Being and Nothingness

“That ‘black hole’that ‘nothing at all’ is the image of a society aware of itself only as an absence, a society living in the aftermath of its failure to be reborn.” – Cairns Craig

There’s a feeling of defeat, of end-times that doesn’t fit with Spring. This is not just about the Sunak government staggering on until a General Election finally puts them out of their misery, nor is it after witnessing a terrible week for the incumbent Scottish government, which had to announce a humiliating climbdown on its much vaunted climate targets, before seeing the ruling parties former chief executive arrested and charged with embezzlement.

The feeling of defeat, or end times feels more like the end of an era in which devolution seemed like a credible political project that you could place some faith in. This is not to chime with the endlessly trotted-out analysis that Holyrood makes bad policy, that no-one can legislate, that the building is full of bad actors acting in bad faith and incompetence.

It is true that the SNP are hoist by their own petard, with a long list of political failures, mistakes and missteps, though I don’t subscribe to the lazy rhetoric that, basically, Everything in Scotland is Awful. But even as the ruling party seems to implode, week by week, Scotland remains a strange and contradictory place. Despite the main vehicle that was supposed to deliver independence – the SNP – being in seemingly constant meltdown – the fact remains that support for independence holds at between 45-50%.

Why is this? How is this possible given the catastrophic leadership shown by the supposed high-heidyins of the fragile, crumbling ‘Yes movement’? Well it’s because the alternative is palpably worse.

Writing in The Scotsman, Joyce McMillan suggests: “With one or two exceptions, there is barely a single area in that vision of Scotland where the UK-wide situation is not arguably worse; and that includes not only shocking child poverty figures, but also areas involving civil rights and freedoms. Human Rights Watch reported that in 2022 alone, the UK Government introduced laws that stripped rights from asylum seekers, encouraged voter disenfranchisement, limited judicial oversight of government actions, and placed new restrictions on the right to peaceful protest.”

This is then, a negative movement, essentially reacting against the failure of Britain and the toxic politics of Westminster, whether that be the constant stream of corruption and farce that comes out of the House of Commons like a sitcom of endless scandal, or the dark pantomime of Liz Truss and the rest of the Tory far-right. We used to ask where the Positive Case for the Union was, but now the same question can be asked of the independence movement. McMillan concludes: “Post Brexit, the difference of opinion about what kind of future our countries should seek is now both serious and entrenched; and support for independence remains high not because 45 or 50 per cent of Scots are fools seduced by romantic nationalism, but because the UK no longer offers a political project to which they can subscribe, or with which they wish to identify.” Even Gordon Brown, trotted out this week in the Financial Times looks at the state of Britain and concedes that “I really didn’t think we could go as far backwards as we’ve gone”.
But this is not good enough. The idea of being allergic to the toxicity of Westminster or being repelled by the actions of the British State, does not take us forward. Support for independence is high but it is also flat-lining. Now, the old idea that devolution would be a sort of ‘proving ground’ for independence seems completely redundant. The idea had been floating around for over a decade. A devolved administration would ‘prove’ competence in government, earning the voters trust and laying a pathway to independence by showing how Scotland could make its own way and carve out a distinct policy framework. We could in effect, ‘fake it until we make it’. There was even the thought that a pro-independence government could create some of the structures and institutions that a newly independent government would need. This hasn’t happened.
But this idea of devolution as proving ground now seems in pieces, and not just because of actual policy failure – but because the very idea of devolution, once tolerated and even promoted by Unionists, is now actively attacked by them. Any deviance from a UK party-line is seen as dangerous heresy and post-Brexit the creation of the ‘internal market’ means that any original indigenous policy must be quashed. Added to this, after so long in office, devolution is synonymous with the SNP, not its creators, the Labour party. Just as the SNP have annoyed some by conflating the interests of the nation with the party, the opposition parties have conflated hatred of devolution with hatred of the SNP.
It’s difficult to see how devolution will change under a Labour government in London, or even one in Edinburgh. Increasingly it is looking like more of a millstone than a stepping-stone. While devolved governments can assert policy in devolved areas, they do so with only a limited budget that they do not control and with a public and media that is incessantly hostile. It’s a lose-lose situation. That’s not an excuse, but it is a condition. In this sense, devolution is over. We are, in Craig’s line “a society living in the aftermath of its failure to be reborn.”
Stepping Stones
Devolution is not a stepping-stone to independence. The possibility of distinct policy initiatives ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ is diminishing not flourishing. The powers of the Scottish parliament are being curtailed, not widened.
We are in danger of devolution having the opposite affect than the one suggested previously. Instead of proving just exactly what might be possible, its in danger of proving that nothing is really possible at all. Instead of filling people with hope and expectation, it is in danger of filling people with doubt and self-hatred. What we may be left with is a wholly managerial administration, a government in name only, unable or unwilling to succeed in its main reason for being, which, in the case of the SNP is of course to achieve sovereignty. This state of inertia – this sense of a dead-end has a powerful effect on the Yes movement.

Writing in The National (‘The Yes movement is back at square one and needs a complete renewal’) Jonathon Shafi notes: “The 2014 referendum became a lightning rod for a series of issues. The working-class character of the pro-independence movement drew on a politics based on opposition to the Conservatives, to austerity and the failures of New Labour. It entailed, at its core, a powerful democratic impulse. Control, taken away in workplaces and communities, and wielded by Tory governments without electoral legitimacy, could be reasserted in the context of independence. In other words, the concept of Scottish autonomy could coalesce with social and economic concerns, beyond a dry and legalistic debate about constitutions. People, becoming involved in the political process for the first time, discovered a sense of agency which had up until then felt elusive.”

Shafi makes a powerful case for the need to completely re-build the independence movement from the ground up with a new prospectus – new actors and a new vision, He is not optimistic: “We are not “on an unstoppable journey”, nor was 2014 a “stepping stone” to an independent future. It was a defeat, and independence is in retreat.”

The need to rediscover ‘a powerful democratic impulse’ is clear but the political landscape may not be as bleak as it currently seems. It’s unclear what any Labour or Lib-Lab Scottish administration would actually do? While Wilma Brown might have been speaking the quiet bit out loud when she ‘liked’ posts suggesting that Holyrood should be abolished or run by ‘direct rule’, its unlikely that SLab would actually do this. But it does seem unclear what a Starmer Labour government would ‘do’ with Holyrood. What works for a UK Labour hounding the institutions of devolution while the SNP are in Bute House would look awkward if Anas Sarwer resided there. And would a Labour administration at Holyrood not face a challenge? They must do something, but to do anything would risk laying down precedent for change, an inadvertent argument for ‘more powers’, a ‘sense of agency’ even. Perhaps they would be satisfied installing Gordon Brown’s ‘Multibanks’ up and down the country.

4. The chosen and male shall go forth unto professions while the chosen and female shall be homely, fecund, docile and slightly artistic […]
10. Nothing in a country which is nothing, we are defined by what we are not […]
This often self-inflicted nihilism was palpable in the 1980s and early 1990s and if the optimism and naivete of belief in devolution has largely been shattered, it doesn’t mean that we have been. ‘We’ are not Holyrood. ‘We’ are not the SNP. The lessons mocked by Kennedy that ‘the history, language and culture of Scotland do not exist’ are held in a different manner in 2024 than they were thirty years ago. People’s assumptions about their identity, their language, their history and their culture have been cemented in such a way that can’t be underestimated. Ask anyone under thirty in Scotland about their identity, their political beliefs, their hopes for the future, their sense of self and you will not get answers suggesting they don’t exist.
How this translates into self-determination is another matter. What if this sense of identity and culture can survive without a state? Young people didn’t fight for devolution and might even be bored by it, but I’m not sure that many could put up with the humiliation of having it dissolved before their eyes. People might recoil at the SNP both overreaching and under-delivering, promising much and creating too little. It’s the ‘hope that kills you’ as supporters of the national team joke, but how will people respond to a Labour government that promises nothing at all? I expect a Labour administration in Holyrood will be in lock-step with London and preside over a sort of  devolved stagnation, a government of administrative torpor.

The mistake we made in 1997 was we got a parliament when it was a democracy we needed. When people realise this we may be able to move on. But to do so we must be more than ‘defined by what we are not’, we will need to imagine a Scottish democracy that moves beyond the bleak managerialism of Holyrood or the semi-feudal centrism of Westminster. The state of the countries – and the wider metacrisis – is going to demand real radical change of a scale and nature we can’t really conceive of. Starmer’s milder conservatism may be electable but it’s also unviable. That this has become clear to many before he has even ascended to No 10 does not speak well of their future. Instead we see mass discontent and social breakdown. I suspect we are in for a very rocky road ahead – we already see a ‘great variety of morbid symptoms appearing’ as the old order dies and the new one cannot yet be born.

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Comments (17)

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  1. Alex McCulloch says:

    Painful….the commentariat continue the ‘ “Scottish Whinge” oblivious of facts, taking responsibility and any tangible actions to realise the few solutions suggested.

    Pitifully they have succumbed to the mainstream brainwashing and now concur with the corrosive, negative corruption of facts.

    In other words….

    The SNP have and continue to be the movement that has delivered uninterrupted increasing support for Independence.

    In devolved government they have implemented policies diverging from the Westminster government ( apparently , uniquely in the world, they are to be defined only by relatively few failures )

    Devolution was ” permitted” to stifle progress to Independence but the SNP have been able to increase support within the straightjacket of limited powers.

    The momentum of the SNP has been halted by the cancer of corrosive, criticism from both the Unionist establishment ( no surprise) and , unbelievably , from the egotistical cabal who scream from the sidelines portraying themselves as the ” YES movement”

    In the face of this resistance the SNP has been unable to develop, define and communicate a positive alternative to the continual UK decline – sadly this is because a lot of the talent who could have shaped this choose to demonise the SNP from the outside rather then influence from the inside – choosing to turn the electorate against the vehicle for Independence rather than have the courage to put their proposals to the electorate and understand what will be endorsed by the many.

    Meanwhile the SNP goes uphill in treacle unable to overcome a hostile media and establishment attack, able only to move towards a more participative democracy at a snails pace. Without the influx of support and ideas it is starved of resources and can now only seek continued electoral success as the means to keep Independence viable instead of actually engaging with what people in communities want and need.and actually respond with positive proposals that can be enabled with the freedom and resources of Independence.
    This has manifested itself by insulting a large part of the population with a proposal for a ‘ Tory free’ Scotland when I am sure they mean a Westminster free Scotland!

    So it seems that everyone who wants to achieve Independence is actively working to hinder progress!

    Go figure!

    The vehicle, the structure, the process to enable Independence is the SNP…everybody, including the suppressed or passive ordinary members, and the in denial anti SNP YES movement needs to get with the programme and kick-start it back into life!

    1. Alastair McIver says:

      We’re scunnered. No progress towards Independence is being made. Support for independence remains high, but we no longer believe the SNP will deliver it. Can you answer the simple question: how? How will the SNP deliver Independence? Do they even have an idea?

      1. Alex McCulloch says:


        Independence will be delivered when it is the settled will of at least 2 out 3 of our fellow citizens.
        SNP will be the vehicle to enable Independence.
        They will do this by inspiring people to participate in their communities in a conversation about what changes each community wants and needs to bring about a better everyday reality.
        They will then respond with policy changes to deliver those changes and highlight where further or greater change could be enabled with the powers of Independence.

        To do this the party needs the backiing, support, energy, ideas and input of all who want to campaign for an even better Scotland via Independence.
        This will transform the party again into an organisation that our fellow citizens are curious about and are prepared to engage with and listen to – realising that the SNP is made up of people like themselves, listens to people like themselves and is the only realistic option to deliver ,if people want to see positive improvements and different direction away from continual UK decline

        Just now momentum is static but remember ,step by step, over 90 years, the SNP has already inspired around half the population to believe in an even better Scotand via Independence.

        So they need support to kick start momentum onto a new phase.

        The challenge to engage with the wider public in the face of constant hostile criticism is huge …the false reality and incessant Unionist propganda is impossible for the many people to avoid and be influenced by.
        Rather than amplify that with criticism from those who support Independence it would be better if that energy was channelled into supporting , influencing and transforming the SNP to be better able to engage with every community directly

        Like a football team going through a fallow period , we might get scunnered but withdrawing support would not be the best approach for future success!

        1. Graeme Purves says:

          But the SNP hasn’t been listening. It has spent the best part of the last decade spurning ideas and alienating supporters. It doesn’t have a plan. I was a member of the SNP for over 40 years. By 2017 I had come to realise that it was no longer made up of people like myself and had no real commitment to progressive policies.

          i do agree that the party remains, for the moment, the principle vehicle for achieving independence, but it needs to shape up.

          1. Alex McCulloch says:

            It certainly does!

            Get back in there and help it change , although remember, like Scotland, everyone there won’t be the sane as you…or me!

  2. Innes K says:

    Devolution was an event, not a process. Formally demonstrated by the UKSC judgement in 2022.

  3. Roland Chaplain says:

    Many of us in the climate movement have been too ready to condemn the Scottish Government’s acceptance of the reality that on the current trajectory their ambitious legally binding Net Zero targets for 2030 and other intervening years were unmeetable. My long standing contention is that the way in which Net Zero is defined internationally is incompatible with there being any hope of achieving the 2015 Paris agreement’s global warming targets. In stead the SNP as a Party and the Scottish Government need to have the courage to become a world leader by starting to use the criteria surrounding ‘Net Positive’ as the yardstick around which to judge achievement.
    In March the SNP’s National Council voted narrowly for a ‘remit back’ on a Motion relating to ‘Investing in a Just Transition’. Reasons for this vote included the fact that the whole original Net Zero vision has been hopelessly compromised and greenwashed. That is why ‘Net Zero’ has to be replaced by much more exacting ‘Net Positive’ criteria and evaluation. What matters is to produce the results that climate experts say have to be achieved. Target setting within the context of the narrative around ‘Net Zero’ has become a dangerous distraction.
    Following on from the SNP’s National Council vote there have been calls for there to be a 2 or 3 day National Assembly to take a fresh look at all current SNP policies in the light of the climate and nature crises. So, I would say: judge the Party on how it responds to this request and the petition calling for a specific Climate and Environment position on the Party’s National Executive.

  4. John Robertson says:

    JP Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness?’ Why no credit for the man?
    Set text for year 1 philosophy, Stirling University, 1975, as readable as a brick. Read a wee thin beginner’s guide by Iris Murdoch and still got an A.
    Meanwhile CP members later to become New Labour prowled the campus – John Reid, Jack McConnell……reading…..Marx….FA?
    More seriously, ‘It is true that the SNP are hoist by their own petard, with a long list of political failures, mistakes and missteps.’ Really? you believe they did it themselves?
    The safeguarding of under 18s, alcohol and football ban, MUP, gender recognition, hate crime law, progressive taxation, improved benefits…..?
    Every single one a good idea, supported by the evidence, professional groups and human rights groups and every one carpet-bombed opportunistically and cynically by an unholy coalition of interest groups, opposition politicians, JK Rowling and her creepy pals, Kevin McKenna, Westminster and so-called journalists.
    Reality for most, even educated folk like us, is to a large extent a media construct such that the SNP in Government have actually made no mistakes other than to believe they stood a chance against forces darker than George Robertson could dream up.
    Forget Being and Nothingness, try Manufacturing Consent?

    1. Hi John – ten out of ten for getting the reference. Yes I think the SNP have made some mistakes. I have documented the hyper-hostile media for years but this doesn’t mean that I cant (and don’t) criticise the SNP as well. Both these things can be true at the same time. Hope your well, Mike

      1. John Robertson says:

        Hi Mike
        I hope you’re well too but…’I have documented the hyper-hostile media for years but this doesn’t mean that I cant (and don’t) criticise the SNP as well. Both these things can be true at the same time?’
        By all means criticise the SNP. I have on the Atlanticism among the leadership inc Nicola but where’s the evidence for the supposed failures?
        I’m with Chomsky rather than Sartre or Derrida or, dare I mention him, Heidegger, on the objective, observable facts of how a sequence of scientifically-based progressive initiatives have been demonised and undermined by exploiting popular mythologies long-debunked and by outright lies promoted by public figures on the make.
        Which of the initiatives I listed have rationales which are no more true than the frankly tabloid critiques that were used to undermine them.
        Reducing chronic alcohol overconsumption is both a good thing and a bad thing at the same time and perhaps equally may be a fun tutorial chat but it should stay there.
        It is true that the gender recognition reforms might reduce the suffering of a tiny brutalised minority. It is not true, at all, that the reforms endanger biological women; there is absolutely no evidence to support that view.
        Again, what are these failures?

        1. John says:

          John – While I do not fundamentally disagree with a lot of what you or Mike have written what I would add is to progress from where we are the SNP and wider Yes movement need to learn lessons from experience of last 10 years to move forward.
          The lessons I have learned are:
          Support for independence is a push/pull mechanism. Hostility to Westminster actions pulls Scottish electorate away from Westminster and positive actions by Holyrood and a positive vision for Scotland pushes electorate in favour of independence.
          There has been a lot of pull from Westminster in last 10 years and this effect can be maximised by SNP at Westminster highlighting how Uk government policies are detrimental to Scotland.
          To push electorate towards independence it must be remembered that independence requires more than 50% support and therefore policies have to be popular with a large section of electorate. This does not mean they have to be populist and examples include free prescriptions, abolishing tuition fees neither of which any future non SNP government would repeal. A recent example was drug consumption rooms which Westminster did not block because it had overwhelming support. This policy limits what a Holyrood government can do but this is the state of where we are and it can also be used to show to electorate that devolution has severe limitations.
          Any vision for a future independent Scotland has to outline how majority of electorate will benefit and effectively tackle the barrage of criticism and lies that will come our way. For example why has issue of currency of independent Scotland not been addressed yet such that it is no longer an area of attack for opponents.
          There must be a clear democratic path to independence that is credible to majority of electorate and countries outwith Scotland. I have yet to read a credible alternative to a second referendum that meets these requirements.
          Lastly the independence movement must be strong, realistic united, stop and maintain an optimistic and positive outlook.
          Always remember that the opponents of independence are virulent in opposition because after 2014 they are worried that the case for independence is winning and they will use any tactic to undermine it.

        2. Hi John – to be honest i don’t share the consensus (or built consensus) that the SNPs failures are in (as your examples) ‘safeguarding of under 18s, alcohol and football ban, MUP, gender recognition, hate crime law’ – but I do seem as having failed in drugs policy, in housing, in just transition (or even unjust transition) and in meeting their (our) climate targets. I also think they have significantly failed in creating a credible path to independence – although I have frequently pointed out that the British state has been the body that has effectively crushed democratic routes and options.

          1. Graeme Purves says:

            They have also now introduced a woefully inadequate Land Reform Bill, when they had a golden opportunity to do something really progressive.

  5. Innes K says:

    Nice bit of writing.

    The Gramsci quote at the end about being in a kind of pathological suspension does seem very apt, given the nothingness concept was itself derived from the idea that in anxiety the subliminal apprehension both of ‘nothing’ and the freedom to begin to act are revealed.

  6. Alice says:

    Interesting and accurate analysis of the historical and current political situation. The Labour Party in Scotland just about exists numbers wise ….this has been the situation for many years …. The Labour ‘elite’ are good at continuing their existence and appearing at the optimum moment. As unfortunately, a former Labour person, I know the Party abandoned their dedication to the working class folk in Scotland ..many years ago. They became voting fodder and were abandoned as soon as possible following whatever election .

    Scotland is not going to see anything different from this Party . Unfortunately, despite the dedication of the on the ground Yessers it’s possible that we are going to have to deal with a period of a resurrected Labour smoke and mirrors experience.

    Maybe that experience will be enough to direct the Yes movement in strategy and strength.

    1. BSA says:

      A pretty fair and succinct summary

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