Scottish nationalists must confront reality: there is no obvious route to independence

The constitutional and political paths to a second referendum are currently blocked.

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By the end of the 1980s, Scotland was in political limbo. Supporters of a Scottish parliament, bolstered by growing popular and institutional support for their cause, were up against an obstinate Conservative government at Westminster. The result was the creation of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, drawing together the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green Parties and the remnants of the Communist Party, along with the trade unions, churches, local councils and other representative bodies. These leading elements of Scotland’s own autonomous civil society constituted themselves as the most legitimate voice of a nation under alien rule, articulating a clear and anti-Thatcherite vision of Scottish political identity which continues to shape political discourse north of the border.

For all the excitement around such a direct challenge to the state’s legitimacy, there was still no obvious way for Scotland’s self-determinists to advance from the convention to their goal of a parliament without Westminster’s support. In one famous speech, Canon Kenyon Wright, the Convention’s chair, asked what would happen if “that voice we know so well” said “no” to Scotland’s democratic aspirations. He responded that “we say ‘yes’, and we are the people.” This was, for all its rhetorical power, effectively meaningless, inviting exactly the same question again.

The Convention’s emphasis on giving a unified and clarifying voice to Scotland’s demands did not solve the more basic problem, which was a question of force, not feeling. The civil disobedience campaign against the poll tax may have made some feel differently, but in 1989 Scots were not about to join central and eastern Europeans in the rapids of democratic revolution. So long as the Conservatives retained their monopoly on the legitimate use of force, Wright’s “we say ‘yes’” meant little.

In the week before the 2014 independence referendum, Wright’s endorsement of another “yes” was announced – a richly symbolic victory for the SNP, reinforcing their efforts to portray independence as a continuation of devolution rather than a break from it. Yet after the Conservatives’ general election victory plunged Scotland into a new limbo, the limits of Wright’s rhetoric are all too clear.

After winning a majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats (48 of 59), on top of a pre-existing majority for an independence referendum at Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon can claim a mandate to hold one. The Scottish government has published a detailed case for a referendum, titled Scotland’s Right to Choose. The Conservatives have pointed out that the constitution remains a reserved UK matter, and doubled down on their opposition.

Having refused Sturgeon’s formal request for a second referendum earlier this week, the Conservatives’ latest line is that they will not agree to another referendum for up to 50 years – a laughably extreme commitment, which suggests that Boris Johnson intends to repeat the strategy of escalating constitutional conflict which worked so well in the run-up to the general election. As openDemocracy’s Adam Ramsay put it in his analysis of the election, “Boris Johnson made politics awful, then asked people to vote it away.”

Some nationalists seem intent on walking straight into the trap, raising money to challenge the UK government in the courts – a move straight out of the 2019 losers’ playbook. But as the academics Chris McCorkindale and Aileen McHarg suggest in their highly informative explainer, this risks producing a politically damaging denial of Scotland’s right to hold a referendum. They emphasise that it is politics, not law, that will determine the fate of a second referendum. The SNP is aiming to strengthen its mandate further in the Scottish parliament election in 2021, but there is no obvious reason that this will change the mind of a Conservative Party that has already found electoral riches in the no man’s land between legitimacy and its opposite.

In the absence of a clear route to constitutional power, what can the SNP do? This is not a new problem, so the first place to look is the past. In the 1960s, a clique of veteran nationalist intellectuals and other eccentrics calling themselves the “1320 Club” dreamt up their own strategy for a unilateral declaration of independence, in which the SNP would win a majority of Scottish seats, abandon the Westminster benches and set up their own provisional government in Edinburgh. Efforts to establish an “Army of the Provisional Government” to support such a plan led to this group’s expulsion from the SNP, and the bungled paramilitary schemes of the “Tartan Army” landed a handful of social outcasts and wayward romantics in prison with little further consequence.

In 1981, Jim Sillars and other left-wing members of the SNP launched a “Scottish Resistance” campaign of civil disobedience, which resulted in nothing more exciting than a trip to Gayfield Square Police Station after Sillars was caught breaking into Edinburgh’s old Royal High School building, the proposed site of a Scottish Assembly in the 1970s. In the mid-Eighties, other left-wingers in the SNP – including Kenny MacAskill, a former Scottish government justice secretary and the new MP for East Lothian – published a pamphlet arguing that nationalists must ally with the labour movement to ensure that “industrial muscle” could compensate for their rejection of political violence. But an organised working class under lethal pressure from both the British state and increasingly globalised capital had little time or energy left to spend on yet another confrontation.

If nationalists want to explore the prospects for an extra-parliamentary route to independence, they should first examine the historical record. There are profound obstacles to success, beyond a stubborn British state, that go deep into the fabric of Scotland’s culture and economy. Scotland’s voters are, by and large, not sufficiently invested in independence to believe that another referendum is worth prison time, and its trade unions are in no fit state to bring the British economy to its knees. Time and again, efforts to turn nationalist morality into physical force have failed – embarrassingly – upon their first encounter with the law. Extinction Rebellion has shown that direct action can shift attitudes and force an issue up the agenda, but that still doesn’t bridge the gulf between popular feeling and state power.

It was not ultimately the extra-parliamentary power of industrial struggle or national liberation that secured a Scottish parliament, but voters in England who switched from John Major to Tony Blair in 1997. The great irony of devolution’s triumph is that, in spite of the claims about Scotland’s innate leftism which underpinned much of it, it relied on a government defined by compromise with England’s deep conservatism. 

The questions the independence movement should be asking do not produce encouraging answers: can England develop a sudden appetite for Scottish self-determination? Can Scotland slide into open rebellion? Could the Tories’ Scottish voters decide that they want a referendum after all? Will the international community come running to the rescue? Can Labour seriously win the next general election? If the answer to all of these is “no”, then it doesn’t matter how loudly “the people say ‘yes’”: the answer is still “no”. The strategy of the SNP and the independence movement must now be directed towards shifting at least one of those factors into the “yes” camp.

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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.