The ‘Forward March’ of Scottish Nationalism

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, May 9th 2011

Scotland has been changed in so many ways by the results of the Scottish Parliament election, and emphatic re-election of Alex Salmond’s SNP administration. It changes how the Nationalists see themselves, the story, place and sense of Scotland, and the United Kingdom itself at home and globally.

The Long March from the Wilderness

There is a historic dimension to this. There is the Nationalist account of Scotland; the story which is filled by historic and totemic victories and moments of hope: Winnie in 1967, Margo in 1973 and the spectacular breakthrough in 1974, Jim Sillars in 1988, and the false dawn of 1992. This story is an emotional and potent one, and like Labour’s story before, it is understood as a ‘forward march’. This kind of metaphor for all its limitations, of a mechanistic, military idea of change, is one which has informed Labour and now the Nationalists: of a political force which sees itself as an expression of history and identity, and which believes that they have the potential to create ‘the future’.

Then there is the point of historian Tom Devine who stated on election night that this was one of the most seismic moments in Scotland’s history. He is undoubtedly right. This is the single most defining election that has ever happened in Scotland, more so than New Labour in 97 or Thatcher in 79; the only real comparisons are the emergence of Scottish Labour in 1922 and before that the Liberal landslide of 1832. It is potentially that path-breaking.

We need to put the SNP victory in that kind of long time frame. Interestingly, the Nationalist ‘forward march’ has taken a long time to come to fruition. Its first shoots were apparent as long ago as 1945 when the party won Motherwell before the end of the war. The first real sign of an upsurge in support happened in 1961-62, leading to Hamilton 1967 and the 1973-74 surge.

Forty years later we have a modern, very different Scottish nationalism which has not only made its mark, but broken through and become the dominant force of Scottish politics. One interesting question is: why did it take so long? Why has it taken from the hopes of 1967 and 1973-74 to get where we are now?

This long march tells us that Scottish nationalism is resilient and part of a long-term change about how Scotland sees itself. It has morphed and changed over the last few decades, and slowly, hesitantly, it has challenged the old Labour order and story until this week it defeated and replaced it, becoming itself the defining story of Scotland.

However, there are reservations about Scottish nationalism in parts of Scottish society. The SNP for all its appeal did not win a majority vote in the polls. Scotland still has a majority unionist opinion even at the hour of Salmond’s greatest victory so far. This at a time when the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour are in deep crisis.

The Crisis of Scottish Unionism

The appeal of Scottish nationalism, just like Labour Scotland before it, has a wide appeal, but also significant limits. These need to be understood at the moment of the SNP’s great victory, so it does not engage in over-reach and become guilty of hubris. Scottish nationalism as a political force is still seen negatively by parts of Scottish society, namely parts of establishment and institutional Scotland, parts of the extended Labour state, and older voters. Many of these groups may be declining in number and influence, but we need to understand their reservations.

One of the most significant factors in the SNP victory has been the slow decline of Scottish unionism to the sad state it is in today. The short answer given for its state by most commentators and public opinion is one word, Thatcher. This is completely and utterly wrong.

The long-term decline of Scottish unionism was evident long before Thatcher. It is a product of deep-seated changes in post-war Scottish society, the economy, the decline of traditional manufacturing, and the shift to a more service driven economy, along with the decline of Empire. British economic decline and the numerous post-war crises, and in particular the 1967 devaluation and 1976 IMF crisis, played their part as Scots saw the British social contract and citizenship which they believed in, threatened and diluted.

Beyond The Independence Question: What Kind of Scotland?

A referendum on Scottish independence is now inevitable, an epoch making moment in the history of Scotland and the UK. It could foreseeably be won; it could be won because although there is no pro-independence majority in Scotland at the moment or in last week’s election, one could emerge. This would be because the story of Britain is over, and at the same time the Ukanian state still exercises a major hold over large aspects of our life. Those two factors create major possibilities for an independence majority.

There needs to be some serious thinking in the Nationalist camp about how things progress. First, an independence referendum is only a tactic, a means to an end. Second, there is already different emphasises emerging in the SNP about what kind of referendum is on offer: a ‘Yes/No’ question, or a multi-option referendum in which fiscal autonomy or ‘devo max’ competes with independence and the status quo. It is plausible given the Salmond long haul strategy that he sees a multi-option referendum as the best incremental way to continue advancing towards his goal and building majority support. It has the advantage of being part of ‘the forward march’ approach, but it does mean we could put off forever having the decisive ‘Yes/No’ vote.

There is something more substantive lurking behind all this. Much more important than what kind of referendum Scotland has, or even a debate about what kind of substantive powers constitute independence, and the difference between independence and ‘devo max’, we need a national debate and discussion about what kind of Scotland we want.

This debate is one which the mainstream political classes, shaped by the long  influence of social democracy and the dark shadow of market fundamentalism, have chosen over the last decade of devolution, to not engage in.

We need to urgently open it, and begin a generous, curious, pluralist conversation about the kind of Scotland and sort of future we want to live in. This has to address political economy, society, power, inequalities, democracy, and of course, our story as a nation. It can build on some of the work already done, including the projects ‘Scotland 2020’ and ‘Glasgow 2020’ I led for the UK think tank Demos; this would recognise the use of mass imaginative, open-ended processes and form, and the notion of ‘democratising the future’.

We need to connect our individual stories and accounts into a collective story which makes sense in our fragmented, divided society, and reaches out across the barriers and divides which so scar our nation. Our collective story has to give voice to the new media worker in Dundee, the eco-entrepreneur in Leith, while also finding a place for the ‘walking wounded’ and those casualties of social change who make up the ‘forgotten Scotland’ from Anniesland to Kilmarnock and Inverness.

At the same time we need to develop a Scottish independence movement which goes way beyond the boundaries of the SNP, and draws upon the energies, talents and dreams of people across the political divide in Scotland. This isn’t a time and place for tribalism, but looking for generosity, imagination and radicalism.

A number of initiatives would be helpful:

1. We have to connect the constitutional debate to a vision of society and the economy. This would connect Scotland’s self-government to the vision and practice of a fairer, more equal, inclusive, creative and open-minded, outward looking Scotland.

2. We should draw on radicals, campaigners and thinkers in England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland. There should be a pan-British conversation, and we should welcome the creation of an English radical campaign such as English Democrats for Independence. Over to Our Kingdom and others on that!

3. And given the above has a Scottish, British and international dimension, we need to draw in international allies starting with the Scottish diaspora. We need a Global Scots for Independence as well.

All of the above is do-able and achievable. To start with we need a simple first step and then a more ambitious one. First, we need the new SNP administration to set the tone of the new political environment by on a couple of major issues not acting in a party manner, but bringing the Parliament and all its parties together and speaking with one voice. The obvious one is how we deal with the Scotland Bill going through Westminster at the moment, and the need for more powers.

Second, those of outside Parliament, supporters of independence and those of us sympathetic to the Nationalists have a responsibility at this juncture in our history. We have to get active, not as flag wavers in a party project. We need to get out there as imagineers, dreamers and political entrepreneurs. We have to start institution building, creating an ecology of agencies, bodies and initiatives which aid and inform and make real self-government and self-determination. In short, we need to start living in the new Scotland. How exciting and challenging is that?