openDemocracyUK: Analysis

How Scottish independence stopped being scary

In 2016, Scotland’s Conservatives successfully spread panic about an independence referendum. Five years on, the electorate is no longer afraid

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
5 May 2021, 8.57am
Tens of thousands of Independence supporters march through Glasgow, January 2020
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Chris Strickland / Alamy Stock Photo

If you’re used to Westminster’s bipolar politics, Scotland’s multi-party system can seem baffling. And so it’s easier for the London media to focus on the rotting corpses of the dying regime – older men raging against their own irrelevance – than follow the forces reshaping Scotland.

The path through the five Holyrood elections to date has been cut by a group we could call ‘the radicals’. These are the people who, as bombs blew Baghdad to bits in 2003, abandoned uninspiring Labour and Scottish National Party (SNP) campaigns, and elected the ‘rainbow parliament’ that included six Scottish Socialist Party MSPs and seven Greens.

In 2007 these same people swung behind the SNP, giving the party a one-seat plurality and stretching political possibility enough for it to win its majority in 2011.

These are the people who came round to the idea of Scottish independence in the run-up to the 2014 referendum, taking support from around 35% to a final vote of 45%, and then split their votes between the SNP and Greens in 2016, maintaining a pro-independence majority in Parliament.

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If you believe polls, these voters will again be decisive in this week’s Holyrood election, throwing their weight more squarely behind the Greens and ensuring a mandate for another independence referendum.

But something else happened at the 2016 election: a sharp bump in the Tory vote. And to understand that, we need to dig into the withering loyalties, decomposition and recomposition that have underlain Scottish politics for centuries.

Having spent time in 2005 asking people around Scotland how they planned to vote, and why, the most common answer to the second question was ‘that’s how we’ve always voted’, often with an invocation of a father. Elections were patrilineal affairs.

These days, the most common answer is “I’ll see what they have to say”. The SNP didn’t become a part of people’s identities in the way their old parties used to be. It just convinced them to be open-minded.

The decline of Labour and Liberal Scotland

The coal seam that runs under Scotland’s waist was the foundation stone of the British Labour Party, its furnaces forging a whole new kind of economy and society. The party got between a third and a half of the Scottish vote in every election from 1922 to 2010, dominating the Central Belt – where most Scots live – for nearly a century.

Further north, there is a different history. The Liberals were the dominant party of Victorian Scotland, drawing on aristocratic Whiggish tendencies but also on a radical legacy. In the 1880s, the Highland Land League brought an end to the Highland clearances through mass rent strikes and land occupations, and got Crofters’ Party MPs elected across much of the Highlands and Islands. When prime minister William Gladstone – MP for Edinburgh – passed the Crofters’ Act of 1886, Crofters’ Party MPs largely merged with his Liberals, and many families in the Highlands remained loyal to the party for generations.

Rural Scotland – along with rural Wales and the south-west of England – gave the Liberals a home to retreat to in their lean years in the mid-20th century, and a base to organise from during their comeback in the 1990s and 2000s: think Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell.

The SNP didn’t become a part of people’s identities in the way their old parties used to be

In the 2005 UK general election, the Liberal Democrats got 23% of the vote in Scotland, and Labour got 40%: they were the governing coalition at Holyrood, and commanded between them an overwhelming majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats, dominating, respectively, rural and urban Scotland. By the 2019 Westminster election, the two parties couldn’t get 30% between them. The SNP now dominates Scotland.

If it was our radicals who cut a path through the snow, then this was the avalanche that followed. The churn of those voters as they tumble away from the parties their fathers voted for has shaped Scottish politics for the last decade – and will shape much of British politics in the coming years.

Fertile territory for the SNP

The Highland boundary is a geological fault line that runs from northeast Scotland – a little south of Aberdeen – to the southwest – a little north of Glasgow. Because it’s diagonal, there is a wedge of the country – Perthshire, Angus, southern Aberdeenshire – which is neither the Highlands, nor the Borders, nor the Central Belt. This is where the SNP grew up – and where I did, too.

With rich agricultural soils swept down from the Cairngorm mountains, this land doesn’t have the same crofting traditions as the west Highlands. William Gladstone’s Crofting Act never applied here, and Liberal loyalties were never as strong. But without the coal seams and shipyards to the south and west, this was never natural Labour territory either.

For a long time, as with much of rural Britain, that meant that it defaulted to the Tories. But that doesn’t mean that the Conservatives did a good job of representing the mostly working-class people who lived in the market towns and mill towns from Strathmore up to the Moray Firth.

In 1997, a young SNP candidate called John Swinney came all the way up the bumpy drive to my parents’ house in rural Perthshire and persuaded them that he was best placed to unseat the incumbent Tory MP. His efforts in getting there attested to the claim, as did a forest of luminous signs in the gardens of the council houses in the local town, loyalties won through campaigns against service cuts, privatisations and the traditional work of social democratic politicians.

The constituency has had an SNP MP ever since, though Swinney quickly switched to the Scottish Parliament where, these days, he’s deputy first minister.

The long failure of Scotland’s Tories

The Tories’ position in Scotland has always been precarious, though. The modern Conservative Party – founded in 1833 by Robert Peel – has never won the popular vote here on its own – though it did form part of the majority-winning ‘national government’ coalition a couple of times in the early 20th century, and repeated the feat twice in the 1950s in coalition with a historical curiosity called the National Liberals.

Technically, those meagre successes were won by an allied independent party called the ‘Unionists’, which emphasised its support for Scotland’s distinct institutions – the church, the legal system, the vast estates, the regiments, the education system – and built a base from the middle-class professionals who enjoyed running them without the democratic accountability of a parliament.

This was the unionism of Tartanry, with Scottishness woven into the fabric of the United Kingdom, a cultural product sold to Hollywood, rich deer stalkers and American tourists. Distinctive features were treated as a kitsch curiosity to be enjoyed by elites old and new, and celebrated by British capitalism.

Attempts since 2008 to replace the feel-good drug of cheap credit with kitsch imperial nostalgia haven’t resonated in Scotland

This version of unionism has dissolved over the past decade, as Scottish distinctiveness has become more than a tradable commodity and started to represent a serious threat to the British state. Scotland’s Tories have fallen back on an Anglo-British Conservatism, distinguished by flying the Union Flag, uncontrollable rage at bilingual Gaelic/English road signs and red-faced, spit-loaded fury at any notion of Scottishness.

Conservatism has retreated from an expansive notion of unionism to the core of Toryism: a belief in the mythology of the British state and its monarchy. It’s the power of this story for the English that is, essentially, why England consistently votes Tory despite its people generally being almost as social democratic and socially liberal as their neighbours in Scotland. And its weakness in Scotland explains why we don’t.

Capitalists and Jacobites

How far back should we follow the threads of Scottish political culture? At least as far as 1767, when Adam Ferguson, born in the village of Logierate in Perthshire – just near the Highland boundary – published ‘An Essay on the History of Civil Society’, which coined the term ‘civil society’, influenced Karl Marx and made him a grandfather of sociology.

In the book, Ferguson documented the arrival of ‘commercial society’ – what Marx later christened ‘capitalism’ – in the Highlands of his youth, contrasting it with the ‘civil society’ which had existed before.

While the expansion of capitalism was consistently met with resistance across early-modern Europe, when this conflict reached the Highlands, it fused with anger that the Scottish Stuart family had been replaced by the Dutch King William on the by now joint throne of Scotland and England, and combusted into the Jacobite rebellion, a civil war which ended with the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the last battle fought on mainland Britain.

That’s not dead history in Scotland. This weekend, I found myself absent-mindedly singing old Jacobite songs to my baby daughter. Half-memories of the uprising pervade Scottish culture, and dampen the support for the House of Windsor that is so crucial to Anglo-British Toryism.

Being less royalist than any other part of Great Britain, attempts since the financial crash of 2008 to replace the feel-good drug of cheap credit with kitsch imperial nostalgia haven’t resonated in Scotland as they have in much of England.

The jubilee street parties and royal weddings, the gaudy poppy-fests, the cultural tropes in which Brexit came wrapped: none of these raises as many goosebumps in Scotland as in England.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their audiences. Between a quarter and a third of people in Scotland identify as either British before Scottish, or equally British and Scottish. The cultural institutions of this group include posh schools and the networks bound together by their ‘old boy’ ties, Orange Lodges and the armed forces.

Traditionally scattered between Labour, Lib Dems and Tories, this section of the Scottish electorate rallied around the Union Flag in the 2016 Scottish parliamentary election – which took place just 20 months after the independence referendum – and voted for Ruth Davidson’s Tories, taking them from 14% to 23% of the vote: enough for a friendly media to celebrate.

But Davidson wasn’t cheerful for long. The next month saw what one man in Northern Ireland would later describe to me in a Freudian slip as ‘England’s referendum’.

The break-up of Britain

The familiar idea of Britain emerged at some point in the late 1940s as Clement Attlee’s government downsized from governing India to dabbling in nuclear weapons, founded the NHS and built ‘homes for heroes’.

The British Empire – whose conquest had been the purpose of the union between Scotland and England’s governing classes – was breaking up. A new, archipelagic nation staggered out of the wreckage and, slowly, into the rehab unit for former colonists, the European Union.

But by the time England chose to check out of the programme in the hope of reliving its glory days, it was already pretty clear that that version of Britain had gone. The welfare state had been slashed and sold off. The banking system that North Sea oil had powered had followed the fate of its fuel, and gone up in smoke.

If the 45% ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 independence referendum was a coalition of, on the one hand, those who most strongly identify as Scottish rather than British and, on the other, the radicals I started this essay with, who have concluded that the British state provides an unlikely path to a fairer world, then Brexit seems to have added another group to that mix: ardent pro-Europeans, and everyone horrified by the lurch to the right that Brexit seemed to represent.

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Independence isn’t a threat anymore

Every Holyrood election has had a similar dynamic: Labour and the Tories attack the SNP for supporting independence; the SNP neutralises the attack by postponing any such decision to a referendum, and instead works to convince voters that it is the true representative of the old liberal and social democratic traditions that the vast majority of Scots have long voted for.

For instance, the SNP’s 2007 victory came in the final summer of Tony Blair’s Labour premiership, and was won with promises to end the part-privatisation of the NHS and scrap university tuition fees.

Next time, the 2011 election came a year after Nick Clegg had led the Lib Dems into coalition with the Tories and his party’s ancient vote fractured, with some going to the SNP and some providing a temporary crutch to Scottish Labour, whose traditional voters continued to desert them, also for the SNP.

In 2016, many of these former Lib Dem voters appeared to abandon the then Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, splitting between the SNP and the Scottish Tories, led by Ruth Davidson, who had managed to present her party as a cosy new home for a particular kind of former Liberal.

This weekend, we’ll find out what those voters did next. But one detail has been striking from the campaign.

In 2016, Davidson succeeded in spreading panic about another independence referendum among a portion of the electorate. Five years later, Douglas Ross is trying to do the same. But it doesn’t seem to be taking hold. Voters are happily debating policy on education, healthcare and the shape of the economic recovery to come.

With 16- and 17-year-olds voting, thousands of school strikers will go to the polls for the first time, with climate change foremost in their minds, and with the pandemic making radical change seem possible, four of the five main parties have been talking about trialling a universal basic income.

After a decade of austerity, Brexit, Boris Johnson, COVID and climate crisis, even for many of those who on balance would prefer to stay in the UK, independence isn’t the bogeyman it once was. Increasingly, it just looks like the future.

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