From Liminal Land to Limbo

I am not prone to despair. In fact, the overwhelming, and to be frank ridiculous characteristic I suffer from is an overbearing optimism. If you did one of those old-school word doodles of my writing it would doubtless be filled with ‘hope’ ‘vision’ ‘imagination’ and other mildly embarrassing manifestations of this outlook. Under the onslaught of Project Fear I – like millions others – emerged unscathed, undented, and in the subsequent years considered myself battle-hardened rather than battle-weary by the relentless churn of negativity and hopelessness by the surround-sound of Unionism.

Christ in Limbo (c. 1575)

But the last few months has broken the spirit of many. For several years we have been playing with the idea of Scotland in process, the idea of transformation and a change process akin to a liminal moment has been explored. This idea of liminality (a ‘space-between’ like the gloaming, or being a teenager) seemed like a useful way of understanding the strange process we were in.

The philosopher Richard Rohr has written: 

“Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed—perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control. This global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense, collective liminal space.…In liminal space we sometimes need to not-do and not-perform according to our usual successful patterns. We actually need to fail abruptly and deliberately falter to understand other dimensions of life. We need to be silent instead of speaking, experience emptiness instead of fullness, anonymity instead of persona, and pennilessness instead of plenty. In liminal space, we descend and intentionally do not come back out or up immediately. It takes time but this experience can help us re-enter the world with freedom and new, creative approaches to life.”

This shift from incessant hopefulness to a quiet despair may well be to do with the dark short days and the terminal lack of Vitamin D we experience as much as anything political, but it also feels like a shift from being ‘liminal’ to being in limbo. It’s not so much the Supreme Court ruling (which was a revelation but not a surprise), nor is it the many policy and strategy failings of the incumbent Scottish Government, nor the experience of living under Conservative rule. It’s more the feeling of being stuck, that progress and process is stalled.

This week’s revelation that the UK government would be ‘investigating’ the Scottish Government’s work in planning and researching moves towards independence was perhaps the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.  The Times Kieran Andrews reported that (‘Whitehall investigates independence planning by Scots civil service‘): “The role of the civil service in Scotland is being re-examined following the Supreme Court’s ruling last week that Holyrood does not have the power to legislate for an independence referendum. Senior Whitehall officials are examining whether Scottish civil servants should be allowed to keep working on the SNP’s independence plans following the landmark court decision.”

Andrews continued declaring vaguely: “Questions have been raised since the ruling about whether it is legitimate for public money to continue to be spent making the case for independence.”

I could, just about, stomach the raucous glee with which the Unionist commentariat roared with delight as the Scottish people were sidelined and subjugated by the legal ruling in the previous weeks. As the pack doubled-down on victory they delighted in declaring the independence movement over, and jostled with each other to demand that ‘Sturgeon’ ‘finally listen’.

Such is the deafening noise of triumphalism that those arguing for a democratically elected government to be suppressed and silenced and a party whose very raison d’etre (independence) to be quashed can close down all opposing arguments. It’s like you elect a government but you can’t elect a media. It’s exhausting to exist in this landscape.

We’ve effectively entered a new Limbo Land in which all exits are prohibited, all sense of possibility are shut down. Many within the independence movement blame the SNP leadership, yet few offer any credible alternative strategies beyond rage. With liminality there is the prospect of hope and change, with limbo there is not.

So, congratulations to the wider Unionist community, the outriders, the passive supporters, the self-appointed ‘silent majority’. You’ve won, you’ve brought us to this place, you’ve broken this correspondent. I genuinely despair. The dark irony that you have managed this without offering any alterative vision is quietly terrifying. There is no alternative vision of Scotland-in-Union other than ‘shut up and sit down’. The previous offerings of the ‘Family of Nations’ – the ‘Union of Equals’ or suchlike have been quietly dropped. The vision of Britain we now have is the post-Brexit one of a global power and a fortress, a harsh place for the ‘work-shy’, a ‘Britannia Unchained’. The vision dripped-out by Starmer’s Labour Party differs only as much as the litmus test of the Daily Mail allows.

So, congratulations to those who have no vision for a better Scotland and are content with a managed decline. Congratulations to those of you who look across a society pockmarked with brutal social inequality, disfigured by poverty and with little or no strategic answers to our chronic long-term problems (choose from ecology and climate, housing, education or health for starters) and say, ‘this is fine’.

Congratulations to those of you who look at the demographics of the young people in Scotland crying out for change, yearning for a chance to be part of a modern democracy and say, no, this status quo is good enough, this is all we should aspire to, this is all there is. My legacy to you will be to tie you to this Union and suppress even your chance to have a voice or have a debate about your future.

Congratulations to those of you who have experienced the last twelve years of Conservative government, the fiasco of David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – the austerity economics they imposed, the Hostile Environment they created, and thought, ‘this is what I want to be part of’.

Congratulations to those of you who will look back over the past half-century of being part of the Union and will reflect that – despite relentless and overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that this is a state which can change and evolve and will bring considerable benefit to Scotland. You won. Embrace it. You have created a culture of dependence and timidity, fear of the future and low aspiration.

The message that has won is this: we are a people uniquely incapable; perpetually poor; and socially and geographically useless. No explanation is offered for this strange state of affairs, they are just presented as a cold fact, a harsh reality, a state of being without explanation. It is not this prospectus that has led me to abject despair, it is large sections of our society apparently accepting this which has.



Comments (41)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    But, sections of society in Scotland has always accepted this: “we are a people uniquely incapable; perpetually poor; and socially and geographically useless.” This was “Project Fear” in 1979, in 1997, in 2014. It is the same people who are saying it now as said it then. Yet since 2014 with statistical fluctuations, around 50%, of those answering when asked, support independence.

    They are emboldened by the prospect of a Labour revival in England.

    Many of them hate themselves. They are like those in Renton’s rant in “Trainspotting”. I heard it from them after the Supreme Court ruling and I heard it on all these previous occasions.

  2. Dave Millar says:

    At least the idea that this is a voluntary union has been put to bed; a strange thing for Unionists to celebrate! The Union, from which you can ‘check out but never leave’. Don’t despair, Mike, keep up the good work; after all, they’ve merely exposed what was the truth all along.

  3. ronald young says:

    But why on earth do we think that civil servants are needed for this task?
    If “civil society” has any meaning (and sometimes I wonder) then it means that there are many people out there able and willing to develop an appropriate strategy.

    Did Lenin need civil servants??

    Has Mark Blyth not exposed the real prolem – that it’s difficult these days to find the economic arguments for Independence??

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      Well. people outside the civil service are not hidebound by civil service conventions so an extra-governmental team may well come up with something creative.

    2. John Learmonth says:


      Did Lenin need civil servants?
      He did indeed, the Cheka later the NKVD and later the KGB were all ‘civil servants’.
      Murdering, psychopaths the lot of them (murdered millions) but still ‘civil servants’.
      Not quite sure what Lenin has to do with Scottish Independence but just clarifying your question.

  4. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I wonder whether you felt like me on the morning of 19th September 2014? Utter despair. But in the afternoon a bunch of Yes supporters joined us with cake, wine (and maybe tea) and by the time we’d eaten and drunk it all we felt as though there was scope to regroup and carry on. Now, can we not work out what we’ve achieved since then. First of all we have maintained and grown support for independence faced with implacable opposition from Westminster. We have a network of experienced campaigners, many of whom are working beneath the media radar. organising street stalls, leafleting regularly and reaching out to people undecided about the future. This aspect of our movement doesnt receive enough attention, often dismissed in favour of more sensationalist events.

    I agree that we need the new ideas of a new generation. We need a more realistic understanding of power – how it works, how power operates to deny a place on the political agenda to some ideas judged unacceptable by those in power. We need to recognise and value soft power and to use it to grow support for the kind of things to which we can aspire only with independence. Try not to despair at the gloating of the establishment. Every day we see how rotten and discredited they are. We just need to keep our ideas out there and powerful.

  5. Meg+Macleod says:

    do not despair..perhaps the house of cards must fall. It is not quite time ; the elite must trip over their false gods[]..then the farmers who plough, the gardeners who sow the seeds, the candlestick makers, and the fisher men at their boats will become leaders of smaller communities coming together ..pockets of real power of the people. .. it begins on the edge and filters through ..but it is not quite time ..yet…..the puppet masters still hold the strings…. while they do ..we must quietly become strong and compassionate in the way we live our own lives..the three square feet around us .. so we can be prepared to survive and help..if we are able ..reciprocity of care will return to the smaller communities ..big egos ..there is no place for those in the future ..i think of circular power…discussions that include everyone`s voice..we can keep this as a goal…keep pushing for a change of ethos it something different to out the changes we want tosee…to throw a spolight on what we dont want….. …

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Meg+Macleod … that is so brilliantly, prophetically, put.

  6. Squigglypen says:

    Superb Mr Small as per usual….but here’s my take ( beware..the following statements may upset folk ).maybe too many English living here? racist?……probably ..but similar to the views of those folk who live south of our border and wanted Brexit ‘done’ to keep dear old Blighty pure and free of immigrants.
    ( laughter from Albania)

    But a first class article( tho’ depressing)..let’s hope the Scots who want to stay subjugated by a foreign nation read it and discuss.
    For Scotland!

    1. Cathie Lloyd says:

      As an Anglo-Welsh new Scot you certainly have offended people like me who started campaigning here in 2013. Thankfully I havent encountered many people in the Yes movement expressing such views.

      1. JP58 says:

        All people who wish to come and live in Scotland and qualify to vote in Scotland have equal value in a free democratic society.
        There is no room or point to despair as the future is in our own hands. Reach a sustained support of 60% for independence and the movement will be unstoppable.
        A Labour government may temporarily knock back support but this will not last and will also provide an opportunity to refresh and recalibrate independence movement and leadership if Indy parties do not achieve >50% of vote in GE.
        Independence supporters must remain positive and work on using demographic advantages to boost support. The democratic deficit of Tory governments and Brexit being imposed on electorate of Scotland by electorate of England emphasised by SC ruling must be hammered home as nausea. This will open people up to listening to positive case for independence which must emphasise the benefits especially financial that will accrue from being independent.
        Lots of countries have been in far worse position than Scotland at present but haven’t allowed the indulgence of despair but kept going.

      2. Squigglypen says:

        You don’t get out much then?

    2. Alan C says:

      Not upset. Just a reminder, not all incomers are unionists. My wife and I were born just south of the border in the 1950s, we are strong supporters of Scotlands independance having lived in Shetland for the last 23 years (best move ever) We have no children and its probably too late for independance to benefit us directly but I want to see Scotland break the chains for the benefit of future generations of Scottish folk.
      Saor Alba.

      1. Laurie Pocock says:

        Where is the English or for that matter British Army encamped ready to quash any “breaking of the chains” this sort of emotional garbage is just reducing support for independence. Independence is a worthy cause but separation is not.

  7. Richard Murray says:

    Richard Rohr is an American Franciscan priest and spirituality writer.
    Dare I mention the ‘f’ word? Federalism with shared sovereignty across the UK, including a break up of England? Or even conferderalism?
    I’ll just slip away quietly…..

    1. John Darge says:

      And who, in this scenario, gets to decide on respect for human rights, Europe, taking us to war etc., etc?

    2. John Watson says:

      Before you slip away Richard, how’s federalism going to work with the concept of parliamentary sovereignty? Can’t see anyone down in London letting go of that, least of all the saintly Sir Keir. And if that doesn’t go, the game’s a bogey. As someone else once said, power devolved is power retained.

  8. Robbie says:

    Good to get it off your chest Mike ,otherwise it distorts your world and thinking, I’m afraid I am going into the RAGE category now I just Can’t believe the amount of insult and Shit we are taking from these bas****s even if they are the Greatest country in the world and of course the greatest people “ well some of them” , I too Cathie like many others was broken hearted 2014 ,hopes were High ,but getting on a bit now, long time since 1937 but still hope to see Independence ,cause we are very capable of looking after ourselves.

    1. Cathie Lloyd says:

      Thanks Robbie. We found that a drop (+) of wine, cake and good company helped us face what lies before us. We were able to agree that we couldn’t have done more- not with our resources.

      The wee polls on who people want to control decisions on Scotlands future suggest that opinion is swing behind Yes. Even in Morningside where we campaigned the weekend after the SC pronouncement. And arguing that we’re in a Hotel California situation goes down very well and is met with defiance.

  9. Niemand says:

    The thing about a liminal state / space is that it need not be temporary. It can develop a life of its own with its own set of semi-permanent characteristics. That scruffy bit waste-land round the back of the supermarket that borders the river, isn’t going anywhere and is an ecosystem all of itself.

    The country is divided fairly evenly on the matter of independence and has been for a decade and the space where that is argued is liminal – but it has settled into a place of perma-indignation. This becomes an end of itself and there is never a shortage of material to mine either looking externally at the Unionist enemy or internally, to the movement itself, increasingly seen by some as just as much of an enemy. And this material can be generated by the liminality, feeding its ecosystem like a mulch. The end result is a zone of permanent conflict that by its own nature makes resolution impossible and even undesirable as that would destroy its ecology.

    As someone above says: if a clear, significant, sustained majority wanted independence it *would* happen and the liminal state would end. Until that happens, that scruffy, fetid but highly fecund, liminal waste-ground that is the perma-question of ‘Yes/No’, will be the norm.

    [NB was ‘Cacophonist’ number man one of the recent banned?]

    1. JP58 says:

      It was 45/55 against 8 years ago. It was to be expected that positions would harden after 2014 after individuals had been required to take a decision. Post defeat for Yes one would have expected a (slight) drop in support for Yes side but Brexit and it’s implementation helped shore up support to a point where country is evenly split.
      The SC decision ( not a surprise to followers of politics) has potential to move dial again for soft No voters if properly explained.
      There is about 30% of population who are harder Unionists who will never be shifted but they tend to be older. By that calculation there is still 20% soft No’s- the Yes side only needs to get 10% of them to come aboard and it will be unstoppable. These people describe themselves as primarily Scottish so are there to be won over. The whole Yes side needs to raise its game and focus on persuading these people that their interests are best served in an independent Scotland.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @JP58, I am guessing that demanding 45% of the population be ignored is more difficult now that only 46.2% of the population of England and Wales identified themselves as Christian in the most recent Census (and the numbers are going down like the air at the end of a Manic Miner level). That is a big change in 10 years, and lights a torch under demands for comprehensive constitutional reform.

  10. Edward Andrews says:

    Richard Rohr is not a Philosopher. He is a theologian. He is brilliant and his thoughts which are brilliant those who would like a new way of thinking should sign up. He can be accessed at

  11. Arthur Hannan says:

    Scotland was sold out by its elite in 1707 to pay off their debts following the Darien fiasco. The Social Media of the day, printed pamphlets, all condemned the Union. There were riots in the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The bells of one of. Churches in Edinburgh peeled out the tune to the song ‘Why am I so sad on my Wedding Day’.
    It certainly didn’t start as a ‘Voluntary Union of Equals’ and remained so ever since.

    1. Meg Macleod says:

      Could we declare the union null and void due to lack 9f consent of the people?

  12. Alan says:

    Well, I have often asked myself how bad can it get before the other half abandon “the culture of dependence and timidity, fear of the future and low aspiration”, before, to borrow some well-deserved mockery from Paddy Power, Scots stop being wee pussies? Maybe there is no bottom, no crisis so great that the bond will be broken. I think you are being too kind when you write about people being “content with a managed decline”. We’re way beyond that. Continued belief in the UK now is the equivalent of being a willing participant in a millenarian death cult. It’s still a zone of liminality; it’s just that the transformation at the end is death. That’s what timidity in the liminal zone brings.

  13. babs nicgriogair says:

    Do not lose hope. Yesterday I was priviliged to be at the launch of Commonweal’s new book “Sorted – a handbook for a better Scotland ”
    Keeping the dream alive and most importantly showing us how we can get there. All of us first.

  14. Alvin Vertigo says:

    This is simply a lack of vision. Your acceptance of the libertarian extremist view that the pandemic was over and we could go back to normal is the point your failure stems from. You need to go back to where you fell, and reimagine a Scotland where we are not willing to kill 40 of our fellow Scots every week, just so’s we can meet up in theatres and music venues without masks. The country is traumatised by death and libertarian ideology accepting the death and illness of the vulnerable so’s the “healthy” can revel. The new Scotland needs to start and end with compassion. Until then, you deserve to be unable to see a way forward.

    1. BSA says:

      My impression was strongly that ‘Scotland’ was not a country that was happy to prioritise revels over life. People wanted the right leadership, they largely got it and the consensus was overwhelmingly to comply with quite rigorous measures. The same sentiment was probably true of England but they had the worst possible kind of leadership in these circumstances. In any case your sweeping moral judgement and condemnation of a whole country in a crisis like that is just ridiculous.

  15. Wul says:

    Sorry to hear you are feeling despair, Mike. I have felt that way too in recent weeks. The utter stagnation of this UK is stultifying. My own despair turns at times to rage and a reckless desire for action. Any action.

    I’m hoping that other people are feeling this need for forward movement and action too. It is a kind of power.

  16. David+B says:

    The reasons for our limbo imo are:
    1. Nationalism. (Both Anglo-British and Scottish). Dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’ does not lead to progress regardless of how us and them are defined.
    2. Politics becoming increasingly performative. We’re seeing an ever increasing number of staged votes, initiatives, guidelines, independent reviews etc. that are designed to either embarrass one party, or to give the illusion of progress without actually achieving anything.

    We need to build a better society from the ground up. Central governments can be brought into service for that purpose, but constitutional change will ultimately come to reflect the society we’ve created, not the other way around.

    1. Wul says:

      I tend to agree with you. The desire for an independent Scotland will not just go away however. The only way to move forward is to allow people (on both sides) to have a vote. That way we can all move on.

      If “Yes” is defeated again, with the UK being in the state it is in now, then I will need to accept that Scots prefer things the way they are. And encourage my children to seek lives in a better country.

      1. Niemand says:

        One thing that is rarely discussed is at what point does the push for independence ever stop? If the cause were won then that would be pretty definitive and though unionists would no doubt keep arguing for the union they would be pissing in the wind as the upheaval to re-join would be massive and unlikely and so would have little traction – all the energy would be in making the newly independent nation work. But if a second referendum were lost would nationalists, in general, accept it and move on? Cos at some point, as you say, moving on is what is needed; the limbo is a kind of torture that causes stagnation at best and the destruction of society at worst. But my hunch is many would not and this is a problem with nationalism (and yes, British or Scottish) – it is never ending and more important to many than the society which it is about.

        1. JP58 says:

          Would demand go away if No won a second referendum- support for independence and SNP would possibly drop for a while but it would be up to Scottish electorate as to what happens- it’s called democracy.
          If a lot of people fundamentally think that Scotland could be governed fairer and better as well as being financially better off by being independent why should they be expected to stop arguing their case?

          1. Niemand says:

            Of course there no reason for people to stop arguing for independence and I should clarify that I support it.

            But, and this is purely hypothetical at the moment, say another vote was lost, but then people kept voting the SNP in as the party they see as the best to represent Scotland, thus continuing the independence argument at government level, it does beg the question of what value it has and can be seen as self-destructive: we don’t actually want it but will keep the party in power whose reason to be is to gain independence. The inevitable continued stagnation will follow. And that would be instead of electing a party whose main aim was actually governing the country under the existing devolved arrangement effectively (and to argue for a better one if need be). Yes that is democracy but I am questioning its effectiveness for Scottish society.

  17. James Dow says:

    Scotlands real problem is that it doesn’t have enough Scot’s, archetypal Scots that is, Scotlands once deep and wide archetypal gene pool now reduced to shallow scattered puddles. Ironically real Scots are to be found all around the world in Scotlands Empire, The Great Scottish Diaspora where the propaganda of the UK MSM has no effect unlike their counterparts back HOME.

    1. Meg Macleod says:

      Don’t think it matters where you come from…its the values that count
      universal awareness of the most auspicious way to live in balance…Scotland has the chance to become a pioneer with better objectives

    2. Alistair Taylor says:

      @James and Meg,
      I agree with you both.
      The Diaspora is strong.

      The UK is a laughing stock.
      The mass media a bad bad joke.
      Beyond a joke.

      Every time I see the tabloid banner headlines I want to puke or set fire to the newsstand. (Being a well mannered citizen I don’t).

      Citizen? Of where?
      Nowhere and everywhere, perhaps. I don’t know, ah dinnae ken, search me.

      Currently in Linton, Australia. Lots of Scottish names on the Lest we Forget memorial.
      Heading back to Canada later in the year.
      Via Scotland, of course.

      Jack Collatin, if you are reading this, it’s my pleasure.

      Blahdeblah. Never was much of a keyboard warrior. But, in the words of Renton/Welsh. “Choose life”.

      See ya.

      (Ps, thanks Bella. Good heartfelt article. I often wonder, “what is it going to take?” Bring on a winter of discontent. Bring on some focused thinking. Even if it’s not mine. Ha!)

    3. Wee Walker. says:

      Cliched nonsense.

  18. Alistair Taylor says:

    Round up those newspapers and set fire to them.

  19. Kevin Gibney says:

    Denying democracy is a dangerous path to take and it isnt just Scotland. England needs a form of PR, an elected 2nd chamber and a codified constitution.

    Fuck them.

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