It is hard to avoid the sense that something fundamental has shifted in British politics over the last few months. The death of Elizabeth II promised the end of an “Elizabethan age”, but Liz Truss’s attempt to start the next one as an era of buccaneering libertarian optimism has been – in the words of the Tory backbencher Simon Hoare – “strangled at birth”. For the commentator Matthew Goodwin, this failure ensured that “the vision of Brexit as ‘Davos on Thames’ … is dead” and that the Conservatives had to “get back to what Brexit was really about”. If anybody understood this it was Boris Johnson, who triumphed on that platform in 2019, yet he has abandoned his tantalising bid to return to power. Rishi Sunak’s seizure of victory means, for the Daily Telegraph columnist Sherelle Jacobs, that “The Tory experiment in the Red Wall is over. Political realignment is dead. And Osbornomics rises from the grave.”
Not a new start, then, but a false ending? Or perhaps something even hazier. “We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end,” wrote the Scottish geologist James Hutton in his revolutionary Theory of the Earth in 1788. In a time of such extraordinary uncertainty, it is tempting to look for beginnings and ends, but commentary on our perilous situation is still haunted by Gramsci’s idea of a crisis in which “the old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born”. Some commentators have described instead something more cyclical, shifting from “sanity” to “insanity” and back again, as if the system which led to this was ever functioning well.
What if we zoom out, from the fate of the Conservative Party to the fate of the country it is failing to govern? I suspect that with Sunak’s arrival as Prime Minister, there finally is the “prospect of an end” of sorts. Not necessarily the end of Britain, but the endgame – one way or another – of the latest phase of one of the great political dramas of our age: Scotland’s long struggle to walk off stage.
There have been, roughly speaking, four main eras of Scottish nationalism, during which the cause has surged and declined or vice versa. The first begins with the birth of the modern cause in the 19th century, as liberal ideas about political reform became tangled up with national identity. This drew in and mingled with radical elements of the rising labour movement, but lost momentum during the 1920s as Labour became the main opposition, confidently challenging for the British state as a whole. By the end of the Second World War the second era had begun: Labour’s new social state glued Britain back together and the SNP – founded in 1934 – struggled on the sidelines.
By the late 1960s, however, the SNP began to make their mark, and the discovery of oil in the North Sea helped Scottish identity to become increasingly politicised. The third era really began with the arrival of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, encouraging the Labour Party to adopt a more vocally nationalistic perspective in Scotland and creating a broad, defensive alliance behind a Scottish Parliament.
The fourth, current era began with the arrival of that parliament in 1999. Labour, safely in charge in Holyrood and Westminster, neglected its status as Scotland’s national party, and the SNP eventually seized the terrain. Devolution made it far easier to present Scotland as a nation capable of governing itself, and created new room for a form of mainstream dissent from Westminster that was not contained within Westminster’s two-party system.
So why might Sunak promise to resolve this latest phase? To answer this, look to the people who have surfed those four waves of nationalism most effectively: Scotland’s middle classes. From the start, the McBourgeoisie – Scotland’s professionals, managers and intellectuals, far more than its blundering industrialists and aristocrats – have adopted a deft, tactical approach to the national question to gradually strengthen their grip on national life. In the 19th century they deployed it to increase their influence and autonomy within the Union, building stronger Scottish institutions for themselves. Then, it was quietly sidelined in favour of Labour’s booming, bureaucratic state. By the 1970s, however, an expanded cohort of university-educated Scots began flirting with the idea of a parliament, or even independence, as a possible focal point for their own influence and stimulation away from the stuffy, distant and dysfunctional corridors of Whitehall and Westminster.
The parliament, when it arrived, was their triumph. Its front benches are not populated with former or aspiring bankers, PR men and corporate lobbyists, as Westminster’s are, but with do-gooder professional types. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, is a former lawyer. Anas Sarwar, the Labour leader, was a dentist, although he also benefits from his family’s business wealth. The Greens’ co-leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, were a civil servant and a renewables engineer respectively. The Liberal Democrats’ Alex Cole-Hamilton has a background in children’s NGOs. The most unusual is the Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, who has been a farmer and still works as a football referee – a far cry from whatever it is that Jacob Rees-Mogg used to do. This is a big part of why Scotland’s political culture seems more benign and even “progressive” than England’s: we are not ruled well, but we are nevertheless ruled by a better, more public-spirited section of the ruling class.
Beyond political office, the same sort of people exert the main influence on those who make and pass policy. Middle-class voters share the same lifeworld as the politicians, and they barely have to move to find themselves in their representatives’ line of sight. They are also canny enough, as they have always been, to avoid any clear loyalties. The SNP’s entire case for independence is thus pitched at them, having already banked so much of the Scottish working-class vote after 2014. And the thing they value most of all is a delicate combination of stability and “progress”. Just enough of the latter to justify the former; just enough of the former to keep thinking benevolently about the latter.
This is where Sunak comes in. The surge in support for independence in 2014 came from a demand for progress, after four years of regressive Tory rule; the surge after 2016, however, was more reflective of a demand for stability, as Brexit and then Johnson brought an unparalleled degree of disorder into British politics. Under Truss’s brief reign, however, the future of Scotland’s middle-class loyalties were unclear; this agent of chaos inadvertently brought with her a new promise of both stability and gentle, cautious progress at the British level, in the shape of an impending Labour supermajority at Westminster. For all that Scotland’s left-wing nationalists despise the Labour Party for its cowardice and compromises, Keir Starmer is offering something that Scotland’s power-brokers are happy to settle for: stability in the name (if only the name) of progress.
While we don’t know what Sunak’s agenda looks like, he is unlikely to court chaos in the way that either Truss or Johnson did. But even if he wields the axe with a safe pair of hands, he faces deeper political problems than David Cameron and George Osborne did. Increasingly, the middle classes – whether in Scotland or England – are also feeling the pain of austerity, as their own public services from the NHS to trains and buses begin to deteriorate intolerably, and energy bills and mortgage payments skyrocket. Stability may no longer be an option for any British premier: the question is whether, unlike Truss, they can avoid the blame for its opposite.
Whatever happens, the board is set for a final showdown between two visions of middle-class Scotland. One firmly within Britain, promising a return to stability in the name of progress, whether that is through Sunak or Starmer. The other, forging ahead with independence in the name of restoring that same equilibrium between the secure and the good. In the years since Brexit, Sturgeon has honed that argument into a fine point and wedged it into the fissures of British politics. If it fails to prevent the restoration promised by Sunak and Starmer alike, nationalism will need to reorient itself towards something more disruptive and populist.
Both sides – the British state and Scottish nationalism – have assembled whatever is left of their A-teams from dwindling banks of talent. However the endgame goes, it will usher in a new era for Scottish nationalism.