Watching the ink spilt by the London commentariat as the looming prospect of a second referendum on independence rises is an exercise in observing complete incomprehension at play. Blinking into the future lead writers, columnists and broadcasters have been fulminating about the prospects of constitutional change which they seem to treat with a cold dread.
John Rentoul (Chief Political Commentator at the Independent) returns to the issue which obviously causes him some anguish: “Can the Scottish independence juggernaut be stopped?” he asks. Answer: yes, just by the UK refusing it forever.
The framing is almost always negative, independence is a trauma, a catastrophe and something that must be stopped by whatever means necessary.
He writes: “Nationalists are jubilant and people such as me, who think of Scotland as an essential part of our country, are cast down. It is widely believed that the UK government must allow another referendum soon. Except that it will not. Even if the SNP and the Scottish Green Party, which also supports independence, win a majority of seats in the Scottish parliament next year, again, and even if the Scottish parliament votes to demand another referendum, again, the House of Commons, which has the power to decide, will refuse to allow it.”
That’s that sorted then, just repress democracy, endlessly.
The reasons are oblique. Scotland must be retained just because it is thought of as “as an essential part of our country”. This is personal, but Rentoul can’t really articulate it beyond some vague sense of ownership. In this case his individual mood trumps the democratic expression of millions of people. That’s some sense of entitlement.
John Lloyd writing in CapX treads similar terrain. Having established the straw-man that “Nationalists seem to believe Scots are more moral, virtuous people than the English” he goes on to explain with a little melancholy about the future. His resentment often boils down to frustration at Scotland thinking of itself in any way distinct:
“It’s tacitly an argument that Scotland is a different civilisation.”
“Scots culture sees itself, and is seen by others, as distinct from English.”
He argues that Scotland sees itself like China, Russia and the US as a “civilizational state” which ascribes virtues like social solidarity and has a common culture: “Scotland has, like the US, Russia and China, absorbed separate cultures into a national whole – in Scotland’s case, the once antagonistic Highlands and Lowlands, now woven into a common culture. The country has remained attached to its dance, song, poetry and national dress in a way the English have not – as have the Chinese and Russians: the popular cult of Burns is matched by the popular cult of Pushkin.”
I think he’s a little confused.
That Scottish culture exists is undoubtedly true, in all its rich, complex and messy contradictions and glory. But this seems to be something that is a source of resentment rather than just a universal experience. It is spectacularly missing the point to suggest that Scottish cultural cohesion is the driver for political change. First such cohesion is extremely precarious. The only thing that is certain about Scottish culture is it being almost constantly contested from within. The driver of political change isn’t tartan and gaelic, it’s Mercy Baguma and the flourishing of foodbanks. The constitutional crisis these pundits are terrified of is driven by poverty and lived social experience, not some ethereal cultural imaginary. It is driven by the frustration and anger at not having the democratic means to address our social and ecological problems. As I’ve said before, this is about Raploch not Bannockburn.
This is not then a movement built on imagining ourselves to be better than – or even spectacularly different from anyone else – it is driven by the urgent need to dissociate ourselves from a polity collapsing in on itself with corruption, misrule and incompetence governed-over by an elite that we can’t elect or un-elect.
Lloyd is on firmer ground quoting Tom Nairn from The Break-Up of Britain (1981). Nairn, Lloyd tells us saw in post-war England “an indefensible and inadaptable relic, neither properly archaic nor properly modern”, trapped within “the hopelessly decaying institutions of a lost imperial state.”
The CoronaBrexit Experience has done nothing but amplify and crystallize Nairn’s view.
Writing about returning to Scotland following his fathers death, Andrew Marr notes the changing landscape of Covid Britain (‘Scotland is slipping away from the Union‘): “We were up in Scotland following the loss of my father. There, the difference in atmosphere over Covid is almost tangible compared with London. People are much more likely to be masked and much more cautious. They listen attentively to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and pride themselves on Scotland’s lower death rates. The opinion polls confirm what general conversation suggests: that Scotland is likely to leave the United Kingdom before the end of this parliament. The SNP may be having feuds but they are self-confident, vigorous and optimistic. Unionism seems muffled and tired by comparison. But if independence happens, the end of GB is going to be a more traumatic moment for England than today’s ministers seem able to grasp. It’s going to feel much more significant than Brexit. The future of basic aspects of identity, like the Union Flag, the name of the country, its defence system, and the scope of its territory will be in question. Perhaps the PM grasps this. But his premiership may be defined by this and Unionists will need a far cleverer and more passionate politics than anything we have seen so far from Boris Johnson — or indeed, Keir Starmer. Nothing in politics, as in life, is inevitable. But at the moment, the Scotland my father knew is slipping away.”
“Cleverer and more passionate” seems unlikely. In this the now annual GERS week of debate about economics, the responses to these figures being challenged gets more and more hysterical, more and more desperate. Responding to the idea that an iScotland would and could vary tax rates, and that this would effect whether we had a deficit or a surplus, abuse rained down. Unionists, not least of which Andrew Neil poured scorn on the idea, arguing that “capital flight” would ensue and companies and people would simply up-sticks and leave for England. It’s an extraordinary faith in a low-tax low-investment economy, but it’s self-delusion on a grand scale to think that this is the only future for any country anywhere forever. It’s a stunning social and economic myopia.
The confidence on the economic question has shifted perceptibly from the unionist to the democrats side. This is not just a question of political confidence, this is a question of understanding economics.
This reminds me of something that the journalist Michael Gray said in an interview this week. Independence, he noticed, has gone from being the outsider position, the radical fringe, to being the mainstream consensus position. George Galloway is the new Sean Clerkin. This has its dangers. The energy and vitalism that propelled us to this position has been sustained on the ground for years. Now the prospects of independence just seems an inevitability, something we are sliding towards with growing momentum. While this new dynamic lends itself to a “tipping point” moment – the vision of independence needs to be re-captured as something that is about rupture and transformation. If it’s not difficult its not worth it.