2007 - 2022

The Big Question: Who ‘Lost’ Scotland?


The independence debate is a product of Scotland changing over decades and generations. Subsequently, this debate has also accelerated and abetted change, challenging old assumptions and throwing light on parts of our public life never previously thoroughly examined.

This transformation will continue whatever the result. One big observation, which needs to be stated, is that whatever the referendum result independence has already won. And Scotland has already been ‘lost’ – a point understood by some of the more thoughtful pro-union observers such as Alex Massie and James Forsyth in ‘The Spectator’.

First, what do I mean by stating that independence has already ‘won’? For a start this does not translate into any automatic balance of forces in the referendum ballot – a point some pro-independent supporters thought I meant when I previously made this strategic observation.

Instead, independence has become normalised – which translates into it coming in from the cold and margins and becoming a mainstream political demand. That’s a massive, generational shift compared to where we were previously.

Prior to 2011, Scottish elites, institutions and pro-union opinion, didn’t take any of this seriously. Some still do not in the inner sanctums of the London power elites. When the Westminster political class talk of ‘the referendum’ they rarely mean our imminent vote on the horizon, but the prospect of being dragged kicking and screaming by Nigel Farage to the prospect of the Britexit European vote.

Independence is something which is now tangible, talked about and ruminated over. Indeed, much of the serious debate is now about whether the SNP’s offer is ‘real’ independence or home rule by another name, with the ins and outs of currency union, the Treasury and European Union membership widely discussed.

Second, there is the approach of ‘Better Together’, the cross-party campaign for the union who seem to be running a virtual reality, almost post-modern interpretation of what amounts to a campaign. Despite ample resources there only real activity so far is directed towards TV and radio studios, along with their phalanx of reliable newspaper supporters.

There are no regular meetings, only the occasional ‘flashmob’ stalls in towns, and no real attempt so far to engage in voter identification, mobilisation and engagement. This has not been aided by the tensions between the three main pro-union parties, but something much more is at work. For one, all three of these parties are in retreat, organisationally, in ideas, resources and confidence, one for two generations (Tories), one since devolution (Labour), and the other only recently, but from a small base (Lib Dems). All of them have forgotten the craft of successful politics: for years the Scottish Labour ‘machine’ analogy was just that, and ignored that there was no omnipotent force behind it. This may not prove critical to their cause this year, but it doesn’t help them.

Then there is the strategy of ‘Better Together’ which is based on two premises: take on the technicalities of independence, and make the case for more powers through voting No. Both are questionable.

Take the first. ‘Better Together’ has forensically challenged the SNP’s official prospectus and case for independence on the details of their offer. Thus they have concentrated their ammunition onto the issue of the currency union (namely what currency in what kind of union would an independent Scotland inhabit) and that of European Union membership post-independence.

These are genuine areas of examination. They are also the weakest spots in the SNP’s armory. But the mistake ‘Better Together’ have consistently made at a strategic level is to make this the main argument against independence. Thus this has produced the laughable situation of the two Alistairs – Darling and Carmichael arguing that what the SNP are offering is not ‘full independence’, that such a premise cannot involve the Nationalist version of currency union and EU membership, and at the same time that ‘full independence’ isn’t viable in an age of interdependence.

It is a mess of a position; mirrored by SNP politicians singing the praises of the Treasury and Bank of England. (This whole argument is back to front: the pro-unionists should be making the case for such British institutions and independence supporters the case why they fall short, not exactly difficult given their record of long term failure.)

Yet the ‘Better Together’ argument is the more serious error, as they are fighting a campaign of retreat. To base the argument for the union and against independence on narrow, technical grounds, concedes so much: the wider case for independence, and in particular, the emotional, gut, instinctual one. It may well pay short-term dividend for September, but in the long-run it is hollowing out the argument for the union.

There is also the unionist disinformation campaign which seems to be based on scatter gun disorientation and waging low level psy-ops on the independence case. This is a much more sustained, serious, elite led operation than some of the media’s fascination with some of the worst excesses of the ‘cybernats’. There was the late Lord Fraser’s comments of ‘let’s bomb all Scottish airfields after independence’ (to which I am only slightly paraphrasing); then the claim that an independent Scotland could be seen as a blank canvas without any history, tradition or law – a sort of black hole or vortex in international governance.

Last week, David Lidington, Conservative Minister for Europe at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office decreed that if Scotland voted Yes the very next day, September 19th 2014, the UK, the legal entity Scotland sits in would stop representing and advocating for Scotland. So much for the ‘myth’ of British fair play and all that!

Third, this brings us to the United Kingdom as ‘the global kingdom’ and the capital kingdom: the place of speculative, asocial, outsourcing, offshore capital. Week in week out self-declared spokespeople for corporate capitalism, the very antithesis of business and entrepreneurship, stand and pontificate about what they might do if little Scotland dares to defy their wishes and make their tax and investment arrangements a tiny bit more complex adding one more legal jurisdiction. All of course aided by the unapologetic cheerleaders in the media (with special prizes for the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and ‘Daily Mail’ who have form in this sort of thing).

Then there are the parts of Scotland which have articulated a consistent meme these last thirty years. Take CBI Scotland who have said No, No, No: no to Labour’s 1979 Assembly plans, no to the 1997 devolution proposals, and no to 2014 independence offer.

They are perfectly entitled to do this, as are others, but it is permissible to observe and draw deductions from this pattern. Where have been the counter proposals to democratise Scotland from these groups? Strangely after nearly twenty years of Iain McMillan heading up CBI we are still waiting. And from Standard Life and many others. The answer is because elite, closed order Scotland – based on the revolved doors of the Scottish Office, SCDI and corporate clubland pre-1979 worked perfectly well in their interests.

Britain as an ‘Imagined Community’

Finally, there is the issue of the problem with Britain. When ‘Better Together’ invoke ‘the greatest union the world has ever seen’ the degree of hyperbole gives it away. When Britain ruled the waves its elites didn’t have to blow their trumpets so desperately; they exuded confidence, élan and their own importance.

They also don’t engage with the reality of the actually existing union. Instead, they invoke a fantasy union, an abstract and illusion, a place of magical, almost mystical powers which only really exists in their heads, nowhere else. This is truly Britain as an ‘imagined community’.

There is confusion about the nature of this union with some thoughtful voices calling for or believing the UK is heading towards a federal or quasi-federal set of arrangements. This is the politics of ‘devo max’ and ‘devo plus’ north of the border: the second strand of the ‘Better Together’ argument.

It is perhaps their strongest and weakest case at the same time: strong in that a coherent pro-union devolution offer from Labour could be decisive in the referendum; but weak in what fails to take into account, namely, that pro-union forces are fighting on their opponents territory, and that any devolution has to be agreed at a British level giving a Westminster class veto. That didn’t matter in 1997, but devolution cannot entail the Scots on their own continually just making demands for more autonomy, and it not having to involve some kind of pan-British considerations (further reduction of Scots MPs etc.), and the political centre and Labour so far show no sign of being interested in this.

Federalism, quasi-federalism and further devolution do not address the wider problem of what Britain has become. They don’t address the profound economic and social imbalances of the UK, the rise of London as a world city and it crowding out the rest of the UK and rest of England in particular, with the regions of the North, Midlands and South West reduced to the status of a ‘Flyover Britain’ between London and Scotland without collective voice.

They don’t engage with the absence of public support in England for such proposals, or face the challenge of the rightward, populist drift of UK politics and the rise of an anti-immigration, anti-welfare, xenophobia aided by UKIP and large parts of the English media. Finally, any kind of federalism involves not only codified relationships (something the British political class finds one of the problems of the European Union), but remaking and reforming the political centre. In a decade plus of devolution, the centre has collapsed in on itself: becoming a neo-liberal state advocating for the worldview of corporate class interests.

All of this: the normalising of independence, the ‘Better Together’ strategy, even the political cross-dressing of the two campaigns, the union disinformation strategy, and the increasing problem with Britain, British politics and the British state, all point in one direction. That this debate has come about, not surprisingly, at the time of multiple crisis and decline in the idea of Britain.

Who ‘lost’ Scotland? The conventional answer is to cite Mrs. Thatcher, but the reality is much more complex, and not found in one person, period or philosophy. When the history books are written the list will be long and varied because this is part of a long set of changes. It will include the nature of the 1707 settlement and its retention of Scots autonomy, the role of the Kirk through the years, the establishment of the Scottish Office in 1885, Walter Elliot and Tom Johnston and the expansion of the state, Labour’s abandonment of post-war social democratic growth in 1967 (devaluation) and 1976 (IMF) long before Tony Blair, ‘A Claim of Right for Scotland’, and the arts, cultural and musical renaissance of the 1980s. All these may in time prove more influential than Thatcher or even Alex Salmond.

Scotland has undergone a long revolution – slowly pulling itself out of the wreckage of the British polity and state. Whether that involves formal independence this year or further into the future, remains to be seen, but the question of who ‘lost’ Scotland, what it means and who gains needs to be asked and understood now. It is a question it looks like on current trends we will be returning too again and again.

Comments (20)

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  1. agogo22 says:

    Reblogged this on msamba.

  2. Dave Coull says:

    Interesting, the idea that the Unionists have already lost, regardless of the outcome of the referendum; and of course I agree with taking a historical long view, rather than just focusing on contemporary politics and personalities. But I do have to add that, in my view, the Unionists will indeed “lose Scotland”, not just in the longer term, but in September this year.

  3. Abulhaq says:

    the very sad thing about this independence debate is that we are having it all. what other peoples take for granted we are required to persuade and cajole our comparatively politically retarded population to ponder. if being british has done anything at all it has been to “denature” politics in our country. the psychological impact of that has been lamentable, literally. one might weep when comparing Scotland to other european states or regions. we seem so totally “backward” and the yes campaign is still struggling uphill with an idea that the majority appear not to fully grasp let alone internalize. a profound shock to the system is certainly needed but what exactly?

    1. Oh, I love it when people like you insult your fellow citizens: what you dismiss as a “politically retarded population” may simply be people reluctant to give up a sense of nationality–of British nationality–that is a fundamental part of their identity. You might disagree with that, but it’s incredibly arrogant of you to dismiss it out of hand; worse, to insult them for daring to hold a viewpoint different from your own.

      1. Robert Peffers says:

        So the term, “Nationalist”, is not a pejorative term when applied to, “British or English Nationalism”, Paul. Just when applied to Scottish nationalism.

      2. Abulhaq says:

        you make my point sir. History tells us that conservative societies, and Scotland, or rather the elements that have shaped the latter-day Scottish consciousness, is certainly of the conservative ie unchanging, reactionary, conventional type, need the equivalent of a hefty kick up the rear to move them on out of the comfort zone. British nationality/identity, not actually cultural constructs but political, and thematically essentially English at that, represents the “comfort blanket” the socio-cultural stasis that impedes the development of a mature and representative democracy in our country. Passing the buck allowing others to run your world is truly infantile. An “identity” that parades such immature subordination and dependency as desirable or even virtuous in the name of some fabulous, anachronistic “family of nations” is laughable and worthy of contempt. The so-called United Kingdom is by various objective measures deemed to be one of the least democratic states in Europe. It is a grotesque Savoy Opera cum Downton theme-park stuffed with the things other societies sensibly discarded long ago. In Scotland we are dealing with an injurious civic bad habit. The consequences of not kicking it are too serious to indulge the tender sensibilities of the “reluctant”. I make no apologies for my arrogance for i know i’m right.

  4. Robert Peffers says:

    Whoa! There, Gerry. Are not the terms, “Britain”, and, “United Kingdom”, two quite different things? Are not your interchangeable use of these two terms rather playing the Better Together, and the de facto parliament of the country of England’s, dishonest form of argument? The bipartite, “United Kingdom”, has no more a propitiatory claim on being either, “British”, or of being, “Britain”, than has the non-United Kingdom Republic of Ireland, non-United Kingdom Isle of Man, the non-United Kingdom Bailiwick of Jersey or the non-United Kingdom Bailiwick of Guernsey. Legally, upon that bipartite United Kingdom disuniting, there cannot exist any form of rUnited Kingdom Parliament, remainder, remnant, remembered or relegated. When any bipartite partnership disunites the status quo ante is that each partner return to being independent of the other partner.

    1. Abulhaq says:

      Britain and UK are not synonymous. The former actually carries more pernicious mythic baggage and is consequently the more dangerous. In the post enlightenment romantic period of the 19c fabulous tales of Britain’s and the Britons uniqueness were manufactured. The monarchy with its confected and synthetic quasi-religious rituals, the “Mother of Parliaments” as the apotheosis of democracy, the racist gentlemanly fair-play of the White Anglo-Saxon compared to the wop, dago, gypo and those categorized by the disgusting n-word, the condescending tone to those not wholly “one of us” etc. are what Britain and British truly represents. As a people we carry the noxious taint. We need to cut out and flush this poison from our body politic. There can be no compromise with the malignant.

  5. hektorsmum says:

    Who lost Scotland, well right now I would have to say the Scottish People, but we go to reclaim our own come September. I do not remember anyone relinquishing our country just some people bribed to handing over political power.
    Federalism is a dream put about by people who will never give it, namely the Liberal Party. The English would never stand for it and as for Devo Max, same goes.

  6. evan says:

    The time has come to explain to the rest of us who come and visit this region of the world you all call british isles the following;

    1)What are “home nations”?
    2)Why in sports you have england,scotland,wales,etc…and in the olympic games you have united kingdom?
    3)Where can I find scotland,england,wales listed as countries? I looked on United Nations list of 194 countries, I could not fiind these names…not even on European Union list….found Bulgaria, Romania,Malta, but no england,wales, scotland…
    4)What culture is british?What language does a british person speak?What is their cuisine?What are their dances?etc…When I lived there and asked people the question about british identity, the most popular response was…”british is someone that lives in britain”!!! Therefore, what you are all telling me, the whole world in british!!! Hard to break this fetish of imperialism!!!

    1. 1) Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England. (Anywhere outside the M25, basically.)
      2) Because there is, currently, only one UK Olympics Committee; when it comes to the Commonwealth Games, however, the home nations are represented individually.
      3) Perhaps you should look at lists of countries, not nations? There is a difference, you know, between the two.
      4) British “culture” (singular) is a misnomer; there are numerous cultures on these islands, all of which overlap to some degree (if only in their consumption of Hollywood movies, or watching Coronation Street, EastEnders or Emmerdale).

      No. The whole world is Chinese. They bought us all years ago. 😉

  7. evan says:

    Another thing I could never understand: Why when england plays scotland in sports, national anthem for england is the same as national anthem for united kingdom? Does this mean that wales and scotland are colonies of england?

    1. The United Kingdom’s national anthem (or dirge) is officially “God Save The Queen”. (Or King, depending upon the gender identity of the monarch, obviously.)

      Sports fans in Scotland and Wales have, however, crowd-selected their own “unofficial” anthems which have become so engrained that many people (including, clearly, yourself) think they are official. They’re not. (And, frankly, how the hell can “Flower of Scotland” really be any kind of official Scottish anthem when you have to cheat a bit to play it on the bagpipes? Give me “Highland Cathedral” any day.)

      Sadly, English sports fans have never seen the need to find their own distinct anthem. Which says a lot about them, obviously.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        Compared to “Mae hen wlad” all seems to pale. As a country with a rich musical tradition we should be able to come up with better than the current offerings. Flower of Scotland is a dirge with pitiful lyrics. I have heard Scots wha hae played by a French band, it is apparently an old march tune, and it sounded rather good. Many national anthems are dire and unmemorable with words best left unsung. That of Morocco sounds like a tango in march time and Japan’s manages to out-dirge Flower of Scotland. Caledonia Stern and Wild by Hamish MacCunn contains very brisk bits, so brisk words would be quite superfluous, thankfully.

  8. Who lost Scotland answer nobody did Scotland found Scotland,since the signing of the treaty in 1707 Scots commoners have fought to retain the right of sovereignty.It may be at last be a fight well fought no blood loss,so far!

  9. Alex Buchan says:

    The extent to which Gerry’s analysis is correct was borne out for me when I was reading the Alex Massie on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog. Massie is a unionist but he has always been more attuned to the mood in Scotland than the other Scots at the Spectator. But today I noticed a marked difference, Whereas before he would have been more circumspect, now he is openly confronting those tired arguments about asymmetric constitutional tinkering. Gone is his previous reticence to spell things out from a Scottish perspective. Of course, this confidence could recede in the wake of a decisive no vote, but somehow I can’t see how things can ever go back to being how they were before. Whether it’s a yes or a no we’re in new territory.

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