Reasons to be Cheerful?

As an antidote to my miserabilism try Lesley Riddoch’s paper Staying Power: the Resilience of the Independence Movement (free to read for a month HERE).

The article “challenges the narrative that the SNP was mortally wounded by the ‘seismic’ by-election in Rutherglen and that the victor – Scottish Labour – will inevitably capture its lost status as Scotland’s largest plitical party at the next general election” and suggests “…just as the SNP’s earlier invincibility was exaggerated, so too are predictions of its imminent demise.”

In it Riddoch takes the long view, saying that ‘Scots are on a journey’. She cites Edinburgh University professor Lindsay Paterson who has examined the sociological basis of independence support since 1979. Paterson’s, published in the journal The Political Quarterly, concluded that “long-term trends suggest that the level of support for independence, and of opposition to it, are unlikely to be affected strongly or permanently by the transient fortunes of the SNP”.

Paterson has written: “Independence has come to be associated with the future in demographic and ideological ways. It reflects Scottish nationalism’s rhetoric that Britain is stuck in the past. That ideological message is now so entrenched in younger educated voters that the transient fortune of individual politicians is unlikely to have much impact.” (L.Paterson, ‘Independence is not going away’ Political Quarterly vol 94, no 4, 2023).

This analysis has echoes of Gerry Hassan reflecting on the 2012 Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the idea that “a powerful part of Britain remains locked in the past and wants to permanently live there.” Hassan refers to Patrick Wright’s countercultural history On Living in an Old Country (1985): “Wright argues that Britain is a place where increasingly the past and voices of the dead are crowding out those of the living and the present”.

“There is a serious connection between the rise of a form of zombie capitalism and a zombie national imagination, of the power of the ‘living dead’ and the rise of a morally degenerative, antisocial for of capitalist order.” (Literature of an Independent England, Palgrave, 2013).

This much we know. Britain is lodged in – and obsessed by – the past. But no amount of theoretical or abstract thinking will defy the predicament the SNP are in, and as the previous carriers of the independence movement, the consequences for the wider movement are indeed dire. Lesley Riddoch lays out possible scenarios that would ‘break the stalemate’.

These seven scenarios are:

  1. Perhaps a minority Labour government will need SNP votes?
  2. Perhaps the need to placate angry northern mayors like Andy Burnham with a referendum on regional assemblies will make it impossible to keep ignoring the Scots?
  3. Perhaps the percentage in favour of independence will build to a hard to ignore 60%.
  4. Perhaps the SNP will win a majority of seats at the forthcoming general election on an explicit mandate of demanding another legal referendum from the new Westminster government? Perhaps thereafter SNP MPs will sit partly in the Commons and partly in a newly constituted Scottish Constitutional Convention in Edinburgh.
  5. Perhaps there will be a campaign of civil disobedience that provokes a draconian and polarising reaction from the Westminster government.
  6. Perhaps the Scottish Government will organise its own referendum – knowing it will be judged ‘illegal’ and boycotted by the Unionists ( as it was in Catalonia), but publicised across the world.
  7. Or perhaps the whole independence movement will slow down – campaigning for devolvement of powers over energy, immigration and employment – not outright independence.

I don’t find any of these really credible. I’d like to, and none are impossible.

Taking them in turn – number one looks highly unlikely. Unless there is a remarkable Tory revival Labour look to be winning a huge election victory. They won’t be looking for favours from the SNP and the bad blood between SLAB and the SNP will mean there is no special pleading from the branch party.

On the second point I see absolutely no sign of a huge movement for English devolution. A successful Starmer government will be in no need to devolve power, and this much they’ve already told us.

The third point seems like an exercise in wishful thinking, without massive changes in the SNP this seems highly dubious.

The fourth seems unlikely – unless I have missed coherent plans for such a strategy?

The fifth is fantasy.

The sixth is possible, but the hyper-cautious SNP have consistently rejected such a plan, perhaps because the actions in Catalonia (in very different circumstances) were objectively disastrous.

The last is also possible but unlikely given the disenchantment with the devolution project, which Riddoch rightly outlines in her article.

The reality I believe is that we need a more real-world assessment of where we are, what the significant problems truly are, and a complete reset of the independence project. This requires more honesty, more self-criticism and a completely new set of strategies. Are there reasons to be cheerful? Perhaps only that post-Brexit Britain remain such a broken dysfunctional entity that adherence to it in the long term seems like an act of self-harm. But this needs to be matched by alternative and attractive visions for who we could be and how we could create a better society.

Comments (21)

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  1. Sandy Watson says:

    Still…I sense that independence is about when, not if.
    I just wish for a means to deliver it more quickly.

  2. Alan Crocket says:

    None of the seven scenarios is required. We hold, and have always held, our own remedy, which is for a group with sufficient heft, nowadays the SNP, to make the general election a true plebiscite on independence, and for Scots to vote for it by democratic majority. If we do that, London will have no power or basis whatsoever, even in its own terms, to prevent Scotland from reverting to its ancient sovereign status. Following a Yes result, that would come about by agreement, but London will not sit at the table unless the SNP manifest the resolve to take the step of independence with or without its agreement.

    Scotland was taken into the union by its then parliament. It is the successors of that body, the Scottish MPs, who have the clearest prerogative to take us out. That prerogative would crystalize on a democratic vote of the people for Scotland to resume its status as a sovereign state, and in that case almost every Scottish seat at Westminster would be SNP anyway. A general election is the only possible forum, since we are not going to get another referendum – full stop.

    UK law and constitution, such as it is, has no bar whatsoever to that course. Unlike Spain or the USA, secession is not prohibited. (The recent decision of the Supreme Court held only that Holyrood cannot legislate for an independence referendum, which is quite a separate matter.) If Yes had won the 2014 referendum, Scotland would be well into its new history as an independent country by now, on the strength of the Edinburgh Agreement under the mere hand of a prime minister, and the UK currently has a law to bring about the exit of Northern Ireland if it transpires that is what its people want.

    In agreeing the referendum of 2014, by necessary implication London accepted as a matter of practical reality all the constitutional requirements: that Scotland is a country, that it is a distinct party to the union, that the decision is Scotland’s alone, that no special permission from London is needed, and that London has no power to prevent it. All that was lacking was the decision of the Scots themselves. That remains the case. It is ourselves who carry the can – the SNP in the first instance for their current refusal to give us a proper vote on the issue, and the people of Scotland for having refused independence last time.

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      Who will put it on the ballot? Seems a pretty practical question, to me.

    2. BSA says:

      When we have made the case, created the momentum and can see a likely majority we won’t be havering interminably about process. The last few years have made that quite clear.

  3. Izzie says:

    Lesley Riddoch is no fool.
    Time to open your eyes Scots.

  4. Derek says:

    …a Vincent motorsickle…

    One, two three.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Sufficient republican sentiment in England could lead to the end of the UK through a constitutional convention. This could be hastened by declassified Royal secrets, gaffes, even the ridicule of certain influential foreigners. But perhaps mostly by more accurate histories embraced by younger, more internationally-connected generations that expose royal crimes, vices and cover-ups. Once more people realise their are more kinds of constitutions than royalist or presidential, that is.

  6. Satan says:

    A lack of self-criticism is an inherent part of nationalism. So good luck with that.

  7. TG says:

    The current position could go either way. Fashions change. This is not the diminution that Quebec Nationalism faced nor is it the wide eyed post-2014 romantic declarations of the inevitability of Scottish Independence that the defeated side comforted each other with.

    In times of austerity, the romantic promises of a new flag, new borders and Exceptionalist Scots taking their country back, plays much less important than jobs and food.

    Kerr Starmer’s Labour has played the politics necessary to win the next GE but that is all. Given the state of the UK economy, he is unlikely to be able to do anything than smooth a few rough edges of austerity, so Independence can then add the story of failed Labour to that of failed Tory and, if people are willing to wipe their memories of failed SNP and failed Alba, then a slim Yes vote still has a chance.

    But, until such times as the terms of negotiated separation become clearer, the hard headed amongst us, are unlikely to do the deal of facing increased Scottish impoverisation and emigration for 20 years in exchange for a new flag. Set the terms of Scottish “Independence” or a referendum will remain an offer to buy a pig in a poke.

    1. John says:

      TG – you are correct on paragraph 2 in stating that in times of economic difficulties, such as the present, many people’s priorities become focused on their immediate financial outlook. There is little chance that Scotland will be independent in next 5 years due to bleak financial outlook in UK. The rest of the paragraph about flags, exceptionalism and borders is just ignorant and insulting to majority of people who support independence.
      I too would like to see as much information made available prior to another independence referendum but as I have said previously there will always be unknown’s as far as future is concerned. This is equally applicable to both sides eg who would have thought UK would have left EU in 2016 and have a PM and Chancellor who would trash economy in a bizarre economic experiment in 2022?
      I also note that Brexit was voted for on a very thin prospectus (cannier electorate in Scotland and NI rejected).
      When the financial outlook improves few people will vote on independence based on their financial interests over the next 12 months. Majority will vote based on social and economic benefits for themselves and society over next decade and beyond. Some people will of course vote for either side based on identity.
      With regard to your continual reference to flags I, and many like me, have no love of flags (piece of cloth on a stick), but internationally they seem to be a fact of life. If I have to be represented by a country with a flag I would far prefer the Saltire to the Union Jack and I am pretty sure the majority of people living in Scotland would concur.
      As for you being a hard headed realist having read your contributions I would contend you appear to be more of a tunnel visioned blinkered cynic.

  8. John says:

    The last paragraph of this post sums up the current situation very succinctly.
    The independence movement seems split between the well intentioned but somewhat naïve optimists including Lesley Riddoch as well as those contributors who seem to think that independence can be achieved without another referendum or alternatively support for cause shown to be a sustained substantial majority and the pessimistic defeatist’s who seem more intent on destructive infighting as they can see no future.
    The majority in Scotland have now no great affinity for union or its benefits they are just not convinced that independence will bring any improvement and due to the constant background negativity worry it may make a bad situation worse.
    Unless Westminster parties can show benefit of union to Scotland this situation is unlikely to alter in foreseeable future.
    Demographics are in favour of independence but this has still to be translated into firm support. This could turn to cynicism and be lost without an effective campaign showing benefits of independence as the younger people age.
    What is required is as this article points out is a better strategy to promote positive case for independence and more effective leadership. If this doesn’t happen we are doomed to live in the current depressing scenario for the foreseeable future.

    1. You are right John – the danger is you end up with a whole generation (and more) of pro-independence people trapped in a broken and dysfunctional Union.

  9. BSA says:

    The best reason to be cheerful is that support for independence remains firm, 54% today, and independent of party. Important in itself but also because it reflects a situation far too complex to justify pessimism. Lesley Riddoch is not naive, she just feels, rightly, that there is everything to play for, although as Sean Bell says today re the Tom Nairn conference we currently lack the intellectual heft with which Nairn and Maxwell fuelled the SNP/Independence take off.

  10. Paddy Farrington says:

    How many times have I heard that what the independence project needs is new ideas, a new strategy, new leadership. Who could possibly disagree? But then, so does everything else. So does the peace movement. So does the transition to a Green economy. So does the movement for social justice. And yet so often, when those who clamour for such novelty actually put pen to paper to detail what it might consist of, what comes out is thin gruel indeed, Robin McAlpine’s recent 10-year plan included.

    What is more interesting is to seek to understand the underlying factors that might actually shift matters, and which an effective long-term strategy would needs to take into account. Lesley Riddoch offers a useful overview in that respect. My own hunch is that we need to build stronger links with the Labour movement – within the Scottish Labour Party but also beyond it, including with the trade union movement. After all, if we really are at the dawn of a resurgence of Labour in Scotland, how long can Scottish Labour ignore the fact that some 40% of their vote comes from independence supporters? Cementing new links between Scotland’s national and labour movements – a new type of ‘historic compromise’ perhaps – will require, at the very least, a cultural change to escape from the petty and destructive sectarianism between SNP and SLP that diminishes them both, and placing renewed emphasis on the democratic question, namely that it’s for Scotland to choose its own future. Already, this is something the STUC, some trade unions, and some prominent Scottish Labour politicians seem to be prepared to support.

    1. John says:

      Paddy – I think you are correct in suggesting that if Scottish Labour we’re to stop their blanket opposition to independence this would better reflect their membership and voters and be a potential game changer. However as this did not happen when Labour were struggling in Scotland I would suggest it is highly unlikely to happen if their support grows especially as Scottish Labour appear to have little autonomy from UK party.
      I agree that a good first step would be through STUC especially if you consider that >50% of union members are potentially supporters of independence.

      1. Wul says:

        A new pro-independence Scottish left party then? “Scotland’s Labour Party” or some such?

        An actual, left-leaning, socially democratic political party which puts the well-being of Scotland’s labour at the force front and centre of it’s policy. Aiming to achieve it’s goals with full control of Scotland’s economic and social levers. I’d vote for it in a heartbeat.

        1. John says:

          A possibility but it would need to break completely with UK Labour – possibly like SDLP in Northern Ireland. UK Labour would never countenance this outcome.
          I am not holding my breath waiting for this to happen.

  11. Niemand says:

    ‘Are there reasons to be cheerful? Perhaps only that post-Brexit Britain remain such a broken dysfunctional entity that adherence to it in the long term seems like an act of self-harm. But this needs to be matched by alternative and attractive visions for who we could be and how we could create a better society.’

    The problem with this statement is that being cheerful at the apparent ‘broken dysfunctional entity’ that is GB might make some nationalists cheerful but certainly not all, and not the rest of the population. And many of the rest won’t see it that way anyway. It is a peculiar bubble some nationalists and certain sections of the left generally inhabit but I don’t think it anything like as common as is imagined. I think it mostly a dead end as a strategy for independence and it’s not as if it hasn’t been a mantra for a very long time and isn’t working. Why keep repeating the same thing? The simply truth is that it is far easier to endlessly criticise something than to offer genuinely good, detailed practical alternatives that will have also wide enough appeal.

    So what you need is the second bit which has been pretty noticeable by its absence, and not matching the denigration, but far exceeding it.

    1. Satan says:

      It’s weird for someone to write to tell the public that they are cheerful because they believe that Britain is a broken & dysfunctional entity that they find akin to an act of self-harm. Presumable he didn’t really mean that, because it sounds a mental health problem or masochism.

  12. John McLeod says:

    It may be of interest to Bella Caledonia readers that, along with the Lesley Riddoch article, the Political Quarterly journal at the same time published a set of other papers on Scottish politics, including one from Gerry Hassan.

    These other papers are all completely open access and downloadable, and can be found at:

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