Daring to be Different: Scotland’s politics and culture of independence

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, December 15th 2019

Scotland after the fourth Tory election victory in a row is never a happy place.

But in 1992 it felt desolate, soul-destroying and potentially hopeless with no sign of an exit route. Whereas in 2019, and for all the horrors of facing a Tory Government elected with a sizeable working majority, it does feel very different. That is because of the existence of the Scottish Parliament, the politics of its centre-left majority, and the prospect of an escape hatch via independence.

2019 seems more substantial as a Scottish result than 2015. That was a high watermark and called ‘a tsunami’ at the time. This seems much deeper, considered and sustainable – confirmation if needed that Scotland marches to a different beat.

The SNP have now won three Westminster elections in a row. The party won 45% of the vote, its second highest vote ever at a Westminster contest. It won 48 seats – taking seven from the Conservatives, six from Labour – reducing them to the sole Iain Murray, and one from the Lib Dems in taking the scalp of Jo Swinson, while losing Fife North East.

With success comes new expectations, challenges and pressures and it is clear that the SNP official line which, over the past five years post-2014 has often seemed about management, control and not quite being sure what to do with the energies and passions of independent supporters, will have to adapt to new circumstances, shaped by winning even more emphatically.

The renewed mandate necessitates building on the success of Thursday – adapting, renewing and being more bold – both in government and the politics of independence. Any party twelve years into office has to take stock – particularly one about to enter the run-in to the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections.

The SNP not only need a new policy prospectus – but in these stormy waters – to come up with a number of eye-catching transformative ideas that show that the party understands the strengths and limits of devolution, where more change is needed, and the inadequacies of progress on social justice after 20 years of the Parliament.

Alex Bell was Chief of Staff for Alex Salmond as First Minister and says of the state of the SNP after the election: ‘It’s a great result but what do they do with it? They need a new product and should learn from Boris Johnson’s unashamed pandering to his support – reward Nationalist voting areas with something substantial. Stop whining and start doing – give Scotland a taste of how it could be different.’

Robin McAlpine, head of Common Weal thinks the party is no longer positioned on the centre-left, saying that ‘The problem is that the Sturgeon administration has been based entirely around the belief that you shouldn’t try to change the game. So if there was to be any game-changing initiative it would need the overwhelmingly left-of-centre rank and file to step up and make it happen.’

As important is for the SNP to develop its independence offer in the next year – which will be progressed next week when Nicola Sturgeon publishes the ‘detailed democratic case’ for the transfer of the legal powers to hold a referendum from Westminster to Scotland. Process and substance both matter. A future independence offer has to feel owned and in part created by a swathe of Scotland rather than just as last time appearing to be pulled out of a civil service drawer.

On the substance many of the tricky issues are known ad nauseam to people, but perhaps the bigger, more fundamental issue is the mindset and psyche of independence. A more human story that accepted that the early years of independence would not be all milk and honey, but involve constraints, risks and even downsides, would better reach out to those who are still floating voters.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of people waiting to hear a version of independence that talks about the realities that a self-governing nation would face, as well as the opportunities. One voter who voted No in 2014 put it to me this week: ‘I am there for Yes if Nicola Sturgeon just says it. That it will be a bumpy ride, but we can do it, and we can set out our priorities better and more justly, making sure those with the broadest shoulders carry the biggest load.’

What could this version of independence look like? The SNP have been, like numerous dominant parties, shaped by a mindset of believing too much that the political centre knows best, media messaging and often seeing policy as an extension of this.

Now after so many victories the SNP can dare to be a bit more adventurous. They will face a British state which is likely to be confrontational, dig in and could even play dirty. This could be a major challenge to a Scottish nationalism profoundly legal and about due process – which isn’t going to change – but which in places seems to sometimes buy into the Whig view of the British state and its self-mythologising of being decent, believing in fair play, and following rules – all of which it only follows when it works for the British establishment.

The SNP have to embrace a politics and ideas of disruption, which does not mean protest and rebellion but about doing things differently and in ways that subvert existing power dynamics and structures. This could include thinking about a number of totemic policy areas and what the Scottish Government could do to progress real change.

One pivotal area of policy is how public agencies nurture and nourish human relationships at different points in people’s lives and when they most need support.

Sue Palmer, author and chair of Upstart Scotland believes government here should ‘introduce a relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage for three to seven year-old children, with the emphasis on healthy all-round development and well-being, and plenty of opportunities to play outdoors in natural surroundings.’

Jemma Neville, author of Constitution Street, finding hope in an age of anxiety wants to see greater decentralism and local autonomy, saying that ‘The Scottish Government could lead by example and decentralise power from Holyrood back to local government and new place-based, citizen assemblies’ which would aid building ‘common ground and trust with our neighbours’. She also stresses that the Scottish Government could ‘demonstrate radical and long-lasting change by enshrining constitutional rights to nature’, recognising radical action is needed on climate change and the planet.

It could begin to think more imaginatively about Scottish culture, identity and representation in media and public life. It is salutary to note how cautious the SNP, the party of self-government, have been on culture over the arc of devolution – and in office.

Culture has been seen as something to keep artists and creative individuals onside and not causing trouble, as an extension of economic development and as a continuation of the New Labour mantra of ‘the creative classes’. The latter led to the setting up of Creative Scotland, but also signified a wider inability to think originally about the culture of a nation of five million people in a globalised world.

Similarly, there is something about culture and confidence which has laid mostly unexplored in the SNP independence offer. Prior to the SNP coming to office, there was a welter of interest in the subject of the Scots and self-confidence and whether something in our attitudes aided us being risk-averse and cautious.

The coming of the SNP changed this narrative and the 2014 indyref brought a dynamic Scotland into view. But since then this nation of people doing things – self-organising, setting up local initiatives and not waiting for permission – for all the official rhetoric of ‘community empowerment’ has not been championed by government and public bodies. Yet this has the potential to make real in everyday lives the potential of self-government, and link the local to the national and the constitutional.

Independence and self-government supporters face pro-union forces which have major problems and an association with the disaster nationalism of Brexit – which itself has been driven by a reactionary English nationalism.

Many Labour and Lib Dem senior figures seem to think it a plausible politics to advocate the argument of unconditional support for the union and don’t think there is any action the British state could do which would cause them to reappraise their commitment. This is a dogmatic, inflexible nationalism – a sentiment spectacularly ill-equipped to being progressive and centre-left.

It does not leave Labour or the Lib Dems in a good place. Andy Myles, for many years a senior Lib Dem is critical of the attitude of his former party observing that: ‘This election has left me wondering whether anyone in the leadership of Scottish Labour and the Scottish Lib Dems knows any 18th and 20th European history at all. Do they realise it was liberalism and nationalism that drove progress and self-determination, and tackled the evils of imperialism?’

Myles asks about the UK, Ireland and Scotland: ‘Have they completely forgotten about Home Rule? Is there some magical spell that says sovereignty must stay with the State Imperial Crown at Westminster, and that it is unthinkable that it might be better to bring it back closer to the people?’

Labour activist Duncan Hothersall illuminates a deep seated strand in the party in Scotland which still wants to deny that this is a nation and political community, writing that: ‘I dearly wish the people on my telly would stop talking about the concept of the SNP “winning” this election on the basis of gaining the most Scottish seats. To win a UK election you need to stand in more than 59 out of 650 seats.’ That attitude is literally a road to oblivion for Labour, and underlines the terrible state of the party.

The next two years will be tumultuous and we will need to navigate a four way political split between independence v. union, Remain v. Leave. Yet as we steer through this, it is a truism that the challenge to a dynamic politics of independence is to simultaneously imagine, create and inhabit a Scotland of the future that we are proud to call our home.

Jemma Neville thinks that that this country of the future is within our grasp in the present through meaningful action on climate change, linked to post-industrial economic development and land reform which ‘would put Scotland firmly on the global map [and] leave a legacy for the Scotland of tomorrow.’ It will require a new kind of economic prospectus going past the orthodoxies of the Growth Commission, looking at ways to encourage wealth, innovation and talent.

This will require a multi-level politics of astute leadership and statecraft: dealing with the immediacy of 2020-21, the perils of Brexit and potential of independence, digging deep on signature policies which change real lives and power dynamics, and at the same time having a focus on what future Scotland will look like – as an anchor, lighthouse and mobilising story.

In short, it will require leaving the constraints of the devolution mindset while still for the moment having a devolved Parliament, and growing the Scotland of the future – and independence of the mind and practice in the here and now.