The Making of the Modern SNP: From Protest to Power

Gerry Hassan

in Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh University Press

The Scottish National Party celebrates its 75th anniversary this year in good heart and shape. Established in 1934 as the amalgamation of two parties – the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party – it now finds itself in the unprecedented position of being Scotland’s Government after winning the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, the first set of national elections the party has won in its history.

The SNP has, in the last forty years, moved from being a marginal force often ridiculed, patronised and caricatured by opponents to a force which is both respected and feared, and which has defined and reshaped Scottish politics, brought the Scottish dimension centre stage, and forced other political parties to respond on their terms.

It is now the accepted wisdom to state that ‘modern Scottish politics’ began with Winnie Ewing’s victory in the Hamilton by-election in 1967. If this is true then modern politics can be defined in at least three distinct phases: firstly, 1967-79, taking us from Hamilton through the devolution decade, secondly, 1979-97, the Thatcher/Major years, and finally the election of New Labour in 1997 leading to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the election of a SNP minority administration in 2007.

From this argument of Scottish politics post-Hamilton the modern SNP as we know it has been a long time coming with several milestones along the way. There was the party’s reaction and then slow clawback from the shock of 1979, the re-emergence of the Scottish question in 1987, and the arrival of the Blair Government committed to legislating for a Scottish Parliament. The contemporary SNP is a very different party from the one which sensationally broke through in the 1960s and was such an important force in the 1970s.

The journey of Scottish politics since the mid-sixties operates at a much deeper level as well. It was no accident that the SNP along with Plaid Cymru erupted onto the Scottish and Welsh political scene in the months of 1966-67, for it occurred at the time of the high tide and then disillusion with the Wilson Government after its 1966 election, an era of ‘comatose constitutional orthodoxy’ and ‘bland electoral complacency’ in the Scottish and Welsh Labour establishments (Marquand 2008: 222). This period of first, Plaid Cymru winning Carmarthen and then, the SNP winning Hamilton, coincided with a fundamental crisis of British social democracy, from which it has never recovered. The road from Wilson’s humiliation with the November 1967 devaluation, two weeks after Winnie Ewing’s victory, takes us directly to the 1976 IMF crisis, the final burial of Croslandite social democracy, the ascendancy of Thatcherism and creation of Blair’s New Labour (Hassan 2007). The emergence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism were a product of the crisis of the British state, economy and the UK’s place in the global economy (Nairn 2003).

Remembering the SNP: Histories, Cultures and Peoples

Despite the widespread influence of the SNP in Scottish and UK politics the contemporary SNP has been significantly under-researched in Scotland, as have all the mainstream political parties. The most influential and prominent research into the SNP has studied Scottish nationalism and the party as a sub-set of this: seen in the work of Hanham (1969), Brand (1978) and Mitchell (1996). These works have covered a range of areas including the dynamics between Scottish nationalism culturally and politically, the influence of literary nationalism in the inter-war years, the emergence and establishment of the SNP and examination of where it drew support, the party’s role in the campaign for self-government, and the relationship between minority (Scottish) and majority (British) nationalism in the UK.

There has been only one history of the entire period of the party’s existence, namely Lynch (2002), while Finlay’s research concentrated on the early years of the party (2002). A number of senior SNP politicians have produced autobiographies from early to middle period figures such as John MacCormick (1955), Wendy Wood (1970), and William Wolfe (1973), and MPs such as Winnie Ewing (2004), Donald Stewart (1994) and Jim Sillars (1996). With the exception of Dick Douglas’s autobiography of Robert McIntyre (1996), there is a complete lack of serious biographies about any SNP figures, including Alex Salmond. This reflects a wider Scottish pattern whereby the only senior Scottish political figures that earn the right of autobiographies are those who have established themselves as ‘British figures’ such as Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Menzies Campbell.

Therefore, the exclusive focus of the published work on the party has been a historical angle with a conspicuous absence of analysing and understanding the contemporary SNP that this book hopes in part to remedy.

Power and Place Making and the SNP

The SNP’s evolution from being the small party it was pre-1967 saw it go through many changes explored by Richard Finlay and James Mitchell in their respective chapters. The party in the 1940s and 1950s post-John MacCormick’s departure to set up the Scottish Convention was one of ‘true believers’ with an oligarchial leadership and centralisation of power (Brand 1978: 278). This slowly changed as the party grew and won increasing support and began to develop a more informal and collegiate style.

The modern SNP that arrived onto the political scene in the 1960s was one of a party in flux: with a new, mass membership, a more consensual form of leadership, and a form of campaigning and energy which changed the nature of the by-election in Scotland in a manner the Liberals did in England. The party’s breakthrough since 1967 onward gave it a new sense of purpose, which particularly in the 1974-79 Parliament gave it enormous attention, but also scrutiny and pressure. The party did not escape from this experience unscathed which is explored by a number of contributors to this volume. Power in the party in the 1960s and 1970s was held diffusely with two alternating power centres in the party: the Westminster leadership and party National Executive Committee. At points in the 1974-79 Parliament these two groups were in conflict and loggerheads, such as the crucial endgame of the Callaghan Government.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the party became more professional, accentuated by the leadership of Alex Salmond from 1990-2000 and the Salmond-Mike Russell preparations for the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999. The party in a number of respects seemed to be aspiring to copy the New Labour organisational model of politics in those first elections, but it took the interregnum of John Swinney’s leadership to put effective structures in place which modernised the party. This unleashed ferrous resistance in some sections of the party with a leadership challenge in 2003 from Bill Wilson, with one SNP member saying after the contest about Swinney’s changes: ‘He is going down the road of Labour and the Tories. It is a sign of weak leadership and it will destroy the soul of the party’ (The Times, November 23rd 2003). The preparations for the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections with Alex Salmond in charge saw the final comprehensive transformation and modernisation of the SNP as a campaigning, electoral and communication force with an impressive IT and voter ID strategy which for the first time saw the SNP able to out-professionalise Labour (Guthrie 2003).

This overhauling of the SNP in terms of internal power and capacity relates to the place of the party in the political system. In the 1970s the SNP had self-proclaimed centre-left policies; its February 1974 manifesto called itself a ‘programme of social democracy’, while the October 1974 manifesto was subtitled ‘A Programme for Social Democracy’. However, there was still a degree of ambiguity at the heart of the party with some politicians calling the party ‘centre-left’, others ‘centrist’ and the Party Election Broadcast in the October 1974 election stating, ‘I’ve voted once for Both Sides Now, For Right and Left, and yet somehow, It’s their illusions I recall’ (Bayne, 1991: 55). The party were nervous of explicitly embracing a social democratic philosophy.

After the 1987 election the party began to become more comfortable asserting a social democratic outlook. The party’s identity became genuinely anchored on the centre-left, reflecting wider changes in Scotland, and the fusing of the national dimension and centre-left politics. However, there are a number of problems with taking this account on face value. Before going further it would be useful to offer some definition of social democracy which can still be understood by the left’s traditional values of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. Social democracy is centred on government intervention and regulation to make society fairer and less unequal and an ideal of freedom which embraces economic and social rights. Blair, Brown and Schroeder have been associated with the forces of ‘new social democracy’ which once promised so much and which can be measured by their own mantra to ‘not retreat before the tide of neo-liberalism: acquisitive individualism is a brutal and crippled view of humanity’ (Cornford and Hewitt 1994: 251); by these words it can only be seen as a humiliating failure.

Firstly, the party leadership at key points in this transformation, post-1987 and the 1999 elections being the best examples, decided to articulate what seemed like an unproblematic version of social democracy. This was driven in both cases by a positioning strategy and place making sense in the Scottish political environment, attempting to outflank Labour on the left. Therefore the party was, in its attempts to challenge New Labour in the run-in to the 1999 elections, uncritically supportive of a whole host of producer interests, higher public spending across a range of areas, and against modernisation of public services. One of the central problems at this time was that the party had decided to unconditionally become social democratic when this tradition was now in widespread crisis across the globe and in retreat across most of Western Europe in the face of the neo-liberal onslaught inspired by Thatcher and Reagan.

Secondly, this led the party’s social democratic embrace to become mediated and qualified by neo-liberalism, and the economic and social orthodoxies of the age. Neo-liberalism can be understood as the worldwide crusade for a narrow notion of ‘freedom’ which has in the last thirty years centred on marketisation, inequality and a model of corporate governance which rewards business elites  (Doogan 2009).

The Nationalist leadership became advocates of what Jim and Margaret Cuthbert call in their chapter ‘neo-liberalism with a heart’, which in many respects is not that different from Blair/Brown New Labour. It is true that even when the party were uncritically embracing social democratic policies in 1999, there were still elements of neo-liberalism, as in the advocacy of the Laffer Curve, one of the key staples of Reaganomics, by Jim Mather. Yet by 2007 this influence had gone much further with the party embracing a ‘Scotland plc’ agenda of independence based significantly on the financial sector, light-touch regulation and not challenging vested interests, all of which has been thrown in the air by the global economic crises of 2008-9.

A different interpretation of the above events and the SNP’s transformation can be found utilising Henry Drucker’s idea of ‘doctrine and ethos’ which he used in his path-breaking analysis of British Labour (1979). The SNP’s ‘doctrine’ is formally social democratic, mixed with an accommodation with neo-liberalism, while its ‘ethos’, the party’s sense of itself is Scottish nationalist. This has at times articulated an ‘I believe in Scotland’ outlook which has perceived those who are not SNP sympathisers as being in some sense ‘anti-Scottish’. This has over the years infuriated unionist parties who have seen this as the Nationalists claiming they have exclusive ownership of ‘Scotland’; such an outlook can be seen in the SNP slogan in the 1960s, ‘Put Scotland First’, which in the words of the party, ‘no other party can use because the National Party is the only Scottish political party’ (Hanham 1969: 205).

This takes us to the notion of what is the ‘party soul’, in the sense of Eric Shaw’s words ‘what endows a party with its sense of being or … its utopia’. This utopia ‘may never be fully attainable but the striving towards it gives meaning to its sacrifices’ (Shaw 2007: 40).

This ‘utopia’ in the Scottish National Party is the idea of Scottish statehood and independence which carries more weight than any sense of left or right. This is not in any sense to diminish the extent to which SNP members and activists see themselves and their party as firmly and without qualification on the centre-left, and particularly versus the failures of the New Labour ‘near-left’ experience, but merely to address the issue of what motivates and informs the party’s soul.

Where did Scottish Nationalist voters come from, and how did the party change through the years since its first breakthrough? Post-1967 the party was associated with winning support in ‘New Towns’ such as Cumbernauld, Glenrothes and East Kilbride, the ‘new working class’ seen in Hamilton and West Lothian, and younger voters. According to a 1968 ‘Scotsman’ survey, SNP support was more representative of the population socio-economically than the two main parties, although weaker in managerial and professional groups (Hanham 1969: 188-89).

Similar surveys in 1974 showed that while Labour and the Conservatives were still ‘class parties’, the SNP were not. The party won support from those with weak religious and class identities, and were not strong amongst Catholics and those aged 45. It gained the votes of young voters, the self-employed, workers in small establishments and people with experience of unemployment, either personally or in their own family (Miller 1981: 144, 147).

By 1992 SNP support began to more closely resemble Labour’s than at any previous election, winning more support in the West of Scotland, among working class voters and in the Catholic community than previously, while still in each being significantly behind Labour (Mitchell 1996: 291). In the first Scottish Parliament elections SNP support increasingly became representative of Scotland as a whole, but the party still found it difficult to win constituency seats, particularly in the West of Scotland. This underlined that the main obstacle to Nationalist advance was the attachment of a sufficiently large part of Scotland, albeit declining, to Scottish Labour.

In the 2007 elections the SNP won its first ever national elections, narrowly both in votes and seats: 32.9% of constituency votes to 32.1% for Labour, winning 47 seats to Labour’s 46 (see Table One). The SNP gained more votes from men than women, proving unable to close the historic ‘gender gap’ in support for the Nationalists (as Fiona Mackay and Meryl Kenny explore in their contribution), amongst younger voters (and 18-24 year olds in particular), and amongst skilled manual workers, although the party’s support remained much more broad based in ‘class’ terms than Labour. The social base of SNP support in 2007 as explored by John Curtice in his chapter varies relatively little across Scotland – from owner occupiers to council tenants, Catholics to Protestants – with only one group voting by a majority SNP (private rented tenants). There was still evidence of a reluctance in Labour’s heartlands to vote SNP with the party’s only gains in West and Central Scotland: Glasgow Govan, Kilmarnock and Cunninghame North from Labour and Falkirk West from Independent. Labour won 28 of the 33 constituency seats in Glasgow and West/Central Scotland to the SNP’s four and Conservative one; the rest of the country returned nine Labour, 17 SNP, 11 Lib Dems and three Conservative out of 40 constituencies (1). While the SNP have still to make advances in large parts of the West of Scotland, huge progress has been made, and the strength of voters attachment to Scottish Labour does now appear to be critically weakening.

Table One: Scottish Parliament Election Results 1999-2007  (% of Votes)

Constituency                                               Regional

1999             2003          2007                     1999             2003             2007

Labour           38.8            34.6             32.1                        33.6             29.3             29.2

SNP                28.7             23.8            32.9                        27.3             20.9             31.0

Con                 15.6             16.6             16.6                         15.4             15.5             13.9

Lib Dem         14.2             15.4             16.2                         12.4             11.8             11.3

Greens             0.0               0.0               0.1                           3.6               6.9               4.0

Others               2.7               9.6               2.1                           7.7             15.6             10.6

Source: Herbert et al, Election 2007, SPICe Briefing.

Table Two: Westminster Election Results in Scotland 1997-2005 (% of Vote)

1997                         2001                         2005

Labour                       45.6                         43.2                         39.5

SNP                             22.1                         20.1                         17.7

Conservative              17.5                         15.6                         15.8

Lib Dem                      13.0                         16.4                         22.6

Others                           1.9                            4.7                            5.1

Source: Rallings and Thrasher (2006).

Table Three: European Parliament Election Results 1979-2009 (% of Vote)

1979             1984             1989             1994             1999           2004        2009

Labour  33.0             40.7             41.9             42.5             28.7             26.4             20.8

SNP        19.4             17.8             25.6             32.6             27.2             19.7            29.1

Con         33.7             25.7             20.9             14.5             19.8             17.8             16.8

Lib Dem 14.0             15.6               4.3               7.2               9.8             13.1             11.5

Green           –                0.2               7.2               1.6               5.8               6.8               7.3

Others          –                  –                  –                  2.5               8.9             16.3             14.5

Source: Hassan and Fraser (2004); UK Office of the European Parliament (2009).

Table Four: Local Government Election Results 1995-2007 (% of Vote)

1995             1999          2003            2007

Labour                         43.8             36.6           32.9              28.1

SNP                               26.2             28.9           24.3             27.9

Conservative                11.3              13.7            15.2             15.6

Lib Dem                          9.7              12.7            14.6            12.7

Ind                                    7.6              6.5              9.5             10.9

Others                               1.5              1.7              3.6               4.9

Source: Denver and Bochel (1995; 2007).

The pattern of SNP support at Westminster, European and local government elections (Tables Two-Four) presents a complex picture. At Westminster elections the Nationalists secured second place in votes in 1997 for the first time since October 1974. They held on to second place in 2001 despite losing votes, but in 2005 slipped into third place behind the Lib Dems. The pattern at European and local government elections is a more positive one. The 2009 Euro elections saw the Nationalists finish ahead of Labour for the first time, while in the 2007 council elections the party finished just behind Labour in votes, but ahead in council seats aided by the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

One conclusion emerging from the different elections is that where the Nationalists have pulled ahead or are level pegging with Labour, this is as much to do with Labour weakness as SNP popularity. The SNP’s Scottish Parliament constituency vote in 2007 (32.9%) is only a little above the party’s Westminster peak of October 1974 (30.4%): the difference being the decline in Labour’s vote. The party’s current European and local government shares of the vote have previously been bested by the party in the 1994 and 1999 elections respectively. Just as one of the major contributory factors of Labour dominance in the 1980s was Conservative decline and weakness, now one of the major factors in SNP strength is Labour decline and weakness in an increasingly multi-party political environment.

Understanding the SNP: Scottish Nationalism and nationalism

There has historically been a lack of intellectual activity and thinking within the SNP; although this is a truism which can be levelled at all Scotland’s main political parties, remembering Wendy Alexander’s argument that ‘one of the last times the Labour movement in Scotland made a real intellectual contribution to the UK Labour Party was around … 1906’ (Daily Telegraph, September 30th 2002). This was a bit harsh, as the party had a particularly fertile period in the 1920s, but broadly correct. The SNP combines this with little substantial work or intellectual curiosity in the area of policy.

The 1970s was an exception to this witnessing a period of fertile activity and creativity on the part of Scottish Nationalists with the publication of ‘The Radical Approach’ (1976) and ‘Power and Manoeuvrability’ (1978); the journals ‘Scottish International Review’ and ‘Question’ explored progressive issues about Scotland’s politics, culture and place in the world. The late 1990s and early 21st century will be seen in hindsight as another positive period for the SNP, but of a very different kind seeing no comparable publications from the Nationalist cannon setting the agenda. Pre-2007, there was the well-intentioned work of Kenny MacAskill (2004) alongside Mike Russell’s advocacy of a host of predictable right-wing and neo-liberal platitudes (MacLeod and Russell 2006).

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the Scottish Centre for Economic and Social Research publish an ambitious series of independent papers by thinkers such as Christopher Harvie and James Mitchell, but this was undertaken on a shoestring and proved to be unsustainable. This can be seen today in the lack of institutional support for the party whether it is in civil society, newspapers and media, business or think tanks. Labour has historically had a rich array of support across Scottish civil society which has given it a major advantage versus its competitors. This has sustained its role as the leading party of the nation, blurred boundaries between state and non-state, and allowed a party which at its core was not that strong and without a mass membership to achieve hegemony (Hassan 2004).

This leads to the question of who owns ‘Scottish nationalism’ with the SNP on occasion seeing Scottish Nationalism and nationalism as synonymous. The journey from Gordon Brown’s ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’ (1975), a set of essays (including one by Vince Cable) which began as a critique of Ted Heath’s Conservative Government in Scotland, and which became through delay and dithering a collection which addressed the rise of the SNP in the two 1974 elections, to ‘A Claim of Right for Scotland’ (Dudley Edwards 1989) collection, saw a significant part of the Scottish political community re-appraise and articulate a generous, inclusive version of Scottish nationalism. Interestingly, and not by accident, both volumes were all male, the Brown collection containing 29 male contributors, illustrating the gender insensitive nature of a section of Scotland which proclaimed their progressive credentials. However, to many in the SNP these were not Nationalist perspectives, but documents which invoked a quasi-nationalist language, but were really influenced by unionist thinking. Chris McLean gave voice to this in his response to ‘A Claim of Right’, seeing that for all its radical rhetoric it supported the UK constitution and British sovereignty (McLean 1989).

The SNP has had consistently problems with intellectuals and thinkers, but this is not unusual in party politics. Tom Nairn and Neal Ascherson are two examples of nationalist thinkers who have had problems with Scottish Nationalism. Neil MacCormick is the exception to the rule, and that rare example of someone who combined an intellectual life with elected office. His writing influenced the SNP’s recent thinking about independence and the Scottish Government’s ‘national conversation’ (MacCormick 1999). Nairn for many years had a difficult relationship with the party, in which his writings on nationalism were revered across the globe, but uncelebrated at home and unacknowledged by the Nationalists. This has shifted in recent years with Alex Salmond as First Minister inviting Nairn to give a prestigious Lothian Lecture and embracing his role as one of the leading Scottish nationalist thinkers (Nairn 2008).

The Devolution Years and the Coming to Power of the SNP

Pre-devolution the history of the SNP was that of occasional by-election victories (2), followed by hype, the party getting carried away with its own rhetoric, and then disappointment. This was the pattern of 1979 and 1992. Post-devolution the reality of the SNP and Scottish politics has utterly changed. The SNP are a permanent fixture on the landscape. Not only has George Robertson’s prediction that ‘devolution would kill Scottish Nationalism stone dead’ been proven wrong, it has given it a platform, a plausible strategy, and the trappings, prestige and resources of office.

The appeal of the Nationalists slowly changed over the course of devolution, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes dramatically. Initially, the party did not seem to know what it wanted to do with its new resources: was it there to make a success of devolution on the road to independence, or show its failures? Slowly the answer came in two forms, firstly, the sheer unattractiveness of much of Labour rule of Scotland, and secondly, under Alex Salmond’s leadership from 2004 the transformation of the SNP’s message on Scotland. Previously the party had often stressed what was wrong in Scotland, an essentially negative message suited to the long years of Thatcherism, but borne of an oppositionalist mindset. Salmond recognised that the party needed to tell a more positive story, of the potential of Scotland as a self-governing nation. Faced with a mostly uninspiring Labour campaign in 2007 the SNP’s uplifting account struck a very different tone.

Many different forces, influences and individuals came together and pushed for a different approach in the long run up to 2007. There was the work done by the Really Effective Development Company, a business development company. There were activities drawing upon American ‘positive psychologist’ Martin Seligman, and in particular his book, ‘Learned Optimism’ (Seligman 1990) (3). There was also the move of people to the SNP, shocked with the style and substance of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition. This coalesced into the desire for a different kind of party, a different kind of campaigning and message, and for a different kind of Alex Salmond, all of which he and the party leadership embraced. Allied to this was a hunger to win, and a belief that the 2007 elections offered a huge opportunity to an SNP which was serious, professional and focused. This Nationalist transformation completely surprised and wrong-footed Labour.

The nature of the Scottish Nationalists in office has seen several commentators such as Iain Macwhirter proclaim that the party ‘seems to have done more to further social democratic values in 10 months than Labour managed in ten years’ (Macwhirter 2008). This has become less marked over time with the SNP appearing as the same uneasy compromise between centre-left values and that of neo-liberalism as Labour, witnessed in the party’s unsavoury promotion of American multi-millionaire Donald Trump, its funding from Brian Souter and proposals for privatising forestry. Yet, there was also something very different and more progressive about the SNP from the outset in office which has remained: the tone, style and content of Alex Salmond’s minority administration was one of ‘Scotland’s Government’ as it proclaimed, aspiring to be the national voice of Scotland, in contrast to the timid Labour-Lib Dem Executives which preceded it.

From the outset the new administration was in Chris Harvie’s words ‘eager to please strategic lobbies’ such as COSLA, while ‘familiar begging bowls were briskly filled’ (Harvie 2008: 39-40).  In many respects in detail and policy the SNP administration has had a patchy record. As a minority administration the party has had to be deft and pragmatic in the Scottish Parliament, and in 2007-8 only seven Scottish bills were passed compared with ten Sewel motions which give Westminster permission to legislate for Scotland (The Times, May 12th 2009).

In particular, there was the absence pre-crash of any plausible explanation of political economy, beyond the inanities of the ‘knowledge economy’ with its talk of ‘smarter Scotland’ and ‘competitive advantage’ (Salmond 2008a); but in that as many things the Nationalists mirrored mainstream conventional politics. Across economic, social and cultural policy, as Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, Stephen Maxwell and Philip Schlesinger, make clear in their contributions, there has been a sense of the SNP going along with existing ideas and conventional wisdom, rather than being innovative; such challenges are always difficult in a small policy making community whether devolved or independent.

After Britain?

There is the issue of how the SNP wish to be judged in office and what would success look like on its terms? Does the party have a ‘national project’ in terms of the kind of Scottish society it would like to see? What ambitions does it have for and beyond the idea of independence?

The issue of independence – so long and indeed still mocked by unionist politicians as ‘eccentric’ and not ‘mainstream’ – and the debate between it and the Union is one of the main fault-lines of Scottish politics. Indeed, after the demise of socialism it could be argued it is the central one. Surprisingly, apart from some SNP thinking in the 1970s there has been scant detailed thinking by the party or others about independence with, apart from Neil MacCormick, the primary exception in recent years being the London-based Constitution Unit which produced an important study which focused more on legal and process issues and ignored politics (Murkens et al 2002).

The contemporary case for independence put by the SNP until recently gave a central place to Scotland’s financial institutions and the success of the small independent nations surrounding Scotland. This all changed with the global crises of 2008-9, and the banking meltdown which saw massive UK government intervention and nationalisation of the banks. Alex Salmond had previously invoked ‘an arc of prosperity’ including Iceland and Ireland (Salmond 2008b), which was now called by his opponents ‘an arc of insolvency’ given the perilous state of both economies. It was clear that the argument for independence would have to be substantially rethought.

The meaning of Scottish autonomy, statehood and sovereignty is central to independence and is explored by Alex Wright in his contribution examining the SNP’s understanding of ‘Britain’. We now live in an age defined by the fluidity and movement of power and authority – the mantra of the globalisers – alongside at the same time an ever-increasing concentration of power in political, business and media elites. These contradictory movements are of relevance to the Scottish experience, the future of the UK, and how the dynamics of the European dimension evolve.

The old absolutist claims of statehood and sovereignty articulated by Tory Eurosceptics and Labour ‘little Englanders’ are increasingly irrelevant to the world described above. Some Scottish Nationalists hold out similar simplistic viewpoints, but despite Labour and Tory rhetoric against the Nationalists, claiming that the cause of independence runs counter to the age of globalisation, the main body politic of the SNP has adapted much more convincingly to the times than the two main UK parties.

The nature of the British state and its ancient obsessions with sovereignty have shown that even after more than a decade of Labour Government supposedly committed to reform and a ‘new politics’ it has proven incapable of radically reforming and democratising itself. The crises of the British parliamentary democracy and state which engulfed politics in May 2009 showed a deep crisis of politics and the political classes, while at the same time a post-British set of identities and politics has slowly been evolving (Gardiner 2004).

The European dimension has proven increasingly problematic to the British state since the entry of the UK to then EEC in 1973. The election of a David Cameron Conservative Government in the future would see the return of an explicitly Eurosceptic agenda, hostile to further European integration and in favour of repatriating powers to Westminster. Such a course would have huge consequences in Scotland with Scottish political, business and civic institutions openly aligning themselves with Europe rather than the UK. This would be an accentuation of the shift evident in the latter days of the Thatcher era, but much more pronounced, and one which would strengthen the case for independence.

Europe matters enormously to the SNP and the argument for independence. It takes independence out of being an insular argument and sets it in a wider, modern context, something explored by Eve Hepburn and Michael Keating in their chapters. Europe underlines the problematic nature of the British state, and its inability to share sovereignty and embrace European integration.

There is now a growing literature across the world about the role of small nations and devolved nations, regions and territories in an age of interdependence and shared sovereignty (Keating 2001). This talks about the limits of sovereignty and the prospects and limitations of ‘post-sovereignty’. Such debates show the need to rethink and reimagine the case for independence, but the argument for the UK as well. Independence has become a more more fluid concept, about sharing and pooling sovereignty in new alliances and networks, from Europe to elsewhere. The nature of the UK state similarly has to face these challenges and respond in ways which for all the rhetoric from UK Governments, Labour and Tory, it has not done convincingly.

This is now a debate about change and reform rather than the status quo, witnessed in the workings of the Calman Commission and Scottish Government’s ‘national conversation’. These initiatives are being driven by wider social forces which illustrate that the UK is on the move to a destination as yet unknown which is not under the control of the British Government. The direction is undoubtedly in favour of a looser set of arrangements, which will involve decentralism, fragmentation and multiple levels of authority which could entail Scottish independence or new forms of autonomy. What is clear is that some accounts of this get carried away in a post-modern sense of change and fluidity which fails to acknowledge the unreformed nature of the British state, which will act as a major break on any future change, unless overcome.

While domestic policy will prove the most important, there is also the arena of defence and foreign policy, seen in such concerns as British nuclear weapons being sited on the Clyde, the Euro-sceptic, pro-Atlanticist role of the British state which led us into the quagmire of Iraq and is still involved in Afghanistan, and the wider militarisation of Scotland. SNP policy provides a direct threat to powerful geo-political interests in the UK Government, US and NATO, who would pose major obstacles to Scotland negotiating a different path to where it currently is.

Some commentators claim that the SNP’s cause of independence doesn’t really matter and that it is either a small parochial issue or an ultimately bourgeois concern. The sociologist Michael Mann gives voice to this when he dismisses a range of ‘stateless nations’ with the question, ‘Does it finally matter whether Quebec remains part of Canada, or Scotland part of the United Kingdom, or Catalonia part of Spain?’, and then goes on:

If Quebec, Scotland or Catalonia separate from their imperial ruler, people will not die or be driven from their homes. Rather they will worry about the consequences for investment and employment, what languages they will learn, or whether a tiny country would ever qualify for the World Cup finals …. For the past decade the Quebecois, Scots and Catalans have been dithering at election time, unable to decide whether they really do want independence. It doesn’t matter much, one way or the other, either for them or for their supposed exploiters. (Mann 2005: 525)

Mann surely protesteth too much. Scotland has had a relatively privileged experience in the modern capitalist age in comparison to lots of places: the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia-Herzegovina, genocide in Darfur or the suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of one of the world’s most powerful military machines, the Israelis.

What cannot be ignored is the nature of the British state and the role Britain continues to play across the world while it still professes to be ‘the mother of Parliaments’. The British state is not the benign entity Fabian socialists used to think it was, but an ‘Empire State’ (Barnett 1997). This state places itself in the nexus of a geo-political alliance which aids those with power and wealth in the world, while happily embracing its subordinate role in the American military project, colluding in torture in ‘the war on terror’ and two unwinnable wars. Britain’s nuclear weapons would become a controversial subject in any independence discussions (Chalmers and Walker 2001); they are both ‘a political hornet’s nest’ and offer ‘real bargaining power for Scotland’ (Murkens et al 2002: 89, 90). There are potential similarities with this and the end of the Soviet Union which witnessed discussions between the Russians and Ukrainians over nuclear weapons and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. All this shows that Scottish independence matters at a Scottish, UK and international level.

The SNP’s contribution to these processes will be vitally important at a Scottish and UK level. However, the Nationalists will need to recognise that this debate is not just about writing and imagining ‘a new Scottish constitution’ in Tom Nairn terms, but filling out and articulating a ‘national project’ about the kind of Scotland and society people want to live in, and how government and institutions align themselves with those values.

This book is published at a crucial time for Scottish politics, but also for the UK and wider global economy. A UK general election is on the cards which could see the return of the Conservatives which will throw up all sorts of questions: about the devolution settlement and nature of power in the UK, particularly in light of the economic crash in the UK, future public spending constraints, and systematic crisis of the British political system, which amounts to a far reaching crisis of the British state. The SNP has contributed hugely to the vitality and energy of Scotland and Scottish political life in recent years and under devolution. This book hopes to offer insights and analysis of that journey and the possibilities ahead.


1. The Glasgow, West of Scotland and Central Scotland regional constituencies along with the four seats of Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire make up the 33 seats.

2. The SNP’s reputation in winning parliamentary by-elections is based on the seismic and totemic nature of a few victories. From Motherwell in 1945 to Glenrothes in 2008 the SNP have fought 74 Westminster and Scottish Parliament by-elections and won six: Motherwell, Hamilton, Glasgow Govan (twice), Perth and Kinross and  Glasgow East.

3. Details of the Really Effective Development Company can be found at Martin Seligman’s work in ‘positive psychology’ has been hugely influential the world over, but this has not prevented him being implicated in the role American psychologists have played in ‘the war on terror’. See:


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