Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Ideas
4 May 2022

Stalling Scottish independence would strengthen the cause

The clearing of the constitutional fog would allow us to glimpse Scotland’s political and economic reality – and an alternative means of transforming it.

By Rory Scothorne

After several years of bubbling and spluttering, is the great broth of Scottish independence being taken off the boil? That, at least, is the tentative conclusion of the most recent New Statesman leader, bolstered by an essay from Andrew Marr on how the Ukraine crisis threatens to reshape the debate over an independent Scotland’s defence commitments.

There are two main components of Scotland’s constitutional potage, and if it is being allowed to cool, it is because something is going wrong with at least one of these. First, there is the liquid swirl of the cause itself: light, vague but fundamental, imbued over time with flavour from more solid, practical ingredients – the meat and vegetables of pensions, currency, Trident, EU membership and so on. The SNP, as head chef, has topped up the stockpot with tasty morsels over the years: during the party’s rise to predominance, it blended independence with dissent against austerity and the Iraq War; today, it stirs exasperation with Brexit and more than a decade of Tory rule.

But if the menu sets your mouth watering, I’ve got bad news about the state of the kitchen. The ingredients are problematic enough: independence may offer a route back into Europe, but in doing so it also risks a hard border with England, unravelling the carefully constructed arguments for “independence in Europe” that promised to keep Scotland and the rest of the UK enmeshed within a wider European market.

The currency question, meanwhile, has divided the independence movement. SNP leaders want to pursue “sterlingisation”, leaving monetary sovereignty with the Bank of England, but the grassroots prefer a sharper break. The result is a murky, transitional compromise: Marr suggests that the SNP is putting the final touches on plans for an independent currency, the Scottish pound, but the shift from one currency to another would likely be slow and expensive, as Scotland’s new treasury seeks credibility with financial markets.

There are other problems too, many of which – including defence – receive plenty of airtime. Such widespread scepticism and critique is the biggest problem of all. The SNP may be in charge of the devolved kitchen, but it is the opposite of a harmonious workplace. The opposition parties are an openly mutinous crew: while Scottish Labour’s Anas Sarwar poisons the food, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross makes for the knife rack with a suspicious look in his eye. At front-of-house, various journalists and think tanks gleefully inform the electorate that the fare is of disputed quality at best, if not downright toxic.

[See also: Putin’s war could be the undoing of Nicola Sturgeon]

This may seem obvious and inevitable, but it’s a remarkable position for a supposedly surging independence movement to be in. These are not, despite the fantasies of more militant nationalists, foreign agents bent on sabotage; they are mostly Scots, often vaguely patriotic ones, who are nevertheless determined to stop independence by almost any means. Political devolution was achieved after several decades of collective lobbying for more autonomy and attention by a growing coalition of Scotland’s elites, drawing together academics, the press, local authorities and churches, as well as several of its political parties; all parts of this movement happily indulged in misrepresentations and half-truths for the sake of the cause, portraying Scotland as more progressive, enlightened and even radical than was ever justified by its real nature.

Content from our partners
The shrinking road to net zero
The tree-planting misconception
Is your business ready for corporate climate reporting?

But when it comes to independence, most of Scotland’s indigenous middle class refuse to serve as propagandists; instead, at their most supportive, they will congratulate the SNP for its occasional bouts of “realism” and “seriousness” about independence, such as the deficit-cutting prospectus of the 2018 “sustainable growth commission”. While there may be a deeper philosophical commitment to national self-determination somewhere in the mix, the prevailing logic of constitutional debate in Scotland emphasises the kind of mundane cost-benefit calculations that any truly existential national struggle would consider borderline offensive.

There is in fact a perfectly good existential argument for independence, which remains the basis of the SNP’s pitch: the best people to make decisions about Scotland are the people most affected by those decisions – those who live here. The more power that is democratically held in Scotland, the better. “Independence” is relative: at its most rational, it means the maximum power that can be held in Scotland without reducing its efficacy – for instance, cutting ourselves off from international treaties would increase the risk of having global changes imposed on us.

The problem is that this doesn’t necessarily mean we should leave the United Kingdom. Scotland is, after all, part of a highly integrated UK-wide economy, and leaving the political structures that are supposed to govern that economy may actually reduce our collective leverage over the forces that affect us. This is the case with plans for “sterlingisation”, in which Scotland remains hitched to pound sterling without any influence over it. It’s also an issue for the SNP’s preoccupation with foreign direct investment, which effectively means handing over the nation’s resources to firms whose power lies far beyond our democratic reach. The SNP’s current vision for the economics of independence is pragmatic and cautious, aimed at reassuring voters that little would have to change; but it is directly at odds with the baseline argument for independence, which is that power should be held by the people.

That’s not to say there are easy alternatives. The dream of a national economy under democratic control is the stuff of actual revolutions, and has only been achieved partially, temporarily, and at immense cost in a tiny handful of countries. There is no evidence from the voting behaviour or otherwise of the Scottish public that they fancy a stab at something similar. As a socialist, I certainly think most people would appreciate such a project were it to materialise – but I’m aware that the means of getting there are either traumatically sudden and disruptive, or exhaustingly drawn out and difficult.

Yet the SNP’s current plan for independence is to act as if none of these issues even matter. Independence is, in their world, a formal shift of policy levers from one parliament to another – a terminal extension of devolution, rather than a great leap of popular sovereignty.

Would it be so bad if this bland old soup was taken off the menu for a while? Perhaps some time is needed now to explore other recipes. The likely outcome of an explicit pause, initially at least, would be a deeper plunge into adventurist nonsense from the likes of the Alba Party and the militant fringes of the independence movement. But once the steam of fantasy around unilateral declarations of independence and similar cleared – and it would – it might be possible to get a rare glimpse of Scotland’s political and economic reality, undistorted by constitutional fog.

That reality is deeply unpromising, and if Scotland’s voters are to gain the confidence and security to endorse a transformative constitutional arrangement, it is this that has to change first. The flaw in the current case for independence is that while Scotland’s crumbling industrial base cannot be revived by Holyrood, a post-independence state – presuming a fairly narrow win for “Yes” – would be unlikely to have the self-confidence and unity, not to mention financial security, to intervene at the scale required. The current trajectory – of multinational titans slurping up our renewable wealth while domestic supply chains fail to take advantage – would probably continue.

But pessimism needn’t be the only alternative dish on offer. The problem with the current debate is that the SNP is expected to improve its argument and prospectus for independence, but its actual record in government is rarely linked to its constitutional agenda. The best way of improving the case for independence would be to improve Scotland’s actual capacity to be independent, above all by increasing its economic self-sufficiency, so that those thorny arguments about currency and debt could be answered with wealth that is demonstrably anchored to our shores – productive industries and services that are publicly owned, domestically supplied and locally accountable. That would counter threats of a cash and jobs exodus far better than the stern reassurances of politicians.

[See also: The limits of Caledonian Starmerism]

But where would the investment come from? The answer is simple, if potentially unpopular among nationalists. The alternative to the SNP’s circular independence pitch is to use Scotland’s constitutional precarity to demand massive, state-driven industrial support from an incoming Labour government at Westminster. If independence is shifting to the back-burner, a change of government down south becomes at least an equally auspicious avenue for political change.

There is a clear political rationale for that approach from Labour’s perspective too. If Keir Starmer wants to “win back” Labour’s Scottish heartlands, a minimal strategy would be to respect the demands for greater autonomy that led former Labour voters to the SNP in the first place. An industrial strategy for meaningful economic self-determination, incorporating public ownership, transformative support for homegrown green industry and expanded workers’ rights, would provide an effective Labour spin on nationalist aspirations. If the SNP’s grassroots want to shift their leadership in a more economically nationalist direction – and many members do – they should push for this form of industrial support, rather than a second referendum, to be the precondition of SNP backing for a minority Labour government at Westminster.

This approach would renew and reorient the “gradualist” strategy that has served the SNP so well in the past – as opposed to “fundamentalism”, which shuns any dalliance with the British state and its parties in favour of brass tacks nationalism. A longer game may leave romantics dissatisfied, not least because the prospect of exploiting southern wealth sounds worryingly close to the old rhetoric about Scottish “subsidy junkies”. Yet it also carries a certain subversively patriotic thrill. To paraphrase another successful populist movement: we’re going to build a big, beautiful, independent Scotland, and we’re going to make England pay for it.

[See also: Why the SNP’s economic strategy offers continuity not transformation]

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Topics in this article: