The Return of Radical Independence?
James Foley and Ben Wray, with Neil Davidson, Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence, Verso Books, 2022
Ever since its initial electoral breakthrough at the Hamilton by-election of 1967, Scottish nationalism has had a close but complicated relationship with the radical left. While the SNP itself has usually been a centre or centre-left party, intellectuals and activists influenced by the Marxist tradition have been the grit in the oyster of the campaign for Scottish independence. The most famous example is Tom Nairn, whose influential writings in the New Left Review and elsewhere provided acerbic commentary on the national movement’s shortcomings while simultaneously developing a critique of the United Kingdom that indelibly influenced all subsequent versions of the case for Scottish independence. Nairn is one prominent figure in a longer lineage of leftists who have stood both among and apart from the SNP. For such radicals, independence is consonant with their socialism because it offers an opportunity to break up an ancient imperial state and to create a new Scottish polity more favourable to working class interests.
The late Neil Davidson, one of the co-authors of Scotland After Britain, was another leading light of the Marxist left who became engaged with the cause of independence. Davidson and Nairn had their differences, with Davidson affiliated for much of his life with the Socialist Workers’ Party rather than the more inchoate New Left formation that Nairn was associated with. But they shared a commitment to placing workaday Scottish political life in its theoretical and material contexts, one of the abiding (and welcome) intellectual habits fostered by the Marxist tradition.
Scotland After Britain was conceived and begun before Davidson’s untimely passing in 2020. But the bulk of the work on the text passed to his co-authors, James Foley and Ben Wray, who are themselves representative of the new generation of leftists who rose to prominence during the 2014 referendum and have carried forward the tradition of Marxist advocacy for independence.
A radical take on independence?
The time is certainly right for a fresh radical take on the independence debate. The SNP finds itself caught between a mobilised support base and an electorate that is content with the SNP as a governing party but less certain about the desirability of an independence referendum in the immediate future.
As Foley, Wray and Davidson (hereafter FWD) point out, for those who are strongly committed to independence but less invested in the fate of the SNP as a political party, there is a danger that this political dynamic will lead to the victory of what they call ‘neo-autonomism‘ (a term they borrow from Catalonia). They suspect that the SNP’s leadership would in fact be content with governing a devolved Scotland, were there to be no clear constitutional path forward for another independence referendum. In such a scenario, SNP politicians would continue to deploy nationalist rhetoric to maintain the SNP’s status as Scotland’s leading party but, when push comes to shove, would refrain from using that framing to prioritise the goal of independence. How did the independence movement reach this seemingly parlous position?
FWD deftly retell the last decade or so of Scottish history with an eye both to the long-run structural forces that have shaped politics and the role of popular agency and political leadership in channelling these forces behind a nationalist political tide. Their starting point is a firm rejection of the idea that the contemporary independence movement has its roots in a long-run struggle to recapture Scotland’s historic statehood. Independence, they argue, only gained any real political salience around the years 2012-14, since no significant mass movement in support of this objective existed before then.
This chronological point should be distinguished even from the consensus among historians and political scientists that the rise of Scottish nationalism began in the 1960s and 1970s. FWD argue that the current campaign for independence should be seen as distinct from the SNP’s initial electoral successes amid the economic turmoil of the 1970s. In their view, the correct historical context for today’s independence movement is the crisis of neo-liberal globalisation triggered by the financial crisis of 2007-8. Scotland’s local political debates should therefore take their place alongside Trump, Brexit, the Greek crisis, the gilets jaunes, and any of the innumerable other ways in which distributive conflict has been heightened around the globe by recession, austerity, and the waning ideological legitimacy of neo-liberal economics.
The book therefore offers a ‘movementist’ account of the 2014 referendum. In this telling, although elite political calculations among both nationalists and unionists led to the referendum, political leaders on both sides of the divide found that the popular mobilisation that it triggered far exceeded their expectations or capacity to control it. In particular, the authors stress that the social base of the independence movement created by the referendum was younger and more working class than the other side.
Although they are clear-eyed in their assessment of Alex Salmond’s limitations as a politician and a human being, FWD nonetheless see Salmond as the leader who adapted most quickly to this new political terrain and was able to embody the anti-establishment mood in the run-up to the referendum. In contrast, Nicola Sturgeon emerges from this book as more aligned with middle-class professionals, notably those economically-secure liberals pushed into the SNP camp as a result of the Brexit vote.
For FWD, Brexit is where matters started to go awry for the independence movement, since in their view Sturgeon’s leadership has ended up reflecting the preoccupations of these new middle-class supporters of independence. Sturgeon and her associates therefore present independence less as a radical rupture from the neo-liberal status quo and more of an attempt to recapture the stability and technocratic competence associated with EU membership.
It should be said (and the authors are obviously aware of this) that the official SNP position has not in fact changed that much – the independence prospectus put to the electorate in 2014 similarly stressed the economic continuity that a Scottish state would enjoy within the EU and the monetary institutions of the remainder of the United Kingdom. But it is certainly true that Sturgeon’s leadership has been stylistically cautious and pragmatic where the spirit of 2014 (and to some extent the rhetoric of Alex Salmond at the time) cultivated a more insurgent mood among independence supporters.
A serious contribution posing important questions
There is a lot to like about this book. It prosecutes a serious case that ruthlessly strips away the myths that surround Scotland’s politics. It confronts with honesty the unequal distribution of power and wealth in Scottish society and the distance that the nation must travel to live up to its professed left-wing ideals. Taken as a whole, it is one of the few attempts to offer a forensic analysis of contemporary Scottish politics that goes beyond the manoeuvring of political leaders.
But I was left with two questions after reading it. First, is today’s movement for independence best understood as a rebellion against neo-liberal capitalism, and specifically as a product of the years around the financial crisis? There is something to this claim, but I would stretch the chronology further back and say that contemporary Scottish nationalism is a response to deindustrialisation, a long-run trend from the 1960s that fundamentally altered the economic structure of Scottish society and which was pushed forward most dramatically by the Thatcher government.
As a result of its association with Thatcherism, this secular shift from a manufacturing to a service sector economy was understood politically within Scotland as an undemocratic imposition by the UK state. In this sense, the case for devolution articulated by Scottish Labour in the 1980s and 1990s was in fact similar to the case that would be made for independence in the twenty-first century – and those debates of the 1980s and 1990s can be seen in retrospect as having primed a section of the Scottish Labour vote to support independence, if forced to choose between a Conservative government in London or a new Scottish state.
The authors are reluctant to concede this longer-run story about Scottish nationalism because they would prefer a more delimited account of the grassroots mobilisation of 2014. They want to stress that the assertion of national identity was less significant to the independence movement than demands for economic and political democratisation in the wake of the failures of neo-liberalism.
But it’s difficult to give a full account of recent Scottish political history without acknowledging that those demands for democratisation obtained much greater political salience because they had already been artfully woven into a pre-existing Scottish national identity by artists, intellectuals, politicians, and activists from the 1970s onwards. In that sense, elites had more of a role to play in the rise of the Scottish nationalism than FWD, with their focus on grassroots social movements, allow.
Second, how plausible is the political strategy that the authors recommend? The dilemma faced by the independence movement is in fact more intractable than the book suggests. The daunting test of political leadership that confronts Sturgeon and her colleagues is somehow to maintain a movement that can project simultaneously both a more centrist, technocratic profile and a radical, anti-establishment one.
The feasibility of a politics of radical independence
The book argues that, of these ‘two souls of Scottish independence’, the cautious, centrist pole ought to be displaced by the more radical vision. But if any serious pressure is to be applied to the UK government in the next few years, the chief task for supporters of independence is to raise popular support for a new Scottish state (and for a second referendum) well above 50 per cent in opinion polls.
Assembling a super-majority of say 60 per cent in support of independence would surely require a broad, socially heterogenous coalition that cannot be built purely on the working-class mobilisation that FWD prioritise. On the contrary, it would presumably demand an alliance between the working and middle classes.
The authors close the book with a rousing argument that a widely-felt desire for popular democratic control can bind together demands for expansive political and economic reform. They outline a programme based on new forms of public ownership, a more protectionist political economy, the rebalancing of industrial relations, and welfare state expansion, some of which could begin under devolution.
I am personally sympathetic to much of this agenda, but is this a programme that could propel independence to a significantly higher level of popular support than it enjoys at the moment? If the advocates of independence want to win another referendum, they will need the support of the economically secure and the risk averse. The strategic task that this book sets for the national movement is really how to combine the ‘two souls’ of Scottish independence into an effective political coalition rather than to privilege one over the other.