The Twilight of the British State: Scottish Independence and the European Question

Both the British union and the European Union are in crisis. With Europe set to integrate and the British state heading for collapse, could there soon be more similarities than differences between the two? And how will their fates be intertwined?

This is a fascinating and fast moving period of politics, at a global, European, British and Scottish level, challenging many of the most deep-seated and unexamined assumptions held across the political spectrum.

In the last week we have seen the euphoric SNP conference at Inverness showing a party on the crest of a wave, which seems to think that the future is within its grasp.

Then, at Westminster we have the return of the popular bogeyman – Eurosceptism - and its capture of the mainstream of the Conservative Party with the biggest ever backbench Tory rebellion on Europe.

What is seldom explored is the interconnection between these two issues: Scottish independence and Euroscepticism. Both illustrate the multi-dimensional nature of the crisis of the British state, and tensions and faultlines in the existing order with its mantras and folktales of parliamentary sovereignty. And in both, the centre of gravity has shifted significantly in recent times; towards an environment favourable to Scottish self-government, and a Eurosceptic agenda. The Scottish debate is now between full fiscal autonomy and independence; the Tory mainstream debate is between repatriation of powers from Europe and complete withdrawal. These two dimensions could in the future influence each other in ways seldom stated or explored.

The National Party of Scotland

The recent SNP Annual Conference was a major watershed for the party: its first gathering since it became the majority government in the Scottish Parliament in the May 2011 elections. The conference captured the SNP in transition, heading from their traditional role as the outsiders and anti-establishment of Scotland, to being embraced by large swathes of institutional Scotland – to such an extent that they could foreseeably become the new establishment.

The SNP has managed in four years of office to be a competent, relatively successful administration, much to the surprise of its opponents. It has acted and sounded like Scotland’s Government, unlike the previous Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executives with their minimalist political aspirations. Alex Salmond and his ministerial team are an impressive model of individual and collective leadership, particularly striking compared to the previous Lab-Lib Dem era.

This doesn’t mean the SNP has got everything right. It has clung too closely to the institutional Scottish consensus to allow it to be radical and different on the economy and public services, while often striking the right tone in general and on specifics such as minimum pricing for alcohol.  

The main event of the SNP conference was, of course, the keynote address from Alex Salmond. This year he had the opportunity to lay out how the SNP plans to use majority government, its vision and strategy for independence, and how it sees the prospect for change short of independence – known to some as ‘devolution max’.

Salmond’s speech to a packed, expectant hall invoked the idea of a long standing set of different Scottish values, what he called ‘the community of the realm’ stretching back into medieval times, and a Scottish ‘common weal’; this last was an attempt to situate the ideal of a Scots public and civic realm distinct and different from England and the rest of the UK (1).

It positioned independence as an expression of traditional Scotland, as being about continuity and preservation, rather than fundamental change. In this sense the SNP is placing independence within the paradigms of the devolution mindset and as a logical extension of devolution: a kind of ‘devolution max plus’.

The SNP Vision of Independence

The SNP strategy on independence is not to scare off voters, but in following this they are understating the potential for change on offer.

One senior SNP politician once told me, ‘All independence entails is extending the Scotland Act until it covers all Scottish domestic life’. They then sat back satisfied with the straightforwardness of it, ‘It’s that simple’ they concluded. Such an approach explicitly positions independence as a politics of gradualism and incremental change, and as the child of devolution.

SNP politicians have consistently posed a version of independence which is about the minimal idea of change in Scotland. This is demonstrated by Angus Robertson, SNP Westminster leader, speaking to the BBC during the SNP Conference, and describing independence as a ‘Parliament that is fully sovereign’ and ‘a Parliament with fully sovereign powers’ (2).

These words are the standard SNP description of independence and are worthy of examination because they consistently reduce independence to a parliamentary process. Independence is thus about the Parliament, politicians and institutional change. What it is never about is a wider, radical transformation of Scottish society, of self-government as a nation and self-determination as a society.

Many SNP politicians implicitly believe in this wider prospectus, but consistently have interpreted independence as being about this prescriptive, limited, top-down politics. It is a version of independence which is the SNP equivalent of the old Labour adage that ‘socialism is what a Labour Government does’.

David Torrance’s biography of Alex Salmond has just been published in a revised edition and tries to get to grips with the enigmatic figure who has been leader of the SNP for 17 out of the last 21 years (1990-2000 and 2004 onwards) (3). In many respects Torrance does not ever really get into Alex Salmond the man and his motivations, in part because Salmond is such a private person, but what he does do instead is paint a picture and explore the making of the modern SNP.

The new edition is particularly good on the contours and making of the SNP’s 2011 election landslide, the planning and design of the campaign, and the people involved, informed by a host of interviews and observations.

Torrance looks forward in a concluding chapter to the politics of an independence referendum, but what he has not fully recognised is the scale of the crisis of all three of the main unionist parties post-landslide – Labour, Tory and Lib Dem. This is the area I now wish to address.

A Labour Crisis of Confidence, A Unionist Crisis of Confidence

Labour Scotland is in serious, terminal crisis; indeed its vision, story and version of society has collapsed, a state of affairs part recognised by Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary (4) and analysed by myself and Eric Shaw in our forthcoming study of Scottish Labour since the election of Thatcher in 1979 (5). 2011 was the equivalent of British Labour’s 1983: a humiliation and retreat into its ghettos, but without the hope of reprieve and renewal which British Labour had in 1983, because it still had resources of talent and energy to draw upon.

The sad state of Scottish Labour can be seen in the strange place where parts of the Labour commentariat class have ended up, eulogising an all-powerful, near-invincible SNP. Kevin McKenna in ‘The Observer’ is representative of a certain perspective: he now argues that independence is more than likely, predicting that, ‘By the time of the referendum … we all vote for outright independence’ (6).

A word of caution is advised here. This is the same Labour commentariat class who told us for example that:

  • Devolution would lead to a ‘new politics’ and transform Scotland;
  • Labour could, unlike every other party in a democracy, rule forever and renew itself;
  • And that devolution would ‘kill the Nationalists’ and wouldn’t aid a politics where the SNP became the main opposition and thus eventually the government.

Thus the judgement of the Labour class (McKenna and Lorraine Davidson being good examples) has been consistently suspect and often wrong on the big issues. Now they face a Labour crisis of confidence – which is part of a wider unionist crisis of confidence. The despair and pessimism they bring to the collapse of Labour Scotland and the one-party state politics which governed the land has had an effect on how they see things; to the extent that is commonplace for pro-unionist, anti-independence supporters to now see independence as likely or inevitable. I don’t buy it and think their track record of being wrong, along with their motivations, now mean we should at least question their judgement here.

A Labour friend of mine, with a thoughtful, intelligent take on Scottish and British politics, went to the SNP Conference for the first time and came away hugely impressed by the Nationalist mission and purpose. He commented that they have ‘a compelling narrative about power concentrated in London in a sovereign parliament harming what should be a sovereign people.’ And added:

‘They have a strategy to take power back to a sovereign people and remake the relationships with those other sites of power. They have a green industrialisation policy based around renewables and an economic policy based around low business tax and high personal tax. ‘

This is not of the same dimensions as thinking independence is inevitable, but it does display a rose-tinted, glowing account of the Nationalist project which sounds as if it came straight out of Alex Salmond’s office. The SNP do have a narrative, and a consistent account of power, although it is often a narrow and conventional one, while their green and renewables policies are full of questions.

Post-Nationalist Dimensions

The current SNP strategy is to continue in government as a party of competence, and then, as the Tory-Lib Dem Westminster cuts bite later into their term, to hold a two vote referendum with one question on what is called ‘devolution max’ or a version of full fiscal autonomy, and another on independence.

SNP thinking is that a two vote referendum will allow them to park themselves on the side of majority opinion and the forces for change; in this they are trying to replicate the spirit and mood of the 1997 ‘Yes Yes’ referendum. However, the differences between the vote then and a future vote is massive; the two vote ballot of 1997 was part of a coherent package, whereas a future ‘Yes Yes’ vote would involve two competing schemes.

There is some suspicion in Nationalist and non-Nationalist circles that the motivation of the SNP leadership in this is one of caution, and beyond that, a kind of defeatism, of believing that an independence vote won’t be won. Thus, the logic goes: lets create a two vote scenario where we can claim to be part of the forces for majority constitutional change and the gradualist road to independence can continue.

The trouble with this approach is that it invites voters to choose the middle and most painless position, and potentially diminishes the capacity of independence to win a majority coalition. It also certainly diminishes the historic nature of the vote.

It might even be behind the curve of events. There is clearly the prospect of a majority for independence if the timing and strategy is right. The best way of maximalising support is for a one vote referendum question to offer the Scottish Government the mandate to open negotiations with the British Government. This would place the opening vote and independence forces firmly in the context of the Scottish dimension as a valence issue, and lower the threshold and risk to voters becoming part of an independence majority (7).

A majority in a first vote would then lead to negotiations and once we go down this road there is a more than likely prospect of a majority in a second vote (8). This is as far removed from the condescending approach of the Constitution Unit arguing that Scotland has to legally have two referendums unlike anywhere else in the world (9); instead this is about the politics and strategy.

There are also signs within the wider nationalist movement of imaginative thinking. Elliot Bulmer, in the just published ‘A Constitution for Scotland’, makes the case that Scotland has to develop a constitutionally literate politics (10). This involves acknowledging that independence is about more than the gradual abolition of Westminster reserved powers, and a sovereign Scottish Parliament replacing a sovereign Westminster, thus challenging the traditional SNP way of thinking of such things.

James Mitchell’s Arthur Donaldson lecture at SNP conference addressed the question of Britishness in a modern Scotland, and concluded that ‘the threat to Scottish identity has receded’ allowing for Britishness to be seen as ‘no threat to Scots’ (11). This intervention caused ‘The Guardian’ to comment that Mitchell had ‘bravely’ broken some difficult home truths to the SNP: telling us more about ‘The Guardian’s’ view of the world (12).

The Scottish and European Questions and the Crises of the British State

One of the underlying assumptions of the Scottish debate is that Scottish independence and the potential end of the British state is solely down to the Scots. In one sense this is correct, but in another sense, there is a wider context and environment which shapes and makes where Scots opinion sits.

Two decisive factors need to be brought into the equation. The first is the question of Eurosceptism and the Tory Party. Any future majority Tory Government is going to be heavily influenced by a Eurosceptic agenda with the weight of gravity in the party falling between two poles: support for a full withdrawal from the European Union and a Eurosceptism that is about repatriation of major powers from Europe. Within this balance, what the reporting of the recent Tory Euro rebellion didn’t take into account was that we are heading for an inevitable in/out Euro referendum. And that whatever the state of what were once ‘the Tory wars’, a Euro vote is long overdue and necessary.

What would be its likely outcome? Given the state of the UK press and public opinion – with the most Eurosceptic views of any country in the EU (13) – there is a very good chance that the UK would vote for withdrawal. If this were to occur it would be a huge moment for the British state, and an explicit recognition of the failure of the political classes’ experiment with the UK as a European state. It would not, despite some of the dark Tory Eurosceptic dreams, mean a return to some ancien regime of a British state; it would, however, have huge unintended consequences. One of these would be to make the conditions for Scottish independence much more likely.

The second issue is the continued Tory toxicity in Scotland. Any future majority Tory Government will be seen as illegitimate in Scotland and as an expression of ‘the democratic deficit’. This makes the union as we understand it unlikely to continue in its present form – a form which Calman, the current Scotland Bill and even ‘devolution max’ cannot fundamentally address.

Where this takes us is that it makes Scottish independence more likely than it ever had been, but not as likely as Labour and unionist defeatists now think.

Instead, we are gradually shifting from a union state Britain – which large parts of the Westminster class have less and less understood – to a looser state of unions (14). In this, the Scottish dimension, constitutional question and independence, and the European dimension and fixation of parts of the Tory Party with a Eurosceptic agenda, are intimately interwoven. Philip Stephens in the ‘FT’ this week was alone in the Westminster commentariat in observing that the Conservatives seem more obsessed with stopping Brussels influence than preserving the British union (15). The degree of flux and uncertainty in Europe also throws up questions for the Nationalist vision of an independent Scotland in the EU: of backpedalling on membership of the euro and doubts about the basis of ‘independence in Europe’.

These debates are about how we practice and interpret democracy, about the power of open debate and challenging and holding to account elites and concentrations of power. They are also occurring in the context of the reassertion of ‘the national interest’ – from Berlin and London to Athens and Edinburgh – and the disruptive power and collective irrationality of markets.

The British state has never fully understood the nature of the United Kingdom: that it is a state of several unions, with a supposed equal partnership between Scotland and England based on shared sovereignty. The old potent accounts of Tory unionism – and to a lesser extent Labour unionism, which implicitly understood this – have been reduced to threadbare, unconvincing accounts (16). This leaves us with a set of multiple, connected crises. How will the British political classes deal with the challenge of Scottish independence and statehood; and how will the problematic relationship of parts of Westminster to the notion of sharing sovereignty in the European Union be resolved?  

A more loose European union is the dream of Westminster sovereigntists. More likely, however, is a major integration in the euro-core, which will pose a huge challenge to the UK. Such a union may also prove more hospitable to a Scottish nationalist movement that has shown itself comfortable with sharing sovereignty. Indeed, similarities may begin to emerge over the next few years in where the European Union and British union evolve  to – as the ‘ever closer union’ envisaged in the Treaty of Rome comes to pass with a euro-core but stops short of a European unitary superstate, while the British state slowly departs from the last vestiges of a unitary nature and becomes an even looser union.

The idea of absolute sovereignty held and exercised by the British state is now enduring fundamental crisis and decay. These are the twilight days of the British state.


 

Notes

1. Alex Salmond, Speech to SNP Annual Conference, October 22nd 2011, http://www.snp.org/blog/post/2011/oct/alex-salmond-delivers-keynote-speech

2. BBC Two Scotland, Politics Scotland, October 22nd 2011.

3. David Torrance, Alex Salmond: Against the Odds, Birlinn 2nd edn. 2011.

4. Douglas Alexander, ‘A Better Nation’, Andrew John Williamson Lecture, Stirling University, October 13th 2011, http://www.labourhame.com/archives/author/douglas-alexander

5. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, Edinburgh University Press 2012 forthcoming.

6. Kevin McKenna, ‘In five years’ time, the Union will be no more’, The Observer, October 23rd 2011.

7. The Scottish dimension as a valence issue is explored in Robert Johns, David Denver, James Mitchell and Chris Pattie, Voting for a Scottish Government: The Scottish Parliament Election of 2007, Manchester University Press 2010, pp. 182-89.

8. I am indebted to Nigel Smith who was Chair of the ‘Yes Yes’ campaign ‘Scotland Forward’ for originally making this argument.

9. Jo Eric Murkens with Peter Jones and Michael Keating, Independence: A Practical Guide, Edinburgh University Press 2002.

10. Elliot Bulmer, A Constitution for Scotland: Making Democracy Work, Luath 2011.

11. James Mitchell, ‘The Changing Politics of National Identities in Scotland’, Arthur Donaldson Lecture, SNP Annual Conference, October 22nd 2011.

12. The Guardian Editorial, ‘Scottish Independence: National wake-up call’, The Guardian, October 24th 2011.

13. Fraser Nelson, ‘Time to Leave the EU?’, Spectator Coffee House, September 20th 2011, http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7253443/time-to-leave-the-eu.thtml

14. James Mitchell, Devolution in the UK, Manchester University Pres 2009.

15. Philip Stephens, ‘Little England: Britain Sleepwalks towards Break-up’, Financial Times, October 24th 2011, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/79585bf6-fe32-11e0-bac4-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1c0ntWtUT

16. Gerry Hassan, ‘After the Conservative Nation: The state of the union and post-unionist politics’, in Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford (eds), Is the Future Conservative?, Lawrence and Wishart 2008.

About the author
Gerry Hassan is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland who has recently been awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell). His 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' was published in April 2014. His website is: www.gerry.hassan.com