Scottish politics post-the May election and the return of a majority SNP government have existed in a seeming state of limbo, a kind of political phoney war.
The SNP have won a landslide victory but have yet to produce a serious strategy for winning independence; the unionist parties in Scotland have all been reduced to an existential crisis about defining their purpose and point; meanwhile David Cameron’s government (if it ever thinks about Scotland) is of the view that the break up of the United Kingdom isn’t a serious threat and those pesky Nats will soon be put in their place.
This is a strange display of emotions and assumptions by every party which seems to downplay the historic situation that we are in. For we are witnessing a combination of immediate short-term politics (SNP victory), with the long-term evolution of Scottish politics and fundamental crisis of the British state, that makes far-reaching change, and Scottish independence, distinctly possible.
The ‘Three Scotlands’ of Modern Times
There are three distinct Scottish futures on offer. The first is from the SNP Scottish Government which proposes an independent Scotland. The strategy, tactics and detail on this might be surprisingly vague, but the direction and intent is clear.
At the moment, the SNP are well-deposed towards having (towards the latter half of this Parliament, in 2014-15) a two vote referendum, offering the Scots a choice on independence and also ‘devo max’, a kind of full fiscal autonomy short of independence. The supposed thinking is to recreate the 1997 devolution feeling of the ‘Yes Yes’ campaign (then for a devolved Parliament with limited tax raising powers) (1).
But the comparison doesn’t hold and many suspect that the Nats are drawn to such an approach because they think independence won’t win, and want to park the Nationalists as part of the decisive Scots majority which exists for greater powers. Thus, the argument goes, getting half of something is better than nothing at all, and thus our historic journey can continue.
Second, there is the position of the unionist parties in Scotland – Labour, Lib Dem and Tory – if we can call their current confused thinking a ‘position’. It is also true that Labour are wary and unsure of joining a pan-unionist front with the dreaded Tories and their partners in crime the Lib Dems, who in the course of a year and a half have fallen from everyone's favourite relatives to a national sport in cursing!
With these caveats, the unionist parties are hesitant to take up Alex Salmond’s invitation of defining ‘devo max’, wary that it might be a Nat trap! The Lib Dems, with a long proud tradition as constitutional reformers and federalists, have ended up defending the indefensible: the union of Tory lexicon, talking Scotland down as a poor, wee defenceless nation which couldn’t afford independence, while reminding Scots of the gorgeous magnificence that was Calman and is the Scotland Bill going through the Houses of Parliament.
There is, within this, little strategic unionist thinking so far, but it will emerge alongside polemic and invective against ‘separatism’. Scots unionism – if it has any intelligence left (which despite appearances it does) – will recognise that offering a 1980s Tory reprise of no reformed status quo or Calman lite reform against independence is a disaster waiting to happen. Instead, a new union needs to be unveiled north of the border which speaks to Scottish statehood and which challenges the Nats to argue what the extra mileage is from independence, and also makes the issue of the British state and its deformed character central. Is unionism up to this? The jury is out, but the Scots Tories or Scots Labour at their peak would have been. One is a rump worthy of today’s French Communist Party, aged, decrepit and ghettoised; the other has been so disorientated and made bitter by its fall from grace, that both their judgements have been thrown into turmoil and self-doubt.
Then we have the Cameron Con-Lib Dem coalition government and how they see the Scottish question. Cameron does realise that he has a major ‘northern problem’, one that was made significantly easier by coalition with the Lib Dems, but he does have several other pressing problems on his desk: the anger at hurricane capitalism; the special pleading of the City for exemptions from the consequences of their own actions; the imploding euro, to name a few.
Not surprisingly with this hand Cameron has decided to play a subtle, long game with Scotland, outsourcing to his Lib Dem colleagues the hard, abrasive unionism of lore, while waiting for Salmond and the SNP to define the ground and their argument, so that he can then criticise and challenge them.
Cameron is an instinctual unionist to his core; he believes in the entity that is the United Kingdom; he believes in ‘Great British Powerism’, that Britain’s place post-Empire is to ‘punch above its weight’ through its legacy of influence in the Commonwealth, ‘the special relationship’ and connection to the English-speaking world. He isn’t, as some have suggested, happy to see Scotland leave the union because he loses 40 Labour MPs or can take back the supposed subsidies Scotland gains: a kind of ‘union dividend’ in reverse.
Such language whether of a right-wing fantasy land (hello Spectator Coffee House bloggers!) or a left-wing nightmare kind have come to the fore because the union is in crisis, weakening and fragmenting. Once there was a powerful Tory story of the union, and a Labour account, and now they are reduced to arguing about the figures and furniture!
The Cameron strategy has been challenged by Tory peers such as Michael Forsyth, who as the current Scotland Bill has been progressing through the Lords, have proposed that the Scottish Government be given the legal right to hold an independence referendum, on the condition that a ‘sunset clause’ is put in, limiting the timing of such a vote. What must seem like a wheeze in the world of Westminster, actually north of the border shows what a bind Cameron and his allies are in. This is nothing less than Westminster continuing to play stupid little games, and also reveals the weakness of Cameron, and as with Europe recently, that he is not fully in command of his own side.
These three perspectives – the Scottish Government, unionist parties in Scotland, and UK Government – can be seen to be portraying ‘three Scotlands’, three very different versions of the nation and our future. This isn’t to argue that they are equal in strength, merit or legitimacy, but to recognise that, as we are currently constituted, all feel they have a right to present their views.
These ‘three Scotlands’ represent approximately the Scotland of Scottish identity (SNP), Scottish and British ‘dual identity’ (Scots unionist parties), and British identity (the UK Government). We can see from this typology that the most powerful positions are those of the Scottish and Scottish-British identities, and the weakest, that of British identity. However, if any of these perspectives are to become defining and succeed, they will have to win support from another area. Therefore, if the Scottish Government or the UK Government are to win they will have to claim part of the Scottish-British ground; while if the unionist parties are going to succeed they will need to inhabit part of the Scottish terrain.
The simultaneous threat and dream of Scottish independence has been an influential driver over the last 40 years. The above stratagems and assumptions from all the political players have to bear this in mind. The pro-independence forces have to carefully choose and prepare their ground, while reformist unionists in the middle ground have to also realise the uses and advantages of having a credible independence threat vis-à-vis the UK.
Some thoughtful Labour commentators such as Ian Smart have understood this (2). Smart has argued that to hold an independence referendum vote and for it to result in too low an independence vote would not really be helpful to anyone, from the SNP to thoughtful unionists, and to the entire dynamic of Scottish politics.
The SNP leadership has some awareness of this; hence the delays, hoping the ground can be prepared, strategy fine-tuned, monies raised, and even more activists garnered. Yet, this is the delay of a dithering army, unsure at its moment of greatest triumph so far, whether and how to pounce. Is there another way?
I think there is. The Scottish dimension, from home rule to independence, is not what is called ‘a salience issue’, but ‘a valence issue’ (3). This means that the constitutional question has never ever ranked high in voter priorities, but has been a way by which voters make sense and join other issues together.
This has led over the decades from the 1940s onwards to Scottish votes being used to influence and have leverage with British governments, the state and Westminster by voting a certain way, for one party or against another, or in some cases tactically. Scots have voted this way, for Tories in the 1940s and 1950s against ‘London rule’, for Labour in increasing numbers from the 1960s to 1980s and 1990s, and then for the SNP in the Scottish Parliament. This also became the way successful Scottish politicians have understood Scotland and portrayed it to Westminster from Tom Johnston in the 1940s to Willie Ross in the 1960s and 1970s, George Younger in the 1980s, and Alex Salmond today.
The best way to win an independence referendum is to position the independence question as part of this long-standing Scottish dimension. We should simply ask the following question:
Do you authorise the Scottish Government to begin negotiations with the UK Government on Scottish independence?
Sixteen simple words. Easily understood by everyone. With no doubts about what it means that is open to claim or counter-claim.
This makes independence part of the Scottish dimension, instead of sitting outside it which would be fatal (4). This increases the prospect of an independence majority. It reduces the threshold that people are invited to cross to vote ‘yes’; it reduces the risk to people voting ‘yes’ by not making it ‘all or nothing’. And it wraps up independence as part of a patriotic, pro-democratic argument.
This completely transforms the prospect of winning an independence majority because it changes the argument from the current context. It places independence as the modern version of the Scottish dimension as a valence issue, of how we best increase our leverage and influence with Westminster, or more accurately, how we, Scottish voters, best equip our Scottish politicians to go south to get the best deal they can for Scotland. It makes the Scottish Government position, Alex Salmond and the pro-independence forces, that of ‘the national interest’. It invites wavering voters and those unsure, in time honoured fashion to back Scotland and support Scottish interests, and makes the unionist position one which is more uneasy and difficult.
The Politics of Winning an Independence Vote
What if any is the downside of the above? There is the issue that a first pro-independence vote would require a second vote on any deal. But once a first vote has been won, a second would become even more part of the Scottish dimension, and thus about supporting Scottish interests. There is also the issue that everything in Scotland, in our politics and in how the British government and state judges us, would be fundamentally altered by that first vote.
This is a very different strategy from the earlier ‘Westminster knows best’ rather arrogant argument put forward by Robert Hazell and the Constitution Unit, and Michael Moore, Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland (5). Their arguments were about legality and Scotland being told it had to have two votes unlike anywhere else in the world. This argument is instead about politics, power, process and democracy, and choosing of our own free will to embark on a strategy which is transparent, aids good governance and independence.
We know that thoughtful unionist opinion in Scotland and the UK is extremely disorientated by the current pattern of events. Part of them cannot really believe events have turned out this way. The Scottish Labour Party looks at its once healthy inheritance of seats, votes and mini-empire, and has seen it all turn to ashes in a decade. Likewise intelligent unionists such as Scottish born Fraser Nelson, editor of ‘The Spectator’, find it increasingly difficult to make sense of Scotland from their Westminster bunkers, commenting without qualification that ‘Scotland would be far worse outside the union’ (6). The worst example is the Andrew Neil McCliche view of Scotland, portraying a land of subsidy junkies with an oversized, omnipotent state power where entrepreneurial zest and energy is stifled at childbirth. Some of us can laugh at such ill-informed prejudice, but they show the weakening of the union, and how British and London media politics have fallen prey to right-wing populist ranting.
The United Kingdom has always been a strange beast, neither completely a unitary state of centralisation or the land of liberty and dissent so beloved of Whigs and their radical friends. It has come to pass in the last thirty years of counter-revolution, as Britain’s ‘world island’ has shrunk in on itself, that the powerful elites of the City and pseudo-business world of accountancy, consultancy and banking have shaped a reality which looks like a mixture of some vulgar Marxist tract with an Arnold Schwarzenegger dystopia. The UK, despite the explosion of the Blair/Brown bubble still one of the richest countries in the world, is in Danny Dorling’s estimate the fourth most unequal country in the developed world (7).
We need to challenge this. Scottish statehood and independence is one powerful challenge to this state of affairs. We can’t believe that a post-Blair/Brown Labour offers any alternative, nor that the Lib Dems after their association with the Cameroon coalition offer anything. Instead, the slow fragmentation and demise of the British state is the best bet for Scots, and for developing a different, democratic, English political culture and space, one Scots will be proud to call our friends and allies, and even engage with in political co-operation.
The dilemma is this: it is a fact that there has not been a consistent majority for Scottish independence. That’s what David Cameron says to himself whenever he occasionally thinks of the issue.
There has been a consistent and massive majority of Scots voters understanding and using their power vis-a-via London and mandating their politicians again and again to act in such a way. Because of this a majority can be won for Scottish independence. The question is: do the SNP and pro-independence forces have the guile and wit to dare to seize the agenda and stand tall for Scotland’s interests?
1. David Denver, James Mitchell, Charles Pattie and Hugh Bochel, Scotland Decides: The Devolution Issue and the Scottish Referendum, Frank Cass 2000.
2. Ian Smart, ‘A New Year Prediction: A return to reality’, December 31 2011.
3. Robert Johns, David Denver and James Mitchell, Voting for a Scottish Government: The Scottish Parliament Election of 2007, Manchester University Press 2010.
4. I am indebted to Nigel Smith, Chair of the ‘Yes, Yes’ 1997 Scottish Parliament referendum campaign for first making this case.
5. Jo Eric Murkens with Peter Jones and Michael Keating, Scottish Independence: A Practical Guide, Edinburgh University Press 2002.
6. Fraser Nelson, ‘Would you bet against Alex Salmond?’, Spectator Coffee House, January 2, 2012,
7. Daniel Dorling, Fair Play: A Daniel Dorling Reader on Social Justice, Policy Press 2011.