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:
- Perhaps a minority Labour government will need SNP votes?
- 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?
- Perhaps the percentage in favour of independence will build to a hard to ignore 60%.
- 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.
- Perhaps there will be a campaign of civil disobedience that provokes a draconian and polarising reaction from the Westminster government.
- 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.
- 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.