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Notes at an Impasse

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

A 'Perspectives' discussion paper from Democratic Left Scotland, published 18 November 2023 [i - notes are at the end of the piece]

Road ahead closed?

The cause of independence continues to generate hope for many Scots. At the beginning of September 2023, over 25,000 people marched in Edinburgh, an optimistic event organised by the Scottish Independence Foundation, Yes for EU and Believe in Scotland, with input from Europe for Scotland.

Scottish National Party leader and First Minister Humza Yousaf was one of the speakers at the rally, stating his determination to see Scotland ‘at the very heart of the European Union, where we belong’.

There is, however, a strategic challenge facing those who would like to see Scottish independence: there is currently no immediate and viable way forward to realising the ambition. Confirming Westminster’s dominance of Ukanian constitutional arrangements and Downing Street’s control of core matters of sovereignty, Rishi Sunak’s government followed Boris Johnson’s in refusing Holyrood the right to hold ‘IndyRef2’, even though a clear majority of Scottish MSPs elected in 2021 were in favour of independence.[ii]

The Supreme Court’s unsurprising November 2022 ruling that the Scottish Parliament did not have the power to legislate a second independence referendum halted the succession of initiatives which the SNP had promoted since 2016 in their push to repose the question of Scottish statehood. The context for these was the major constitutional change visited upon the country as a result of the UK-wide Brexit referendum, through which Scotland was removed from the EU even though 62 per cent of those who voted in Scotland voted to ‘remain’, a majority for continued EU membership obtaining in every single council area.[iii]

Nicola Sturgeon’s response to the Supreme Court judgement was to declare that the next UK general election should, in Scotland, be fought as if it were a ‘de-facto’ referendum. Many, including some SNP members, saw this as an ill-thought out and short-term gimmick, the main unintended effect of which would be to set a trap for Sturgeon’s governing party: pretending that ‘there is only one issue in this election’, when everyone knows that there are many, is to invite a backlash.

One started immediately: as unionist politicians continue to point out, one possible outcome of the next UK general election is that the SNP could continue to hold most Scottish constituencies even if it lost a swathe and saw its share of votes slashed. What kind of mandate would that be for independence?

Indeed, her declaration hardly seemed to convince Sturgeon herself, shortly to resign in the face of an emerging mix of difficult issues.

Given Keir Starmer’s insistence on the inviolability of the union state, and his refusal to countenance (at least in public, at least in advance) any deals or arrangements whatsoever with other opposition parties, the prospect of a new Scottish state currently seems more remote than it has done for some years.

Who’s for independence?

Nevertheless, at the SNP special conference in Dundee in June 2023, and conscious of falling support (according to opinion polls), the newly elected party leader Yousaf asserted that voting for the party would be equivalent to ‘voting for Scotland to become an independent country’. The position was reinforced at October’s SNP’s annual conference, which resolved that the party should add the words ‘Independence for Scotland’ alongside its name and logo on ballot papers at the next general election, making it ‘clear beyond doubt’ that this is its primary purpose. Such a firm recoupling adjusts the party’s previous approach of combining its independence goal with the secondary claim that the SNP deserved your support as the party which would best run the devolved Scottish government – whatever your view on the constitutional question. Insofar as there were voters who, whilst not enthusiasts for independence, accepted that Sturgeon and her colleagues were best suited to run the Holyrood ministries, those voters are in danger of being pushed away. 

Even if, from now, we interpret every vote for the SNP as expressing support for independence, the wider pattern of alignment between support for party and for independence or the union is more complicated. There are of course pro-independence forces not directed by the SNP, the Greens being the most significant, along with Alba (who have yet to make any electoral impact), and the Radical Independence Campaign amongst the other groupings. 

More interestingly, a percentage of those who vote for some of the parties programmatically opposed to independence are actually in favour of Scottish statehood. A 2022 British Social Attitudes survey, for example, showed that nearly four out of ten of Scottish Labour voters backed independence: what this means for Labour should it win the general election remains to be seen.[iv]

The degree of non-alignment of peoples’ views and positions on independence and their party voting intentions is further illustrated by the way that the opinion poll indications of falling support for the SNP since Sturgeon’s resignation have not been accompanied by a similar decrease in support for independence.

Of course, the level of support has not increased significantly in over a decade, either: it holds stubbornly at around the fifty per cent mark of those who declare a position. This figure defines the current limit of the momentum which built for constitutional change during the 1990s and 2000s, although there is a degree of optimism for independence supporters housed in the fact that young people disproportionately support ‘yes’. However, for now the figure confirms that many Scots have not been persuaded by pro-independence claims.

Some see themselves as both Scottish and British and wish to hold firmly to this combined identity. Others are simply unconvinced by the economic and political case presented by those who want change.

Amongst supporters of the democratic-national right to self-determination, there’s an understandable mix of frustration and a search for new ways forward: highlighting the benefits that would come from Scotland joining the EU is amongst the more imaginative of current initiatives.[v] A small minority turn unfortunately towards exclusivist intensities and the consoling myths of victimhood, reviving the misunderstanding that Scotland is a colony. For many other campaigners, the key tasks are organisational: to unite all ‘Yessers’, to gather under one united banner, seeking to reanimate from today’s base the kind of interplay and combination of civil society and political initiatives which, from the 1980s, established the basis for devolution.

This raises a key question: do those in the leadership of the independence movement have a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of the craft of achieving and developing alliances to move in this direction? Is there actually a desire to do so? The focus which members of any party understandably apply to winning elections and retaining office arguably militates against alliance building amongst progressive people – and this is more of a challenge now as compared to the 1980s, before devolution, when all the anti-Tory forces were together, in that they were all outwith government.

Nevertheless, a growing approach amongst some activists from different parties is to promote the view that ‘Scotland has the right to decide’ – a principle to which people can assent whilst having divergent opinions on what the country should decide. Though this approach is unlikely to win over those who are currently firmly committed to the union state, who likely see it as a disguised invitation to step towards supporting independence, ‘the right to choose’ seeks to confirm the democratic rights of Scottish people without insisting that these should be exercised in a particular way. The principle should lay the basis for any and all possible future relationships between Holyrood and Westminster – devolved arrangements broadly as at present, ‘devo-Max’, or independence (which would of course raise the need to manage and work continually with neighbouring polities on multiple shared interests, challenges and interdependencies).  Progress of this kind would need the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) and many other ‘civil society’ organisations to be added to those campaigning for the right to decide.

A further effect of IndyRef2 being ‘off the agenda’ is the re-emergence of political divisions and disputed positions within the SNP, rendered visible by the party’s 2023 leadership contest and changes in the front rank of its Westminster parliamentary group. Some of the differences are based on significantly variant principles and ideas about appropriate future direction, including on economic policy, with others shaped by immediate and more mundane difficulties, rivalries, and personal issues.

Labour’s time again?

With SNP divisions evident, and the fall in support for the governing party, perhaps Labour will be able to recover its defining role in Scottish politics? Taking the Rutherglen and Hamilton West UK parliamentary seat in October’s by-election has certainly boosted the confidence and ambition of many Scottish Labour activists.

That the next major electoral contest is likely to be the UK general election surely increases the chances of Anas Sarwar’s party (Starmer’s party?) building its strength and representation. Many SNP voters could be drawn to the argument that voting Labour in a Westminster general election is most likely to contribute to defeating Conservatives and changing the UK government – and this argument has been given credibility by Labour’s victories in October’s by-elections in two English constituencies.

Labour will argue that the ‘real issues’ facing people are economic and social, not constitutional. They will also benefit from a line that the Tories will push hard – that Yousaf’s fixation on independence is about distracting us from an increasingly questionable record of underachievement and mishandled situations. This is having some popular resonance, partly because of peoples’ feelings about the cost-of-living crisis, the neoliberal managerialism of public services and the public’s ‘confusion' over differing locations of governmental responsibility (local, Scottish, Westminster).[vi]

Given these messages, it is oddly telling that many of those who intend to vote Labour have the most limited expectations. This is a consequence of Labour shrinking its offer for government, taking what it considers to be a risk-averse approach by not proposing any policies which Starmer thinks could become the focus of effective Tory attack.

One example of the results of such withdrawal from active contestation is the curious reality of how little the current waves of industrial action, taken after much provocation suffered by rail workers and health professionals, university teachers and local council officers, are shaping political debate. Public sympathy for strikers remains encouragingly high, but this isn’t felt as pressure to sort things out by Sunak’s government – or by Labour.

Instead, Starmer’s ‘strategy’ appears to be a kind of ‘race to the lowest common denominator’ on the basis of which he might woo Tory voters. Critics believe that this is a mistaken approach, only adding to people’s dissatisfaction and feelings of alienation from politics in general. It offers no vision of a different approach to achieving social justice, merely communicating a constant subservience to neoliberalism and the ‘need’ to ‘be in government’ – which again buys into the corrosive narrative of ‘they’re all the same – they just want power’.

There are Labour members who see their leadership’s approach as a well-judged and serious strategy for defeating Sunak’s party, now thirteen years in government, with working people (particularly younger workers) worse off and with less opportunities as compared to 2010. As suggested by the Tamworth and  Mid-Bedfordshire results, disdain for Conservatives is likely to be expressed in something of a Labour recovery both north and south of the border – even if right-wing culture warriors promote ever more extreme and irrational rhetoric on issues from ‘small boats’ to the European Court of Human Rights and so-called ‘woke ideology’ in the hope that stirring up divisive prejudices will retain them some seats in English ‘red wall’ constituencies.[vii]

Notwithstanding the ‘bounce’ from their recent by-election successes, Starmer, Rachel Reeves and other leading Labour members recognise the need to manage a risk: ‘avoiding complacency’ is the mantra, and the importance of managing any hint of premature euphoria. The more serious risk is actually broader and somewhat different: when Sarwar, after Rutherglen, suggested that there has been a fundamental change in Scottish politics, he was viewing and describing the world through the prism of his own party’s apparent return to health.

In private, as well as acknowledging that the increasingly challenging social conditions in Scottish towns and cities (and rural areas) are as much a reality this year as last, Sarwar is hopefully reflecting on a troubling symptom that was not emphasised in his victory statements: less people voted Labour in Rutherglen and Hamilton West this October than they did at the 2019 general election. Though we are told that by-elections ‘traditionally’ have low turnouts, and that there was maybe some confusion about the need for voters to present photographic ID, and it was of course raining that day in Cambuslang, the fact is that massive resources were put into campaigning by many of the fourteen candidates. In this context, their evident failure to engage voters is a big issue for Labour – as well as for the SNP, the Greens, and more generally for all of those concerned with what passes for our democracy. 

The deeper impasse

No clear route to independence; a governing party losing momentum; the main opposition party disdaining the creativity and ambition that needs to be applied to social and economic issues; most people in these parties sharing centre-left social democratic values whilst being at odds on the constitutional question; the piecemeal and short-term management of workers’ claims for a fair and sustainable reset of their living standards; troublingly low levels of political engagement – the impasse of Scottish politics seems serious enough.

What’s little registered in the course of day-to-day debate, though, is that today’s combination of factors is the current expression of a much deeper impasse, structured over many decades.

In The Break-Up of Britain, published nearly fifty years ago but recurrently proving its relevance, Tom Nairn identified Scotland’s then-emergent civic nationalism as itself a response to the ‘slow foundering’ of the British state, ‘the extremely long-delayed crisis of the original bourgeois state form’.[viii] Nairn detailed the specific features of Ukania, celebrated in mystifying official ideology and ignored by too many would-be radical critics: its development as the first state-form of an industrial nation, created through alliance between landed patricians and the emergent bourgeoisie, rather than through any mobilisation of ‘the people’ in a modernising socio-political process; the resulting absence of a necessary (still necessary) social upheaval which could have refashioned both society and state in logical conformity with the requirements and opportunities of the modern age; and liberals’ schooling of Labour’s working-class politicians so as to absorb them into traditional conservative culture in which elitism has ‘remained the enduring truth of the state’.[ix]

Undergirding all this, Britain’s development and defence of its exploitative and oppressive empire drew expropriated wealth to the metropoles (Glasgow and Edinburgh as well as London and Liverpool), ‘extraordinary external successes’ which enabled the relatively untroubled survival of the established state form well into the second half of the twentieth century, allowing the need for a second, modernising British revolution to be swerved.[x]

Instead, in Nairn’s account, there was the ongoing skewing of the economy towards ‘the City’ (management of international capital investment and foreign currency exchange) rather than any consistent promotion of industrial development, much less any attempt to rebalance the economy away from its centralisation on London and south east England. The problems this ‘policy’ generated were exacerbated by Margaret Thatcher’s conscious decision to further diminish manufacturing (partly in order to eclipse the trade unions). The neoliberal ‘common sense’ which her governments established has been reinforced rather than undone by subsequent administrations – and it is the effects of this which have led hundreds of thousands of Scots to the firm view that national independence could be an exit route from social and political degradation.

Key steps in the growth of the national sentiment which forced devolution and put independence (in Europe) on the agenda in 2014 directly paralleled phases in the still ineffective and regressive Ukanian attempts to respond to the ‘twilight of the British state’ which Nairn had identified[xi]: the 1980s Campaign for a Scottish Assembly grew as deindustrialisation hit Scottish communities and as Thatcher experimented on Scotland with the Poll Tax; from 1989, the Scottish Constitutional Convention fed directly into and benefited from the wider mood for change that led to New Labour’s UK election victory in 1997; and the ‘Yes’ campaign in the 2014 Independence referendum connected to the sense that devolution, positive step forward as it was, had so far failed to achieve the fundamental changes needed to address economic decline, growing inequality and multiple indications of deepening social malaise.

Fantasy island?

Terminal crises can last a long time: with Perry Anderson, Nairn tracked the origins of some of the issues he analysed as far back as the constitutional settlements of the late seventeenth century.[xii] The ongoing failure of progressive political actors to achieve a political break and disruption in the British state so as to replace the institutional old order has now led to the proliferation of ever more weird and dangerous morbidities. Generating many of these is the shift of a currently dominant section of the Conservative Party away from the 1970s fantasy that EU membership could, in itself, serve as an external solution which would somehow address the problems which had built up for the British economy through the post-war decades, given it could no longer rely on imperial benefits. Now an even stranger fantasy has taken hold that the opposite applies: ‘taking back control’ through breaking away from the EU in order to set up free trade deals with ‘the Commonwealth’ and ‘our partners’ around the world is supposedly the magical route to economic recovery (and some Tories hold to this view even as it becomes ever-clearer that Brexit is no highway to a national renaissance, but has in fact been disastrous in terms of immediate costs and lost opportunities for many in the small business class from which Conservatives once drew more-or-less unfailing support. Further disjoints between today’s Conservative Party and what might be thought of as their ‘natural’ support base are highlighted by the fact that, in 2016, the big banks and insurance companies, like big business in general, were strongly pro-remain, as were the Financial Times, The Economist, the Bank of England and the Treasury).

Not all Tory Brexiteers believe the myths which they are still peddling to us: their actual purpose is to facilitate the activities of free-wheeling private equity firms and hedge fund managers – people with little concern for social health in Motherwell or Merseyside, who believe and hope that having subtracted the UK from the EU means that they will have more ‘freedom’ for money-making (some of them are themselves invested in private equity firms and hedge funds).

Many other Conservatives did have entirely genuine intent whilst fixating on the idea that exit from the EU would somehow enable the supposedly exceptional great British genius for business and entrepreneurship to flourish. However sincerely held, their delusion meant ignoring the fact that the material basis which made former ‘success’ possible has gone (current scrappy attempts to resuscitate ‘the Commonwealth games’ serving as one indicator of how tattered and uncoordinated the remnants of empire now are).

Support for exceptionalist self-mythologisation is mobilised through the grotesque promotion of Enoch Powell’s paranoid fears, deranged hopes and racist antipathies (in different registers and with more or less intensity) by Sunak, Suella Braverman, Lee Anderson and their accomplices: as Nairn warned, in the absence of progressive directions being found, it was ever more certain that English national awareness would ‘be inflected to the right, and captured by the forces feeding off the wounds and failures of decline’.[xiii] At some unconscious level, perhaps, many ‘mainstream’ Conservatives do sense that key moments have passed at which the state and economy might have been modernised, but this unwelcome recognition is promptly repressed, generating ever-more intense denials of current problems and their real causes – the latest example of the mix of ‘residual self-confidence and capacity for self-deception’ which Nairn identified as characterising Ukanian leaders.[xiv]

Quiet appreciation / the need for upheaval

If the possibility of a benign, mature Scottish version of Scandinavian social democracy, funded through a just allocation of North Sea oil revenues, has for some decades served many people as a hoped-for escape route from the trap of Ukanian state structures and neoliberal economics, they now face the reality of blocks to Scottish independence – and in any case they increasingly accept the need to leave unused carbon in the ground, a ‘resource’ it is not in humanity’s interests to consume.

Reopening the possibility of independence is unlikely to come from putting ever more insistently the arguments which have so far failed to convince the unconvinced – but a bold and radical conception of Scotland’s future governance arrangements as one part of a wider constitutional and social reset and a thorough-going renewal of political and economic intent across these islands (and beyond) is even less well articulated, let alone broadly supported.

What is possible, then? Urgent though the crisis is, there’s value in making proper time to consider the nature and the scale of current challenges, not just as policy issues for by-elections or contests for council seats, Holyrood or Westminster, but as long-term historically structured problems. There’s also a need to explore difficult questions: given current political coordinates, what are the feasible routes to progressive economic strategies and sustainable renewal, rebuilding social fabric, and dramatically reducing inequality? If it is the case that such steps would best be facilitated by independence, what practical agreements would this involve with the residual UK, and with the EU? Given that progressive people disagree on whether independence is desirable, or a condition of positive directions, how do we work to realise those ambitions which are held in common?

Inevitably, upcoming elections will see displays of party tribalism and the trading of contrasting immediate positions: ‘your party’s tragic: our party’s magic!’. But for many progressively minded people across different parties, and in none, there’s a quiet appreciation that many of our key challenges and questions are shared. This awareness raises the possibility of flexibility and experimentation across political boundaries, aimed at crystallising and promoting shared values. Such collaboration and alliance building is about bringing many people together – but not in order to create an all-encompassing consensus.

The modernising breaks, disruptions and upheavals which Nairn saw as urgent half a century ago are ever more overdue, and need achieving in new forms and a changed context. Nationalist or unionist, green, feminist or (and/or) socialist or liberal – all our ways forward mean finding out how to reduce and then end the social power of those who in ever more perverse ways seek to affirm and maintain the injurious grip which the Ukanian upper class retain, still, on the state, on our politics and culture, and on our economic decision-making. 




[i] This multi--authored discussion paper began as rough notes taken during a Democratic Left Scotland discussion meeting on Zoom in August 2023, and has been developed through inputs from a number of members, friends and correspondents of DLS. Debate and consideration on the issues covered continues at with the first contribution here, on the Nairn-Anderson theses. DLS is a non-party political organisation, membership of which is open to both those who belong to political parties and those who do not. The network has members and supporters in the Scottish Green Party, the Scottish National Party and the Labour Party, and members are variously active in a range of trade unions, community groups, networks and campaigns.

[ii] Ukania’ is a term coined by Tom Nairn to describe a uniquely antiquated and reactionary political culture, ‘the Geist or informing spirit of the UK … a sui generis variety of nationalism now undergoing rapid collapse’. The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its monarchy, 2011 [1989] p 93 and p 102.

[iii] While the moment of Brexit provided a clear example of how Scotland's collective voice can be ignored on constitutional matters, it should be noted that support for independence and for remaining in the EU did not always combine or overlap in any straightforward manner – polling suggested that about a third of SNP supporters backed Brexit, and in Moray, a long-time SNP stronghold, 49.9 per cent of voters supported ‘Leave’.

[iv] Judith Duffy, ‘British Social Attitudes: Almost four in 10 Labour voters back Scottish independence’, The National, 25 September 2022.

[v] Those promoting the vision of independent Scotland joining the EU are currently focused on principles and possibilities: consideration of many practical issues that would need working through (over years if not decades) in the joining process may come later. These would include the question of whether key EU states will support Scotland’s accession (especially those with what they see as ‘separatist problems’ of their own).

[vi] Some constituents felt that such confusion was both exploited and fuelled in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. Despite it being a Westminster election, Labour’s leaflets were focussed on issues which are the responsibility of the Scottish parliament. Conversely, there is a history of Labour making statements and issuing election literature across the UK in which issues are talked in respect of how they are implemented and experienced in England. This further contributes to voter confusion. The common factor in these two contrasting ‘mistaken’ approaches is a failure to pitch messages and arguments in terms which properly acknowledge and confirm the reality of devolution.

[vii] The possibility of the Tories retaining some English ‘red wall’ seats is increased by the likelihood that many Muslim voters will withhold their votes – and activist support – from Labour at the next general election because of Starmer’s position on the Israeli assault on Gaza.

[viii] Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and neo-nationalism, 2021 [1977], p 3 and p 9.

[ix] The Break-Up of Britain, p 25.

[x] The Break-Up of Britain, p 10.

[xi] The first chapter of The Break-Up of Britain was originally published as an article: Tom Nairn, ‘The Twilight of the British State’, New Left Review, 1/101-102, January – April 1977.

[xii] When Tom Nairn died earlier this year, he was rightly lauded for informing and giving intellectual heft to the development of progressive civic nationalism in Scotland. This ‘headline’ assessment, though, carries the risk of over-simplifying the legacy and smoothing the reputation of this complex and sometimes tricky thinker, whose work went through several phases, and always provoked useful disagreement. At different points, Nairn shifted his views on major issues, including on Scottish nationalism and on Marxism: once a foremost exponent of this method, he came to characterise it as ‘a Rhineland-based diversion of global history’ (London Review of Books, 26 January 2006).

[xiii] The Break-Up of Britain, p 70. Why have Powellite themes increased in significance to the point that they now significantly shape current English (and therefore Ukanian) politics? Nairn’s observations of over fifty years ago still serve as important starting points for the much-needed consideration of this question: ‘Powellism is a symptom: the true threat lies in the developing disease of which it is a symptom. Powell has emerged apparently as an active challenge to the existing political consensus from the right. In fact, he and his repercussions are symptomatic of the growing paralysis and deterioration of the consensus itself … in Powellism, the English conservative Establishment has begun to destroy itself’ (p 276 and p 278). If these insights applied in 1970, when Nairn wrote the relevant part of The Break-Up of Britain, the deployment of Powell’s chauvinisms and fears by some leading Tories today shows that the mismatch between the real causes of economic problems and social decay and what its current proponents promise that English nationalism will achieve is becoming ever greater. The Conservatives hope to stave off the destruction which Nairn predicted – but as they cannot acknowledge that our economy and society needs radical, modernising, democratising breaks, their denialism leads them to delve and indulge ever more deeply in the derangements which Powell pioneered. This is no cause for celebration: in the absence of a progressive alternative in England, we will suffer increasingly desperate invocations of reactionary magical solutions. Nairn suspected that ‘racist sentiment’ in England could not in fact be ascribed to ‘an undefined mass “nationalism”’ so much as being the ‘symptom of an absence of popular nationalism’ there, given that there is ‘no coherent, sufficiently democratic myth of Englishness – no sufficiently accessible and popular myth identity where mass discontents can find a vehicle. This is the cause of the disconcerting lurch from a semi-divine Constitution and the Mother of Parliaments to the crudest racism’ (P 284). Amongst the mountain of literature on Powell which its subject unfortunately justifies, two recent books are particularly useful: Shirin Hirsch, In the Shadow of Enoch Powell: race, locality and resistance, 2018, and Paul Corthorn, Enoch Powell: politics and ideas in modern Britain, 2019.

[xiv] The Break-Up of Britain, p 46.



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