There’s a revealing passage in Christopher Harvie’s Fool’s Gold on 7:84’s performance of The Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil at the SNP conference in July 1973. It recounts a question asked of the party’s then leader Billy Wolfe: “How can they put on a play like that and say they are not nationalists?” Wolfe is said to have replied, “If we knew the answer to that we would sweep Scotland tomorrow.”
Five decades later, the prospect of the SNP cleaning up the electoral map is a fait accompli rather than a mysterious conundrum.
Across those decades, in all of the ensuing popular struggles in a de-industrialising Scotland, the party would consistently outflank Labour on the left. Beyond a certain point people stopped caring about whether Thatcherism was an alien imposition primarily in class or national terms. In the wake of Blairism and the coalition, the SNP were the only electoral force still standing with an authentic anti-Tory past. The Wolfe question became essentially academic.
But the civic nationalism of the SNP is now so expansive and all-encompassing it has lost the capacity for interplay with other forces or movements in society. The SNP is the establishment, it makes the rules and sets the boundaries.
In 1973, 7:84 could ask the fledgling party searching questions about its vision for Scotland. The space for that dialogue no longer exists – only an assassin invites a theatre troupe into a ruling court.
This means that, lacking a counterweight in the political or public realm, the SNP has turned inwards. One welcome aspect of the increasingly open rifts within the party is the way in which they have sparked a fresh debate about strategies for independence. Alongside this sits the awkward question of how a loose and amorphous Scottish left should position itself in relation to Scotland’s insurmountable electoral machine.
For George Kerevan, the Salmond/Sturgeon split aligns neatly on a left/right spectrum. While there’s scant evidence for that claim in terms of the substance of the disagreements – which seldom move beyond personal rivalries, constitutional gradualism, and the Gender Recognition Act – the outriders do seem to favour the Salmond camp, while the more professionalised side of the operation backs Sturgeon. Taken a step further by David Jamieson, the unruly potential of those challenging the party leadership is a potent force with insurgent potential: its dismissal nothing more than elite disgust at the mob.
Elsewhere, the representational role of the SNP has become, according to Rory Scothorne, a force that replaces the spectacle of national sovereignty with its actual realisation. Translating such visceral debates into more palatable fare for elected politicians, Michael Gray has called for a legalistic form of institutional and (presumably) civil disobedience to break the log jam.
Trust and Ideology
What these authors fail to take into account is the single most significant factor in the era of pandemic politics — trust. What’s happening within the SNP is happening everywhere: decades of politics as the promotion of neoliberal self-interest have encouraged people to be deeply cynical about the motives of those who hold power, or run institutions (often, as it happens, with good reason). Consequently, many are increasingly willing to punch down at minorities scapegoated as the elite’s ideological allies.
The COVID world asks us to follow stringent rules, and presumes that, by and large, we will do so. Public health links the least trusted professions (journalists, politicians) with the most trusted (doctors, nurses…). A kind of re-setting becomes possible at this moment, that is about far more than Nicola Sturgeon’s capacity to deliver clear messaging with more gravitas than a frayed Etonian sock puppet.
Nations in their most benign mode have been described as ‘particular solidarities’ and it’s that version of the nation that tends to fuel a national movement. Once again, by dint of its sheer scale in relation to everything else in Scotland, the SNP has come to find this quality elusive, even within its own membership.
While monolithic institutions can help sustain solidarities, they cannot create or nurture them. How high would the SNP’s vote share have to climb for its status as the vessel for all the messy hopes bound up in Yes to become an inarguable political consensus? How would that map on to the notion of Scottish democracy as a more pluralistic and consensus driven enterprise than its crumbling parent in the south?
Turning back to the crucible of the 1970s – when Scottish nationalism first became a credible political force – we can observe a structure for Scottish politics defined by a range of immediate and competing loyalties largely rooted in now desolate workplaces and communities. In that world, the claim of class over nation was a far from abstract concept. Where now there is a largely contractual system mediating trust and competence in politics: Scottish society once contained alternative forms of rulemaking from below premised on hard won solidarity. Figures such as Jimmy Reid, Jim Sillars and Margo MacDonald, would emerge out of this world and turn towards a nationalist outlook, bridging a political gap that once felt impossibly wide.
Modern Scottish politics without UCS or the Gorbals and Govan by-elections is unthinkable: we are still a nation birthed between North Sea Oil flowing onshore and Scottish manufacturing floating off into the global marketplace. These founding moments carried us right the way through to 2014, by which point the many details, detours and setbacks along the way could be easily overlooked.
The solidarity of the workplace and the community, all too easily romanticised and historicised, still exists — as demonstrated by post-2014 campaigns like Better Than Zero and Living Rent. But examples of Scottish nationalism’s capacity to engage with class politics increasingly feel like museum pieces.
Some of this quiescence is related to the logic behind the SNP’s referendum policy. This policy shift — that occurred when no one could foresee that it would have to be enacted — is questionable simply because it lacks a successful precedent. But it is also problematic because it tempts us to think of winning independence as just another electoral contest, more like a seminal US presidential election than a founding revolution. But as Brexit has already demonstrated, referendums, though useful mechanisms for ratifying political change, are fiendishly problematic when deployed as vehicles for that change.
Those strategizing to shift the dial towards a consistent lead for Yes should still look at Quebec and study the consequences of a re-run. The alternative task is nothing less than to ride the wave of contemporary global crisis and make out of that a founding moment of political struggle, to discover a new set of terms and rebuild lost solidarities. If this seems excessively demanding and difficult: welcome to the world of winning sovereignty, it’s tough.
There are three fundamentals that can build a resilient national consensus for independence:
- A Moral Economy
If UCS was the a founding moment of struggle based on resisting the closure of viable industry in the face of global financial pressures, our contemporary equivalent is an effort to prevent that global system destroying our planet’s life support systems. The old-fashioned idea of the moral economy, which once informed so much debate about Scotland’s future, can be repurposed in a time of COVID. Scottish nationalism has always required organised moral causes beyond the immediate claim of statehood that it can interact with — most notably CND. Because violence and state repression are almost entirely absent in Scottish constitutional politics, these broader popular campaigns take on all the more weight and were an absolutely vital part of the pre-devolution movement.
- A non-party coalition
Independence needs the breadth and diversity that the Home Rule movement once enjoyed. The big institutional players beyond the SNP that still dot the landscape in Scotland such as the STUC, the universities, the SCVO, and the churches, need to be central to a new case. The SNP cannot be seen to do this alone and cannot assume that its time in government simply allows it to assimilate and speak for ‘civic Scotland’. Whether you like it or not, these big players are still the only viable foundation on which a consensus for statehood can be built. At a recent event organised by the Scottish Political Archive on the STUC’s ‘A Day for Scotland’ in 1990 – an open air concert that perhaps embodied better than anything the consensus for Scottish democracy at that moment — an organiser reflected that the key factor that made the event work was its entirely non-party political character.
- A deeper democracy
A reforming agenda for Scottish democracy is long overdue. There has been a consistent failure on the part of the SNP to consider meaningful reform within Scotland. We can see in areas such as local democracy, media, council tax, land reform, and industrial strategy — the kind of tangible issues that encourage people to feel emboldened and empowered and make them feel like they live in an increasingly autonomous nation. Michael Gray’s welcome proposal for a crusading legal activism overlooks the ample areas within devolved Scotland where the smallest legislative hurdle becomes a mountain of electoral risk. After 13 years in office, ignoring urgent calls for reform, while proposing all the things you would do with the powers you don’t have, wears thin. Independence is not an election, you can’t triangulate towards it — so spend some political capital — hoarding it will only offer diminishing returns.
Prior to the pandemic The Cheviot was set for a third nationwide remounting this autumn, following sell-out tours in 2019 and 2015. Peak oil is approaching: but the sporting estates still dominate. Is the play’s resilience simply nostalgia? Or does its questioning, even cynical, Marxism suggest that the early 1970s still grip the Scottish political imagination more than many care to admit?
For every verse penned in the parliament of poets during the long struggle for devolution, an arm was twisted in a grubby backroom deal. Most political struggles share this binary, framed by Scott Hames as ‘the dream and the grind.’ But implicit within this account is the notion that a winning strategy requires the right conditions, that it must interact with wider cultural and societal change. The arrival of Holyrood, and the SNP’s ensuing dominance of it, has narrowed Scottish politics and our capacity to ask big questions about becoming a country in the 21st century, questions that are by turns both dreamlike and mundane.
If the first line of a written Scottish constitution is to read “The Scottish people are sovereign…” what will the people ask for on the day after independence? Building a set of demands based on that core claim is work that can begin now, but only if the SNP open up the project of state-building beyond both their own membership and the confines of Holyrood. Trust in a new political settlement is not about sharp communicators dreaming up a glitzy new prospectus — it is built on the shop floor and in the town hall.
For nationalists, the immediate political conditions might be far more promising than in 1973, but the questions now confronted by all nations everywhere are infinitely more complex. We find ourselves in another moment of global disruption in which established rules are being broken. The awkward questions that lead from this cannot be shirked. Here’s one for starters:
How can nationhood be relevant in an era when global institutions, markets, diseases and climactic changes seem to dictate every aspect of our lives?
If we knew the answer to that …