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

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 we have at Westminster 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 of 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. In the first, the debate is now between full fiscal autonomy and independence, and in the second, 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 minimalist political aspirations of the previous Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executives. It has shown in Alex Salmond and his ministerial team a model of individual and collective leadership which has been impressive and 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, public services, health and education, while often striking the right tone in general and on specifics such as minimum pricing for alcohol.

The main event at every SNP conference is 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 – which has become 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 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).

What it did do is position 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 so doing this understates the potential of change which independence could 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 where he now concedes 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 on the big issues consistently suspect and often wrong. 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 Euroscepticism 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.

This takes us into supposition of what its likely outcome might be. 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 this would be a huge moment for the British state, and an explicit recognition of the failure of the political classes experiment with the UK being a European state. It would not however, despite some of the dark Tory Eurosceptic dreams, mean a return to some ancien regime of a British state, but 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 of 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, and 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.


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.

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  1. Sannymac says:

    Gerry Hassan is a Westminster wolf dressed in Scottish Sheeps clothing. I suggest he readsthe true history of Scotland and also the abuses of the Scottish people by the so called Governments of Westminster.
    I have read many of Gerry’s articles and most are riddled with missconceptions of the Soverenigenty of the Scottish people. True Independence for Scotland will mean a return of our soverenity of the people and our social approach to government. The Scottish Government will represent the people not replace them as in Westminster. Power within Scotland will remain with the Scots.
    It will be for the Scots to decide if we remain in the EU or, in my opinion, join the EFTA. The same applies to the Westminster Nuclear rubbish they placed in Scotland. They will be required to take it back and to pay any expense incurred. The Scots need to look carefully at the Debt Moutain that has been run up by Westminster. If Scotland has been in surpluss for at least ten years then this is not our debt!

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Sannymac – wouldnt disagree with any of that. But its also the case that many in the Independence movement – myself included – are hoping for a lot more from Independence than Holyrood merely assuming all the functions and powers previously usurped by Westminster.

      It would be a big mistake if the Independence movement were to use up all our energies arguing about the nature and institutional structures of an Independent Scotland before we’ve won the referendum.

      Equally it would also be negligent if we didn’t engage with ideas for a post-Independent Scotland. I think thats what Gerry is getting at, and indeed is one of the basic remits of Bella Caledonia.

      Once people are thinking through ideas of the type of Scotland they want to live in theyre intellectually and imaginatively engaged with Independence. Theres no turning back at that point.


      1. bellacaledonia says:

        Edit: For the sake of clarity “Sannymac – wouldnt disagree with any of that.” should really have read: “Sannymac – wouldnt disagree with any of that, except the bit about Gerry being a Westminster wolf in Scottish sheep’s clothing.” All of Gerry’s recent articles suggest this isnt the case, and like the one above, often analyse, from a progressive perspective, the welcome ongoing demise of the British state.


  2. vronsky says:

    “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.”
    Oh dear. That is what it has always been about. Independence is not an end in itself, not in Scotland, not in Catalonia, not in Navarre, not anywhere – it is always associated with some frustrated intention. In Scotland independence is the sine qua non if we want to see a fairer, more socially democratic society – we want to exit the Union because we find ourselves attached to a dysfunctional Ruritania.

    The leftism of the SNP is there for a reason – it’s where most of the active leftists live now. It’s not just just the tories who are toxic in Scotland – it’s anyone who pushes that neo-con agenda. Without some Road to Damascus style conversion, Labour and the Lib Dems will follow the tories into obscurity.

  3. Keef says:

    Like Gerry we all have an opinion.

    I’m of the mind that our jowly yin is “dead square” for independence. His biggest hurdle is getting his message out due to the entire fith column of Scotland being pro-union.

    With the backing of Scotland’s MSM and a “fair go” from the BBC we would have full independence within the year. This is not likely to happen anytime soon. So instead he plays a fantastic game with the unionists of “here is the stage, make an erse of yourself”.

    To think he is doing this so successfully with the metephorical one hand tied behind his back, is simply quite astounding. It just shows you how far you can go when you side with truth and positive policies.

  4. Freoboy says:

    I find the debate about the devo-max second question intriguing. Salmond’s speech in Inverness was clear that this would be down to the unionists to come forward with a proposal, not about the SNP coming up with its own second preference.

    Now it would be reasonable to assume that they won’t. Indeed they are all, with the exception of one or two like Malcolm Chisholm, going out of their way to rubbish the idea. Its worth asking the question, where will that put them when the referendum campaign really hots up?

    Negative or ‘No’ campaigns are inherently problematic. Everyone will know that the status quo is no longer tenable and campaigns that just say NO are generally regarded as turning voters off – just look at Salmond’s comments re May 2011 that a positive campaign will always trump a negative one.

    One option is these circumstances would be for the unionists to say – Vote No and we will come up with something better … . But they will have just spent the last three+ years refusing the put forward that ‘better’ option. In short, the devo max offer may be part of the overall process of boxing the unionists into a tight and very negative corner – one that they appear very happy to go to.

    And if the worst happens and devo max is an option and ‘wins’, are we not then 75/80% of the way there?

  5. Tocasaid says:

    Refreshing to read Gerry merely reflecting on the toxicity of the Tories in Scotland without castigating us for still hating them.

    1. James Morton says:

      I suspect some areas in Scotland the hate has cooled down over the years to a simmering dislike or scant regard. I pay them little mind myself these days, unless the do something to appear on the political radar. The party has morphed into a sort self licking lollipop, and is now voting to crash and burn out with Murdo Fraser or wither on the vine under Davidson. But Gerry is correct to single this issue out. If I were labour and pro-union the last thing I’d want is a Tory on my side – the desire to vote down the conservatives one more time, would be too strong a temptation for many Scots.

  6. Ard Righ says:

    The ignorance of where sovereign right is held, is truly extraordinary.
    Sovereignty as expressed publicly is typically the reverse of all comments or statements from politicians, solicitors, commentators and the people in general. It’s ours, not theirs. The goal would appear to be to keep this quiet, as it means all the above have no power, they are servants as the power is invested in them, not by them; consider the words.

    Listen closely: we are sovereign, individually and as a people. Sovereignty is granted by the people, the monarch is the representative of that sovereignty, all civic duties thereunder are in service to that representative, which, ultimately comes from you and us. Any form of parliament is in service-ship to the sovereign as a civic duty. Sovereignty can be exercised at any point by the people and is held under common law, not civic.
    Which is exactly why there is so much confusion about the EU. It’s not about the EU, Brussels, Westminster or Holy-rood, it about you.

    How we exercise our sovereignty is the point, the most important thing above all others is to make sure such sovereign power is never removed from the populace or the individual. This is what devolution is, to be governed by a corporation, to have no sovereign right for ever.

    Ard Righ

  7. We see ourselves as a different country why no act as one? It may be painful to begin with but Scotland has been at odds with most of the policy of London for some time now…in general I hate politicians but Salmond has something no other figure in British politics has, he is a leader, and people want to be lead, it’s time to put our heads above the parapet.
    A small country can adapt faster we can attract foreign investment with tax inducements and we have great national resources, on which subject lets not forget, the Labour and Conservative parties colluded to deny the truth of the benefits to an independent Scotland of oil revenues which cost not just Scotland money but Britain as a whole, allowing most of the revenue to go to the oil companies. They cut off their nose to spite their face… do we want to be part of that.
    It’s time to take off the stabilizers and go it alone that or vote conservative and join the Union consensus, we are two different countries!

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