Is Scotland Closer to Independence?

Is Scotland Closer to Independence?

Elections in Scotland confirmed the position of the nationalists. But what vision of an independent future are its supporters backing?


In 1984, amid her battle with Britain’s miners, Margaret Thatcher warned that her opponents wanted to turn the country into a “museum society.” If the UK were to renew its power and relevance, she argued, its “old” and “uneconomic” heavy industries had to be jettisoned, regardless of their value to the communities and cultures they sustained.

This forced-march vision of “modernization” only entrenched the Conservatives’ unpopularity in large swaths of the Midlands and North of England; and in some ways a “museum society” really did emerge there, not just through efforts to conserve and commemorate industrial heritage, but also through a lingering persistence of the loyalties and beliefs forged by industry, including support for the Labour Party. When Thatcher died in 2013, at least one deindustrialized town, Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire, held a celebratory procession, replete with miners’ banners and burning effigies.

Things are beginning to change. On May 6, elections to devolved legislatures were held in Scotland, Wales, and London, as well as local authority and mayoral elections throughout the UK. In many former Labour heartlands in England, the Conservatives managed to consolidate or expand on the startling gains they made in the 2019 general election. In Hartlepool, a steel town in the north of England devastated by unemployment in the 1980s, a by-election to the UK Parliament saw the Conservatives sweep aside the Labour Party for the first time since 1959.

Peter Mandelson, the town’s former Labour MP and an architect of Tony Blair’s modernizing New Labour project, offered one explanation for Conservative success in an interview with the New Statesman on May 11. While campaigning in the “old council estates,” he had been “struck” by “what owner-occupation and new private housebuilding has done; there’s a smartness and tidiness to those houses and their gardens.… I can see people are proud of what they’ve achieved, they’re aspirational, and they’re not so sure now that they’ve achieved that with Labour.”

Faithful to center-left politics

If places like Hartlepool are finally exiting the museum, they are doing so through the gift shop. Boris Johnson’s failures in the pandemic have been eclipsed by the glow of a successful NHS vaccination program. His government has promised regional investment to “level up” Britain’s geographical inequalities. Labour has been punished for its ambivalence toward Brexit, itself a kind of nostalgic compensation for a national community stripped of its industrial independence.

In Scotland, however, a different kind of museum society has emerged, and even thrived. Scotland’s Parliament, established in 1999, was demanded by trade unions, Scottish Nationalists, and the Labour and Communist parties throughout the 1980s and ’90s, as a means of defending Scottish industry. By the time it arrived, much of that industry had gone. In its place was—and is—a residual fidelity to center-left politics, a broad cross-class hostility to the Conservatives, and a popular faith in the “public sector ethos” that still legitimates Scotland’s overwhelmingly state-run public services. Deindustrialized England, with no separate English parliament or regional assemblies, has been forced to leave its memories of a more benevolent social state under Labour behind. In Scotland those memories were preserved—and institutionalized—in the Scottish Parliament. The ashes of the Scottish mineworkers’ leader and Communist Mick McGahey, one of the leading advocates of that parliament, are buried in the building’s foundations.

But preservation cannot eradicate all decay. If you looked for Scottish popular culture in the 1950s, you would find it in the shared languages and traditions of communities anchored in place by mines, shipyards, and factories. There, you would also hear echoes of the folk-streams that, over centuries, poured into the country’s industrializing central belt from the highlands and islands.

Today, there are few distinctive economic structures left from which a national popular culture can grow and renew itself. What do Amazon warehouses and Costa drive-throughs have to do with national culture? All Scotland has left to distinguish itself within Britain is politics; and it is politics that now serves as both the source and focus of national self-assertion. The Scottish Parliament has served the country well, staging an idea of Scottish difference that no longer springs from the everyday life of the people.

One of the things Thatcher never understood about the Scots is that they’re not averse to the idea of living in a museum, provided it’s their own. Having lost their statehood in 1707, history was all they had until the Parliament came along. But if Thatcher underestimated the appeal of “museum society,” Labour overestimated it, settling too comfortably into the role of custodians and guides once the Parliament was in place.

For the past decade or so, Scotland has shown signs of wanting something more than a parliament to remember itself by, and both Labour and the Conservatives are struggling to adjust. On the same day that Hartlepool elected a Conservative for the first time in over six decades, a record turnout for Scottish Parliament elections gave the Scottish National Party its fourth successive election victory, adding a seat to its previous tally of 63 out of 129, with 47 percent of the vote. Just one short of an outright majority, they can count on the support of the pro-independence Scottish Greens, who have increased their own numbers from six to eight.

The Conservatives managed to tread water as the main opposition party with an unchanged 31 seats, Labour fell from 24 to 22, and the Liberal Democrats dropped from five to four. Despite the apparent immobility of Scotland’s political makeup since 2016, it’s no coincidence that the only parties to increase their representation ran campaigns focused on the future. The SNP’s slogan was “Scotland’s future, Scotland’s choice.” The Greens said, “Vote like our future depends on it.” The three unionist parties fought over the terrain of “putting the recovery first” and stopping a second independence referendum.

Collapse of Labour’s support

Labour’s new, media-friendly leader Anas Sarwar aimed to “move on” from the constitutional deadlock, offering to work across the divide for a post-pandemic recovery. But his party offered no vision of where the country might move on to. In Scottish Labour’s eyes, Scottish politics need not stretch beyond public service delivery, cleaning up the consequences of Conservative UK governments while the nation waits for England to shift left again. Museum management, in other words, making sure the facilities keep functioning and the exhibits don’t fall to bits. The most obviously decrepit exhibit is Labour itself, whose former overwhelming support in Scotland completely collapsed in 2015, as those who voted yes in the 2014 independence referendum switched to the SNP en masse.

This kind of steady-state administration was also part of the SNP’s appeal, and Nicola Sturgeon has been a popular first minister thanks to her perceived competence and expert communication throughout the pandemic. Yet the SNP is also able to knit together a far broader range of attitudes toward Scotland’s museum society. The party is prohibitively strong in Labour’s old heartlands in the central belt and on the west coast. Many of their supporters there are still waiting for the old exhibits to come back to life, hoping that industrial vigor will return and social democracy can be revived in a small, globalized economy on the edge of Europe. But the party also performed well against Conservative challenges in less urbanized areas, where small-town communities and farmers cling to their own visions of sturdy, deep-rooted independence.

Professional classes’ SNP swing

Yet the SNP’s actual offer is more technocratic and globalizing, seeking to portray the country as a stable base for globe-trotting, future-facing corporations, and a welcoming, romantic homestead for ambitious young professionals. Their government’s “Scotland Is Now” campaign, whose advertisements show attractive young Scots speaking to Europe across the sea, styles the nation as “a forward-thinking country for people not only to visit, but to live, work, study and invest in.”

The SNP’s most symbolic election achievement was in the affluent, cosmopolitan seat of Edinburgh Central, won from the Conservatives by Angus Robertson, the nationalists’ former leader at Westminster. Robertson represents the modern SNP more clearly than perhaps anybody else, and is a potential successor to Sturgeon. A fluent German speaker and Europhile, he is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC World Service, and was instrumental in reversing his party’s decades-old opposition to NATO membership in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum.

His liberal, rule-following multilateralism is a snug fit with the party’s political realignment in the aftermath of Brexit, when Scotland’s cosmopolitan professional classes swung behind independence and the SNP in horror at the trajectory of British politics under Boris Johnson. Since 2019, more-affluent voters—many of whom voted remain in the EU referendum—have increasingly registered as evenly split or even supportive of independence in opinion polls, narrowing the class divide of the 2014 referendum.

The SNP’s dominance in postindustrial Scotland was built on the museum-logic of “reindustrialization,” a prominent theme during the party’s successful 2011 election campaign, alongside rhetorical opposition to the austerity agenda of the Conservative-Liberal coalition at Westminster. With Labour helpless and the other unionist parties shredding the social state, Scottish nationalism appropriated the best of Britain—its industrial and welfarist visions of citizenship, forged by Labour—and gave them a new, Scottish container.

Yet the party’s survival since then—sustained even while implementing austerity themselves—has been helped by a deft pivot toward another native tradition, expressed not in crumbling west-coast mining towns but in the elegant sandstone townhouses of Edinburgh Central: careful, cosmopolitan enlightenment, floating above the material struggles of the Great Recession and finding its calling in the defense of both reason and abstract morality against the blond-haired barbarians at the gate—Johnson, and Trump too.

This also requires the marginalization of more populist, impulsive elements within the independence movement itself; one of the stranger subplots of the election involved the establishment of Alba, a militantly nationalist breakaway from the SNP led by Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor as leader and first minister. Salmond’s plan to add Alba’s votes to a “supermajority” for independence, and instantly begin independence negotiations with the UK government in place of a referendum, crumbled on its first encounter with the electorate, who gave the party just 1.7 percent of the vote. This was not helped by Salmond’s widespread personal unpopularity after a spectacular court case acquitted him of several charges of sexual assault and attempted rape.

Scotland flexes

Yet the SNP’s politics of civic enlightenment are also an ideological museum piece, whose withering economic roots are well concealed by the pretense of immaterial transcendence. Agrarian Scotland was vanquished by the 18th- and 19th-century clearances; industrial Scotland met the same fate in the late 20th century; today, it is professional, public-sector Scotland that faces denationalization.

Austerity and neoliberalism turned even well-paid public-sector jobs into a swamp of competition and bureaucracy. The old totems of bourgeois public life such as newspapers and universities are being worn down by the “post-truth” anarchy of social media and the information revolution. In such a context, the appeal of an independent state has been accentuated by the presence of a Scottish government that has ostentatiously flexed its muscles throughout the pandemic, deploying its resources and authority not only to pursue a more severe lockdown than England’s, but also to bail out struggling national newspapers and arts companies.

Last year, Angus Robertson made his pitch to Edinburgh Central on the grounds that Scottish independence would make the city a “sovereign capital,” becoming “the focus of diplomatic preparations with scores of nations upgrading their consulates to embassies.” This is a vision not of reindustrialization but of bourgeois status-inflation, creating new opportunities for native elites, which might eventually trickle down to precarious workers in catering and hospitality.

Yet this structural tendency toward constitutional self-defense, perhaps the most consistent feature of Scottish political consciousness throughout its modern history, has never managed to break through into something more positive and proactive. A flexible, incorporating British state has usually been happy to expand the museum, to add a new wing or a new exhibit here and there, as the southeast of England inflicts its own vision of the future on the rest of the UK.

But the Conservatives have learned from previous constitutional adjustments, and appear unwilling to placate the Scots with further powers that the SNP might deploy to their own advantage. Nor are they likely to permit a referendum on independence, despite the clear-cut majority of pro-independence MSPs. Unionists have pointed to the far narrower margins in the cumulative vote shares of unionist and nationalist parties, indicating their hope that the continued fragility of the pro-independence coalition will cause it to crumble in the face of harder resistance. In locking the museum doors, however, they are risking an altogether more apocalyptic outcome.

The Scots, trapped inside with their own ghosts and memories, may finally grow tired of the very things that once made them British as well as Scottish. Independence was never likely to succeed if it was based on an attempt to salvage something from the past, which always carried reminders of a better Britain, as well as a wronged Scotland. Eventually, the doors of the museum will either be unlocked or battered down, and for the first time, the Scottish people may be sufficiently sick of their patriotic heritage to leave it behind altogether.

The great irony of independence is that when it happens, it will be an escape from Scotland’s past and present as much as a rejection of Britain, for the two can never really be disentangled. That may provide a poetic conclusion to the very process against which Scottish nationalism has been reacting: the transformation of the nation into just another bureaucratic link, emptied of all memory and meaning, in the chains of capital that bind the world together.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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