SNP conference 2013I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you know that sick feeling in your stomach and the sensation that someone is tightening a band of metal around your skull by turns of a screw? Well, it’s not a residual Hogmanay hangover prolonged by the depths of winter – if only we could be so lucky. No, my friends, that is the nauseous, low-grade ache of an election year upon us, just like the one that just ended. And before 2015, there was the year of the referendum, or really we should say two years. For another year of Scotland’s seemingly unsolvable political destiny keeps pushing to the fore, demanding to be decided, yet Scotland is no closer to a resolution. It is doubtful that the Holyrood elections of 2016 will improve the situation.

This is not because people won’t get out and vote. It’s not because the Scottish National Party will somehow lose their majority, which seems unlikely. It is that the sole vehicle for solving Scotland’s political destiny is in the hands of a party that can’t do very much about it. This inability is a reflection not of the tied hands of the Scottish Parliament with regard to its powers within the UK, but more specifically of the relative lack of will of the SNP itself. That lack of will is a product of decades of developments in Scottish society which have been heavily concentrated in these last few politics-heavy years. The SNP is both where it is and completely hampered as a political force by how completely Scottish society has become politicized.

Let us recognize that modern politics of any shape or ideology has a tendency towards totalization. Everything that can be expressed in political terms, must be. The very binary Left-Right struggle tends to exacerbate this. The Right wants to claim some sort of moral high ground by putting limits on the totalizing power of state, usually over the individual or private concerns, yet it simultaneously allows the market to totalize (certainly a political act, if only by omission). On the other hand, the Left tends to be less subtle and tries to use politics to cut out the totalizing power of the market altogether. But the Left cannot avoid the totalizing nature of attempting to permanently maintain the requisite political power that will forever keep the volatility and growth of a modern, global market in check. Each of these very conventional ideologies wants to offer a complete answer to the problems of the present. Their solutions must be rationalized as ironclad, which means that only they can be trusted with power — that is to say, nothing in human life is, nor should be, beyond their reach.

Not every can be expressed in political terms, though. One’s community, family, religion, language, trade — these things and more are not inherently political. They are merely things that people do in life together, things that shape a society and which help develop healthy relationship between society and the political sphere. But these constituent parts of society have eroded considerably in Scotland — going into their decline is beyond the scope of this essay, but it suffices to say that the complete politicization of everything has led, in a push-pull manner, to their decline. Politics (or the market, which is politics by other means) wants to absorb them completely into its sphere and, given the opportunity, it does. These constituent parts wither further as the autonomy is lost to the demands of politics, thereby justifying the need for politics to further supplant them in order to prop up society.

Scotland today cannot function without that political glue, and the form it takes is in The Party. Once upon a time, The Party was Labour; now it’s the SNP. The Party is an organized means of resistance to an external political status quo, but it also provides a center of allegiance and guidance within Scottish society as a whole.

This creates a lot of problems for the SNP. Before their post-referendum ascendancy, the Nationalists could be content to be the underdog and offer up bold assertions about the potential of Scotland, even if they do so imperfectly. But not now. In their success, they must perform the role of The Party, if only for the sake of Scotland, or the survival of some sort of idea of Scotland that lives on in the political imagination.

“The solidity of institutions is built on the failure of prophecy,” said the philosopher Jean Baudrillard. This was true of Labour and it is true for the SNP. Political parties believe that without them, a given idea or set of principles will fail and disappear for good. The country would be worse off without these fervently believed principles, and thus The Party must survive, and this is always means the next election. Yet in order to make it to the election, any number of compromises must be made. They will not compromise the core principle — in this case, independence — but when the other principles are neglected, the legitimacy of that core principle is undermined and can more easily be called into question as a matter of sincerity. The only remaining option is to turn that principle into a chanted slogan — for Labour, it was probably ‘public ownership’ for long time, and now for the SNP it’s ‘independence.’ Hearing it enough gives such a slogan a measure of solidity and reinforces the adherence of The Party to that slogan. It also prevents them from backtracking from it, lest they show a lack of confidence in their tenets and bolt the horses before the ever-looming elections.

This creates a lot of problems for the SNP. Before their post-referendum ascendancy, the Nationalists could be content to be the underdog and offer up bold assertions about the potential of Scotland, even if they do so imperfectly. But not now. In their success, they must perform the role of The Party, if only for the sake of Scotland, or the survival of some sort of idea of Scotland that lives on in the political imagination.

This breeds institutional complacency and that trait in the SNP is no more dangerous than at this very moment. The Guardian reported in December about the Tories’ plans to solidify their electoral grip on the UK. State funding for opposition parties has been cut, EVEL passed, Labour’s financial support undermined indirectly via the trade unions bill, a new system of voter registration introduced, and there have been proposals to cut the number of MPs and redraw constituency boundaries, which is expected to favor the Conservatives. The opposition parties make noises off, but with the Tories holding an outright majority at Westminster, there isn’t much they can do. This is the nature of a unitary state without a written constitution or significant separation of powers: the guys who are in power get to make the laws and they make laws that ensure they stay there. It won’t matter if the SNP gets it mojo back in the future, armed with sounder and more forthright policies for actual independence. If the Tories have turned the UK into a one-party state, they won’t give Scotland a referendum.

No second referendum — unless the Scottish Parliament takes that prerogative, and more, for itself. Remember that Westminster has the powers of a parliament because it staked its claim for them against the monarchy all those centuries ago, and time after time fought for more and more. The Parliament was not then, nor was it for a long time, democratic or representative by any contemporary definition. But it did balance the power between competing ruling factions. Formal political organisms gain more power through the exercise of power. At the moment, the Scottish Parliament is the only political organism within the UK that has significant powers combined with the public will, in the shape of the SNP, to use them and potentially stretch them to see how far they can go.

This is what the statesman and political theorist John C. Calhoun posited as the “concurrent majority.” It is when a minority utilizes formal political organisms and mechanisms to resist the imposition of majority rule that is oppressive to the minority. By claiming rights and powers as its own through the use of the legal force of established political institutions, a minority community may establish a greater degree of supremacy and autonomy over the territory within its jurisdiction in a practical sense and, furthermore, force a compromise with the political authority imposing oppression.

If the SNP, with a majority in the Scottish Parliament, were to take this to heart, the benefits to Scotland would be enormous. First of all, challenging Westminster on all fronts, including reserved powers, and effectively vetoing the enforcement of their diktats within Scotland would mean that Westminster would be forced to compromise, in which case Scotland has gained powers it never would have. If Westminster utilizes naked force to prevent this, then all the Scottish Parliament has done, as a political organism, is strengthen its own hand as the voice of the Scottish people, lay claim to powers it feels it should rightfully have, and demonstrate that it is the incorrigible and uncompromising attitude of Westminster that creates conflict and denies the people the rights and powers they seek. Even if those rights and powers only exist in absentia, they are powerful images that would not have existed nor could be articulated as formal demands had the Scottish Parliament not asserted them in the first place.

There is little to nothing to lose, though the SNP may not see it that way. Nicola Sturgeon may be concerned with keeping the SNP’s majority at Holyrood until 2021, so that they may vote in favor of a second referendum in the wake of a Brexit or whatever “trigger” one cares to pick. But it will do little good if the Tories stay in government again in 2020. The electoral system for Westminster favors them doing so — the divided nature of Holyrood representation works against the SNP for them returning for a fourth consecutive government in 2021, especially if they chant on and on about independence but do not have completed, concrete plans for either that or the contingency of devo-max, waiting in full public view, ready for the opportunity. The SNP has, after the elections in May, five good years to start hammering away at the UK’s actual powers over Scotland. The Scottish Parliament in their control will have to do things on their own, without permission. They will have to mire the UK state in perpetual, endless legal wrangling over the nature of powers. They will have to make Westminster’s hassle of continuing to hold onto Scotland greater than the pleasure gained from ruling it, costing the UK something at every turn.

All well and good, but we can hardly expect The Party to do something so radical. After all, The Party is an institution, unconsciously inclined toward its own self-perpetuation, whatever its professed principles. And it does not necessarily need to worry about this reproduction of its own image too much, as people will continue to flock to it. The Party gives shelter, it gives badges, it gives talking points, it points out the opponents of Scotland, and it can do this because it is the sine qua non of Scottish society today.

But what if The Party was not? What if its very existence as an institution was threatened, and not by the loss of an election? What if it was not from defection to one of the other political parties (as if they could do any better), but rather because Scots decided that they did not need The Party as their source of all hope, meaning, and organization? Imagine Scots rejecting the politicization of their society, which has reached such a complete form, and instead began to rebuild the vibrancy of those constituent parts of society, declaring their own independence from the totalizing effect of political rhetoric. What else is this, but the concurrent majority? To renew organisms and mechanisms for Scottish life in general, which brings benefits of its own, but also provides a way for Scots to claw back some of themselves from the political world and force it to compromise in a way that suits them. Give us real representation, Scots can say, give us real independence with a workable government, or else we’ll ignore your justification for how things are. We’ll let you go and we won’t take you back. So listen, and listen well.

What does independence mean in 2016? Perhaps it means a vote for the SNP – whenever the day comes, fine, let it be so. But on all the other days before and after, let it be an independence at home; in your neighbourhood; at work; with friends; at church; wherever you have to make life with other people. Carve out your collective mental independence first, and then let that extend to society as a whole. Work to reestablish an actual relationship between society and politics, and do not tolerate the substitution of the latter for the former. Right now it may seem like the road to independence goes on forever and The Party never ends. But if some sense of Scotland without MPs and MSPs and political pundits and endless campaigning and desperate activism appears, then we will know it is working. And just maybe the end of that long road will come into view and The Party will one day be less a monolith adorned with red or yellow rosettes and more a monument to this strange and amazing moment in Scotland. But there’s work to be done, and the year has already started. So get that leftover Hogmanay bottle down off the shelf and pour yourself a dram, in the bracing hope that this year may not be like the last few.