If Scots sometimes seem unduly exasperated with Brexiter nationalism, it isn’t just because they voted heavily against Brexit. Nor, in the case of Scottish unionists, is it simply a consequence of a well-founded anxiety that our reckless departure from the EU threatens to break up the United Kingdom. Rather, it comes from the perception that England’s nationalism is crude, unreflective and cartoonish by comparison with the arguments put forward for Scottish independence. Even those of us who are instinctively anti-nationalist – wary of nationalist rhetoric, and the dangers it might bring – recognise that Scottish nationalism is much more sophisticated than its boorish English cousin. The SNP explicitly renounces ethnic nativism, champions a pro-immigrant civic nationalism, and embraces the post-sovereign realities of interdependent nation-states.
The prospectus for Scottish independence has some awkward gaps, not least on the currency question, but it’s still far more comprehensively thought through than Brexit. This is unsurprising, given that the cause of Scottish nationalism has over several decades engaged many of the leading figures in the country’s intelligentsia. And, unlike its English counterpart, the movement is not so obviously reducible to a single big idea – even if the ultimate prize remains independence. The rise of the SNP is usually explained in terms of changing leadership, party organisation and material circumstances: North Sea oil, resentment over the poll tax, the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks. Ben Jackson’s intricate account of the intellectual development of Scottish nationalism marks a highly original departure from the norm, and allows us to distinguish the various progressive themes that have since the 1960s enriched and transformed the populism of the SNP’s pioneers.
There is, however, as Jackson notices, a lurking and underappreciated connection between Brexit and Scottish independence. Jim Sillars, the most significant figure in the shaping of modern nationalism, hit on what later became the SNP’s most potent policy weapon – independence in Europe – in very curious circumstances. As a Labour MP, Sillars supported departure from the Common Market in the referendum of 1975. Outside the EEC, he believed, left-wing politicians would be able to use the full powers of the state to bring about social justice. But well before the referendum votes had been counted, he realised that the UK would vote to stay in. In these circumstances, he believed the interests of Scotland would be best served by being a full member-state of the EEC. In 1976, disenchanted with Labour, he set up an independent Scottish Labour Party, fusing radical leftist and nationalist ideas. Soon enough, most of the people who figure in Jackson’s book were buzzing about the Sillars camp. Two of them – Neal Ascherson and Tom Nairn – are very familiar to readers of this paper. Another, the economist George Kerevan, a former member of the International Marxist Group and then a Labour councillor, went on to become an influential nationalist commentator with fervently pro-market views. Bob Tait was the founding editor of the cultural magazine Scottish International; and the Scots Fanonites Craig Beveridge and Ronald Turnbull would apply Fanon’s insights about an internalised sense of inferiority to Scotland’s cravenly sub-metropolitan lettered classes (I was among those named and shamed).
The unbending realities of first past the post politics crushed the SLP’s electoral hopes in the 1979 general election, and entryism from International Marxist Group members led to the party’s implosion soon afterwards. Sillars found a new home in the SNP, and by the late 1980s his idea of ‘independence in Europe’ had become the keystone of the party’s strategy for a reassuringly non-separatist form of independence. (By a further irony, Sillars has in the past decade reverted to a Lexit stance.) Beside Sillars, the other central figure in the book is the SNP’s onetime guru-in-chief, the late Stephen Maxwell, whose name is largely unknown even to those who follow Scottish politics. Nobody did more than Maxwell to formulate the now dominant idea of left-wing nationalism. As late as 1982, Alex Salmond and other members of the Maxwellite 79 Group were expelled from the SNP – briefly, as it turned out – for socialist deviation from nationalist purity. Some of the party’s old guard held that the cause of independence was unideological in itself, neither of the right nor of the left. Maxwell’s radical kindergarten of Marxisant republican hipsters was as welcome to the party elders – who formed another internal group, the Campaign for Nationalism in Scotland, to fight against the left – as it would have been in the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association. Over the next two decades the party’s programme was utterly transformed. Salmond was, of course, responsible for implementing these changes, but the initial plan was laid out by Maxwell, whose influential pamphlet from 1981, The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism, put forward their position. Maxwell recognised the awkward truth that relations between the British state and its Scottish satellite had rarely descended to direct oppression, which meant that the obvious route to independence – via anti-colonial outrage brought about by brutal coercion – was closed. Maxwell’s alternative strategy was to woo the Scottish working class with the promise of an independent socialist state.
Before its overhaul by Maxwell and the 79-ers, as Jackson shows, the SNP was the preserve of an atypical but conventional enough minority of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. There was a smattering of poets and poseurs, but the party was drawn largely from the professions and small businessmen, who shared the general outlook of their peers. The party was not thirled to a particular scheme of political economy: its members tended to favour classical liberal nostrums about individualism, but sought a homespun middle way between big business capitalism and big state socialism. The SNP was a ‘small is beautiful’ party. The chaos and destruction of the Second World War was the fault of overmighty superstates. And the traditional Scottish virtues of thrift and self-reliance flourished best in small businesses and small towns. This ethos underpinned the party’s anti-EEC stance during the 1970s (the SNP’s rhetoric then was curiously similar to the language it employs today, except for the prepositions: ‘Must these absurd dreams of renewed English imperial greatness and domination lead to Scotland being dragged into the Common Market?’).
Jackson argues that the contemporary case for independence has been primarily political, not cultural, though he qualifies this with an acknowledgment of the enduring political importance of the seemingly cultural. George Davie’s The Democratic Intellect (1961), which bemoaned the anglo-imitation that had ruined the generalist curriculum of Scottish universities, was a central text for later nationalists, especially the Scottish Fanonites. But, as Jackson makes clear, the claims of Scottish culture weren’t literary or linguistic, as in other nationalisms, but aligned with political values: despite what Davie called Scotland’s ‘dismal denominational obsessions’, its education system had been socially inclusive, embodying a Scots Presbyterian ethos that was democratic and communitarian. Anglicisation was bad not – or not simply – because it was alien, but because its elitism had corrupted an indigenous egalitarianism. Scotland’s academic leaders, for the most part anglified if not English themselves, staunchly opposed the first devolution referendum in 1979.
That lukewarm referendum result (a majority supported the proposal for a Scottish Assembly, but not the 40 per cent of the total electorate stipulated in the Act) led to a further disappointment. The SNP withdrew support from the minority Labour government, bringing about its collapse. In the ensuing general election the SNP and the SLP were destroyed, and the stridently anti-devolution Margaret Thatcher arrived in Downing Street. This depressing course of events did, however, make possible a complete rethinking of nationalist arguments. The SNP went through several decades of uncomfortable revision and policy reformulation. Maxwell recognised that European integration limited the possibilities for a socialist transformation of Scotland. But Salmond’s early socialism was followed by a fondness for social democracy, and even a flirtation with Kerevan-style supply-side economics. Was an independent Scotland to follow the Nordic path or become a Celtic Tiger like the Irish Republic – or a bit of both?
Vacillation did little to impede the nationalist cause. The programme for economic transformation had already drifted to the margins of nationalist thought, displaced by long-brewing constitutional arguments. In the royal numerals case of 1953 – which concerned whether the new queen should style herself Elizabeth II in Scotland, where there had never been an Elizabeth I – the Scottish judge Lord Cooper made the controversial pronouncement that the unlimited sovereignty of parliament was an exclusively English concept, which had no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law. Cooper’s unconventional insight, when combined with the arguments of Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson in the New Left Review in the 1960s about the stunted development of the British state, provided the foundations of a compelling narrative about the defects of Westminster’s ancien régime constitution. Rather than holding with an absolutist doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, anti-Conservative Scots – Labour and Liberal as well as SNP – emphasised the sovereignty of the Scottish people and complained of Scotland’s ‘democratic deficit’ under the pre-devolution Westminster system. The academic jurist and political theorist Neil MacCormick – son of John MacCormick, the founding father of Scottish nationalist politics – began to explore the limits of sovereignty in an era of international organisations, intergovernmental blocs, regional subsidiarity and cross-border co-operation. With the arrival of devolution in 1999, a genteel post-sovereign procession towards ever greater autonomy seemed likely – and was warmly greeted by the SNP’s gradualist wing, which included both Nicola Sturgeon and Salmond. But the events of the past decade have destroyed the possibility of an uncontroversial shuffle towards a soft-focus devo-max-cum-independence-lite.
It was never all about Scotland. The intertwined stories that Jackson tells about the Scottish critique of Britain’s neo-feudal constitution or the defence of British social democracy in its Scottish stronghold complement the picture David Torrance presents in his study of the UK’s ‘nationalist unionist’ politics. His central thesis is that the unionist parties in Scotland – the Conservatives, the Liberals and Labour – have always couched their commitments to the UK in the language of Scottish nationalism. Likewise the SNP, he argues, can’t entirely escape the gravitational pull of unionist thinking. Scottish politics has not been the scene of bloody battles between Anglophile assimilationists and outright separatists, but of shadow-boxing between nationalist unionists and unionist nationalists.
Until the Thatcher years, the Conservatives were the loudest and most energetic champions of Scottish nationhood within the Union. They established the post of secretary for Scotland in 1885, and remained firm champions of administrative devolution. In 1949, Tory Cassandras warned that Labour’s commitment to nationalisation posed a threat to Scottish distinctiveness, issuing a policy statement entitled ‘Scottish Control of Scottish Affairs’. Back in government, the Conservatives followed up with a Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs. Its recommendations were anodyne, but the commission pointedly attributed the cause of nationalist discontent to ‘needless English thoughtlessness and undue Scottish susceptibilities’. The Conservatives – who were not known as such in Scotland until 1965, but usually ran as ‘Unionists’ – won a majority of seats and votes in Scotland at the 1955 general election. The Unionist label had no anti-nationalist connotations, but referred to the fusion of the Conservatives with the Liberal Unionists who broke with the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule. Although the change of name in 1965 to Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party proved unhelpful, Ted Heath was quicker than Harold Wilson to commit his party to legislative devolution.
While Labour’s commitment to legislative devolution waxed and waned in the pre-Thatcher era, the Liberals remained consistent in their support for home rule within a federal UK. From the late 1980s Labour, in close conjunction with the Liberals, devised a new variant of nationalist unionism: what the Labour MP, and later first minister of Scotland, Donald Dewar referred to as ‘independence in the United Kingdom’, underpinned by a welfare union in which resources were pooled and common standards maintained. But the late 1980s also saw the emergence within Labour of a radical pressure group, Scottish Labour Action, which party apparatchiks saw as ‘quasi-nationalist’ or ‘crypto-nationalist’. The problem was that the more Labour painted the Conservatives as anti-Scottish, the easier it was for the SNP to depict all the parties that backed the Union as un-Scottish, and ultimately to hijack much of Labour’s increasingly nationalist electoral base, as happened after the 2014 referendum. The SNP won 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland in the 2015 general election and 56 of 59 parliamentary seats.
But unionism hadn’t died. It lived on in the most unlikely place: the unionist-nationalist SNP. In the early stages of the referendum campaign in 2013, Salmond made a speech calling for the end of the ‘political and economic union’ with England that had frustrated Scotland’s hopes. ‘But this union,’ he added, ‘is one of six unions that govern our lives today in Scotland. My contention is that we can choose to keep five of these six unions, with some differences certainly, but still basically intact.’ He called on Scots to use independence to ‘renew and improve’ these unions in a ‘spirit of interdependence’.
The five unions were the EU, a defence union in the form of Nato, a currency union sharing the pound sterling, the Union of the Crowns, and a ‘social union’ among the peoples of the UK. Torrance notes the seeming paradox: as the SNP ‘grew electorally, so too did its unionism’. It was a rhetorical ploy, of course, to win over those opposed to independence, but it was also integral to a MacCormick-inflected gradualism. Just as MacCormick, who died in 2009, had described independence as the exchange of ‘new unions for old’, so Salmond – his intellectual protégé – presented himself, until recently at least, as a ‘post-nationalist’.
Despite the coherence of Salmond’s post-sovereign worldview, as Torrance notes, his unionist-nationalism exhibited a perversity at certain points. Why was the 1707 Union in particular so constricting that Scotland needed to escape it? Why did the SNP in 2014 wish to retain the currency of the union it was seeking to leave, while rejecting the currency of the EU, in which it wanted to remain? Why, when the nationalist-unionist politicians of the UK all supported enhanced devolution, in some instances to the point of federalism or devo-max, did the SNP want to remain in an EU committed to ‘ever closer union’?
It seems likely that Scotland will soon face another divisive binary referendum, which the pro-independence campaign, currently up to 53 per cent in the polls, will probably win. After that, Scots, newly independent and lacking a credit history, will find themselves sorely buffeted on the markets. They will learn the hard way the lessons Neil MacCormick taught a previous generation of SNP leaders about an era of constrained sovereignties. It’s possible, though, that Nicola Sturgeon – running her own show in Edinburgh – perceives the implications of MacCormick’s point: not quite sovereign home rule buoyed by the largesse of the Barnett formula is as close to effective freedom as Scotland will ever come.