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After Brexit #12

Scottish Separatism and the Void

Peter Ramsay

9 May 2021

Scottish voters have just elected a parliament with a majority of Scottish National Party (SNP) and Green members, who favour seceding from the UK and joining the EU. When put in historical perspective, the influence of Scottish separatism can be seen as another baleful consequence of the wider void in British party politics. British democrats urgently need to develop a new democratic politics that can reconstitute the British nation and defeat the SNP.

1. Until 1707, Scotland was a separate state from England with its own monarch, parliament and state religion. The Scottish people have always retained a consciousness of themselves as a different people from the English. While the cultural and linguistic differences between the majority of the population in the two countries are small, Scotland has retained distinctive state institutions, including its own legal and education systems. For three centuries, however, these politically minor distinctions between Scottish and English society were accommodated within the United Kingdom without great difficulty.

2. Unlike Ireland, modern Scotland has never been a colony of England nor have its people been oppressed by England. No aspect of what is distinctive about Scotland and valued by its people is repressed by English government. The British state was formed by a voluntary union of England and Wales with Scotland. By the early eighteenth century, the Scottish ruling class shared its monarch with England and, more or less, shared a language and a religion, too. Scotland had played a critical role in English politics during the English civil war and its aftermath. Faced with a financial crisis caused by its own failed attempt at empire-building in Central America, union with England had many advantages for the Scottish ruling class. Although it was not universally welcomed in Scotland, and involved shady dealings of the sort that characterised 18th century politics, the Union was voted through the Scottish parliament. Scotland retained its distinctive institutions in order to ensure its smooth integration into Britain, and it became a part of the Britain that ruled a global British empire. While there have been periods when Scotland, as a region, has probably been a net contributor to the British treasury, it is currently a net gainer.

3. The contemporary consciousness of Scotland’s nationhood has more recent sources that are much more significant than the slender elements of national difference that the Scottish people have inherited from the distant past.

Support for the idea of “Home Rule” for Scotland has waxed and waned since the late 19th century but, until recently, its supporters were generally deferential to the supremacy of the British parliament in Westminster. The SNP itself was founded in the 1930s. But the SNP’s current version of “nationalism” has only gained widespread political purchase since the 1990s, at the same time as voters across the whole of Britain have become alienated from the union-wide political parties that hitherto represented them in the British state. Contemporary Scottish nationalism is a creature of the void of representation in British politics as a whole. In Scotland this process of political decay has been articulated by devolution.

Both major parties have failed in Scotland. The Tories were dominant in Scotland for much of the early twentieth century. Their electoral decline began in the 1960s and was completed by Margaret Thatcher, whose policies of aggressive deindustrialisation were particularly destructive and hated in Scotland. However, it has been the failure of the Labour Party and of Labourism that has been the most important driver of the electorate’s turn to the SNP.

Since the 1960s Labour dominated Scotland politically. Its power was based on the trade unions, its provision of services through local government, and the loyalty of the west of Scotland’s working-class vote. However, throughout the 1980s, Labour failed to repel the Tory assault on the key institutions and industries that were the basis of its strength. Labour Party and trade union activists in Scotland responded to this defeat by pushing the idea that Scotland was more progressive than England, and that, consequently, devolution was a solution to Scotland’s problems. Unable or unwilling to pursue the interests of its working-class constituency at the national level, in Scotland Labour sought to cover up its failure by promoting a distinctive Scottish identity in contrast to the allegedly selfish, Tory-voting English. Labour claimed that the Tories had “no mandate” north of the border and that Scotland, therefore, required its own parliament. This strategy would end up backfiring.


Tony Blair complacently created the devolved government and parliament in Edinburgh in the late 1990s, imagining that Labour would hold it in perpetuity, providing a regional redoubt against future Tory governments in Whitehall. However, devolution could not make up for New Labour’s embrace of the very Thatcherite agenda that had undermined the traditional pillars of Labour’s rule in Scotland. The party’s hold on the Scottish electorate eroded and its membership declined. Having created the political basis of this new Scottishness, Labour saw its voters move to the SNP as the natural home of these separatist politics. The SNP seized the opportunity of devolution to move in on Labour’s disaffected voters by combining a few Old Labour policies — like abolishing prescription charges and university fees — with its own more consistent hostility to London and its energetic waving of the Saltire. In 2007, the SNP formed its first minority government in Edinburgh. A majority government followed in 2011. Despite losing the 2014 referendum on independence, the SNP all but wiped-out Scottish Labour in the subsequent 2015 general election. The SNP has advanced down a separatist road laid for them by the Labour Party’s efforts to evade the consequences of its failure to represent the interests of its supporters.


4. Contemporary Scottish “nationalism” is one of many symptoms of the weakening of the British state. If we understand the state to be not just a set of official institutions but also the political association of the people who consent to be represented by those institutions, then as much as half of the Scottish people no longer see themselves as being represented by that association. The Scottish electorate has been willing to elect a majority of representatives who seek to withdraw Scotland from the Union because the British political parties that represented them in the United Kingdom have failed them. The influence of the SNP is the particular Scottish expression of the wider decay of British party politics.


5. Crucially, the politics of the SNP itself are marked by their origin in failure and decay. The SNP’s “nationalism” is fake. Its declared policy is to seek membership of the EU after “independence”. This will ensure that the big decisions about the Scottish economy and foreign policy will be taken in supranational forums, negotiated secretly with other governments, or in the European Court of Justice. SNP ministers will bring these decisions back to the Scottish people, imposing them as a fait accompli: what “Europe” requires. Rather than gaining control over their political life from London, “independence”, SNP-style, will actually see the Scottish people relinquish control to politicians who are primarily accountable to their EU counterparts and to unelected judges (and, were Scotland to join the Eurozone, to European central bankers). A Scottish state will not be an autonomous political association. It will be a member-state, not a nation-state.

The SNP’s lack of a true national strategy is clearest in the way that Brexit has caused the party so much difficulty (as TFB’s Richard Tuck predicted it would back in 2016, before the EU referendum). The SNP favoured remaining in the EU because it (rightly) believed that EU membership would make its ersatz national independence easier to achieve by minimizing economic disruption. An “independent” Scotland would still have been part of a wider economic union with the rump UK: ie, with the economy into which Scotland’s has been fully integrated for the past 300 years. Now that Britain has left the EU, the SNP’s task is much harder, and the real limits to the “independence” they are seeking are even clearer. Were Scotland to secede and join the EU, it would need to join the Eurozone, as all new member-states must do. This would sacrifice one of the key instruments of national economic governance, monetary policy, to the European Central Bank. Meeting the current conditions for Eurozone membership would also entail severe fiscal austerity for Scotland. Prior to joining the EU, SNP policy is to retain the pound sterling initially before creating Scotland’s own currency. But that would leave an “independent” Scottish government dependent on policy formulated in London. Moreover, both a monetary union with England and a separate currency carry very significant risks for a newly independent, but highly indebted Scotland, and that in turn would require a much deeper political relation with the Scottish people than the SNP actually enjoys.


6. The SNP’s emphasis on joining the EU exposes the fact that the SNP repudiates the Scottish nation as a truly independent political association. What the SNP claims as “nationalism” is, in substance, an anti-national regionalism – a divisive separatism that expresses the anti-majoritarian interests of Scotland’s professional managerial classes. Apart from its desire to squander the sovereignty of the Scottish people through EU membership, the most important expression of this anti-majoritarianism is the SNP’s enthusiasm for the divisive politics of cultural identity, mutual antagonism, and police repression. The elitist disdain for their fellow citizens is manifest in the SNP’s promotion of the UK’s most aggressive “hate speech” laws, which represent the Scottish people as a festering bog of intolerance (religious, racial and sexual), requiring intrusive police regulation of their speech and opinions, even those expressed in their own homes.

With its dependence on the devolved institutions, and its enthusiasm for the EU and for repressive identity politics, the SNP is very much the inheritor of New Labour. Although it has been careful to include a few flagship Old Labour-style policies to woo Scottish voters, the SNP, like New Labour, is dominated by the professional managerial class, and its politics are symptomatic of the fundamental incapacity of that class to represent a majority of voters. Their instinct is, on the one hand, to avoid accountability to the majority by relying on the EU, and, on the other, to set citizens against each other by emphasising their supposed cultural conflicts. The SNP’s electoral strength is parasitic on disillusion with the old British parties and with London. But, if it were to see through on its separatist programme, it could only reproduce at the heart of the Scottish nation the very political void that currently afflicts the British nation.


7. Given this, even the most sophisticated demands for Scottish independence have little merit. There are some in Scotland who recognise the SNP for what it is, a creature of the void, but nevertheless think that seeking a real Scottish independence, outside the EU with its own currency, would tap into the political energy surrounding the independence campaign so as to reinvigorate mass politics. They can point to the significant minority of Scottish voters that voted both for independence in 2014 and for Brexit in 2016 as a base for such politics. However, given that contemporary Scottish separatism is born of the decline of representative politics in Britain, it is not clear why Scottish independence would resolve this prior problem. If the failure of the Labour Party to represent its constituency lies at the heart of the new Scottishness, then the new Scottishness is part of the problem, not the solution. The weaknesses that afflict the political economy of the deindustrialised west of Scotland (where almost half of Scotland’s population lives) are not fundamentally different from those of the English North and Midlands or Wales. Given that Scotland is not a colony and can be democratically governed within the UK, there seems to be no good reason to divide the Scots from their fellow citizens in the rest of the UK.


8. Scotland’s objective relationship to the Union is the opposite of Northern Ireland’s. For Scotland to leave the UK can only be an unnecessary and divisive separation, even if, unlike the SNP, its proponents were themselves subjectively internationalist and democratic. By contrast, sectarian identity politics are literally part of the constitution of Northern Ireland, embedded in the power-sharing structures of the British state in Ireland. Even if the subjective outlook of contemporary Irish nationalism nowadays shares much common ground with the cosmopolitan cultural identity politics of the SNP, it is only by leaving the UK that the grip of divisive sectionalism in the north of Ireland could be broken by anyone.

9. The real basis of the contemporary Scottish separatist movement is one specific to our own time. It arises from the decay of the political structures of a former imperial power, and particularly of its dominant political parties. It this decay which gives the separatist movement its distinctive political characteristics: its evasion of real political responsibility for an independent state, and its divisive and repressive political preoccupations.

However, there is no point in denying this reality by denying the Scottish people another secession referendum if the majority of representatives that they have just elected on that political programme demand it. Even though it is only seven years since the Scottish electorate rejected secession, and the Scottish government’s new mandate is less than overwhelming, blocking a referendum will only strengthen the SNP. In any case, the argument in favour of secession is a weak one, based as it is on decay and dishonesty, and this is reflected in recent polls that show a softening in support for it.


10. The democratic approach to another referendum is to develop a compelling case for the Scottish people to embrace their unity with their fellow British citizens and reject the repressive SNP. Convincing the Scottish electorate that they should not continue to follow the SNP’s divisive anti-national cosmopolitanism puts the responsibility on British democrats to make a better case for Britain than the current Westminster political parties are able to. British democrats in Scotland, England and Wales need to seize the opportunity created by Brexit to democratise the British constitution as a whole and reconstitute the British nation. We need to develop a democratic politics that rejects the divisive cosmopolitanism of the liberal left and the SNP while not falling back into the exhausted politics of Labourism or the dead-end Spitfire nationalism of the populist right. This is no small challenge to our political imagination.

About the author

Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and a co-founder of The Full Brexit.

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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