Shortly before the second general election of 1974, the late John P. Mackintosh attempted to explain the rise of the Scottish National Party to a predominantly left-wing English audience in an essay for the New Statesman.
‘The New Appeal of Nationalism’ contained much that remains pertinent more than four decades later, not least Mackintosh’s realization that the various devolutionary schemes then being bandied around all missed the point. The idea, he wrote, that SNP fires were ‘fuelled’ by the desire for a ‘subordinate assembly’ was a nonsense. Rather, since 1967 (when Winnie Ewing won Hamilton) the SNP had skilfully ‘manoeuvred’ Scotland’s other political parties into having to ‘assent to this proposal’ (a Scottish Assembly) or risk appearing ‘totally insensitive to the situation in Scotland’.
Should devolution prove successful, meanwhile, Nationalists could claim to have forced its creation while arguing that full independence would be even better. And if it failed then they would simply claim to have always said that anything less than independence ‘would be a farce’. ‘They have forced the other parties to fight on ground chosen by the SNP,’ concluded Mackintosh, then a Scottish Labour MP as well as a respected political scientist, ‘namely, what can these parties do for Scotland?’ But, more to the point, anything the Unionist parties suggested would ‘always be inadequate, be it more regional economic advantages or assemblies or a percentage of oil revenues’. It would all be inadequate ‘so long as there is no proper pride in being British’.
Sir Tom Devine quotes this line in his recent book, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present, without exploring it further. Perhaps, to misquote Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution, it’s simply too soon to gauge the significance of 2014 and all that, although most political scientists and commentators are agreed that everything that has occurred since – the 2015 general election, the 2016 Holyrood contest and of course the EU referendum – has done so within its inescapable frame. In Iain Macwhirter’s memorable phrase, ‘Unionists didn’t quite win’ the 2014 referendum and the ‘Yes campaign didn’t quite lose’. Indeed I argued at the time that a Better Together victory would likely be pyrrhic, for the fact that a ballot even took place presented an existential challenge to the Union. For years, opponents (and even many proponents) of independence invoked the complacent ‘it’ll never happen’ mantra, but an SNP majority in Edinburgh and a Section 30 Order from Westminster made it possible, and that was half the battle.
To return to Mackintosh’s point, Unionists also failed to advance any compelling argument for the status quo, instead operating on the SNP’s preferred terrain – an endless debate about devolution and more powers – while highlighting the downsides of the independence proposition. To deploy the argument of Michael Hechter, the American political scientist, about ‘internal colonialism’, they continually strengthened the Celtic periphery while neglecting the Westminster core, promoting pride in being Scottish (via a devolved parliament) but generally fudging the British aspect of what Mackintosh called Scots’ ‘dual nationality’.
So where does that leave a Scotland currently in the no man’s land between a majority Brexit vote in June and the planned triggering of Article 50 next March? The more confident Nationalists believe the Unionist game is finally up; another referendum is only a matter of time, they argue, and this time it’ll be won. I have a degree of sympathy with that analysis, although it’s a value-free zone: just because independence can win next time round does not mean it deserves to. If, meanwhile, Unionism was in better shape intellectually and politically, then the vote to leave the European Union wouldn’t really make much difference. But given the EU has suffered death by a thousand cuts since the 1960s, Brexit is widely perceived as a potentially fatal laceration. It was, after all, a UK-wide vote, something the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon implicitly accepted when she belatedly joined the Remain campaign, although she’d also taken care to establish the prospect of a differential vote shortly after becoming First Minister in late 2014.
One can’t really blame Nationalists for spotting an opportunity to advance their cause and running with it, as the First Minister has done since June. Brexiteers were warned several times that achieving British ‘independence’ would likely rejuvenate the Scottish variety, but while the smarter ones took that point on board they had no idea how to deal with it. For while Euro-scepticism is by no means absent in Scotland, its dominant strain is English rather than Scottish. For the sort of Tory who regards the UK as England with bits added, their focus was naturally on Albion. However, for some Nationalists to behave as if Brexit has removed every objection to independence is a nonsense. Sure, in 2014 Better Together argued that the only way to keep Scotland in the EU was by voting No. That, in light of the referendum, was patently absurd, but then so too was the SNP’s spurious argument – now essentially abandoned – that Scotland would ‘automatically’ retain membership of the Brussels bloc following a Yes vote, a contention supported by few EU leaders or experts. Two wrongs, in other words, don’t make a right.
In interviews promoting his book, Devine epitomized this muddle. He’s said more than once he’d find it difficult to vote Yes at a second referendum given the ‘intellectual hole’ that now exists in the independence proposition, chiefly the tricky trio of currency, border and deficit, but that same intellectual hole existed two years ago. Brexit hasn’t altered that, indeed it makes already difficult issues even more so. Two years ago there was an argument of sorts for a sterling currency union and an open border between Scotland and England, but under the SNP’s preferred scenario – Brexit sans Scotland – both are virtually impossible. Since June, therefore, Unionists such as Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, her personal ambitions bruised and battered by the unexpected Leave vote, have made such points ad nauseam, combined with the similarly pertinent observation that declining oil revenue leaves Scotland more reliant than ever on fiscal transfers from Westminster.
Heady days: But has anything really changed?
So they are empirically sound arguments, just not very effective ones. As Mackintosh realized more than four decades ago, Unionism of this sort is reactionary and therefore ‘inadequate’. Even the preferred strategy of offering the Scots a bit more autonomy – a mainstay of Unionist strategy going back to the creation of the Scottish Office in 1885 – is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Between the Calman and Smith Commissions, both of which devolved more powers to Holyrood, all the low-hanging fruit (as Labour’s Alistair Darling once called it) has been picked. If another referendum does come, the Unionist ‘offer’ in this respect will be threadbare.
Given the pattern of events since the Scottish Parliament was established (rather than ‘re-convened’) in 1999, some Unionist warhorses feel rather smug, not least the veteran Labour politician Tam Dalyell, whose short tract The Question of Scotland: Devolution and After might have been called ‘I Told You So’ given its understandably vindicatory tone. But the trouble is that such analysis only gets you so far, for it assumes that Tony Blair could somehow have U-turned on his party’s long-standing commitment to devolution in 1997 and got away with it. Dalyell doesn’t address this inconvenient point, preferring to identify several episodes from his six-decade career in which Scottish nationalism could have been nipped in the bud. Shrewdly, he first detected Mackintosh’s point about the unquenchable nature of support for independence while fighting the West Lothian by-election in 1962, indeed the two knew each other and perhaps even discussed it. What Dalyell doesn’t advance, however, is any coherent promotion of Britishness or Unionism.
In one section he quotes from his diary of a Labour Party Scottish Executive meeting on 17 August 1974, one of the most important when it came to the party’s approach to rising nationalist support: ‘Brian Wilson, our Ross and Cromarty candidate…just thought the party should square up to the challenge of the SNP and not run away, instead of sheltering under the umbrella of a Scottish Assembly. He thought it would lead to the destruction of the Labour Movement.’ It is a prescient view, and one Wilson held to throughout his subsequent career, despite a tactical acceptance of devolution in the late 1980s. By that stage Labour, hungry for power after a decade of Thatcherism, had fallen into the trap of framing its Scottish strategy in small ‘n’ nationalist terms. Toryism was ‘alien’ to ‘Scottish values’ they argued; the Conservative government had ‘no mandate’ to govern Scotland; a Scottish Parliament would ‘protect’ enlightened, egalitarian Scots from the worst ravages of that wicked woman, and so on.
I recall being cynical about most of these arguments even as an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen in the late 1990s, even though I voted Yes/Yes in the referendum of September 1997. My motivations were partly youthful and partly pragmatic: it was difficult to resist the general momentum towards endorsing a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, for all the apparently intelligent grown-ups seemed to be doing so, while I accepted (and still do) the practical argument that giving the Scottish Office some sort of democratic legitimacy simply made sense.
Those were heady days, at least in the context of the 1980s and 1990s. Half way through my undergraduate career came the 1997 (New) Labour landslide, swiftly followed by the aforementioned referendum. The month I prepared to leave Aberdeen, meanwhile, the first Scottish Parliament elections took place and, the following month, elections to the European Parliament. I remember watching the opening ceremony on Edinburgh’s Mound that July and getting caught up in the excitement of it all; my then SNP-supporting brother even cheered the Queen as she went by in an open-topped carriage.
You could feel the centre of political gravity shifting from London to Edinburgh, but to what end? As a journalist based at the Scottish Parliament from 2001 it was a question I never stopped asking myself, although rarely aloud, for to question devolutionary orthodoxy would have appeared blasphemous coming from a thoroughly green young television reporter. It remains true to this day, and while I have no truck with abolitionists like Dalyell who quixotically maintain that a majority of Scots could potentially vote the Scottish Parliament out of existence, the prevailing view that devolution has been a triumph rests upon shaky assumptions. It is often said, for example, how profoundly Scotland has ‘changed’ since the 1990s, but has it really? Measured in terms of economic growth, educational attainment and social inequality, it’s certainly changed, but for the worse. Successive Scottish Executives and Governments have been so reticent in using the Parliament’s (at first modest) fiscal powers that all their modest legislative achievements – the smoking ban and introduction of Single Transferable Vote for local government stand out – could have been enacted via the old Scottish Office. Sure, there would have been less democratic accountability (and for some that is the most important argument), but the outcomes would have been much the same. And uncomfortably for the SNP, were some sort of university tuition fees still in place, access for students from less-affluent backgrounds might be better too.
Yet in modern Scotland it’s remarkably difficult to make such points, so strong is the received wisdom to the contrary. So where does this leave the independence proposition post-Brexit? To answer that one must differentiate between the political and intellectual cases. Politically, June’s Leave vote arguably strengthens the SNP’s hand, for anything that weakens the UK (as Brexit surely will) is grist to the Nationalist mill, but intellectually things have barely moved on.
Nicola Sturgeon is doubtless a gifted politician, but her strength lies more in style than substance. Briefly a solicitor before becoming an MSP, she retains a lawyer-like ability to persuasively argue a case no matter its merits. Indeed, so slickly does she ‘stand up for Scotland’ that many suspend their critical faculties, apparently content that the First Minister has everything in hand. It is a convincing pose (even London-based commentators, a cynical bunch, swallow it most of the time), but right now Ms Sturgeon’s ‘plan’ doesn’t look much more convincing than Mrs May’s. Rather the First Minister is falling back on the usual combination of anti-Tory rhetoric, virtue signalling and assertions of Scottish moral and political superiority, which admittedly Brexit makes easier. After nearly a decade of SNP government, meanwhile, it’s now pretty clear that its basic worldview and desire for ‘social justice’ differs little from the Third Way fudges of the New Labour era, something the authors of an enjoyably contrarian take on contemporary Scottish politics, Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland, call ‘social nationalism’. In other words, the surprising degree of continuity between the small ‘n’ nationalism perpetrated by Labour in the 1980s and 1990s and that championed by the SNP more recently. Indeed, for those with longer memories capital ‘n’ nationalists have basically appropriated the old arguments for a Scottish Parliament (that it would boost economic growth, protect ‘Scottish values’ and act as a prophylactic against Toryism) and re-appropriated them in support of independence. But then Marx was well aware of an elite tendency anxiously to conjure up past spirits to contemporary service, ‘borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language’.
Unionists did something similar in defending the status quo back in 2014, or at least attempting to, deriving battle slogans (‘No Thanks’) and strategies (we’ll give you more powers!) from the Quebec referendums of 1980 and 1995. A new edition of Joe Pike’s Project Fear: How an Unlikely Alliance Left a Kingdom United but a Country Divided charts all this in gossipy detail, revealing just how seat-of-the-pants the ironically-named ‘Better Together’ campaign was. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the Union survived in spite, rather than because, of that unholy alliance’s efforts. At the risk of repetition, Better Together was essentially defensive in its approach, and looking forward to another independence referendum in 2020 or 2021 – the Scottish Government is clearly playing the long game in this respect – it’s hard to see a second cross-party alliance taking shape. Ruth Davidson heading up a Tory-led No campaign (or Yes, if Unionists were brave enough to re-orientate the question) might excite certain commentators, but it would be a political gift to the SNP.
Perhaps I am a little too prone to detecting parallels between the independence battles in Ireland and Scotland, but there is much that chimes historically. Ronan Fanning’s new biography of Éamon de Valera, A Will to Power, makes the incisive point that while in his pursuit of (full) Irish sovereignty de Valera was ultimately successful, when it came to forging an Ireland worthy of the progressive 1916 Declaration to say he was a failure would miss the point: the father of modern Ireland didn’t even try. For him, freedom was everything, transcending (to paraphrase Nicola Sturgeon) passing political fads such as a sustainable economy or humane system of welfare.
And that’s the point. The independence proposition might pay lip service to utilitarianism but remains fundamentally existentialist, a conclusion in constant pursuit of an argument. From an overly-rational Unionist perspective, that makes it a slippery enemy, but even so the two camps currently find themselves engaged in constitutional trench warfare, occasionally progressing an inch or so across enemy lines, but unsure of their next big push.
What, meanwhile, of that contrary case? Attempts such as Gordon Brown’s, while briefly prime minister, to promote pride in being British – pace Mackintosh – came too little and too late, while the only possible alternative to full independence, a federal UK, has only been tentatively promoted by academics and on the Liberal fringe. In his disappointing memoir, Power and Pragmatism, the former Scottish Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind argues that ‘in a classic British way’ the UK now finds itself ‘stumbling into a new constitutional, quasi-federal system’ that in his view could persuade most Scots to remain part of an older political union even as it’s on course to depart another. That, however, strikes me as wishful thinking, for arguably Scotland has already moved on; that constitutional ship has sailed.
When the Conservatives were reduced to just ten Scottish MPs following the 1987 general election, Sir Malcolm recalls sending Mrs Thatcher a memo suggesting that their stance on a devolved Scottish Assembly might need to be ‘reconsidered’. She of course rejected such treacherous talk, but it is an interesting ‘what if?’: what if Edward Heath’s (arguably half-baked) commitment to devolution had been maintained by his successor and prosecuted as part of the Thatcherite revolution? If nothing else, it might have removed much of what fuelled small and large ‘n’ nationalism over the past thirty years.
Famously, Tam Dalyell referred to devolution as ‘a motorway to independence with no U-turns and no exits’. In the wake of Brexit and, more damagingly, the ongoing failure to develop a compelling Unionist narrative, that may still be true. Back in 1974, John P. Mackintosh referred in his New Statesman essay to a ‘point of conversion’, moments in which ‘different individuals’ suddenly wondered if ‘this nationalist idea which they have first ignored and then belittled does not make some sense after all’. Without even knowing it, for the past few decades Unionists have been furnishing Scots with more and more such points of conversion.