A renewed search for Yes amidst the debris of Brexit

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Commentary by Christopher Silver

On the morning of June 24 last year, when the UK decided to leave the European Union, there was little comfort to be had.

Christopher Silver

Ever since, people in every corner of Britain have had to live with a sense of being trapped in a country that is hurtling, at breakneck speed, away from the kind of future they envisioned.

For some of us, that is still a largely abstract concern, for others, it’s a real and visceral threat to their capacity to belong here. This is the nature of trying to sever a web of connections.

Received wisdom

However, mixed in with the knowledge about a demonstrably disastrous decision, there was an element of excitement.

All of the received wisdom about Scottish politics suggested that Scotland’s vote to Remain, set alongside the UK-wide to decision to Leave, was a gift of immense political capital for the cause of Scottish independence.

For a fleeting moment it seemed to offer a promise as portentous and fateful as the vote to Leave itself.

That logic is not hard to fathom. Essentially, it holds that when politics in Scotland and England diverge, the opportunities for promoting Scottish self-rule must increase.

Ideologically, as the UK becomes more nationalistic, insular and right-wing, the credibility of independence as a political project should receive a shot in the arm. It may even inch towards that precious goal of becoming viewed as a necessity.

Like many others, I was wrong in promoting such assumptions. The old tropes: a democratic deficit, an out-of-touch Westminster, a braying British nationalism, were all there in abundance. But the chord that the Brexit result struck amongst Scots has turned out to be dissonant.

Scottish civil society has not leapt to the fore to assert the nation’s place in Europe. Cross-party efforts have been stymied by the overbearing politics of a second referendum. In fact, the positioning of independence as a possible route out of Brexit has provided the tactical cover to obscure pro-Remain sentiment across the Scottish Parliament.

At the same time, the political leverage exercised by the SNP has turned out to be flimsy and readily ignored. A nation that said Yes to Europe on two separate occasions by a clear majority, looks set to be quiescent when it comes to the crunch.

Why, then, has the Brexit crisis failed to offer the kind of rallying opportunities that planted the seeds of the 2014 Yes Movement in the 1980s?

The answer is probably that, thus far, Brexit has remained a crisis played out amongst the political elites and the professional classes. What many decried as Corbyn’s weakness in 2016 turned out to be a major boon in the recent snap election: the Labour leader simply didn’t have much to say on the subject and he remained largely unscathed by either side.

The referendum route 

The SNP has moved a long way from its last major electoral set back in 1979.

In the early days of Thatcherism, Jim Sillars called for civil disobedience to resist Tory rule, telling delegates at the party’s 1981 conference, ‘We have to be prepared to accept that the cell doors will clank behind some of us.’

Clearly, the party is facing a very different set of decisions after the 2017 General Election result and the loss of half a million votes.

But the current impasse has partly emerged due to the SNP’s shift towards a central focus on holding an independence referendum. This is a policy that is widely regarded as having been pivotal in offering a route for voters sceptical of independence to back the party in other electoral contests.

It is not hard to see why many have fallen for the temptation of thinking that the case for independence would simply become self-evident if the SNP governed well enough. Strategies that promote continuity and defer the need for change are always likely to be more alluring.

Electoral success is also the best means to smooth over internal dissent. The almost mythic discipline of the party in Holyrood and Westminster can partly be attributed to the fact that it has been able to distribute an expanding set of front-bench and committee posts for a decade.

Beyond continuity 

Yesterday, the First Minister noted, “the focus on the when and how of a referendum has, perhaps inevitably, been at the expense of setting out the many reasons why Scotland should be independent.”

An offer of a more inclusive approach to the wider community of people of support independence but are not supporters of the SNP, was long overdue. The movement is not the party.

The acknowledgment of an over-reliance on the procedural aspects of getting Scottish statehood was also significant.

Whether it was the Yes Scotland strategist who described independence as a simply extending the Scotland Act to cover all areas of Scottish life, or as the last step on a “home rule journey,” voters could be forgiven, at points, for thinking that priority in framing independence was that it would involve minimal disruption. Continuity of process became confused with continuity of vision.

Setting the context 

The apogee of this process-heavy mentality was the response to the Brexit referendum. But its obverse face was seen in 2014 when, as much by accident as design, the enormous task of shifting support for independence beyond its traditional level of around 25 per cent was devolved to a range of autonomous groups and local community-led campaigns.

That freedom of action, thought and vision was a new force in Scottish politics. But it also had deep roots: drawing on substantive inter-generational traditions of protest and working class organisation.

If the protest politics of the 1980s – against Apartheid, Trident or the Poll Tax – were all too easily dismissed in the light of consistent Conservative victories at the ballot box, it seems hard to imagine the success of devolution without them.

The political context for the setting up of a Scottish Constitutional Convention was about creating a bulwark against Tory rule. The pressing political concerns of the day and the impact this was having on working class Scotland, were intimately bound up with the great shift in opinion between 1979 and 1997.

Out of the trauma of that decade, emerged something that looked like the future.

A place to stand

It is also worth noting that a key milestone in the SNP’s recovery after the disaster of 1979 were the 1988 local elections, in which the SNP doubled its share of the vote and its number of councillors, replacing the Tories as the second party of local government in Scotland.

That vote took place in the context of the party’s vociferous opposition to the Poll Tax: specifically, its support of non-payment at a moment when Labour was torn on the issue.

This success would be carried forward in the 1992 General Election which  saw the party’s vote share experience a major recovery across Scotland, with a 7.4% swing (despite First Past the Post denying a rise in its number of seats).

Policies of non-cooperation, that go beyond protest and mitigation, have the capacity to move the perceptions of the wider Brexit crisis, with its desire economic implications, onto ground that can find the back of majority opinion in Scotland. Radical politics is, first and foremost, about finding a place to stand.

Brexit and Britishness

Somewhat perversely, the current situation is also the result of the sharp edge of the ‘democratic deficit’ being blunted by devolution. As we saw on 8 June, many people in Scotland are now prepared to vote Tory, safe in the knowledge that Holyrood offers them a shelter from the worst excesses of Tory policy.

Add to this the historic comfort of the cosmopolitan Scottish professional classes within the Union – those people for whom Scottish nationalism is a matter restricted to Murrayfield – and you have the deeply ingrained reasons for Brexit failing to shift opinion on the constitution.

Sections of the poor in Scotland, many of them SNP voters, are as alienated from Europe as they are from any other part of the status-quo. At the same time, the rich know full well that sticking with British identity always has, and probably always will, serve their best interests.

Who needs independence?

Independence, at any moment, will be inherently risky. Devolved government was designed to circumscribe risk and the radical wielding of power.

But if there is one lesson that every occupant of Bute House has struggled with: it is that political capital has to be shared and invested. It cannot be hoarded.

This is why, as the SNP seeks to refresh its programme for government with ‘creative, imaginative, bold and radical policies’ it needs to outline a transformative vision.

It must be a vision that is in harmony with, but that doesn’t seek to monopolise, the wider work of planning how to build a country from scratch.

In doing so, it needs to reconnect with its base and reach out to the communities in Scotland that were prepared to back independence in 2014. The poorer, the younger, the excluded – those who cried loudest for change, and those who need it the most.