For years, observers have talked of a crisis, even twilight, of the British state in its current form. I’ve been one of them.
It wasn’t a baseless claim. Between 2014 and 2019, a remarkable convergence of destabilising forces gripped British society. In 2014 Labour MPs and other Westminster insiders streamed north of the border to try and halt an alarming popular rebellion. At the 2015 general election, the SNP evicted Scotland’s unionist representatives from the Commons. Months later, Corbynism toppled the austerity consensus by seizing Labour, the second party of British capitalism and a great, dull weight ever-ready to plug the gaps in Tory rule.
The deepest cut came in 2016 when people across the UK voted to leave the European Union, against the warnings of a stunned establishment. All this in a Britain that had been considered a model of stability. The journalist and former New Statesman editor John Kampfner claimed foreign friends “could not understand how the Mother of Parliaments, a country synonymous with stability and predictability, could have descended into such chaos”.
The 2008 financial crisis, and many other resentments, had finally surfaced in politics and the British state was being attacked at its joints. Talk of democratic deficits, stagnant incomes, regional and class inequality, foreign policy failure and political instability was rife.
The arrival of so many national and democratic questions at once announced an instability that few comprehended. What’s more, the disorder arrived not through the dominant political parties, nor through NGOs or the activist milieu, but through the people themselves. The “populist moment” became, in the British context, a series of rude challenges on the most vital questions: who rules, how do they rule and in whose interest?
[See also: Will the SNP be swept away by Scottish Labour?]
These tantalising questions have all now been answered – by the British state. Jeremy Corbyn, and the movement he inspired, have been ejected from mainstream politics in an operation so ruthless that even the memory of the 2017 general election has been eradicated. The SNP has secured numerous mandates for an independence referendum, all of which have splatted harmlessly against the wall of Westminster intransigence. Sturgeon herself, and her entire camarilla, are departing amid scandal.
Even Brexit, the only lasting injury sustained by the permanent state during the years of disruption, is being remedied in inches. Reconvergence between the class compatriots of London and Brussels was always likely. This is reflected in the Windsor framework, Rishi Sunak’s new trade agreement with the EU over Northern Ireland, and in plans to create a transnational infrastructure blending military and economic cooperation, in a Europe transfigured by war.
Yet commentary has failed to register this decisive reversal. It’s still a common taunt that the ultimate price of Brexit will be the Union. Last month the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole wrote that Brexit “has greatly enhanced the desire for independence among the United Kingdom’s constituent parts, especially Scotland”. This is simply false – there has been no significant or lasting improvement in the polling position of independence.
Reflecting on the collapse of Sturgeon’s leadership, the Scottish writer Neal Ascherson remained defiant: “The independence cause is not dead… If, say, 65 per cent of Scottish voters keep demanding for six months to leave the UK, no British government will stop them.” For some, independence is now unfalsifiable – an historic movement insensitive to historical time, with defeats in the present giving way to victories in an unknowable future.
[See also: Scotland needs its own Rishi Sunak]
The claim of the Union’s imminent death has survived the end of the era of disruption. Independence emerged as the battle cry of a real, live social movement. It has since degenerated into a chant, made compulsively and without conviction. It functions as a comforter, warding off recognition of defeat. It is commonly found in the mouths of Remainers still haunted by the UK’s exit from the EU – heedless of the overarching (and sub-democratic) logic of reintegration.
In Scotland this phenomenon served Sturgeon well as insulation from the failures of her government. Her struggling heirs cling to it desperately. The worse the calamity in SNP HQ in recent weeks, the louder each leadership candidate has shouted about independence.
Reckonings are a little more lucid on the side of the establishment. In need of an ideologically satisfying explanation of victories obtained through guile and ruthlessness, the Economist has labelled our current phase a “great moderation”. Corbyn and (laughably) Sturgeon alike were radicals, it said, launching uncouth assaults on good sense. Happily, figures such as Keir Starmer and Sunak are returning the UK to stability.
This complacent attitude ignores the origins of the disruption. Class arrogance, opaque rule and a feeble civic sphere remain characteristic features of British public life. The effort of repressing challenges has left our political parties even more emptied of meaningful democratic life. Sunak’s Conservatives and Starmer’s Labour are the most staid and lifeless iterations of their parties in a century of universal enfranchisement. What little economic growth there is remains concentrated in few industries and regions, and workers have experienced a fall in real wages despite the largest rise in strike activity in a generation. More trouble is coming to Britain, and official avenues for atonement are closed.
The UK’s many national questions remain active, but they are not a deus ex machina. Those stuck in the recent past need to reckon with the independence movement’s defeats. Without the requisite popular leadership, any crisis can be resolved in the interests of the elite.
Growing numbers of independence supporters blame Sturgeon. She embodied this failure of leadership, undermining the cause at key moments. At the height of the British state crisis, she sided with her supposed adversaries, backing the establishment People’s Vote campaign. Her desire to be associated with ruling institutions – the EU, Nato, the Bank of England – forbade any attempt to use the disorganisation of British political life to her movement’s advantage.
But these are the general preoccupations of mainstream Scottish nationalism. Behind the cynical machine-politics of the SNP leadership is another, vaster machine – the political economy and geostrategy of the Atlantic order. A refusal to confront that power will doom any future opportunity for the independence cause.
The scale of the defeat, the divided loyalties at the top of the movement and the disorientation of the nationalist base mean such an opportunity may be a long way off. It may even never arrive.
Scottish nationalism has proved itself profoundly incapable of the task it has set itself. Movements have, throughout history, returned from major setbacks to win victories. They can only do this when they face reality and are prepared for rigorous self-criticism. That must begin with a simple recognition – history has closed the era that opened in 2014.
[See also: Why the battle for the Union is far from over]