We have reached a watershed for UK politics: Time for independence to catch the wave of change

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, June 20th 2017

These are bewildering and often disorientating times to live in. In recent weeks and months it has felt at times difficult to keep up with the speed of events – as history has been seemingly made and remade every few days.

Such periods call for being honest, respectful in debate, and reflection and self-awareness in everything any of us say or do in public. Look around at the events in the UK and world and they rightly should imbue any of us with a humbleness and wariness of easy remedies.

That said the Scottish election results mark some kind of watershed. Take a couple of perspectives from the ‘Imagination: Scotland’s Festival of Ideas’ Scotland after the election event in Glasgow on Sunday. Peter Geoghegan said the election was ‘the end of the 2014 indyref road’. John Curtice that ‘Brexit has been as disruptive for the Nationalists – as for every other party.’ Angela Haggerty that independence was facing its ‘first big test’ since 2014.

Curtice pointed out that the SNP’s 37% was the tipping point of support for the party and FPTP working in its favour (the SNP won 35 out of 59 seats: 59%). Its support is relatively flatly distributed across the country compared to its opponents, and this produces according to Curtice for the SNP ‘feast or famine’. Any further fall of even a few percent and the electoral system will begin to work against the SNP – the way it currently does for Tories, Labour and Lib Dems – and did when the SNP broke through at Westminster in October 1974: their previous peak until 2015 and 2017.

One huge shift which has happened is that the idea that independence is smoothly the future and somehow inevitable has been defeated. It was always a dangerous assumption, and one which was bought into equally by over-confident Nationalists and over-wrought unionists, and in particular, parts of the London political elite, who saw Scotland almost a ‘foreign country’ which needed to be assuaged.

That is a big shift in the dynamics of Scottish politics from within and without, and one with major consequences. There are three areas that matter profoundly to how the future of Scotland pans out for pro-independence opinion: the SNP, how politics is done and the politics of independence, and the issue of culture.

The SNP and the Limits of Tactical Politics

The SNP talks the language of party and movement. But the SNP isn’t a movement. It is a political party with all the dynamics and disciplines that involves. The first aim of the SNP is to maintain itself as a successful political party – electorally – with everything secondary to that.

The SNP have had a good ten years. They have remade Scottish politics and remade perceptions of Scottish politics here, across the UK and internationally. But it isn’t surprising that after ten years in office the limits of their approach to government and politics is becoming more apparent.

The SNP have been successful in the realm of tactics and adaptive politics, making things up as they go along and seizing opportunities from weak opponents (Scottish Labour) or inept politicians (David Cameron being one example). This success has masked that the SNP have previously done everyday, reactive politics well, but haven’t had a political strategy. This has become even more obvious as their media strategy has weakened – as key personnel such as Kevin Pringle have left government – and domestic politics become more competitive.

As serious, SNP positioning in recent years has been based on a cautious centrism which has placed the party to the left of what it portrayed as Blairite Labour. Two assumptions underpinned this. One was the idea of Tory Governments running the UK in perpetuity based on English votes. The other was that Labour was irrevocably lost to Blairism and a fixation on ‘Middle England’ no matter the nice progressive pronouncements of leaders such as Ed Miliband and Corbyn. Both of these are in tatters now, and it leaves the SNP’s cautious centrism exposed.

The Politics of Independence

For some independence supporters all that matters is this – irrespective of the content, politics or economic effects. This is the Scottish equivalent of Nigel Farage’s version of Brexit – as he indicated that he believed ‘Britain would be a better place if it were poorer’ but was outside the EU. One contributor to ‘The National’ last week, Rab Wilson, posed that what was required was a politics ‘lik Wallace’ of ‘bold new Bravehearts’. Clearly like Farage he wasn’t aiming for the fainthearts.

Independence cannot just be an abstract about sovereignty and freedom. It just doesn’t carry enough voters. If ‘Take Back Control’ had power and resonance in the Brexit vote it was because the UK has never stopped being independent and self-governing, and the memory of the UK not being in the EU only went back to 1973. Such evocations in Scotland take us back a much longer time and don’t have reach beyond a tiny constituency.

The SNP and independence’s fortunes are interlinked but not the same. For most of the last 40 years support for independence has been more than that for the SNP, and maybe the 2017 election indicates a return to this pattern.

A historic point is that independence still has a long term gain from the indyref with support regularly at 43-45% which it did not have pre-2014. The challenge in this is to play it canny and a waiting game, and look for a gamechanger, which many of us thought the Brexit vote might be, but which still might be, the reality of Brexit Britain.

The idea of indyref2 any time soon is counter-productive. A second indyref without a proper analysis of why Yes lost in 2014, and any detailed work on a new improved offer is politics as emotional spasm – understandable, but not to be seriously considered.

A call for indyref2 soon isn’t really responsible. An indyref in the next two years in all the turbulence of Brexit would be more likely lost – and hence would put back the idea of independence at least for a generation. Anyone who thinks this isn’t so should look at Quebec where the Nationalists lost their second referendum by a whisker in 1995. Twenty-two years on and they are far from their ultimate goal.

The idea that the 69-59 Scottish Parliament vote is the main driver is understandable, but not wise politics. That vote was before the 2017 election, and doesn’t mean to say the SNP have to enact a referendum now or in the next two years. More than likely, with the need for a Westminster Section 30 order for a legally binding referendum, we are looking at a referendum at the earliest in late 2019, and more probably, 2021, with Westminster demanding of the Scots that the pro-independence forces win an explicit mandate then.

That would give up to four years to address some of the big questions, but with the SNP by then having been in office fourteen years, it isn’t unforeseeable that Tories and Labour make further gains. Some of the voices for an indyref ASAP are based on fears of leaving it too long, and what happens when the SNP lose popularity. Embracing the likelihood of an earlier defeat isn’t a great argument for a poll sooner rather than later.

Timing is much in politics: a point recognised by Tommy Sheppard in the ‘Sunday Herald’ when he stated that any indyref2 had to wait until the Brexit talks are over. But even more than that, Scotland needs a pause from the incessant campaigning since indyref1, including for many independence campaigners. And then with the 2017 election ending the period defined by the 2014 vote, there has to be a belated examination of the reasons why Yes lost, and then the making of a new offer – different in process and content from before.

Culture eats Strategy

Since the election some independence voices have wanted to show their anger, denial and rage, rather than begin a debate about where we are and what needs to change. The politics of assertion, dogma and inflexibility can have its uses when everything is going well, but is less helpful when things aren’t going to plan.

A part of Nationalist support wants to argue with critics of the Scottish Government’s record on for example education and health. This isn’t an approach which seems motivated by concern over the well-being of education and health. Instead, it is just about political point scoring (as are many of the critics) and defending the SNP in government. This produces a siege mentality and eventually a view of the world far removed from the reality of public services in the country – which isn’t exactly the social democratic utopia of SNP discourse. Having the confidence to admit some shortcoming, and not being caught in system defence, would be more enlightened.

The culture and psychology of a party and movement which cannot admit shortcomings, show flexibility, and make a profound distinction between its ultimate vision and project and actual record in government, is eventually going to start encountering problems and won’t be able to renew in office.

Scotland has historically had trouble with groupthink and orthodoxies –examples include the power of the Kirk, Empire Scotland, or the reign of Scottish Labour. None of this stopped with the advent of devolution and arrival of SNP in office. A little perspective is needed.

A related issue is the absence of policy making, ideas and debate in SNP formal circles. In this the party sits in a political community which from left to right, Labour to Lib Dems and Tories, is an ideas-light space, where politics and debate is conducted without much reference to serious policies or intellectual thinking. One example in this is for the all the references to a social democratic politics, there is a near total absence within Labour or SNP in the last forty years of a serious, sustained intellectual basis or thinkers. Labour had J.P. Mackintosh who died prematurely in 1978. The SNP had Stephen Maxwell. The heyday of these two was the mid-1970s. The devolution double decade has produced no party related thinkers, or renewal of thinking in Scottish social democracy.

Future Challenges: Policies, Ideas, Politics

There are big challenges ahead in policies, ideas and politics. The approaches which gave the SNP success in its first decade in each of these are less and less likely to pay dividends the longer the party is in office.

First, the SNP should embrace a more policy-informed politics. This was originally one of the attractions of Nicola Sturgeon. It isn’t impossible that a government which only won its popular mandate just over a year ago could adapt, learn and respond to the changed political times.

To do so it will need a couple of key flagship policies which set a signal and direction on taking on vested interests, putting ‘the public interest’ in public services rather than embracing the views of professionals, redistribution which puts the needs of Scotland’s poorest and most disadvantaged centrestage, and a long overdue democratisation of parts of our public life which have never seen scrutiny and accountability. That eventually needs to be connected to an economic offer, which does not find it is the last political party hanging on to the discredited neo-liberal model of the British state of recent decades. All the rumours from Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission are that it will continue this approach.

There needs to be a wider recognition of the importance of ideas in politics. No longer can the SNP assume that by its centrism it inhabits the centre-left ground of Scottish politics unchallenged. The SNP’s social democratic credentials have been thin and defensive, and it is long overdue that the party recognise that the wider international debate about the crisis of social democracy across the West – might have some lessons for it. One big question is whether social democracy is adequate to deal with the big issues of class, power and the planet, or a new more green orientated politics isn’t needed. Just clinging to our supposed ‘social democratic consensus’ in one country isn’t very progressive or attractive.

The party and wider movement obviously need to do politics differently. Politics in Scotland has for too long been about parties and politicians, and less about people and collective voice. This has been particularly so of the devolution era. A party that espouses to lead a movement has to have an understanding of movement politics. This involves recognising the power of pluralism, tensions and need for alternative centres of power.

The SNP in many respects are the victims of previous electoral success, but also of believing their own hype about their infallibility and inevitability of independence. They have become the defenders of the status quo in domestic life in Scotland. That is the effect of all those Nationalists who when they defend education and health from criticism won’t admit to any shortcomings. That only leads to the position that the status quo of domestic Scotland is good enough. It isn’t.

This contributes to the SNP buying into the myth of inclusive Scotland – that we are not as defined by class, hierarchy and elites as England. That somehow our homegrown hierarchies and elites are less self-serving and ruthless than the English ruling class. One UK guide to the recent 2017 election caught this perspective on Scotland when the writer Peter Burnett wrote that Scottish politics and by implication the SNP was so inclusive that: ‘Those living in Edinburgh have most of them at one time run into Nicola Sturgeon somewhere, in Charlotte Square, with some of her friends, or at an event.’ That is the politics of an insider class transposing it to the national experience.

A successful SNP and independence politics cannot represent the politics of the status quo and closed Scotland. Instead, it has to have an urgency and desire to speak up for those who are still powerless and don’t have voice. It has to have an insurgency politics against the system, closed Scotland and the fact that devolution has not delivered or shifted power for the vast majority of the country.

We have reached a watershed in British politics: the end of neo-liberalism and of the dominance of Blairism while trying to avoid calling it Blairism. That has huge consequences for Scotland and the politics of independence, and demands a different politics: one bolder, more honest and ambitious. There is a wave of indignation and a hunger for a vision of a different politics and society. If independence doesn’t catch it someone else will.