The period from 2011 to 2016 might be characterised by future commentators as the Independence Moment in Modern Scottish History.
The experience was a little how I imagine surfing to be…catching a wave of what felt like unexpected then irresistable momentum that carried its passengers towards a golden shore that seemed so close we could touch it. Even defeat in the referendum in Sept 2014 scarcely seemed to dent the euphoria for long. Through the 2015 SNP electoral landslide we went, scarcely even noticing that something beyond our ken was stirring elsewhere in the pond, a corresponding yet very different, diffuse wave of English Nationalism (with Jeremy Corbyn riding one surf board, and Boris Johnson another.)
Then all the waves crashed at once. Like Wile E Coyote, we looked down and saw that there was nothing holding us up, and we plummetted into the confused, confusing wash of a brand new reality. Brexit was happening, and Donald Trump was in the White House. And as we tried to stand up in the surf, spitting out a mouthful of seaweed, with a jelly fish trapped down our Speedos, we had lost all sight of the beach.
There are those among us who claim to still see it. That all we need to do is get back on the surfboard and another wave will come to lift it home. But most people aren’t so sure. We look around like we don’t know the rules of tides and gravity yet, and we hesitate.
To attempt to escape the metaphor in which I seem to have trapped myself as completely as Scottish Constitutional politics is stymied at the moment, let me suggest that the political hesitation is purely pragmatic. We had an election in 2017 in which the result was multiply equivocal and confused on both sides of the border. We have a Brexit process that is itself mired in the strange feeling, even now, with a year till we are supposed to be leaving, that it’s not really going to happen. The electorate are nothing if not nervous of change. At this moment, if anyone came along with a claim that they could make it all go away, they might win a couple of by-elections.
Like the Trump presidency, none of this was supposed to happen.
There was a much cleverer and more lucrative scenario where Trump and Farage could shout “Treason” and “Fraud” after they lost, and go on to nice, comfortable careers on Fox News. Even now, nobody leading the Brexit campaign in 2016 or the shambolic sham negotiations over the divorce that have been going on in a pretendy kind of way for the last year or so is acting like any of this is actually real. I think that from the perspective of the helpless and futile periphery (to which status the 2014 vote condemned Scotland as a political entity) of a process that is quite so surreal, “hesitation” is not only natural as a political strategy, it is unavoidable. In an era of Red Lines being invisibly drawn all over the place, the Red Line that the Scottish Government have drawn around the transfer of powers and the principle of the Single Market make exactly as much symbolic sense as anything else going on.
But here and in Wesminster, a sense of unreality prevails. The Scottish Government are trying to finesse a rider to a UK Deal with the EU that still doesn’t feel as if it is really going to happen. In these circumstances, to try to summon back into being some nostalgic reboot of a previous epoch in the shape of “IndyRef2” seems chronologically inept as well as politically dubious. There is no sense in the air that anyone beyond the Faithful are remotely interested in that wish attempting to become real.
“The Scottish Government are trying to finesse a rider to a UK Deal with the EU that still doesn’t feel as if it is really going to happen. In these circumstances, to try to summon back into being some nostalgic reboot of a previous epoch in the shape of “IndyRef2” seems chronologically inept as well as politically dubious. There is no sense in the air that anyone beyond the Faithful are remotely interested in that wish attempting to become real.”
“But if we wait till after Brexit happens, it will be too late!” comes the anguished cry. To which I can only respond, “It IS too late. The vote in 2014 was a vote to put the decision out of our hands.” The helpless rage this makes us feel is quite real.
Because undeneath the layers of unreality with which the Brexit Slippage is encircled, still feeling like an “if” rather than a “when”, something real is nonetheless happening. The EU are responding to reality rather than the vague and impossible wish list which is still the only available (and quite hopeless) articulation of what Brexit might look like from the UK point of view – the picking of cherries from the cake that the unicorns are baking somewhere in Empire 2.0 – by producing legal documents for the divorce. “You told us you are leaving, “ they say. “So sign here.” And Westminster howls with outrage that the Eurocrats would dare to introduce anything so vulgar as “consequences” to an entirely imaginary decision – a decision that they simultaneously insist is “sacred” and must be “respected.”
The very use of terms such as “respect” and “democracy” is a dead giveaway, perhaps, that none of this, as with Trump’s Tweets, is meant to be taken literally, that nothing is real. In such a context, there is nothing to be done specifically in Scotland but to defend devolution, which is our local political variant on the theme of “You can have Brexit or reality, but you can’t have both.”
The upshot of all this is that we are condemned, like it or not, to a long game in which we have little practical say. This was the “Old Normal” of Scottish politics before 2011. Trying to finesse whatever situation the UK got itself into, for good or ill, for Scotland’s benefit, or at least to minimise harm. Devolution itself started as such a gambit, before the SNP’s victory and the blithering response from London made it into something else, maybe…
It was a game played with a mixed record of success and humiliation from Whigs through the Unionists through Labour to the present: a sequence of local hegemonies in constant negotiation with where the power REALLY lay.
But these are not those times. This is not the Old Normal no matter how hard Scottish unionists pretend to believe that it is. Because one of the things that is REALLY happening with Brexit is the discovery, by the English, of what the limitations of “Independence” are in the 21st Century. And our corresponding future discovery, perhaps, that power doesn’t really lie where we thought it did. That the very nature of power is changing. That the very meanings of “Nation” and “Independence” are in flux.
“Reinventing nationhood is one of the real things that is happening to all of us. Brexit is an attempt to use nostalgia and hatred as a template for that change. We can do better. We already have. We may be restricted to holding action for the moment…the 2014 vote saw to that…but change is underway. It is up to us to be inventive as we go through it, and to insist on a principle of Scottish Popular Sovereignty as a rock to cling to.”
My guess, for what it’s worth, about the NEXT few years, is that there is no avoiding the realities of Brexit, despite the concerted efforts of Corbyn on one side and May on the other to clamp their hands over their eyes as they walk us off the cliff. My second guess is that we will have another UK General Election which will elect one more UK government to try to “make a go of it” no matter what “it” turns out to be. And that meaningful constitutional change, a decisive transfer of sovereignty from London to Edinburgh, which may or may not be called “Independence” will happen as part of the recovery from this catastrophe, and not, as we hoped, as Nicola Sturgeon hoped, in its anticipation.
In short, I think that we are going to have to wait for the wave, for the reality, AFTER this one. And that it is quite impossible to anticipate exactly what that moment will look like. My hope is that that when that time comes, it will be ALL of the historic nations who are asking themselves questions about what “nationhood” might mean in the future…and that the answer will involve as few torchlit parades and as little broken glass as possible. but which will nonetheless be as near as that 19th century concept comes to meaning what we think it does in the here and now…
In short, that all this will come, if it does, will not come as part of the UK’s exit from the EU in 2021, but as part of the process of getting back in somewhere around 2028. And it will seem as natural as did the referendum to establish the Parliament in in Edinburgh in 1997 that the UK will be reconfigured. As natural as rain. There will be people on the fundamentalist wing of Scottish Nationalism who will complain that it’s not the Real Thing. But as with Brexit, one of the things we have learned in the New Normal is that the “Real Thing” doesn’t exist.
This is a counsel of hope, by the way, not of despair. The Break Up of Britain is coming closer faster than anyone could have anticipated on September 19th 2014, let alone after the 2017 election. But it will not look like the past. It will not look like yesterday’s dream no matter how fervently some of us might wish. It will look like something wholly new, something that is already happening in Scotland, and Ireland (and London, actually).
Reinventing nationhood is one of the real things that is happening to all of us. Brexit is an attempt to use nostalgia and hatred as a template for that change. We can do better. We already have. We may be restricted to holding action for the moment…the 2014 vote saw to that…but change is underway. It is up to us to be inventive as we go through it, and to insist on a principle of Scottish Popular Sovereignty as a rock to cling to.
Whatever else the vote in 2014 meant, it established that our future, in the long term is up to us, even as it condemned us to a present-tense of helplessness and apparent stasis. The chance will come again, but it won’t look like any of us think it will. Prepare for fancy footwork. Reality is bound to make a comeback sooner or later.