The Story of a Northern Rebellion and how it could remake Britain


By Gerry Hassan, New Statesman, January 16th 2012

The Westminster parties have a northern problem but they do not know what it is or what to do. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister, stands all-conquering, a nationalist hero to some; a one-man band of “El-Presidente Salmond” to others. The SNP’s “big tent” politic, social democratic and pro-business, leaves the opposition with little terrain to mark out; redolent of Tony Blair and New Labour at their peak in 1997.

How has this happened in such a cautious nation as Scotland? Are we witnessing a Scottish spring, a nation refinding its confidence, or as some claim a black and white nationalism becoming the new orthodoxy after decades of Labour control?

There is a long story in this. The Scottishing of Scottish politics has been ongoing for over a century. In late Victorian Britain the administrative making of a distinct Scottish political sphere began with the creation of a separate government department, the Scottish Office. This led to pressure for more political control and the creation of the cabinet post of the Secretary of State for Scotland, and its transformation under Thomas Johnston, wartime holder of the post from 1941-45, into a powerful, defining figure in Scottish life.

There followed progressively greater demands for democracy for Scotland, which eventually led to the establishment under the Blair government of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. With its arrival, Scottish politics changed irreversibly and its main faultline switched from pro- and anti-devolution, to pro- and anti-independence, preparing the way for the SNP ascendancy.

“Scotland is in a new place,” says Katie Grant, commentator and novelist. “The last [Scottish] election was cataclysmic for everyone. The collapse of the Tories is an old story. The collapse of Labour is what’s new.”

Many Tories have already washed their hands of Scotland and dream of losing 40 Labour seats north of the border. For them, Scotland is a subsidy junkie, state obsessed, entrepreneur free zone. Scotland was once characterised by powerful industries such as steel and shipbuilding, and robust trade and commerce, which made some Scots wealthy and influential, creating many of the middle class enclaves of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Alex Salmond makes the point that Scotland had the highest GDP per head in the world in 1900 and that this should be our modern aspiration. What he doesn’t mention is that the Scotland of 1900 didn’t exactly share its wealth and was a bitterly divided society, impoverished and harsh place.

As the Scottish economy was buffeted by the inter-war recessions, the reach and influence of the state expanded, setting up corporatist structures in the 1930s, and then promoting new industries and inward investment in the 1940s. Gradually, the state made its presence felt in most of the nooks and crannies of Scottish life, and this made the case for a distinct Scottish political sphere more compelling. At the same time, the British state’s role began to become increasingly questioned and challenged, with many Scots seeing the answer as a more distinctly Scottish state, more autonomous and democratically run.

The Paradoxes of Scottish Nationalism

Scottish nationalism isn’t the property of the SNP; it can be found across Scottish society and includes those who call themselves unionist – Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister and a Labour politician, once described himself as a “Scottish nationalist with a small ‘s’”. Nationalism has become one of the defining characteristics of Scottish society, culture and politics. It is to many the ultimate “banal nationalism”. However, it was once viewed, even north of the border, as something of interest only to eccentrics and oddballs, to those in tartan trousers, beards and sturdy plaid who made the annual pilgrimage of the Bannockburn Rally.

There remains residual power in these images. It can be seen in how the British political classes, Labour, Tory and Lib Dem, see independence. They view it as a maverick demand, something not to be taken completely seriously. How else to explain why neither of Scottish Labour’s remaining two big hitters, Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy, could be persuaded to return north to save their party and with it the Union? Either they think Labour is not worth saving, or they don’t believe the Union is in peril.

Scottish nationalism is a force of continuity as much as change. There is a powerful yearning for the Scotland and Britain of the period from 1945-75, for a society where there was more security, solidarity and compassion. There is palpable distrust of the British state’s commitment to keep to the “social contract” which was implicit in those years.

Fundamental in this is the slow decline of trust and legitimacy in the British state. The ebbing of trust can be seen across the western world but in Scotland it is related to the right wing drift of British politics since the late 1970s. The question of legitimacy is shaped by the long decline of the Scots Tories, which began at the height of the Macmillan era but then accelerated under Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher.

The SNP is a cautious and conservative party in many aspects, reflective of Scottish society and its shying away from any red-toothed radicalism of left, or heaven forefend, right. It has traditionally been the party of outsiders which has sat outside the institutional, entitlement culture of much of public life. It disliked the intricate web of public institutions and quangos but detested even more the carping, girning voices of the ubiquitous business lobby and particularly CBI Scotland.

SNP Scotland has traditionally been a land of outsiders, mavericks, self-starters, entrepreneurs and small businessmen and women; people who lived outside the big cities and sat outside the big public agencies and businesses. This group has for decades stood up to what they saw as overbearing Labour power. Now they find themselves being feted. Many in the public and voluntary sectors, if not business, now talk the nationalist talk. The SNP is slowly becoming the new establishment.

The Nationalist Vision

Where does this new force in the land want to take Scotland? What is the nationalist vision? It is of Scotland as a self-governing nation, and a belief that this profound change can have a transformative effect on the nation’s confidence, energy, international profile and more. David Torrance, biographer of Alex Salmond, thinks that “the trouble is that different sections of society project on to independence what they want it to mean, be they left, right and everything in between.’ This, he says, is “fine in uniting people towards a common goal, but the outcome inevitably can’t please everyone”.

Some don’t dispute this account but see a more nuanced SNP. The party leadership is implicitly post-nationalist rather than traditionally nationalist. A recent survey of the SNP membership by Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University showed a more pragmatic view of what independence is, at ease with sharing powers and sovereignties in the European Union and even the United Kingdom. The nationalists are as far as you could imagine from the old caricature of “separatists” still portrayed in unionist propaganda. The ancient, fossilised nationalists can be found at the heart of the British state. They are politicians such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, who each has fetishised the idea of “Britishness” as well as engaging in a late-in-the-day nation-building project.

The British nationalists of Labour and the Conservatives and, by extension, the Lib Dems don’t see themselves as such, but that is what their worldview is with its introverted obsessions about parliamentary sovereignty, the British way of life and, in the Tory version, of standing up to Brussels.

Unfortunately for the SNP, their greatest hour has come at the point of the biggest crisis in the history of the EU – a crisis which poses huge questions and dilemmas for them as well.  The fast-changing European events make life much more difficult for the independence project. While it would seem highly likely that an independent Scotland would be welcomed into the EU, there are other issues. The SNP want to retain sterling as Scotland’s currency, while keeping their options open of joining the euro at a later date; some have pointed out that this could leave an independent Scotland still dominated by the Treasury.

The SNP vision of the future and the soul of the party and its members is not independence but self-government and statehood. Constitutional observers such as Robert Hazell of the UCL based Constitution Unit see all this as “fuzziness”. How can the Scots dare to think of such fundamental constitutional change in such an inexact way? “Does the SNP want Scotland to be independent or not?” he asks.

What requires further elucidation is the differences between the options of full fiscal autonomy or “devo max”, statehood and independence. For all the Labour and Tory talk of “separatism”, most Scottish voters see constitutional change as a continuum of more powers, and do not see a fundamental break between “devo max” and reforming the Union, and independence, and supposedly ending it.

The new Scottish Labour line led by Johann Lamont, the sixth leader in a dozen years, is to refuse to play ball with any SNP moves to offer votes on “devo max” and independence at the same time. This is because, argues Labour, devolution and independence are entirely different and “separate processes”.

Trouble is voters do not think like Labour wants them to. The Scottish public may be a bit hazy about what independence means, but they see it as an evolution, rather than rupture; a continuation of the journey Scotland is already on. The language of “separatism” is Labour and Tories talking to themselves.

There are policy differences between fiscal autonomy, statehood and independence. Fiscal autonomy would see Scotland control most if not all of its domestic life. Statehood is a more explicitly nationalist version of this, and one which could evolve or not to full independence.

The differences between statehood and independence come down to how Scotland wants to see and present itself in the world and issues of defence, foreign affairs and Trident. William Walker, an expert in these areas, takes the view that “London would not like to give Scotland power or a say in going to war, Trident and the real big decisions”.

Perhaps to the incomprehension of unionist thinking the real divide in Scotland is not between the union and ‘separatism’, but between ideas of fiscal autonomy on the one hand and statehood and independence on the other. The first is a technocratic, policy wonk fix about better governance; the second is about emotions, story and how Scotland sees itself as a nation.

These are the instrumental and intrinsic motivations of Scottish politics, with Labour parked in the former on devolution and the SNP in the latter; you need to have both, but Labour for too long have over-emphasised the former, and barely understand the latter; the SNP post-devolution straddle both.

The Tory Scottish Challenge

The deciding factor in much of this may well be the British government. If the Cameron administration plays a careful, astute game it could probably accommodate Scottish wishes for greater autonomy in a reformed and altered Union.

However, this week Cameron seems to have abandoned this strategy instead going for an approach which devolves in a limited, legally tight way the power to the Scottish Government to hold a Yes/No independence referendum, and excluding other options.

What is crucial is how the Tories understand Scotland. There is a long rich Tory tradition pre-Thatcher of a pragmatic, decentralist unionism which has been more flexible than Labour with its centralist traditions has ever been. Some had assumed that this Tory sense of the Union and the statecraft and wit it contains would be evident in the next few years. That the Tories would not fall into the trap of playing “the bogey man”.

But the Conservatives are struggling. Cameron has until now given Scotland scant thought. “Scotland is somewhere he has gone on holiday,” says Torrance. “He associates [it] with posh places, posh foods and some posh friends.”

There is the damaging issue of who is advising on Cameron on Scotland. Almost by default and there being no one else this has fallen to Michael Forsyth, the last Tory Secretary of State for Scotland. His abrasive unionism and right-wing views cost the Scots Tories all their Westminster seats in 1997 from which they have not recovered. It is Forsyth who has pushed the idea of calling Salmond’s bluff by forcing an immediate referendum; this is something which could have worked pre-2011 when all the unionist parties were against a vote, but now looks desperate with a majority SNP Government.

There is the constitutional illiteracy of a large part of the British political class and experts in this debate talking of the need for a legally binding UK Government approved referendum, rather than Scots “advisory” vote, forgetting that according to the myths of parliamentary sovereignty, all such votes are “advisory”.

Scottish majority opinion would like to have an open, mature conversation about the nature of the relationship which is the Union; its aspirations could be described as looking for a more modern marriage, a bit more respect in a partnership of equals.

Unionist opinion has got to start taking the situation more seriously, and engage in a genuine debate about the future of Scotland, the Union and ultimately the future of the United Kingdom. For most Scots that involves creating a conversation and spaces which is not about the spats and insults between “unionists” and “nationalists” which excludes most of Scotland and empowers the most tribal and vociferous. Instead, behind much of this debate is the Scots search for a voice and polity which gives them confidence in their centre-left traditions which they no longer trust the British state to protect and articulate.

The Scottish political debate has its romantic nationalists, but much more important now is a growing confidence that Scots can do things better themselves, and a lack of faith in what is widely seen as a diminished, even deformed British political system which gave us Thatcher and Blair.

Scotland stands on the brink of historic change with consequences for all the Union. This is the story of a small modern nation; it is about the future, democracy and ambition, not about past battles, anniversaries and folklore, or having the referendum close to the anniversary of Bannockburn.

Scottish nationalism at the moment of its greatest triumph so far, has shown a mixture of pragmatism and idealism which has taken it far. It now stands closer than ever to its ultimate prize, Scottish independence. What is interesting is that the SNP may interpret this in a way which remakes and maintains some kind of political co-operation, even union, and in so doing develops a very different kind of Britain. Would it not be a turn-up if Alex Salmond delivered the kind of far-reaching constitutional change which UK reformers have long dreamed of, and which in “breaking up” Britain also dragged it into the modern democratic age?


Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –