profoundly reactionary, illiberal set of values and politics. What people should ask is what kind of society and societies do we want to live in, and what form of state and nation can most give sustenance and support to it?
d) Post-Ukania/Post-Nationalist Britain:
This is the final possible future which attempts to answer the questions above. It believes that a systemic remaking of the British state is both unlikely and ahistorical. The Westminster tribe, Labour included, have shown little interest or understanding in going down such a route.
This perspective notes the similarities between the forces of British majority nationalism and large elements of the minority nationalism on these isles. For example, both the Westminster unionists and SNP have mirror image notions of sovereignty, nationhood and constructing a lexicon of identity around nationalism and unionism which is increasingly dogmatic and out of date. Both love talking about structures rather than values.
Instead of a politics being about the union forever or taking it apart no matter the content, we should look to a more ambitious politics. This should entail a politics conducive to radical thought asking the question: what kind of society do we want to live in? It then asks importantly: how do we get there from here? And what are the best structures of nation and state to support this?
This is a mindshift removed from the majority and minority nationalisms across these isles. It brings to the fore the issues of values and ideas, rather than the fixation these perspectives have with championing the supposed virtues of the British state or its break up. These accounts, like the British state itself have not served us well.
The British State, Scottish Independence and the Search for A New Story
From the four accounts above it should be clear that the first is a situation offering less and less return. The second could on paper seem like an ideal type and the dream home for centre-left supporters of various hues; however it is not feasible or practical in any realistic timeframe. The third view is based on the break-up thesis and the rise of minority nationalism. This has some advantages as it is a serious challenge to the status quo, but ultimately it is a romanticising politics prioritising nation above economic and social values. This leaves us with the fourth road – which may or may not end up in break-up, but is about posing the central problem as the British state and its related polity, and advocates that any conversations about nation and statehood should put the question of society first, alongside the problem of the neo-liberal consensus and the health of social democracy.
A number of propositions flow from this and affect the choices before us. Those who sit outside the Westminster village know that the British state is not conducive to progressive politics and embedding social democratic politics in state and society (Hassan 2007). Twice in the last two generations Labour has caught the wind of hope and the future, and developed a credo about modernisation and progress under Wilson in 1964 and Blair in 1997. Both of these attempts ended in defeat and disarray as they embraced the orthodoxies they had tried to supplant. These two cases have massive consequences for the centre-left. They tell us that the British centre-left does not for the foreseeable future have the resources to develop a serious politics which can challenge the current configuration of state and polity.
At the moment the British state sits in a state of denial. The UK political centre has engaged in little to no serious thinking about the potential consequences and different ways the break-up of the union could occur. One tangible example of this is that the fate of British nuclear weapons will be a thorny subject if Scotland were to become independent given that the weapons are based in Scotland. The British system – whether it be Whitehall or the armed forces top brass – has undertaken no serious examination or analysis of this situation, what could happen and different scenarios, because it is viewed as too politically sensitive (5).
Thus, a governing and administrative class which used to pride itself on its élan and statecraft around the world, running an Empire with an effortless self-confidence, finds itself slowly letting events slip out of their control. Only in the Northern Ireland peace process in the last decade has this class shown the sure-footedness which used to be one of its defining characteristics.
The state’s sense of denial is systemic and deep-seated – about its nature, past, present and future. This is a place that does not know it is not a unitary state, but a union state; it does not know it is not a nation, but a state. It has no grasp that the 1707 Treaty of Union is as close to fundamental law as the UK can clearly get, and that at the same time the current configuration of the state dates from 1922 in name and 1948 in structure. A state, which does not know its own history, identity and character, is to put it mildly on shaky foundations.
Then we come to the question of Scottish independence – the issue that drives and motivates the SNP and which the Scots despite two constitutional referendums – have never had a direct say on.
The first point is that a Scottish referendum is coming in the near-future. It will eventually come to be in the interests of all the major political parties: whether pro or anti-independence. Secondly, an independence referendum is not just a Scottish, but UK and worldwide event – in the way the Quebec referendums were – only more so. Thirdly, such an occasion will be a seminal moment in how Scotland presents its public face to itself and the world. This will be a process whereby the world’s media and attention focus on Scotland – and the wider consequences of independence – in effect the potential end of the UK – with all that flows from this. Therefore, it is important that politicians, parties and institutions prepare for such a vital occasion.
This leads back to the nature of the UK. A Scottish independence referendum throws open the question of what the UK is and whether an independent Scotland creates two new states or one. What is the rest of the UK called if Scotland leaves: is it still the UK or something new? The Constitution Unit in an otherwise thoughtful study of the practicalities of Scottish independence argued that Scotland becoming independent would see this rump remain the UK (Eric Murkens 2002). This rested on the argument that Scotland joining in 1707 was the same as Ireland in 1801. Following on from this Ireland leaving in 1922 allowed the UK to continue – and therefore the same would be true of Scotland.
This is inaccurate history to put it mildly – the story of the UK as Greater England. Scotland created the union with England, whereas Ireland was subjugated and brutally repressed. More crucially, the Treaty of Union – is as near to fundamental law as the UK can manage within its present arrangements – and is part of the fabric and basic building block of the union. Without Scotland – there is no Great Britain and no United Kingdom.
This is not an arcane debate, but one with far-reaching consequences. The spectre of Scottish independence has Scottish ones and UK ones which ripple out further across the globe. It has implications for Britain’s nuclear weapons, membership of the EU, NATO, IMF, World Bank and UK membership of the Security Council.
The old British constitution is dead: killed off by a variety of factors: Thatcher, Blair and the impact of Europe. Yet, it is not quite completely dead – more in a state of the undead. Anthony King in a potent use of imagery to describe the state of the old constitution writes:
that old building now looks as though it has been bombed from above and undermined from below. Parts of the roof have fallen in, at least one of the transepts has collapsed, and workmen have erected an untidy assortment of workshops and sheds inside the few walls still standing.
He goes on to argue that the UK, ‘today has neither a brand new church … nor a skilful restoration of an old church … but something that looks a little bit like a bombed out ruin left over from a major war’. (King 2007)
The problem with this is that a large part of the Westminster political class continue to believe in the supremacy of the British constitution. Over half a century ago the American sociologist Edward Shils on a visit to the UK was surprised to hear ‘an eminent man of the left say, in utter seriousness … that the British constitution was “as nearly perfect as any human institution could be”’. (Bogdanor 2003)
This was an age when the UK’s identity, purpose and government had been vindicated by two World Wars and the British had the supreme self-confidence to export the Westminster model around the world. Today, the British state seems to be entering into an age beyond caricature and ridicule: post-Iraq, the failure of the Hutton and Butler enquiries to establish accountability and responsibility, the losing of 25 million citizens details in the post, and the cultivation of a surveillance state where MPs are bugged and ID cards introduced.
The old constitution has been used by the Thatcher and Blair radicals to configure a new harsh constitutional and political order: a bastardised political centre accruing more and more powers, while failing to delivery in a host of ways and increasingly beholden to corporate interests, still suspicious of Europe and beholden to the American military-industrial project. It is not surprising that there are still one group who sing the tune of the magnificence of the British system and they are the Thatcherites, Blairites and Brownites who gain from this system.
This is not a happy story at a British level, but there are glimpses of light and new possibilities. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are slowly making their own futures, developing their own distinctive political environments, and slipping out from the reach, culture and attention of Westminster. The battered, discredited British constitution now faces attrition not only from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, but from the English and Europe too.
The traditional British story is slowly withering and dying. The conventional Tory story of Britain – of people knowing their place, deference and order – has long bitten the dust. The traditional Labour nation counter-story – a people’s history of the isles – whereby the forward march of the masses cumulatively civilised society – has been abandoned and trashed by the New Labour project.
It is up to the people of these isles to decide what new kind of story and stories they would like to have and what kind of relationships they would like to construct between the Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English. This could involve a variety of possibilities from the ‘Break-up’ thesis to other new and modern living arrangements: co-habitation, an open relationship or a cultural rather than political union. Perhaps it is time for the UK to get continental about such matters!
1. It is almost impossible to understate the historic nature of the SNP election victory in May 2007. This was a party which had never in its history won a national election, whereas Labour had not lost one since 1955. It finished the elections 15,853 votes ahead of Labour in the constituency vote and 37,986 votes ahead in the list vote – respectively leads of 0.8 per cent and 1.8 per cent and with a one seat lead over Labour in the 129 seat Parliament.
2. Technically speaking Northern Ireland is a province and not a nation.
3. Thus, the Brown of the 1970s who named dropped Gramsci and Friere alongside a pantheon of Scottish Labour heroes ranging from Keir Hardie to John Wheatley and even the Communist John Maclean, now invokes the need to make tough choices in public spending and government, cites the shining example of America and American gurus, and constantly derides the European social model and the economies of Western Europe as basket cases. His language in his ten years stewardship of the British economy as Chancellor of the Exchequer has endlessly invoked a Thatcherite triumphalism of ‘the end of boom and bust’ and ‘the British economic miracle’.
4. Such intellectuals as Neal Ascherson and Tom Nairn, associated with the wider Nationalist cause since the 1970s did not come from and have not subsequently been identified with the SNP.
5. Private information.
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