How direct action could force the UK left to confront the Scottish question

The Radical Independence Conference may help rouse both Scottish nationalism and the wider left from their slumber. 

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In 1977, Scotland’s constitutional status was at the centre of British politics, as Labour’s minority government battled with internal and external opponents to legislate for a devolved assembly. When Scotland and England’s football teams met at Wembley for a so-called friendly in June that year, the visitors’ 2-1 victory inspired a spontaneous occupation of the pitch by their fans, who famously broke up the goalposts and ripped up chunks of turf to take home as souvenirs. 

Almost exactly 44 years later, the two teams are set to meet on 18 June, at Wembley again, this time on the more openly competitive terrain of the rescheduled 2020 European Championship. In politics, the Scottish Question is more prominent than ever, but in the decades since 1977, politics – devolved at last – has supplanted football as the most obvious expression of popular nationalism in Scotland. And with a renewed pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament facing down the “muscular unionism” of the UK government, nationalist politics could soon become the source of a different kind of grassroots disruption in the UK capital.

[See also: Can Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell continue to run the SNP between them?]

On 12 June, just days before Scotland meet England on the football pitch, the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) will meet – virtually – for the first time since 2019, having grabbed the attention of the Scottish press with a promise to discuss “taking to the streets of London, or blockading the outposts of the UK government” such as Faslane naval base or the Scotland Office building in Edinburgh. Since I last wrote about RIC for the New Statesman in 2019, the organisation has collapsed and reappeared in a new guise. In February, the national group was formally “dissolved” in a whirl of internal controversy, but a handful of dissenting local groups were given leave to continue, and are using the pandemic’s virtual-meeting revolution to try and reconstitute RIC Scotland from the rubble. The new coalition is smaller and more uncertain than it once was, but this may also give it a harder-edged militancy than its broad-based predecessor.

The prospect of pro-independence activists causing Extinction Rebellion (XR)-style disruption in London has been described by the Scottish commentator Pat Kane – a veteran of pro-independence campaigns – as the “Wembley Turf” strategy, and it may offer a means of breaking both Scottish nationalism and the UK left out of their present doldrums. When UK-wide social movements such as XR cause trouble in cities, there is a clear potential downside: the inconvenienced public might turn against them, and side with more reactionary political forces that promise to deal with the troublesome extremists for good. But if independence supporters were to blockade the Home Office or disrupt transport networks, what are the disgruntled English going to do? Refuse an independence referendum? No change there. Kick Scotland out of the Union? Mission accomplished. Whatever the results, it’s hard not to see the rattled goalposts of British stability being smuggled home with pride.

In fact, it’s hard to find a serious downside for the Wembley Turf strategy – though clearly things would have to wait until Covid-19 has faded into the background. Some supporters of All Under One Banner, a coalition that organises bland, saltire-strewn marches for independence in Scottish towns and cities, have criticised the idea for making it seem as if London is the real source of political power rather than Scotland. But that’s simply true – Madrid’s continuing rule over Catalonia is evidence enough of the limits of civil disobedience that doesn’t strike at the heart of the state. Escalation in Scotland alone seems like a non-starter, given that domestic disobedience would largely cause problems – practical and political – for the pro-independence SNP government. 

That administration’s biggest political weakness in its showdown with the UK government is the relatively small size and timidity of the Scottish public. The Conservatives won more than twice as many votes in 2019 than there are people in Scotland, a vast surplus of legitimacy that means it can get away with doing almost anything to Scotland so long as the UK parliament is sovereign and the English public doesn’t care about independence. Yet Scotland’s minority status can also be a strength, for Scottish nationalism does not need to win elections in England, only in Scotland, where people – to put it gently – are unlikely to be distraught about a bout of minor inconvenience visited on some of their southern neighbours. And in the realm of symbolism, the underdog image is formidable. 

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon has been lucky with her enemies – but trouble lies ahead]

The Wembley Turf strategy could also put the independence movement’s moderate leadership on the spot. Imagine, for instance, the Metropolitan Police trying to deal with Scottish activists taking non-violent direct action in defence of Scotland’s right to determine its own future. Nicola Sturgeon would struggle not to take sides without facing serious political costs. Radicalism could be forced back onto the agenda of a devolved political world that is currently trapped in a constitutional vice. 

And it would force Scotland higher up the agenda of the whole UK left. Imagine, now, those activists linking their democratic demands – and targets – to those of the UK-wide climate movement, trade union rights or the rights of people facing deportation. All these policy areas are largely reserved to the UK government, and they are focal points for arguments about a “democratic deficit” between Scotland and the UK, where Scotland votes centre-left but remains governed by the right. Progress on all these issues in England is also held back by delusions of Anglo-British greatness that Scottish independence could help to puncture. 

Fighting on that terrain would clarify the stakes of the independence struggle for the left. It would encourage English left-wingers to take Scotland seriously, illuminating the deep links between self-determination and solidarity that apply to questions beyond Scottish independence. Pressure could thus be heaped on Labour – whose unionism remains a gigantic obstacle to independence – from within its overwhelmingly English membership. 

When England’s footballers belt out “God Save The Queen” in the Euros, they will omit the traditional second verse, calling upon the almighty to “scatter her enemies”. If the Wembley Turf strategy is done right, it could help to knit together the diverse left-wing causes and traditions scattered across Britain, exploiting the territorial weak spots of the state’s legitimacy. There is one version of the British anthem, rarely used, that mentions “rebellious Scots to crush”. The other overlooked peripheries of Anglo-Britain would of course have their own dissenting energy to contribute; but Scotland, closest to the exit, should take the lead.

[See also: The rise and fall of Wings over Scotland]

Rory Scothorne is completing a PhD on the relationship between the Scottish radical left and nationalism, and is the co-author of Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland.

 

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