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The long march to Scotland’s independence referendum

About the author
Gerry Hassan is an academic and commentator on Scottish and UK politics, power, democracy and social change. He has written or edited over two dozen books including Scotland the Bold and the newly published A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On (edited with Simon Barrow).

The world of politics and history sometimes throws up by complete accident fascinating and revealing coincidences. So it proved on the 70th anniversary of Britain and France reluctantly declaring war on Nazi Germany after Hitler had taken the decision two days previously to unleash his war machine on Poland. On such a day laden with history the SNP administration fired the first official shots in the referendum on Scottish independence. Alex Salmond, First Minister, committed his administration to bring forward a bill to hold a referendum in the next year.

More than the date of September 3rd connects these two separate events for they tell us something profound about the nature of Britain, what it became, the state it is currently in and what fate awaits it in the near-future.

Britain’s declaration of war unleashed a whole set of events which have resonated down through the years. Neville Chamberlain’s announcement, after the shame of Munich and before that British ‘non-belligerence’ against Fascist aggression in the Spanish Civil War, led to ‘the Dunkirk miracle’, Britain’s decision to fight on in the summer of 1940 and spurn Nazi peace offerings, ‘the Battle of Britain’ and ‘our finest hour’.

This period of British history – 1940-41 – is one of the defining set of stories of Britishness. It has been shaped and framed by Churchill’s rich, powerful rhetoric, which reached out and gave a voice and sense of hope to the British at their most beleaguered and lonely hour. In Max Hastings' words this gave ‘an elixir of hope’ which ‘anchored his people and their island’ at a time of gathering storms (Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45, Harper Press 2009, p. 93; also see: Carlo d’Este, Warlord; Winston Churchill at War 1878-1945, Allen Lane 2008).

At the same time this time contained within it the seeds of the slow, irreversible decline of the idea of ‘Britain’. For within the imperialist, all-powerful rhetoric of Churchill, with its belief in empire and the white races’ place on the planet, lay another idea, which Anthony Barnett appositely called ‘Churchillism’ (Iron Britannia: Why Parliament Waged its Falklands War, Allison and Busby 1982). This articulated the idea of Britain’s place in the world becoming the junior partner to the American imperial project – thus beginning the so-called ‘special relationship’ which has blighted and distorted British foreign policy and statecraft since.

Fast forward to the SNP proposals for a referendum on Scottish independence – in the words of The Herald editorial, ‘the political crux of the SNP’s legislative programme for the next year’. Alex Salmond said that ‘the people of Scotland must be heard’, adding that ‘this Parliament should not stand in their way – let the people speak’.

Yet it is widely known that the SNP have neither the numbers nor real desire for a referendum before the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. The Nationalist strategy is to call the bluff of the unionist parties in the Scottish Parliament, and then go to the polls in 2011 claiming the moral high ground of the democratic argument.

The unionist position here is an indefensible and even counter-productive one for if a vote were held tomorrow they would win easily. However, their nervousness displays a deeper unionist crisis of confidence about how the case for the British Union is made in a modern Scotland, and that the last story of Britain: the story of 1940-41 which led through ‘the people’s war’ to 1945 has been exhausted and is no longer the poignant, potent box office success it once was north of the border (or elsewhere for that matter).

The crucial point from these parliamentary manoeuvrings is that an independence referendum is inevitable at some point. Serious politicians such as Michael (now Lord) Forsyth, the last Tory Secretary of State for Scotland, recognise this as did Wendy Alexander, Scottish Labour’s fourth leader, in her ‘bring it on’ phase.

Independence is the pivotal faultline in Scottish politics in a post-socialist world. It is no accident that David Cameron and Gordon Brown have both at points briefly considered calling one – and shooting the Nationalists fox. And it is no accident, given this unionist crisis of confidence, that they have backed off from doing so.

What is also illuminating is the lack of thinking and detail that has so far gone into looking into independence, in the Scottish Nationalists or elsewhere including the darkest recesses of the British state and establishment. Margo MacDonald, Nationalist heartthrob in the 1970s and now independent MSP and pain in the neck to the SNP leadership, got it bang on when she said the party had ‘failed to explain the nuts and bolts of independence’, or deal with the reality that most Scots were ‘men and women who have grown up in a culture that can accommodate Britishness, no matter how Scottish they feel’.

The Scotsman editorial described the situation thus:

In the draft referendum bill, the SNP government suggested that, under their proposals, Scots would be asked to state whether or not they agreed ‘that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state’.

The Scotsman believes this is too soft a question to ask the people, asking as it does only to give the Scots Government the power to negotiate, missing, the editorial believes, the Constitution Unit report's view that the Scots need not one, but two referendums to gain independence – one to agree to negotiations, and one on their outcome (Jo Eric Murkens et al, Scottish Independence: A Practical Guide, Edinburgh University Press 2002). But this argument ignores the fact that none of the two dozen independent nations which emerged out of the shattering of the Soviet empire, of Yugoslavia, and of Czechoslovakia, required two referendums. Surely Scotland won't either.

The coming of a Scottish independence referendum is a huge political event carrying waves and consequences far across the globe well beyond the reach of a small nation of five million people. And that is because an independence referendum carries with it a direct challenge to the geo-political nature of what Tom Nairn has termed the 'Ukanian' state and Great British Powerism and its pretensions to power, influence and war through its asymmetrical alliance with the US.

All political events have unintended consequences. The coming of the independence referendum changes the terms of reference and the terrain in which the UK operates and is understood. Politics is about power, legitimacy and voice and the long march to an independence referendum – by which I mean the next five to ten years – challenges the power, legitimacy and voice of the Ukanian state and its global position and pretentions.

Which is why Westminster politicians and their journalistic acolytes hope against hope that the issue will just evaporate in the manner of many causes. But as  The Scotsman said, ‘Those who favour the United Kingdom remaining united are being short-sighted if they think the issue will go away’.

A number of powerful forces have converged here on the anniversary of September 3rd; above all the slow decline of the traditional story of Britain, and within it the last great, powerful, progressive account of our strange ‘nationless state’ of Ukania, one many of us were brought up with as it was related to us with pride by our parents.

And many of us saw that hope die in those who told us such stories. The progressive story of Britain is in deep, deep crisis, perhaps mortally so; it has been battered by the onslaught of Thatcherism which killed off the gentlemanly, benign Tory unionism which understood intuitively where to push and when to caress the strange hybrid that is the union. It was then brutalised by Blair’s twin track continuation of Thatcherism consolidated along with his grotesque application of the British state and foreign policy. This leaves us with the old but now emaciated parables of Tory unionism and a Labour version of Britain reduced to little more than flag-waving and barking at 'toffs' in the supposedly 'classless' accents of mid-Atlantic corporate efficiency - ‘the people’s story’, savaged, humiliated... and over.

Events are moving fast here in Scotland. An incoming Conservative Government in Westminster in 2010 will have a scant to non-existent Scottish mandate. It will have to preside over massive public spending cuts much more savage than Thatcher in 1979-81. The Cameron Conservatives have barely begun to think anything about Scotland, and they are to put it mildly going to have their plate full next year, and will not want to be looking for avoidable northern troubles. It is highly probable that they will, along with the painful medicine offer the Scots a conciliatory gesture of going beyondthe proposals of the Calman Commission, to full fiscal autonomy, which could be presented well in the Tory shires as tackling the ‘subsidy junkie Scots’.

When interviewed on Newsnight Scotland last night on the independence referendum, I posed that this was a huge occasion for the Scots: a growing moment and one which offered us the chance to mature and have an adult debate.

Within both the Scottish Nationalists and unionists there is a connivance which allows both of them to avoid debating the kind of society they want to bring about. This is because post-Thatcher they agree on the narrow, technocratic model of the bruised, discredited neo-liberal model.

Instead of talking about the different values of society both talk in Armageddon-like terms of independence versus the union. This disguises that the political difference between a post-nationalist and post-unionist politics - seen in the writings of Neil MacCormick (Questioning Sovereignty: Law, State and Nation in the European Commonwealth, OUP 1999) and Michael Keating (Plurinational Democracy: Stateless Nations in a Post-sovereignty Era, OUP 2001) respectively - is small, both informed by the realities of post-sovereignty in an interdependent world. At the same time that difference between statehood and less than full statehood matters given the nature of the UK (see Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh University Press 2009).

This collusion by all the Scottish parties of cowardice and deception needs to be blown apart for the sake of radicals across these isles: an independence referendum has to be centred on the kind of Scotland and society we desire, and the posing of alternatives to the Anglo-American neo-liberal model. By doing so it will set off an equally wide debate south of the Scottish border that brings together the nature of the British state as a democracy, the kind of social regime it seeks to be, and therefore also its place in the larger European Union. 

The political class is terrified of any such debate. Which is why it is so hostile to an independence referendum irrespective of its outcome, and why the rest of us should welcome and support it. 

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and policy analyst whose latest book is ‘The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power’ (Edinburgh University Press, October). He can be contacted at gerryhassan.com


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