The Slow, Gradual and Sudden Transformation of Scotland

The forecast map shows a blue stain – like an accidental ink-spill from St Abb’s to Langholm – and an odd orange mis-colouring in Orkney and Shetland – but apart from that it’s an emphatic visual statement. The Conservative and Unionist parties will be obliterated in May.

How did this happen?

Change sometimes feels glacially slow. But then sometimes change happens so quickly it seems to all unravel before your eyes at a pace that seems completely out of control. Few could have predicted Brexit – until a few years ago anti-EU thinking was an extreme minority sport confined to the enragé tabloids and the ravings of the fringes of the Tory party. Now Brexit and the Johnson-Patel regime emerge and their chaos unspools before us. In the same way Scottish independence is emerging as a reality to be born out and its origins from a minority obsession to a majority reality is both slow and sudden.

Describing this ‘dominant force’ in the Irish Times Fintan O’Toole asks: “What happened? How did a hopeless cause make Nicola Sturgeon first minister of Scotland and her party by far the dominant force in the nation’s politics? How did the idea of Scottish independence become viable enough to win 45 per cent of the vote in the referendum of 2014? Why, even after that apparently decisive defeat, does Sturgeon have every chance of winning a mandate for a second referendum in the parliamentary elections in May?” (Nicola Sturgeon’s staunch ally in her push for independence – Boris Johnson).

His answer is in three parts:

The Slow reason is to do with empire and industry [TL:DR we used to benefit from the Union and post-Imperial Britain was in terminal decline culminating in Thatcherism which we experienced as an external imposition].

The Gradual factor is the very existence, after 1999, of the Scottish parliament.

The Sudden reason for the resurgence of Scottish independence as a realistic political project: ‘the English nationalist revolution that channeled itself into the decision to take the UK as a whole out of the EU.’

Each on their own could not have brought us to the brink of independence but the synergy between these forces is overwhelming.


O’Toole charts the shift from a meeting in Renfrew in 1979 listening to the fiery and compelling rhetoric of Neil Kinnock (it’s true he was a brilliant speaker, prior to his sellout of the Miners) where “Kinnock conjured a deeply moving fusion of Britishness and socialism.”

“He didn’t talk about the royal family or the union flag or the empire. He evoked the common struggles of the Welsh and Scottish miners, the shared history of battling for decent wages and conditions, the fight against fascism in the second World War, the building of the National Health Service, the expansion of free university education. This, Kinnock said, was Britishness. And they should oppose devolution because it would ultimately shatter the unity of the labour movement and weaken working people in every part of the UK.”

This is the Britishness and the tropes of Britishness still trotted out by the remnant Unionist Left.

But it’s all gone.

The idea of shared struggle, the folk-memory of the War has been turned into the Spitfire Nationalism of the Brexiteers and the Cath Kidston Toryism of the Keep Calm and Carry On meme, the National Health Service exists as a unifying concept (but it’s devolved), and free university education has been commodified and was given away by the Liberal Democrats in their (highly successful) bid for political obscurity.


The gradual process O’Toole outlines is more contemporary history: the past twenty years in which devolution, which was created by Labour in order to offset and displace the movement for sovereignty and instead consumed the Scottish Labour Party has evolved to create a distinct polity.

O’ Toole has it:

“Devolution in Scotland didn’t just respond to a sense of separateness; it created it. Scotland has always had its own legal system, but it has now evolved a distinctive electoral system, party structure and policy framework. It is to Sturgeon, not to Boris Johnson, that Scots look for leadership in the pandemic.”

While it can be argued that this was the inevitable outcome of devolution – to create distinctive policies and respond to a backlog of cultural containment – there was nothing inevitable about the Unionists complete mishandling of the devolution process and energy.  Brighter Unionist politicians might have responded with reform and democracy and an updating of the creaking and semi-feudal relic of the British state. Instead we got more centralisation and festering cronyism and scandal after scandal after scandal: as the corruption and nepotism of the British political class rose to the surface timed precisely with the emergence of more democratic forms of media and the end of a culture of deference combined like a perfect storm.

Labour – having reluctantly created the Scottish parliament – failed to commit to it. The energy of the Labour Party was for Westminster rule, the focus of ambitious Labour politicians was power in London. Holyrood remained an afterthought, a backwater, something to be treated with mild disdain. As a result the candidates and policy development for Holyrood was second rate.

But Britain won’t change because it can’t change. That’s the problem for the Left Unionists clinging on to the old notions of Britishness.

As Nairn wrote in After Britain:

“…this impersonation of old Britain should not be confused with real continuity. The country’s rulers have now become a parody of themselves. “After-Britain” is simultaneously the heir to, and the absolute betrayer of, its past and traditions. Its real meaning is a “soft totalitarianism” under which society is ceaselessly convoked into whatever redemptive dream is projected by the governing elite and its media. The “revolutions” of 1979 and 1997 have continued to nourish the Unwritten Constitution, and to revere its retrospect of glamour and untouchable stability — a paralysing façade of reassurance, behind which a deeply divergent country has in truth emerged.”

This is the new reality the map depicts.

When Nairn wrote of the UK as a “changeling Kingdom of Thatcher, Major and Blair — a parody of Britain which strives to rejuvenate itself by will-power, charisma, histrionics, cascades of “new ideas” and ingenious policies from cones to domes — anything except a new political constitution. Within this non-stop, non-revolution from above, what we see are features of revered tradition reinvented as farce, and sometimes transformed into their opposites.”

What is Brexit if it’s not a “non-stop, non-revolution from above”?


O’Toole’s ‘sudden’ event is of course Brexit, the process that some people think has just ended, but, ask a fisherman, is only just beginning. He writes:

“Brexit has reanimated both of these factors. It offends against the sense of being European held by most (though of course by no means all) Scots. And it turns one of the best arguments against independence (you’ll be outside the EU) into one of the best arguments for it (you can apply to rejoin).”

“Above all, though, Brexit has rubbed the noses of the Scots in their status as junior partners in the union. They have been told repeatedly that their vote against it means nothing, and that their duty is just to suck it up.”

Of course English nationalists will argue that English nationalism doesn’t exist – and that any expression of it is an argument for it not existing – and that Brexit it is a manifestation of British nationalism.

It doesn’t really matter either way – for Scotland the outcomes the same: economic chaos, restriction of workers rights, reduction of environmental regulations and a loss of basic freedoms. At a national level the result is also of course the power grab and the assault on devolution.

But now the slow the gradual and the sudden have combined, and the devolution settlement which not long ago seemed a ‘settled will’ now seems spectacular out of date and inadequate for the challenges we face.

Considering its ‘origin story’ can give us an insight into why devolution has failed for Labour. As Nairn was to write later: “As Donald Dewar knows (possibly better than anyone else alive), by 1997, devolving power to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast had become a necessary condition of continuing that structure-let alone of “modernising” it.”

In other words devolution was about continuity not change. That’s one of the reasons it now seems past its sell by date.

And if we consider Dewar and the leaders that were to follow, we can see a slow but steady decline.

Nairn had genuine respect for Donald Dewar, as many did. He describes “Dewar’s role in that process was always determined and honourable. It arose out of personal culture and thoughtful conviction, not-or not alone-from party necessity or a desire to dominate.”

It’s hard to imagine any of Dewar’s predecessors being described in such words. The decline in Scottish Labour is not just a decline in personnel (and Anas Sarwar will offer no redemption from this inexorable process).

The Yellow Map is both exhilarating and depressing. It’s exhilarating as a visual representation of imminent change, but it’s depressing as we urgently need to get past this moment and into the next. We urgently need to get beyond this stasis – to ‘After Britain’ if you like – and begin the task of reconstructing Scotland as a country suitable for the 21st Century.


Comments (25)

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  1. Daniel Raphael says:

    “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” – V. I. Lenin

    Outstanding analysis, Michael. Now to get it to the usual suspects…

    1. Irene Crichton says:

      Brilliant!!!Thank you!!!

    2. Dougie Grant says:


    3. Dougie Harrison says:

      Michel’s analysis is indeed, as usual, pretty good Daniel Raphael. I have, as a lifelong socialist, been trying to get ‘the usual suspects’, and specifically what little remains of the formerly preponderant UK left, to understand the reality of what is happening in Scotland, as set out so well in Michael’s piece today.

      The Morning Star is not a newspaper widely read or understood by folk in Scotland, or indeed anywhere else in the tattered remains of the Disunited Queendom. But it is compulsory reading for anyone in the trades union movement or the ‘Labour Party’ serious about rebuilding the left, as I know well, having spent several years as a senior officer of the Scottish TUC many years ago. I only discovered subsequently, lobbying the then-new Scottish Parliament for a health charity, that the ‘devolution’ for which I had spent my life working is NOT enough; Scotland must be independent as an essential prerequisite to winning socialism.

      So in the letter I’m today drafting to the paper, regarding the resignation of Richard Leonard (a decent man I know personally), trying yet again to explain what has happened to what used to be predominantly ‘Labour’ Scotland, I am including a link to this piece by Michael. Likely few readers will follow it. But if someone in what remains of the ‘Labour Party’ in Scotland does, it might just, in Michael’s almost final words, help us ‘get beyond this stasis’, and edge us a wee bit towards the independence we – and the rest of the ‘UK’ -require.

      1. Daniel Raphael says:

        Very interesting comments, Mr. Harrison (may I call you comrade?). If I were living in the UK, I assuredly would subscribe to the MS, notwithstanding my very different understanding of what socialism is (e.g., China is in *no way at all* a socialist nation). For daily reportage of issues about and of concern to working-class people (almost all of us), it’s unrivaled. I look at it each day, but only can tweet a certain number of articles per month, so…must be selective.

        That aside, it was even more interesting to hear a bit about your background, and about the paper you are writing. Any chance your analysis will end up being part of the kaleidoscope of offerings here at Bella Caledonia–or would it be too technical or aimed at a highly specialized audience? In any case, I look forward to your further, future comments.

        1. Dougie Harrison says:

          Thank you Daniel. If I thought that Mike might be receptive to the idea, I’d certainly be happy to draft a piece for Bella on the role of the left in winning independence!

          1. Very happy to do this. Come all yea.

      2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        Mr Harrison, In the various pieces you have written here and elsewhere, I have found myself in substantial agreement with your analyses and conclusions and, especially, your support for independence.

        I read the Morning Star fairly regularly and agree that for trade union members (and retired ones, such as I) and others who consider themselves on the ‘left’ (however defined), that it is a good source of information about the ‘class struggle’, which do not appear in other papers.

        However, it fails lamentably with regard to the reporting and analysis of Scotland and Scottish affairs. The pieces by its ‘Scotland Correspondent’ could sit easily in the pages of the Scottish Daily Mail, Scottish Daily Express , The Daily Ranger or, even, the script for a BBC Scotland News programme! It is as much part of ‘Better Together’ as the Labour Party. And the pieces by Mr Neil Finlay, MSP, are pure Labour tribalism.

        1. Dougie Harrison says:

          I largely agree with you Alastair. Which is precisely WHY I write to it. It won’t change until it has some editorial understanding of where the Scottish left is.

          1. Alasdair Angus Macdonald says:


            At the time,l ast year ,when Ms Jeanne Freeman announced that a substantial pay rise forcare workers was to be paid immediately,MrRobert Kilgour, who has had involvement in the ownership of various private care home companies appeared on Radio Scotland and was, unchallenged, allowed to denigrate what Ms Freeman had announced, claiming the private care home owners had already agreed this and it was none of the Scottish Government’s doing. BBC Scotland, of course, did not identify Mr Kilgour as one of the main funders of a unionist campaign.

            The following day, The Morning Star published, without comment, Mr Kilgour’s statement, but did not identify his organisations. The tenor of the article indicated support forMr Kilgour’s complaint. Elsewhere, in the same edition, their were other pieces criticising Mr Kilgour’s former companies for anti-worker practices – exactly what I would expect from the MS! I emailed the paper, but received no acknowledgement.

            The message being sent by the Scotland Correspondent and Mr Finlay, MSP, is that support for independence for Scotland is based on ‘blood-and-soil nationalism’. Sadly, in my experience as a trade union member truth was always a cynical optional extra for communists and Trotskyites.

  2. Muirs says:

    As Lenin apparently said “For decades nothing happens, then in weeks, decades happen’

  3. Deirdre says:

    labour in England’s failure came to me when I realised that Jeremy Corbin did not know that Scotland had its own legal system.

  4. Elizabeth Broadly says:

    Great analysis. Interesting reading. Roll on 2021 and 2022 something has got to give for Scotland in that time period to establish our Independence.

  5. Axel P Kulit says:

    The Gradual effect here is like climate change. It will not stop, no matter what we do
    The slow effect is like a glacier moving. It keeps moving and crushing all in its path
    The sudden effect is like a dam breaking

    And there is Brexit which may have been the tipping point. Even if it were to be reversed tomorrow I doubt support for independence would go down.

    as you suggest, time to start thinking past Independence while continuing to fight for it.

  6. Duncan Smith says:

    Frage: Was haben der Westminster-Palace und die britische Politik gemeinsam?
    Antwort: Beide bräuchten dringend eine Sanierung, bloß der Wille und das Geld fehlen.

    1. Margaret Thatcher said that the government machine was broken. The problems which beset Great Britain are easily overcome through adopting the the most advanced technology. RI 3-phase political power sharing systems will enable the kingdom to dynamically position in real-time. The Holy Spirit is ‘Christ in a’ validated project. Bella Caledonia comments provide more information through me. Take care.
      Margaret Thatcher said that the government machine was broken. The problems which beset Great Britain are easily overcome through adopting the the most advanced technology. RI 3-phase political power sharing systems will enable the kingdom to dynamically position in real-time. The Margaret Thatcher sagte, die Regierungsmaschinerie sei kaputt. Die Probleme, mit denen Großbritannien zu kämpfen hat, lassen sich leicht überwinden, indem die fortschrittlichste Technologie übernommen wird. RI 3-Phasen-Systeme zur politischen Machtteilung werden es dem Königreich ermöglichen, sich dynamisch in Echtzeit zu positionieren. Der Heilige Geist ist “Christus in einem” validierten Projekt. Bella Caledonia Kommentare bieten mehr Informationen durch mich. Pass auf dich auf.
      oly Spirit is ‘Christ in a’ validated project. Bella Caledonia comments provide more information through me. Take care.


  7. Blair says:

    “We urgently need to get beyond this stasis – to ‘After Britain’ if you like – and begin the task of reconstructing Scotland as a country suitable for the 21st Century.”

    Instead of saying YES to all our elected politicians, we should be changing the message to let everyone know that Scotland does not need to be independent of England in order to be an independent thinking country: It already is and it has the resources & technology to lead The United Kingdom in the 21st Century. Scotland could manage on its own, but with an immediate threat coming from China, we need to develop (together) our strategic defenses to ensure our Freedoms which we enjoy cannot be taken away.
    The world is changing, China is at the forefront of AI Quantum Computing and Telecommunications and as correctly analysed by President Donald J. Trump, presents real risks to everyone’s security.

    Scotland ‘After Britain’ has options, but its priority is to establish its true place in the Kingdom: It’s true place is at the head, where decisions can be made, new alliances and strategic partnerships can be formed. The world must be made aware that Scotland is the country which made Britain Great.

    We cannot do this by maintaining our current approach. We need to be clear of the old rudderless Tory & Labour ships, we need to enable our common sense and establish dynamic relationships, enabling us to take pole position in this technological war.

    The spirit of Scotland is a force to be reckoned with. Thank God for that.

    Considering our ‘origin story’, God is with us Mike.


    1. James Mills says:

      Aye , right , Blair ! Save me a seat on the next spaceship to your planet !

  8. Gordon Purvis says:

    I found the Irish Times article interesting and informed as I would have expected. A couple of quibbles on the FoT article – was it really true to say the SNP had in the late 70s a significant ‘far right’ element? I was not there – so I am limited in what I can say. I would have said that there was a right wing yes, even conservative nationalist yes, but far right? I also found the article does not stress enough how ‘Scottish’ Unionist Scotland was in the 1940s, 50s and 60s in a way that today for example that we are not now.
    Otherwise, excellent analysis by Fintan O Toole and complemented also by the Bella overview.

    1. Dougie Grant says:

      Given that I was 10 in the late 70’s I couldn’t comment either but this from Tom Nairn in 1968 gives an insight into how he thought of the SNP (from a book review in the Scottish Left Review, here –

      “This evil melange of decrepit Presbyterians and imperialist thuggery, whose spirit appears to be solidly represented in the SNP … This rough-hewn sadism will surely be present in whatever junta of corporal-punishers and Kirk-going cheese-parers Mrs Ewing might preside over in Edinburgh.

      1. Gordon Purvis says:

        Thanks! Exactly my point – conservative nationalists but not far right.

      2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        However, when Alex Salmond became leader and introduced the ‘civic nationalism’ concept, support for the SNP and independence grew.

        The Church of Scotland has changed, too. It has lost large numbers of members – as have many Christian groups, but its more ‘humane and open-minded’ members have more influence. I think things have moved on since Tom Nairn wrote that ‘Scotland will never be free until the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post’.

        Although it is still there, even the Sunday Post has acquired a hint of radicalism, but is still pretty unionist and conservative. It has some links now, via marriage and Jenny Marra to the conservative Scottish Labour.

        1. Blair says:

          Many churches have been converted into coffee shops. The church has done its job, in time, religion & churches will be consigned historically as interesting living museums in God’s Kingdom.


  9. John says:

    “Devolution in Scotland didn’t just respond to a sense of separateness; it created it.”
    I don’t really agree with this view. It might have accelerated the progression of that sense, but it didn’t create it.
    Devolution was an inevitable step on an inexorable path.

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