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The battle for the soul of Scotland

As the SNP struggles to hold its movement together and exploit unhappiness about Brexit, a broad, disruptive coalition of populists and the left is agitating for a more radical plan for leaving the Union.

The general election will be defined by constitutional questions like none other in recent times. England and Wales, it seems, are facing a Brexit election, with one opinion poll suggesting that 40 per cent of UK voters are most likely to base their vote on the issue, compared to 18 per cent at the start of the 2017 election.

In Scotland, however, the SNP is seeking to turn the Brexit election into the independence election, based on years of careful work framing Brexit as a natural consequence of continued London rule. The opening pitch of its campaign was an unambiguous bid for “IndyRef 2020”, an effort to rejuvenate the independence movement that faltered at its last Westminster test in 2017. In the 2015 general election, the SNP absorbed the still-fresh excitement of 2014’s Yes campaign into a disciplined electoral machine, winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 House of Commons seats; in 2017, that plunged to 35 as thousands of unenthused voters stayed at home. The result was interpreted as a modest triumph for the unionist message of the Tories and Scottish Labour, which gained 12 and six seats respectively, and briefly drew some momentum away from the nationalists.

Nicola Sturgeon has calculated that this time, the party should use independence to motivate its sizeable core vote and activist base against a profoundly divided unionist opposition. If it can turn widespread revulsion at Brexit and Boris Johnson into significant gains, the SNP can use the resulting mandate to refresh its demand for a second independence referendum on principled democratic grounds.

However, Sturgeon’s strategy isn’t just about boosting turnout and renewing her referendum mandate. It is also about reasserting her own moderate, gradualist style of leadership over a wider independence movement that has begun to stray outside of the SNP’s comfort zone.

Before the party won a majority in the Scottish parliament elections of 2011 there was not much of an independence movement to speak of. Major demonstrations in Scotland were more likely to be focused on anti-austerity or anti-war campaigns and were coordinated by the labour movement or the far left. But with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in power in Westminster from 2010 and disenchantment with Labour widespread, the sudden prospect of an independence referendum offered not just a new, mass identity for progressive politics, but a plausible horizon for its realisation. The SNP, quickly realising it couldn’t win alone, conceded a degree of power to a more diverse “Yes Scotland” campaign, which soon incorporated a wide range of issues and identities under its banner. “Yes Scotland” captured the aspirations of optimistic liberals and radical leftists alike, reinforced by a popular identity of grass-roots, “civic” Scottish nationhood that has been forged over decades.

The movement that emerged was, for its supporters, an exemplar of collective joy and mass participation, as town halls across the country hosted meetings about reviving the welfare state and rebalancing the economy, alongside passionate denunciations of austerity and nuclear weapons. Yet for its opponents, the same movement was experienced – especially online – as something hostile, smug and deeply alienating, which had needlessly politicised Scottish identity and made sceptics feel like foreigners in their own country.

Almost immediately after the 2014 referendum result was known, the SNP launched a “One Scotland” rebranding campaign to try to bridge this new constitutional divide. But for some nationalists, the unity of the movement was considerably more important than that of a country that had, after all, “bottled it”. They styled themselves – with a nod to 1745 and their Jacobite forebears – as “the 45” (after the vote share won by the Yes campaign in 2014), and celebrated their heroic, wounded minority status in an outpouring of melancholy folk songs, conspiracist Facebook groups, cryptic hashtags and charmingly ugly merchandise.

Today, this wing of the movement is represented by an organisation called All Under One Banner (AUOB), which was founded in late 2014 and has spent the ensuing years trying to rebuild the national network of grass-roots Yes groups through mass marches across Scotland. Until 2016, these marches struggled to attract support, but in the aftermath of Brexit they boomed. Coordinated through the dense and often insular social media networks which have emerged among dedicated “cybernats”, the sudden expansion of these marches took much of the rest of the movement by surprise, as tens of thousands of saltire-waving supporters began appearing in cities and towns with little public warning.

They now receive lavish promotion and coverage from the National, the pro-independence daily newspaper launched shortly after the independence referendum by the US-owned media company Newsquest. The paper, which has a print circulation of around 6,000, was established to cash in on the Yes movement’s obsessive desire for sympathetic reading material. This was cultivated initially through a thriving infrastructure of blogs, Facebook pages and popular (often parody) Twitter accounts, many of which were created to counter the “unionist bias” of news outlets like the Herald, which is also owned by Newsquest and, after years of cuts, now shares much of its staff with the National.

AUOB’s supporters are committed, and good at turning out when and where they are needed. But in the absence of official SNP involvement, or guidance, the lack of a coherent leadership or strategy is painfully obvious.

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In early October, I joined a reported 20,000 supporters on a march through central Edinburgh in heavy rain that had turned the final rally point at the Meadows – a sprawling park on the south side of the city – into a mudbath. There, amid dozens of stalls hawking everything from glossy pro-independence magazines and slogan T-shirts to brightly painted rocks and chemtrail leaflets, an eccentric range of speakers, bands and other performers addressed a soggily enthusiastic crowd. The AUOB brand lends itself to both a politics and an aesthetic of the lowest common denominator, and a general ambience of gently excessive fantasy. Images of unicorns (Scotland’s national animal) are everywhere and there are always several men wearing Braveheart costumes of varying quality. One such impersonator, hearing the crowd chanting “What do we want? Independence!” – the only chant I ever heard – tried to drown out “independence!” by yelling “freedom!” instead, which felt unnecessary.

AUOB speakers seem to be chosen almost at random, a clamjamfry of blogger-provocateurs and Twitter addicts spliced with the occasional renegade SNP MP or D-list celebrity. Two speakers at the Edinburgh rally were particularly controversial, however. The SNP’s Joanna Cherry has become a figurehead for opposition to the Scottish government’s plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to enable self-definition.

In a turbulent social media microclimate that includes prominent MPs, MSPs and activists from across Scotland’s political parties, allegations and instances of transphobia and homophobia are being met by those of misogyny and abuse. Offline, the controversy has focused on provocative public meetings to discuss “concerns” about the reforms, opposed by demonstrations from LGBTQ+ activists. The issue has provoked conflict within the SNP that has spilled out into the wider nationalist movement, and also taps into socially conservative elements of wider Scottish society. The dispute has been enough to prompt a modest climbdown by the SNP leadership, which has delayed the proposed changes.

The opposition of the 53-year-old Cherry and other prominent SNP figures to GRA reform has risked tarnishing the party’s otherwise hard-earned LGBTQ+ credentials, and her prominent spot at rallies exposes underlying divisions in the movement. Perhaps more concerning for Sturgeon and those around her is Cherry’s closeness to Alex Salmond, who is awaiting trial over allegations of attempted rape and sexual assault but still has considerable support among nationalists.


Scotland the brave: a pro-independence march at Stirling Bridge, September 2019. Credit: Stewart Kirby/ Sopa Images/ Lightrocket via Getty

At another AUOB rally in Edinburgh last year, stalls sold badges featuring the slogan #I’mWithAlex, and I heard one folk singer pairing the lines “Freedom for Alex Salmond” and “Freedom for Palestine”. Salmond’s full trial next year, following a preliminary hearing last month, will be difficult for the SNP, and hushed talk of Sturgeon stepping down is often followed by speculation about Cherry’s aspirations to replace her – or at least to get behind an alternative to the party establishment.

The other speaker to raise eyebrows was former Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) leader Tommy Sheridan, a regular fixture at AUOB rallies. Sheridan is a bête noire of much of the Scottish left for his behaviour – especially towards women – during a long legal battle with the News of the World in 2006 over his attendance at swingers’ parties, which led to him being convicted for perjury in 2010. By mid-afternoon at AUOB, the 55-year-old Sheridan was on stage screaming at the top of his lungs, visibly shaking with rage, about the regulation of hedges and fireworks. “We’ve got the power to regulate high hedges, but we cannae determine that we can ban the bloody sale of fireworks! We are a wee, pretendy parliament! It’s almost like parental guidance! There should be a PG notice over the parliament! Brothers and sisters, we’ve had enough.”

In the 1990s, Sheridan was a formidable leader of the Scottish radical left. He rose to prominence as the public face and passionate, moralising voice of the movement against the poll tax. When the tax was introduced to Scotland in 1989, a year earlier than in England and Wales, it became a symbolic meeting point for extra-parliamentary radicalism and nationalist opposition to “London rule”. But after his election to Holyrood in 1999, Sheridan quickly became disenchanted with the Scottish parliament’s limits, even while the newly “gradualist” SNP – whom he now publicly endorses – learned to live with them.

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Sheridan’s prominence at AUOB speaks to a broader phenomenon. The various elements of Scottish nationalism that the SNP has tried to push to the fringes – such as socialists and a populist hostility to “minority” issues like trans rights – are coalescing around a new style of nationalist activism that feels, from the demonstrations I’ve attended, more like a kind of ecumenical religious revivalism than serious movement politics. If there is a clear demand emanating from these events, it is for another referendum, sooner rather than later. But what really matters is the collective, public affirmation of the truth and dignity of the cause, where the sheer sight and sound of mass devotion will be enough to persuade the waverers.

The SNP has long recognised, however, that it takes more than an eye-catching show of faith to win round lifelong sceptics. In 2012, the party sought to reassure voters that an independent Scotland would retain some of Britain’s international clout by reversing its historic opposition to Nato membership. The conference vote on the issue was close. At one pivotal moment in the debate Kenny MacAskill – a prominent member of the party’s left wing – gave a rousing speech in support of the leadership’s line. Citing his years spent marching with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, MacAskill proclaimed: “I’m tired of marching. I want a seat for our government in the situations of power.”

But the left of the wider movement was not so tired – or at least didn’t want the same kind of global influence to which the SNP leadership aspires. In the immediate aftermath of the Nato U-turn, a coalition of left-wingers including the Scottish Greens, the SSP and various other groupuscules of the Scottish left organised a “Radical Independence Conference”, outlining their collective opposition to the SNP’s moderate vision for independence and calling for a clean break with the British state and its economic model.

At its height in 2014, the resulting Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) attracted 3,000 people to its conference in Glasgow, having made high-profile interventions in the Yes campaign, including a programme of “mass canvasses” that took activists to working-class areas that had long been ignored by politicians.

The SNP and the official Yes campaign, however, kept their distance from RIC’s left-wing populist slogans (“Britain is for the rich – Scotland can be ours”). On the same weekend as RIC’s 2014 conference, the SNP organised a rival event in a nearby venue, a US-style victory rally – including confetti cannons – celebrating the enormous membership surge the party enjoyed following its referendum defeat (membership has grown from 25,200 in 2013 to more than 125,000 today). RIC was quickly outpaced by the SNP after the referendum, and attempts by some activists to form a new party – called Rise (“Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism”) – floundered at the 2016 Holyrood election.

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This year RIC is back. At its conference on 26 October I spoke to Jonathon Shafi, one of the leading organisers of the campaign since the first conference in 2012. The left, he noted, has lost much of its influence within the independence movement since 2014: “Last time [“Yes”] was a genuine people’s movement partly because the SNP lost control of it. That may be different this time. The SNP will want to ensure that they are very much in charge of the movement’s politics, its strategy and so on. We will be challenging that, not because we’re an impediment to independence, but because we want to win independence.”

It’s not just Nato that now concerns left-wing independence supporters such as Shafi, but the SNP’s reformed economic agenda. In May last year, the party published the report of its Sustainable Growth Commission, which called for “sterlingisation” – retaining the UK’s currency without a say in its governance – and outlined a plan for deficit reduction, interpreted by critics as implying up to a decade of austerity after independence. “It’s a neoliberal document,” said Shafi, that “wouldn’t even grant Scotland its economic sovereignty.”

The most fruitful and intriguing debate at RIC was about how the independence movement should respond if Sturgeon’s call for a second referendum is rejected. For RIC, the overwhelming answer was mass civil disobedience. Robin McAlpine, the director of the Common Weal think-tank, called for a “Committee for the Defence of Democracy,” made up of expert organisers and strategists who might coordinate an escalation of activity from “protest”, to “non-cooperation”, to “non-violent civil disobedience”. Comparisons were made with Catalonia. But Scotland is not Catalonia, lacking both the intensity of state repression and the clearer ethno-linguistic differentiation that have helped to radicalise Catalan nationalists.

The most provocative discussion of civil disobedience came from the journalist Michael Gray, who – in an indication of the movement’s curious digital hierarchies – was advertised in the programme as someone “well known for his tweets on legal matters” and “recently produced a video outlining his strategy for independence”. His proposal is – in contrast to RIC’s general approach – firmly “gradualist,” proposing to wait until well into the 2020s before independence might be achieved.

But he also noted the burning questions of social injustice in Scotland that could be met with urgent – and potentially popular – policy measures that at present remain Westminster’s responsibility. The opening of a safe drug consumption room in Glasgow, for instance, would provide a long overdue way of reducing drug deaths (Scotland has the highest rate of drug deaths in the EU) and rising HIV rates in the city. But despite support from MSPs and campaign groups, the Home Office is refusing to approve it.

Gray’s proposal is that the Scottish government should simply do things like this anyway, and dare Westminster to overrule it – opening up the courts to a symbolic clash of legitimacy between Scottish popular sentiment and the British state that he believes would benefit radicals and nationalists alike. The same approach could be taken on immigration, with Scotland becoming a “sanctuary” for migrants by refusing to enforce Home Office policy. But it’s not clear how the idea of a hard rupture with the British state can add many points to the polls, especially now that Jeremy Corbyn – barely mentioned, intriguingly enough – is offering a programme of radical disruption for the UK as a whole.

Looming over the RIC conference was the prospect of an SNP demonstration in Glasgow’s George Square on 2 November, at which Nicola Sturgeon – whose absence at AUOB rallies had begun to draw criticism – was due to appear.

The SNP opted to co-organise the George Square event with the National, correctly identifying the newspaper as a hinge-point between itself and AUOB that could nevertheless be kept firmly in line and on-message.

Tommy Sheridan and Joanna Cherry were nowhere to be seen, and the line-up was mostly a festival of Sturgeon loyalists. The message discipline was organic and impeccable: almost every speaker focused on the inclusivity, diversity and respectfulness of the movement, with the SNP’s Humza Yousaf MSP belting out his call for a “rainbow nation” as the LGBTQ+ flag fluttered beside the stage. Mike Russell, the party’s Brexit spokesman, announced that Scotland’s “lifeboat is ready to launch, it is fully provisioned, it is seaworthy”, promoting the “Brexit or independence” strategy with gusto. His brief dalliance with the movement’s great unsayable enemy – “we cannot save England from itself” – was soothingly pre-empted by the National columnist Paul Kavanagh, who asked the crowd to yell “We love the English!” to a lukewarm response.

Finally, Sturgeon took to the stage to deliver a boilerplate speech, the raucous response to which was a foregone conclusion from the moment her involvement was announced. Nicola Sturgeon still commands a deep respect, and when she has the attention of her party and her movement, they are likely to do what she says. The question – and the danger – is what they will do, or not do, when she doesn’t have their attention.

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I arrived at the rally late, but missed almost nothing: some kind of malfunction in the sound system had delayed the speeches considerably, and I arrived to find thousands of nationalists standing quietly in the rain, waiting for something to happen. Even when the speeches began, it was hard to make out what was being said. A small unionist counter-protest at the back of the rally was trying to drown out the speeches with whistles, but the main interference came from the general murmur of the crowd. Speakers stood on a small stage that was barely visible over the heads of the crowd, and while a live stream was beamed on to a big screen, even this was hard to see through a forest of saltires on enormous, 18-foot flagpoles.

It was, in a way, very impressive. The cause is big, bold, and hard to ignore. The SNP has spent decades honing a pitch-perfect message of pluralistic, gradual progress towards independence for Scotland, one which it hopes can still squeeze past some formidable obstacles. But far more than in the referendum campaign of 2014, the SNP is finding it difficult to transmit that message to its own mass movement which, in all its colourful muttering enthusiasm, is struggling to hear it. 

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.

 

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want