2007 - 2021

Rule Breakers or Rule Makers? Strategy, Solidarity and Scottish Statehood


There’s a revealing passage in Christopher Harvie’s Fool’s Gold on 7:84’s performance of The Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil at the SNP conference in July 1973. It recounts a question asked of the party’s then leader Billy Wolfe: “How can they put on a play like that and say they are not nationalists?” Wolfe is said to have replied, “If we knew the answer to that we would sweep Scotland tomorrow.”

Five decades later, the prospect of the SNP cleaning up the electoral map is a fait accompli rather than a mysterious conundrum.

Across those decades, in all of the ensuing popular struggles in a de-industrialising Scotland, the party would consistently outflank Labour on the left. Beyond a certain point people stopped caring about whether Thatcherism was an alien imposition primarily in class or national terms. In the wake of Blairism and the coalition, the SNP were the only electoral force still standing with an authentic anti-Tory past. The Wolfe question became essentially academic.

But the civic nationalism of the SNP is now so expansive and all-encompassing it has lost the capacity for interplay with other forces or movements in society. The SNP is the establishment, it makes the rules and sets the boundaries.

In 1973, 7:84 could ask the fledgling party searching questions about its vision for Scotland. The space for that dialogue no longer exists – only an assassin invites a theatre troupe into a ruling court.

This means that, lacking a counterweight in the political or public realm, the SNP has turned inwards. One welcome aspect of the increasingly open rifts within the party is the way in which they have sparked a fresh debate about strategies for independence. Alongside this sits the awkward question of how a loose and amorphous Scottish left should position itself in relation to Scotland’s insurmountable electoral machine.

For George Kerevan, the Salmond/Sturgeon split aligns neatly on a left/right spectrum. While there’s scant evidence for that claim in terms of the substance of the disagreements – which seldom move beyond personal rivalries, constitutional gradualism, and the Gender Recognition Act – the outriders do seem to favour the Salmond camp, while the more professionalised side of the operation backs Sturgeon. Taken a step further by David Jamieson, the unruly potential of those challenging the party leadership is a potent force with insurgent potential: its dismissal nothing more than elite disgust at the mob.

Elsewhere, the representational role of the SNP has become, according to Rory Scothorne, a force that replaces the spectacle of national sovereignty with its actual realisation. Translating such visceral debates into more palatable fare for elected politicians, Michael Gray has called for a legalistic form of institutional and (presumably) civil disobedience to break the log jam.


Jimmy Reid addresses a mass meeting of the Upper Clyde Shipyards workforce at Clydebank, July 1971


Trust and Ideology

What these authors fail to take into account is the single most significant factor in the era of pandemic politics — trust. What’s happening within the SNP is happening everywhere: decades of politics as the promotion of neoliberal self-interest have encouraged people to be deeply cynical about the motives of those who hold power, or run institutions (often, as it happens, with good reason). Consequently, many are increasingly willing to punch down at minorities scapegoated as the elite’s ideological allies.

The COVID world asks us to follow stringent rules, and presumes that, by and large, we will do so. Public health links the least trusted professions (journalists, politicians) with the most trusted (doctors, nurses…). A kind of re-setting becomes possible at this moment, that is about far more than Nicola Sturgeon’s capacity to deliver clear messaging with more gravitas than a frayed Etonian sock puppet.

Nations in their most benign mode have been described as ‘particular solidarities’ and it’s that version of the nation that tends to fuel a national movement. Once again, by dint of its sheer scale in relation to everything else in Scotland, the SNP has come to find this quality elusive, even within its own membership.

While monolithic institutions can help sustain solidarities, they cannot create or nurture them. How high would the SNP’s vote share have to climb for its status as the vessel for all the messy hopes bound up in Yes to become an inarguable political consensus? How would that map on to the notion of Scottish democracy as a more pluralistic and consensus driven enterprise than its crumbling parent in the south?

Turning back to the crucible of the 1970s – when Scottish nationalism first became a credible political force – we can observe a structure for Scottish politics defined by a range of immediate and competing loyalties largely rooted in now desolate workplaces and communities. In that world, the claim of class over nation was a far from abstract concept. Where now there is a largely contractual system mediating trust and competence in politics: Scottish society once contained alternative forms of rulemaking from below premised on hard won solidarity. Figures such as Jimmy Reid, Jim Sillars and Margo MacDonald, would emerge out of this world and turn towards a nationalist outlook, bridging a political gap that once felt impossibly wide.

Founding Moments

Modern Scottish politics without UCS or the Gorbals and Govan by-elections is unthinkable: we are still a nation birthed between North Sea Oil flowing onshore and Scottish manufacturing floating off into the global marketplace. These founding moments carried us right the way through to 2014, by which point the many details, detours and setbacks along the way could be easily overlooked.

The solidarity of the workplace and the community, all too easily romanticised and historicised, still exists — as demonstrated by post-2014 campaigns like Better Than Zero and Living Rent. But examples of Scottish nationalism’s capacity to engage with class politics increasingly feel like museum pieces.

Some of this quiescence is related to the logic behind the SNP’s referendum policy. This policy shift — that occurred when no one could foresee that it would have to be enacted — is questionable simply because it lacks a successful precedent. But it is also problematic because it tempts us to think of winning independence as just another electoral contest, more like a seminal US presidential election than a founding revolution. But as Brexit has already demonstrated, referendums, though useful mechanisms for ratifying political change, are fiendishly problematic when deployed as vehicles for that change.

Those strategizing to shift the dial towards a consistent lead for Yes should still look at Quebec and study the consequences of a re-run. The alternative task is nothing less than to ride the wave of contemporary global crisis and make out of that a founding moment of political struggle, to discover a new set of terms and rebuild lost solidarities. If this seems excessively demanding and difficult: welcome to the world of winning sovereignty, it’s tough.


There are three fundamentals that can build a resilient national consensus for independence:

  1. A Moral Economy

If UCS was the a founding moment of struggle based on resisting the closure of viable industry in the face of global financial pressures, our contemporary equivalent is an effort to prevent that global system destroying our planet’s life support systems. The old-fashioned idea of the moral economy, which once informed so much debate about Scotland’s future, can be repurposed in a time of COVID. Scottish nationalism has always required organised moral causes beyond the immediate claim of statehood that it can interact with — most notably CND. Because violence and state repression are almost entirely absent in Scottish constitutional politics, these broader popular campaigns take on all the more weight and were an absolutely vital part of the pre-devolution movement.

  1. A non-party coalition

Independence needs the breadth and diversity that the Home Rule movement once enjoyed. The big institutional players beyond the SNP that still dot the landscape in Scotland such as the STUC, the universities, the SCVO, and the churches, need to be central to a new case. The SNP cannot be seen to do this alone and cannot assume that its time in government simply allows it to assimilate and speak for ‘civic Scotland’. Whether you like it or not, these big players are still the only viable foundation on which a consensus for statehood can be built. At a recent event organised by the Scottish Political Archive on the STUC’s ‘A Day for Scotland’ in 1990 – an open air concert that perhaps embodied better than anything the consensus for Scottish democracy at that moment — an organiser reflected that the key factor that made the event work was its entirely non-party political character.

  1. A deeper democracy

A reforming agenda for Scottish democracy is long overdue. There has been a consistent failure on the part of the SNP to consider meaningful reform within Scotland. We can see in areas such as local democracy, media, council tax, land reform, and industrial strategy — the kind of tangible issues that encourage people to feel emboldened and empowered and make them feel like they live in an increasingly autonomous nation. Michael Gray’s welcome proposal for a crusading legal activism overlooks the ample areas within devolved Scotland where the smallest legislative hurdle becomes a mountain of electoral risk. After 13 years in office, ignoring urgent calls for reform, while proposing all the things you would do with the powers you don’t have, wears thin. Independence is not an election, you can’t triangulate towards it — so spend some political capital — hoarding it will only offer diminishing returns.

Prior to the pandemic The Cheviot was set for a third nationwide remounting this autumn, following sell-out tours in 2019 and 2015. Peak oil is approaching: but the sporting estates still dominate. Is the play’s resilience simply nostalgia? Or does its questioning, even cynical, Marxism suggest that the early 1970s still grip the Scottish political imagination more than many care to admit?

For every verse penned in the parliament of poets during the long struggle for devolution, an arm was twisted in a grubby backroom deal. Most political struggles share this binary, framed by Scott Hames as ‘the dream and the grind.’ But implicit within this account is the notion that a winning strategy requires the right conditions, that it must interact with wider cultural and societal change. The arrival of Holyrood, and the SNP’s ensuing dominance of it, has narrowed Scottish politics and our capacity to ask big questions about becoming a country in the 21st century, questions that are by turns both dreamlike and mundane.

If the first line of a written Scottish constitution is to read “The Scottish people are sovereign…” what will the people ask for on the day after independence? Building a set of demands based on that core claim is work that can begin now, but only if the SNP open up the project of state-building beyond both their own membership and the confines of Holyrood. Trust in a new political settlement is not about sharp communicators dreaming up a glitzy new prospectus — it is built on the shop floor and in the town hall.

For nationalists, the immediate political conditions might be far more promising than in 1973, but the questions now confronted by all nations everywhere are infinitely more complex. We find ourselves in another moment of global disruption in which established rules are being broken. The awkward questions that lead from this cannot be shirked. Here’s one for starters:

How can nationhood be relevant in an era when global institutions, markets, diseases and climactic changes seem to dictate every aspect of our lives?

If we knew the answer to that …


Comments (12)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Well said. I’m an SNP member but am disappointed in their lack of action. The idea of managing the status quo has long had it’s day. The sentence “We can see in areas such as local democracy, media, council tax, land reform, and industrial strategy — the kind of tangible issues that encourage people to feel emboldened and empowered and make them feel like they live in an increasingly autonomous nation.” highlights things. that should have been tackled and fought through but are left to fester.

    Our democracy and welfare cries out for devolution from a centralist managerialism. Our local government is neither local nor democratic; it is run by grossly overpaid bureaucrats that tell the elected councillors what is to happen. Land reform is a joke; tell landowners to get their land and title registered or lose it. Council tax is long overdue for reform; introduce a land tax and have it set at a level where it pays for all council services without a pocket money hand out from Holyrood. After independence, carry that forward and raise enough money to run the place allowing a reduction in the present VAT and income tax that are skewed against the poor.

    What are the prospects of SNP tackling any of these. None at all. Yes let’s have a list party supporting independence with a remit to put forward radical ideas; let’s have real democracy. First vote SNP second ISP and see if we can make things happen.

    1. John Mc Gurk says:

      Can I just say Dougie I could not agree with you more, as you stated in your blog if they had made real and tangible changes? I think the vote for Indy would be much higher. My opinion is they are listening too much to the corporate lobby and not the grassroots movement I stand with Andy Wightman and the commonweal.

  2. Susan Macdiarmid says:

    Maybe nations will be the trades unions of a global society. ..if we are lucky.
    In shorthand this seems to me where we are. Education, healthcare and workers rights were only won because workers were needed. Then we became consumers, converting the natural resources of the planet into wealth and power for the rich. Now the super rich control governments and there is an enormous surplus of human labour. The planet is polluted, nature ravaged, human rights healthcare and education for ‘the masses’ no longer useful and being rapidly eroded. So what hope is there for the average person? Is the nation state, from shop local and grow your own upwards, a bulwark against global serfdom?

  3. William Ross says:

    I am constantly impressed by how leftist writers produce works of dreamy lotus-eating nothingness.

    Let us look at Chris’s final question:

    “How can nationhood be relevant in an era when global institutions, markets, diseases and climactic changes seem to dictate every aspect of our lives?”

    Would anyone in their right mind ask that question if they lived in Canada, Brazil, Australia or New Zealand? What is the alternative to the nation-state? Some kind of World government run by Al Gore and Greta Thunberg? Is the final Silver question “relevant” to Indyref 2 voters in Sutherland or Galloway? Does Europe need a single covid policy? The Swedes might have a view on that.



    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      Folk all over the Global North are asking that question, and increasingly questioning the nationalist assumption that states should coincide with nations.
      There are a number of reasons for this.

      First, with the demise of ethnic nationalism following the barbarities of the 20th century, folk are no longer sure what a nation is. There have been attempts to redefine it away from notions of a shared bloodline or a shared culture towards notions of a shared citizenship or, more generally, of a shared submission to the legal principles of the jurisdiction to which one is subject, but these are proving problematic.

      (Civic nationalism is what enabled the British government to deprive Shamima Begum of her British nationality (although the justice of this act is subject to appeal); she is deemed by the British government to be no longer British because she rejected the principles of its jurisdiction and submitted instead to those of the insurgent Islamic State. Civic nationalism also jumped up and bit the bum of all those expatriate ‘Scots’ who were dumbstruck when they discovered that they were no longer qualified to vote in the 2014 referendum.)

      Secondly, several alternatives to nation-states have been proposed. States could coincide instead with larger or smaller polities; with evolved sovereignties (e.g. the USA, the UK, the EU, the former FNR/SFR Jugoslavija, the former CCCP, etc.) or with devolved sovereignties such as Strathclyde or the Lothians would become were they to assume independence from any more evolved jurisdiction, like Scotland or the UK or the EU. Some folk think that one or other of these kinds of polity would be preferable to the modern nation-state.

      Thirdly, the process of globalisation has stripped nations of much of the sovereign power that makes them states. The nations of the Global North are now as subject to the power of private corporations as much as the nations of the Global South were once indebted to them in the days of empire. Having in this sense come under the increasing jurisdiction of global capital, and with the withering of national borders consequent on the free flow of capital and labour around the world, some folk think that nations are becoming increasingly obsolete, other than as ‘brands’ for things like whisky, cars, or take-away food, and no longer serve any real political purpose.

  4. grafter says:

    “A reforming agenda for Scottish democracy is long overdue. ”

    Have you read the news ? There won’t be any any kind of “Scottish democracy ” under any circumstances if we sit idly by and watch the .01% along with Big Pharma aided and abetted by other like minded corporations turn our society into something worse than the nightmare described by George Orwell . I find it incredible that this site along with Craig Murray and Wee Ginger Dug rabbit on about other marginal issues when here we are being faced with a total and inhuman transformation of our society where compulsory vaccination awaits under the threat of removal of hard fought freedoms. This article reminds us that what is effective and now required is mass solidarity and protest to let those who are perpetrating this vile pandemic scheme will not be tolerated . We need to waken up and stop watching the “news” as dished out by the BBC or Sky whose blatant propaganda is an insidious cancer which takes us further down the road of totalitarian governance. The insanity of events in Australia is the sign post along this dangerous road where a form of fascism is rearing its ugly head. We are sorely missing the Jimmy Reid’s of this world today as we sit idly by and let this scandal take place without a word of dissent. Very sad.

    1. Blair says:

      Somebody call for the nurse.

  5. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Set in the the darkest of moments and overwrought, by a long way—essentially: just another, nicely crafted, counsel of deep despair.

  6. Michael Gray says:

    Lots of interesting thoughts.

    Two wee points on the narrow confines of my legal strategy article:

    – It doesn’t propose any ‘civil disobedience’, only using the statutory powers of the Scotland Act to their fullest extent. Admittedly a modest aspiration, & a small part of any way forward.

    – Rather than ignore devolved inaction (land reform, rent controls, unreformed councils etc) it provides a useful new framework: the legal conservatism used to justify inaction in these areas can be challenged with a similar strategy (was only omitted to keep piece short-ish). The infamous Salvesen v Riddell case that undermined 2003 land reform measures – an experience which hung over the 2015 Land Reform Bill like a thundercloud – is a story which first revealed the issue of the Devolution Industry to me & is a story everyone ought to know.

  7. Black Rab says:

    “crumbling parent in the south” why do people insist on calling england our parent state?

  8. Lorna Campbell says:

    “…But as Brexit has already demonstrated, referendums, though useful mechanisms for ratifying political change, are fiendishly problematic when deployed as vehicles for that change…”

    Precisely, and why a second, pre independence referendum was always a self-made trap, full of self-indulgent nonsense about ‘persuading’ No voters… Anyone who seriously looked at the results of the 2014 referendum would have seen how impossible that was going to be on any large scale. On 19 September, 2014, we needed at least half a million people to come over. It was at that point that a new mandate to look at another way out of the Union should have been sought. It is precisely because we have not been brutalized and oppressed in recent years that makes it more difficult to reach high levels of support for the disruption of independence, unlike countries that crawled out from under totalitarian regimes, even though, I believe, the majority do want independence.

    Did anyone ever ask NO voters, the hardcore anti Scots and the die-hard Scottish Unionists, whether they would ever contemplate turning? Of course not, because they won’t – ever. Only some of the less bigoted might or have. Yet, we are expected to tone down our desire for independence to take account of the sensibilities of two groups of people who will never, ever agree to independence, even with a majority on our side. When people really want independence, they go for it and they ask those opposed if they want to ratify it – after the fact, not before. never before.

    Usually, in most instances, they ratify it because even they see it as a done deal. We have been unduly influenced by Northern Ireland, but NI Unionists die-hards were not usually Irish, but, rather, of Scots and English ancestry – colonialists. Even they, now, are being forced to look at the world differently because they have little choice: events have overtaken their petty concerns. So, too, with Scotland. We must gain independence or disappear as a nation. That is why we should be looking at the Treaty route or making the 2014 election mandate one of immediate independence in the event of a convincing win (55% of seats). Give the die-hards a choice: ratify independence or don’t ratify independence in a post independence referendum. The majority will ratify out of necessity and live with it.

    “…How can nationhood be relevant in an era when global institutions, markets, diseases and climactic changes seem to dictate every aspect of our lives?…”

    Every era has been one of monumental change to the people who lived then. We are not unique. Nation states are the best way, for the moment, at any rate, to regulate our lives. They are far more effective and egalitarian than empires and colonies. We can reach agreements with other nation states; we can ally with big groups or small groups; and we can trade world-wide. Some day, perhaps, there will be one human nation, but I suspect that it would take some external threat from beyond our universe, if such a threat will ever exist, to weld us into that kind of grouping.

    For the moment, we have international institutions and international law to help us to negotiate the worst that life can throw at us, and we are all the better for our alliances and agreements and understandings with others. What is definite is that we cannot, as a nation, as a people called the Scots, go on much longer without a break from England-as-the-UK or we will go under; sheer necessity and the need to survive will drive our independence very soon, and the die-hard Unionists need to understand that.

  9. Paddy Farrington says:

    The final question in this thought-provoking piece (“How can nationhood be relevant in an era where global institutions, markets, diseases, and climatic changes seem to dictate every aspect of our lives?”) perhaps contains the germs of the answer. Nationhood can only be relevant in this context if it embraces a radical new internationalism, which eschews post-imperial delusions, and seeks equitable co-operation to achieve collective solutions to some of these issues. An independent Scotland could play an important role in this respect. The independence movement certainly needs to address these important questions.

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