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18 August 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 8:16am

Scotland’s dreaming: why the SNP appears unstoppable

The party has successfully made itself the symbolic expression of almost all of Scotland’s overlapping memories, experiences and anxieties. 

By Rory Scothorne

Scottish nationalism’s enduring success continues to puzzle and infuriate its critics, right up to the highest levels of government. David Mundell, who was a Scotland Office minister during the 2014 independence referendum, reflected recently that after the vote “there was an expectation that perhaps, certainly in the civil service, ‘well, we’ve had that referendum and we’ll move on’, when in fact we didn’t move on and we haven’t moved on”. The same is true of Scottish Labour, who believed that the SNP’s minority government from 2007-11 was a blip, and thought that the defeat of independence in 2014 would restore “normal” politics: they continue to behave with increasingly absurd self-righteousness as a result. 

This continued failure – or refusal – to grasp the transformed dynamics of Scottish politics is itself a gift to the SNP, for whom government has become a kind of political dream-state, seemingly free from consequences. A series of scandals that should at least have dented public confidence, from the mismanagement of coronavirus in care homes to the mass downgrading of school results, along with a series of internal party feuds, has instead been accompanied by a sustained surge in the polls, not just for the SNP but for Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish independence. For their opponents, this dream-state is more like sleep paralysis: the monster at the foot of the bed is as clear as day, but there seems to be nothing they can do about it.

In the 2010 film Inception, characters deep in their custom-made dreamworlds use particular totems, such as a spinning top, to remind themselves that they’re dreaming. The SNP’s unionist opponents are desperately looking for their own spinning tops, a one-neat-trick that can awake Scotland to SNP failure. Their latest efforts reflect a belief that the party’s greatest asset is the inadequacy of the opposition. The Scottish Conservatives have removed Jackson Carlaw as leader after just six months in the role and replaced him with the Westminster-Holyrood tag-team of Douglas Ross and Ruth Davidson, Carlaw’s predecessor, who plans to swap Holyrood for the House of Lords after the 2021 Scottish election. 

Scottish Labour’s unionist right, meanwhile, are slowly reclaiming full control of the party from Richard Leonard and the left. Jackie Baillie, the pro-Trident MSP for Dumbarton, became deputy leader in April, and the arch-unionist Corbyn critic Ian Murray was able to use his dominance of the affluent Edinburgh South constituency – Labour’s only Scottish Westminster seat – to secure the role of shadow Scottish secretary in Keir Starmer’s new team. When John McDonnell suggested he was open to a second independence referendum last August, the party embarked on a year of frantic internal squabbling over its constitutional position which has now been largely resolved by a firm reassertion of unconditional opposition to a referendum. The belief is that this new “clarity” – accompanied by a spectacularly unclear commitment to “radical federalism” – will be enough to win the respect of “soft” independence supporters, and regain the support of enough unionists, to surge past the Tories into a distant second place. 

But nobody seriously believes that the SNP will not finish first in next May’s Scottish election. The latest polls suggest they could win a majority of up to 20 seats, though similar results were predicted just months before the 2016 election, when the SNP lost their majority and the Scottish Tories became the main opposition. This time, however, the SNP will find it easier to motivate a greatly expanded base: independence is firmly back on the agenda (the 2016 manifesto didn’t even promise a new referendum), and the party will be explicitly seeking the strongest possible mandate to wield against a Tory government which is resisting demands for a fresh vote. This situation is all the more bemusing to unionists who believe that the economic case against independence has only grown: even Andrew Wilson, one of the SNP’s most senior economic advisers, has predicted that Scotland’s recovery from the current recession will be the worst in the developed world. Surely at some point this reality should reassert itself? 

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That would be to mistake politics for public reason. In times of crisis, politics really does tend to be closer to dream than reality: the translation of the latter into the former is always surreal and unpredictable. Sigmund Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), argues that the central elements of any dream tend to be “overdetermined”, drawing together multiple memories, ideas and anxieties from our real lives into particularly resonant symbols. The causes of the SNP’s predominance are so manifold, and stretch across so many areas of life, that they are unlikely to be solved by a simple change of leadership or constitutional strategy: they have successfully made themselves the symbolic expression of almost all Scotland’s overlapping memories, experiences and anxieties. 

The party’s resilience throughout the Covid-19 crisis and the exams scandal, for instance, is a near-perfect case study of the “democracy of feeling” described by the sociologist William Davies in his 2018 book Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over The World. Real-time and massified media, from TV to Twitter, has helped to replace slow, objective analysis with fast-paced and trendy intuition, with profound political consequences. The most recent polling on independence – showing 53 per cent support – also suggested that 52 per cent of Scots believe the country is going in the “right direction”, a 20 point rise on last year. This optimism, which is surely related to the apparent progress on combating Covid-19, has been reinforced by assured daily briefings from Sturgeon – this regularity, however necessary, gives a competent communicator immense control over the story.

Another example of this feeling-focused politics is the education secretary John Swinney’s reaction to the grading scandal: defending the Scottish Qualification Authority’s approach, he nevertheless argued that he could not allow the “feeling” to develop among working-class students that “the system” was rigged against them. The result was an extraordinary U-turn, accepting the original teacher estimates in all cases unless the moderated grade had been higher – a policy determined entirely and explicitly by the desire to manage public feeling over and above any educational considerations. 

This is not, however, the simple one-way process of public manipulation which opponents imply when they condemn the SNP as dangerous populists: voters, after all, want to feel better. And increasingly, one of the main factors people consider when voting for politicians is not whether they will govern better, but whether they will make them feel better, often in spite of bad governance. This is another product of the same long, tectonic shifts in the structure of capitalism which have given us a faster-paced, more compulsively-driven public sphere. The very real decline in states’ capacity to determine their own fate, as financialised capital burns through sovereign borders like acid, has left politicians with little option but to become glorified public therapists, offering sympathetic sounding-boards for the exploding neuroses of their disempowered publics. 


These effects can be felt across the world, but they are particularly powerful in Scotland. Scotland’s economic disempowerment has been decades-long, with multinational corporations and London-based nationalisation eroding domestic networks of control since the Second World War. This has been reinforced by the decline of a distinctive Scottish labour movement, which could force economic concessions in the national interest out of governments and corporations alike. One of the great ironies of Scottish history is that the rise of political demands for self-determination has, not by coincidence, occurred in tandem with the collapse of their economic conditions: Scotland has less capacity for real economic sovereignty today than at almost any point in its modern history. 

As the cultural historian Scott Hames argues in his groundbreaking recent book The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution (2019), those demands for self-determination have as a result been overwhelmingly articulated in terms that emphasise affect over effect. He notes that even the Royal Commission on the Constitution, established by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in response to the SNP’s success in the late 1960s, focused on ways of managing “national feeling” without disrupting the integrity of the British state: the halfway compromise of devolution was the result. This nationalist emotional politics is written into the deepest structures of Scottish political life, not in denial of Scotland’s glum reality, but as an essential way of coming to terms with it. 

This is why the more Scottish Labour and the Scottish Tories shout about the real dangers of independence, the less likely the majority of people are to vote for them. It may help to stop people voting for independence, but it is the exact opposite of what Scots want from their actual representatives. The SNP have largely monopolised the terrain of public hope, not in spite of their support for independence but because of it. 

So why can’t the unionist parties summon up their own baseless optimism about Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom? The answer to that is complex, but reflects three factors. First is the unavoidable reality of the UK, where the immediate emotional response of Scottish voters is usually somewhere in the realm of disgust, exasperation or embarrassment. An independent Scotland offers, at worst, fear – but that fear is usually to do with the consequences of independence rather than the aspiration for it. So long as independence is determined by referendum, those consequences don’t have much to do with the SNP being in government. The UK’s negative emotional payload, on the other hand, is so bound up with its deepest constitutional and cultural architecture, from the House of Lords to tabloid racism, that it increasingly makes the argument against itself. 

The second obstacle to an emotional case for unionism is its increasing foreignness. Both the Conservatives and Labour have largely abandoned the tradition of “unionist nationalism” explored by the historians Graeme Morton and David Torrance, which framed unionism as a symbolically rich form of Scottish “small-n” nationalism, not an opposition to it. Instead, they offer an increasingly transactional politics of cost and benefit, shorn of indigenous cultural resonance, which Hames has described as “saving the Union to death”. 

This is a structural problem too: the heyday of unionist-nationalism was when independence was barely on the agenda at all, meaning nationalist cultural politics didn’t have to risk reinforcing separatist sentiment. The campaigns for a devolved Scottish parliament in the 1980s and 1990s offered another way of channelling Scottish nationalism into ways of reinforcing the British state. But with the SNP dominant, and devolution achieved, unionist-nationalism is being supplanted by a braindead British nationalism which is destined to be a minority pursuit. Scottish nationalism is not primarily a question of constitutional change but territorial identification, and without any means of tying Scottish identity to unionist constitutional aspirations, unionism is left fighting with one arm; the other arm isn’t tied behind its back so much as withered beyond repair. 

Finally, there is the sheer inadequacy of the messengers. This is not something that can be solved by simply replacing unpopular politicians with popular ones: within the unionist parties, there are vanishingly few of those. This, again, is a structural problem. Parties do not develop fresh talent out of thin air. New leaders emerge out of particular movements and demographics, and Scottish Labour’s greatest politicians and intellectuals have traditionally been drawn from two constituencies: the progressive urban working class and the progressive urban middle class. The trouble for Labour is that both of these constituencies have shifted dramatically towards support for independence and the SNP. There is little in the way of either career opportunities or principle that is likely to divert these tributaries of political and intellectual renewal back to the party for as long as it is so far from power, and unambiguously wedded to the Union.

This powerful overdetermination of the SNP’s success can be understood in another way. The party genuinely does represent that great mess of memory, materiality and banal identification which makes up Scottish national consciousness. If the unionists feel increasingly excluded from that consciousness, it only goes to show that it is a political construct – one that can be remade, but not removed. 

Some on the left like to propose “subsidiarity” or “federalism” as technocratic ways of sidestepping nationhood, but the abstract purity of these schemes can’t survive contact with the more compromised realities of politics. In practice, the politics of national recognition cannot be detached from the real mechanisms of mass feeling and mobilisation by which national minorities actually gain and sustain the attention of a distant, self-interested political centre. The energy that sustains Scottish nationhood will not be exhausted by the right mixture of policy fixes: it is infinitely renewable, secured and reproduced by the distinctive national institutions preserved in the Treaty of Union and reinforced by over a century of administrative and political devolution. Good luck sidestepping all that. 

While reclaiming and refashioning Scottish nationhood is more feasible, it is only partly the work of deliberate political action. It also means adapting to national iterations of globalised historical processes  – from technology to popular culture – which Scotland’s unionists, perpetually embarrassed by the present, seem barely to understand. Dominic Cummings and his retinue clearly have a better grasp on how those processes are unfolding in England, but there is little evidence that Cummings has ventured much further north of Barnard Castle. He has a lot of catching up to do: the genie of Scottish nationhood has been out of the bottle for several hundred years, and unless the opposition parties work out a way of grasping its attention, it will eventually grant the SNP their final wish.

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This article appears in the 26 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid