The Past Week of Scotland’s Future

By Stephen Bowman

It’s been a big week in Scottish politics and I think I’ve only now digested most of what’s been happening. Of course, it all kicked off on Tuesday with the release of the Scottish Government’s ‘Scotland’s Future’ white paper on independence, which meant that the rest of the week was taken up with discussion, debate and reaction from various people. There was the (predictably) immediate criticism of the white paper by Alistair Darling on Tuesday, then the casual anti-Scottish racism and gobsmacking ignorance of the panellists on Channel 5’s Wright Stuff on Wednesday morning. Then, that evening, there was the verbal mauling of Alistair Carmichael by Nicola Sturgeon during a debate on STV, and a statement from the Spanish Prime Minister about Scotland’s potential EU membership (which was really directed at Catalonia, but which was lapped up with indecent relish by the Unionists all the same).

One of the major criticisms of the white paper has been that it reads like an SNP election manifesto. It’s true that parts of it do, though it’s also true that there are some important questions answered, including in relation to a future independent Scotland’s diplomatic representation. Yet the focus on policies like childcare – which has grabbed the headlines, and which is indeed one aspect of the white paper that would seem more at home in a party political publication – is a noteworthy development. Though the SNP have long proposed a distinctly moderate and pragmatic version of independence (retaining the monarchy, for example), the white paper’s childcare policy would seem partly to be in response to the Unionists’ attempt to conduct the independence debate as though it were an election campaign, focussing on a variety of technicalities and policy issues. It’s a tactic that has tended to bring the tone of the debate down, and has deliberately obscured its intellectual and ideological nuances.

Last night’s BBC Question Time from Falkirk was a case in point. For the first time ever, the panel was made up of an equal number of Unionists and Yes campaigners. The debate, however, was, for the most part, petty and mundane. It was a bit like a goal mouth stramash at a World Cup Final: the occasion would seem to demand a more solemn, higher-level performance, but was a messy, routine and unedifying spectacle nonetheless Yet, it was also instructive of the different strands that run through the argument for an independent Scotland, with the three pro-independence speakers each representing one of those strands. Firstly, Nicola Sturgeon – who, along with Alex Salmond, is primarily responsible for the white paper – represented the SNP’s pragmatic and policy-driven approach. Secondly, the singer Eddi Reader was indicative of a more nationalistic approach underpinned by a belief in Scotland’s right to self-determination. It was largely left to the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, to articulate the deeper ideological, societal and political transformational potential of independence, as well as to offer a strong challenge to the unpleasant xenophobic assumptions behind a question on immigration posed by a member of the Question Time audience

In truth, the three pro-independence panellists each called upon the different elements of independence. Indeed, that is the strength of the Yes message. Faced with these three strands, the No campaign can only tie itself up in knots. It demands policy answers from the SNP. It gets them and, in response, can only offer voters visions of uncertainty within the Union, for example Carmichael’s inability to guarantee Scotland would receive more devolved powers or that Britain would remain in the EU (interestingly, this is indicative of what would seem another change in the approach of the Yes campaign: it’s doing a bit of scaremongering of its own now). The No campaign says that there is no democratic deficit on the occasions that Scotland votes against the Tories but gets a Tory government at Westminster, yet at the same time is required to recognise Scotland as a nation with a right to self-determination. This recognition is implied by the very fact of the referendum, and was explicitly made by Labour’s Margaret Curran last night on Question Time. It’s also present whenever members of the No campaign mistakenly think it’s a good idea to go on about how much they love Scotland, as though it matters. Then, underlying all of this, is the ideological rejection of neo-liberal Westminster rule and the opportunity provided by independence to try a new form of progressive government. This should present a problem for Labour, who need to explain why they are happy to oppose progressive societal change with which they presumably agree, while at the same time propping up the Tories as part of the Better Together campaign.

So it’s been a fascinating and complicated week, in what is a fascinating and complicated debate. It remains to be seen what effect the SNP’s focus on specific policies, like childcare, will have. Even though this focus would appear partly a response to the Unionists’ approach, this suits the SNP. Simply, they are offering more attractive and more progressive policies, and this may yet prove decisive in the referendum. At the same time, however, it is important for the independence debate to remain grounded in a narrative of lasting and fundamental social change, as was so eloquently expressed last night by Patrick Harvie. Give that man a lollipop, or – even better – a more prominent role in Yes Scotland.

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The Dissuasion of Scotland from its independence: an examination of the routine defeat of an interesting political movement, c. 2011-2014.

Campaingers marching for independence in September 2013. They were defeated a year later.

Campaingers marching for independence in September 2013. They were defeated a year later.

By Stephen Bowman

In September 2014, the people of Scotland voted for their country to remain in the United Kingdom (UK) rather than to become an independent state. Precisely why Scots rejected the idea of independence as outlined by the Scottish National Party-dominated ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign group has been the focus of considerable historiographical debate. Some writers have suggested that most Scots remained happy with the level of devolution already granted to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. This interpretation chimes with remarks made in 1995 by the Labour politician George Robertson, who had argued that Scottish devolution would ‘kill Nationalism stone dead.’ This has led some writers to over-emphasise the politics of identity. Such writers tend to describe the rejection of Scottish independence as a rejection of Scottish national identity, with some pointing to an apparent resurgence in ‘Britishness’ in the 2010s as one of the reasons for this. The royal wedding in 2011 and the popularity of Prince William and Princess Katherine, combined with the London Olympics and Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee in 2012, have been used as examples of occasions when the constituent nations of Britain were able to come together and celebrate a shared identity under the monarchy.

There are, however, a number of problems with this interpretation. Firstly, Scots had a strong sense of identity within the UK and did not regard independence as a question of identity, or even necessarily of Scottish nationalism. To most Scots, nationhood and identity were self-evident facts:  in or out of the UK. Secondly, writers have over-emphasised the relevance of the monarchy to people both in Scotland and England. This has been shown in recent years, with the abdication of King George and the subsequent establishment of a republican form of government in Edinburgh resulting in no evident increase in calls for English independence from Holyrood. A final school of thought has suggested that Scotland voted ‘no’ following what is presented as a ‘deep, meaningful and intellectual national conversation’, through which the subtle ideological nuances of the debate were maturely addressed by both sides. According to some writers, only then did Scots reject the Nordic model of social democracy offered by the Yes campaign in favour of Anglo-American neoliberalism. Such writers have, however, been widely discredited.

In contrast to the other studies reviewed above, this article contends that immediate short-term political considerations and events – including fears over the pensions system in an independent Scotland and the possibility that England would impose border patrols –  in the twelve months leading up to the 18 September 2014 referendum were crucial factors in determining the outcome of the vote. Foremost amongst these events was the decision in November 2013 to end shipbuilding in the English city of Portsmouth in favour of keeping open the BAE Systems yards in Glasgow. This resulted in a short-term spell of acrimony between Scotland and England, with workers in Portsmouth believing that the UK Government had influenced BAE’s decision to keep shipbuilding on the Clyde in an effort to encourage Scots to vote against independence. Even though it has since been demonstrated that the UK Government did not encourage BAE to favour Glasgow over Portsmouth, and while it seemed that anti-Scottish sentiment in England would push Scots towards independence, other factors ultimately ensured a ‘no’ vote. Like the pensions and border control controversies, these were the result of a concerted effort by Unionists to highlight the uncertainties of the independence project.

In relation to shipbuilding, Unionists argued that the Royal Navy – BAE’s principal client – would no longer build ships in Glasgow if Scotland became independent. Many Unionists quoted Article 346 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allowed European states an exemption from European Union (EU) procurement law when building military vessels. The full implications and precise meaning of Article 346 were never made clear. It was argued, however, that UK warships could not be built outside of the UK without the contracts going out to tender across Europe, in which case Scotland would have been at a natural disadvantage. In truth, it was likely that the UK Government could have placed orders in an independent Scotland without breaching procurement law, if it was demonstrated that doing so was in the national interest, for example if the UK Government wished to continue working with the London-based BAE Systems.

Even though some Unionists had interpreted Article 346 inaccurately, it was suggested that independence could result in the end of shipbuilding on the Clyde. Crucially, the South West Glasgow Member of Parliament (MP), Ian Davidson, argued that, if the BAE yard in Glasgow was awarded a construction contract from the Royal Navy prior to the vote in September 2014, then the Navy should have been permitted to cancel the order if Scotland became independent. That this would result in thousands of job losses in his constituency, or that – since the closure of Portsmouth – there was nowhere else in the British Archipelago to build warships, did not enter public discourse. Instead, his message resonated with Scottish voters, increasing numbers of whom were persuaded by the Better Together campaign’s core argument that Scotland was simply unable to become independent. Scotland was a unique country that would have been unable to raise enough taxes to pay for public services, would not have had a military because nobody would have wanted to join it, would have been at risk from terrorist attacks because it would not have been part of Britain’s intelligence sharing network (even though this would have disadvantaged the remainder of the UK, given that a considerable amount of Irish Republican activity historically occurred in Scotland) and that it had very little to offer the European community and, as a result, would have been thrown out of the EU (even though this happened by default when the rest of the UK voted to leave the EU following a referendum in 2017).

As such, the independence referendum of 2014 was an interesting attempt to alter the political landscape of the British Isles. Yet, contrary to what some historians have written, separation was avoided not because of an underlying ideological commitment to neoliberalism. Nor was it because of an allegedly resurgent Scotto-Britishness. Rather, the Unionist’s core message that there was too much uncertainty surrounding the potential outcome of independence, and that Scotland was singularly too diminutive and economically unstable a country to make it work, appealed to voters from across the political spectrum. In so doing, the Unionists successfully ensured that the independence debate centred on mundane, short-term issues and technicalities, while also making clear that self-government represented a potentially dangerous hindrance and inconvenience to every facet of Scottish society. This was the way in which the debate about the future of Scotland was conducted in the early years of the twenty-first century.