It’s in the nature of politics that we obsess about political parties. It’s not surprising, then, that arguments against independence have so often focused on the perceived failings of the SNP – perhaps more now than ever. But they often miss the point – certainly for long-standing supporters of independence, for many of whom the SNP is seen simply as the vehicle for delivering it; but also, critically, for those 2014 No voters who, given another chance, would or might vote Yes.
These are people whose change of mind has little to do with the SNP and everything to do with the actions of Unionist parties, in particular but not exclusively the Conservatives. This group includes me.
The independence cause is about more than the SNP
For most of my life, if asked where I’m from, my answer has been, unhesitatingly, ‘Britain’. With an Anglo-Scottish background and family scattered around the UK, neither ‘Scottish’ nor ‘English’ told the full story. This was reinforced by a civil service career embracing the Department for International Development, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and GCHQ – the first of those in particular a real instrument of the soft power that, until recently, had served the UK so well. In the 2014 referendum, I voted No without hesitation. It wasn’t a matter of weighing up the pros and cons. It was a matter of the heart, and of identity.
But nine years on, all those old certainties have crumbled, for reasons that may have begun with Brexit but didn’t end there. In late 2019, about the time a newly-elected Boris Johnson announced, in the language of naked authoritarianism, that we now had a ‘people’s government’ and a ‘people’s parliament’, a feeling that had been growing in me crystallised: given another chance, I would probably vote for independence.
With recent events, independence feels further away. But, while those who oppose it may be rubbing their hands, I would caution them against complacency. Because even if the SNP disappeared in a cloud of dust tomorrow, the things that have given people like me second thoughts have not gone away. The current state of the SNP won’t in itself kill the aspiration of many for independence. And if the Union is to survive long term, it’s that aspiration – particularly among younger people – that the UK parties, in particular Labour, surely need to address.
Attacks on our democracy
For many, Brexit, and the loss of freedom of movement, is visceral. Not just for the immense self-harm, and the damage done to millions of lives, but because it goes right to the heart of their identity. Brexiters may mock, but – like millions of others – I feel part of the European family, and something very precious has been taken away from me.
It’s not just Brexit but the demons it has unleashed. The obscenity of the UK’s treatment of refugees, led by an extremist home secretary and reinforced by a state propaganda machine which so routinely lies about every aspect of asylum policy that any notion of a grown-up debate is impossible. The now customary flirting with the breaking of international law and withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. The base political culture which allows a Tory deputy chair to say unselfconsciously that, since he doesn’t know what his party will stand for at the next election, it will probably be the culture wars and trans issues.
The steady degradation of our democracy; the nodding through of legislation without scrutiny; the threats to our rights which are making it harder to vote, harder to protest, harder to strike, harder to challenge the government in court. The growing authoritarianism, including the emergence of an increasingly muscular Unionism. The corruption that these last few years have exposed.
Labour forced to play by Tory rules
We are witnessing a relentless attack on the UK’s institutions and political culture by those forces on the right that want to destroy them – whereby, even when Labour speak, they are forced to play by the rules which the Tories have set. Look at their acceptance of austerity; their acceptance that we are committed to hard Brexit; their acceptance of the framing of ‘illegal migration’ to describe asylum-seekers.
These are not trivial things. They are fundamental to the question of what kind of country I want to live in. The last few years have been lived with an ever-present dread that my children will not grow up with the same freedoms I have enjoyed. Worrying about this does not make me anti-English. It is surely legitimate, facing all the above, to at least wonder about other options. What’s not legitimate, for either side, is to pretend that these issues are black and white, or to impugn the good intentions of those they disagree with, however strongly. We all, after all, have to ask ourselves what’s best for future generations.
Cumulatively, all this has weakened my sense of Britishness. Not my fellow feeling for the people who share these islands, but my belief in the UK state as the best model for the way we are governed. If, as I do, you believe that the European project is about peace, it is devastating to know that the UK will always be the country that sought to undermine it.
Much of the pride I once felt for this country was based on a sense of our role in the world, the strength of our soft power, the values I thought we projected. That has gone, with a powerful sense of loss that feels like bereavement. This is hugely relevant to the question of independence. Since 2016, many people who would never have dreamt of voting for it are now at least open to the idea – a nuance that I suspect may not be fully captured by the polls. Some of them are what you might call constitutionally homeless.
A bleak outlook given the UK’s electoral system
This might seem less bleak if we had an electoral system that didn’t produce elective dictatorships and hadn’t granted free rein to an authoritarian government with scant regard for the rules of liberal democracy. I never again want to be at risk of living under a government such as this Conservative one. If Labour do win the next election with a vastly unrepresentative majority, it will still be an elective dictatorship, even if a more benign one. And in that elective dictatorship will be sown the seeds for the next Conservative one.
So where do the main Unionist parties stand on all this? I won’t dwell on the Scottish Conservatives, other than to suggest to all their elected representatives that they think hard about the damage their party has done to the Union, and ask themselves seriously if it isn’t time to break away and form a separate party. Nor will I devote space to the Liberal Democrats, not out of hostility but out of recognition that, until we have something even resembling a fair voting system, they will remain marginal.
Problems with Labour
There are many people in the Labour Party I like and admire. But there is a lot about the party these days, much as we all need it to win the next general election, that I don’t.
Labour people will tell journalists off the record that it’s because of our electoral system that they are compelled to say things they don’t really believe, or not to say things they do believe; or, on the record, that we have no option but to vote Labour if we want to get rid of the Tories. Yet the leadership remains unwilling to tamper with the very system – first-past-the-post – that they hide behind with such apparent (feigned?) resignation. For all its faults, the House of Lords is not the aspect of the democratic deficit that most keeps me awake at night, even if Gordon Brown tells me it should be.
Labour remains committed to a hard Brexit (albeit with better mood music with the EU), with no intention of restoring freedom of movement.
It also makes me deeply uncomfortable that, while rightly attacking the government’s record on refugees, Labour is staying tactically silent on the sheer immorality of it all. It makes a striking contrast with what the SNP feel they have the political space to say on the subject. When Labour fail to counter the propaganda, they are helping to feed it.
A Labour government would, I hope, try to reverse some of the most abhorrent Tory legislation. But repealing legislation takes time and clutters up the parliamentary timetable. It would be impractical to reverse all the Tories’ damage even if they wanted to. The ”Overton window” is not about to shift back to 2016, let alone 1997.
Then there is the incessant need to moralise (an irony, given that it’s a charge Unionists often throw – with some legitimacy – at some on the other side). I’ve read persuasive Labour critiques of the SNP and independence which undermine their own case because they cannot resist a little a sermon about the evils of nationalism – something which smacks you in the face when Sir Keir Starmer is unable to appear on television without a Union Jack as good as draped around his shoulder. One man’s patriotism is another man’s nationalism. Some prominent Labour activists are so stuck in this counter-productive groove that you begin to wonder if they’re SNP plants.
A challenge to Labour
Even by the standards of these deeply uncertain times, Scotland’s politics right now feel unpredictable. But however severe the crisis within the SNP, and whatever the scale of any Labour bounce, it seems unlikely that the independence cause will just wither away. And even if it does, it’s in all our interests to have a better Union. So what might one advise Labour to do?
- Understand that, just because the Union is the status quo, it’s not only those advocating independence who need to spell out a vision. After all, when talking to those younger people who take future independence as a given (which polls suggest many do), it’s believers in the Union who need to do the persuading.
- In spelling out that vision, don’t ignore the elephants in the room. I’ve listed many but not all of them above. First-past-the-post is a particularly big one.
- Don’t assume that criticising the SNP for its domestic record, poor leadership or worse is in itself an argument against independence. By that logic, you could argue that the UK ceased to be a viable state in 2016, possibly even 1979.
- If you maintain that Scotland has the right to become independent, address head on how a process for gaining independence would look, rather than hope the question will go away; and make sure it’s seen to be fair by all parties.It could be that taking the referendum question to the High Court will prove to be Sturgeon’s strategic masterstroke, in that it made explicit what we all knew – that once you strip away the legalese, and the useful fudge of ‘Westminster’, England has the power to stop Scotland leaving the Union, but the reverse isn’t true. I don’t say that to be emotive, but as an acknowledgement of the power that England’s far greater population size bestows on its politicians.
- While highlighting relative consensus on the hit that independence would mean for the economy, don’t pretend there is consensus on a long-term future which would hinge on so many imponderables – especially in a present context where more than one economist has speculated that Britain may be on the point of diverging for good from other advanced economies. Indeed, on a recent podcast, Mark Blyth, Professor of International Economics and Professor of International and Public Affairs at Brown University (sometimes quoted by Unionists) spoke of now being the time for “pragmatic not romantic nationalism”.
- Avoid triumphalism, slurs and straw men about people’s motives for supporting independence (I’ve lost count of how many of them there are). They may be a great way to rouse your base, but they will be a turn-off to anyone who is open-minded on the subject – the very people you should be trying to win over.
Don’t dismiss everything as “the politics of grievance” when there is plenty to feel aggrieved about. Be aware that, when you adopt these tactics, you can easily slip – in this age of devolution – into what sounds like “muscular Unionism”.
Labour needs a new Union narrative
I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not: someone who has always loved the UK, but has had his belief in it severely shaken.
I have come to believe that, at least in a theoretical world where feelings and politics don’t come into it – which of course they do – the closest possible affiliation short of full union between Scotland and the rest of the UK might be a better model for both (I’m not qualified to speak about Wales or Northern Ireland). I also now understand much better than I did why some Scots have never felt any great affection for the UK. There is no point in anyone blaming others for how they feel. There is no objective right and wrong in all this.
On an emotional level, I’m still conflicted. When, not long after Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to stand down, Rishi Sunak behaved like a statesman over Northern Ireland, I felt a brief nostalgia for a better Britain and better times. But when he then unleashed this government’s cruelty in all its horrors in the form of the “Illegal Migration” Bill, with the renewed threats to break international law, I was reminded starkly of how I got here in the first place.
The current crisis within the SNP doesn’t change the reality that the last few years have done immense damage to the Union. Those who want it to survive in the long term, in particular the Labour Party, need to avoid hubris and triumphalism, and have a reality check. They need to craft a narrative about the Union which avoids too much talk of the past, acknowledges the manifold ills of the present (not just the ones they are happy to talk about), and aspires to a far better, more representative politics.
I’m not holding my breath.