Inside Story

Scotland, the looking-glass country

The polls say no, the mood yes. Scotland’s independence debate is a puzzle, says David Hayes

David Hayes 16 December 2013 3513 words

Brigadoon no more: Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon at the launch of Scotland’s Future. Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

BRITAIN could be in sight of political extinction within nine months if the result of Scotland’s independence referendum on 18 September 2014 goes the wrong, or right, way. Yet its would-be executioners, presenting the longest winding-up order in history in Glasgow on 26 November, looked anything but bloodthirsty.

As Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon walked through the highlights of the 667-page Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland with telling matter-of-factness, the thought struck me that this was the moment of anti-Brigadoonery that these politicians – leading figures in the Scottish National Party, or SNP, which has governed the country since 2007 – had spent their careers preparing for.

Brigadoon is the idyllic Highland village that emerges through the twilight for a single day in every hundred years, on this occasion to enchant (and in one case seduce) candid American travellers. The Broadway musical of 1947 and Hollywood film of 1954 defined Scotland in the minds of mid-twentieth-century audiences much as did Mel Gibson’s atrocious Braveheart in its last half-decade. It is all there: heather, bagpipes, clans, thistles, tartan; Celtic mists, whirling dances, fey characters, cod lyrics. Scotland as fantasyland – a depiction encapsulated by a remark attributed to the film’s producer Arthur Freed, explaining the decision to abandon the original plan to film on location and instead build an elaborate stage-set: “In Scotland, we found nothing that looked like Scotland.”

Scotland is a mirage, but a mirage of such potency that it bends evanescent reality to its implacable if charming will. This, the Brigadoon version, represents everything the SNP veterans have dedicated their careers to reversing. (The equally imperturbable fifty-nine-year-old Salmond, forty-three-year-old Sturgeon, and forty-nine-year-old finance minister John Swinney, completing a senior triumvirate, all seem to have been around forever.) And on the platform at the modernist Glasgow Science Centre, their notably sober tone seemed designed to implant the single message that, at last, reality would have its day; above all, that this reality – Scotland’s political independence – was the arrival of normality in their country.

The prosaic, almost downbeat orchestration, at an event where media representatives from around the world were gathered to report on the future of this country of five million people, was in its way as audacious as the modern SNP gets. It’s yet another twist in a campaign where some observers have seemed wrongfooted by the party’s clinical – and harder to caricature – approach. (The Economist’s glum description of Scotland’s Future as “more like a corporate prospectus for a share offering than a blood-tingling cry for freedom” is revealing, though it’s fair to say that a vehement current to the SNP’s left tends to the same lament.)

More broadly, the SNP’s very lack of poetry also reveals what, in today’s incarnation, distinguishes this unusual party from its competitors: seriousness, confidence, discipline and overriding clarity of purpose. The prospect of being an executioner, as Samuel Johnson didn’t quite say, concentrates the mind wonderfully.

SCOTLAND as Realityland; Glasgow Science Centre as Brigadoon pulled back through the looking-glass; imagery, and history, in reverse, so that the old-new country can join the modern world on its own terms – so convincing was the performance that it was easy to forget both how much effort had gone into seeking the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and how many doubts there are over the SNP’s own romance-free counter-narrative.

The doubts begin with the opinion polls, which since the start of the referendum campaign proper in early 2012 (and indeed long before) have shown a substantial lead for the anti-independence side among those expressing a view. The sheer consistency of the polls, irrespective of the ups and downs of public debate, is their main characteristic. The launch of Scotland’s Future did nothing to alter the pattern, with three surveys published in the ensuing fortnight finding the “yes–no” verdict (to the proposition “should Scotland be an independent country?”) at 27–56 per cent, 34–57 per cent and 33–52 per cent.

A second doubt lies with the people more generally, many of whom express varying degrees of discontent over what they see as the shrill tone, vacuous content and unreliable evidence of the contending parties. Scotland is not immune from the same mix of apathy, cynicism and disillusion that today affects almost all democracies, and this is arguably worse news for the SNP’s hopes of change than for the defence of the status quo from the Better Together alliance of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties.

A third doubt concerns the limits, rather than the extent, of the SNP’s ambition. The party’s vision of independence – in March 2016, if all goes to plan – is heavily qualified by reassurances of what will not change. The party’s chief strategist Stephen Noon has even referred to the aim as “cooperative independence.” The new Scottish state will, Scotland’s Future says, keep Queen Elizabeth and her successors as the head of state, will thus remain in the Commonwealth as well as in the European Union and NATO (albeit free of the nuclear weapons now located just north of Glasgow), and will continue to use sterling as its currency. Moreover, what Alex Salmond calls the “social union” – multiple family bonds and cross-border affinities, as well as freedom of movement – will persist. Scotland’s independence will benefit both countries, as England – in Salmond’s equally felicitous (or is it just glib?) phrase – loses a “surly lodger” only to gain a “good neighbour.”

A fourth doubt is the ambiguity in the SNP’s prospectus between its claims as a party and its hopes for the country. Scotland’s Future includes support for measures, such as an expansion of child care, that can only be the outcome of policy decisions taken by the government of the day, rather than part of the future state’s structures of political-legal authority. The document’s overlapping roles as manifesto and national wishlist are exemplified in its commitment to a constitution for the new state, whose contents and process of creation cannot, by definition, be guaranteed in advance. The traces of the SNP’s long-standing self-definition as “Scotland’s party,” a presumption that its opponents always found particularly infuriating, can be felt here.

THE SNP’s blueprint, then, gives the party’s adversaries – in the media as well as politics – plenty of targets to aim at. Behind the fusillades, two themes stand out: the party’s economic prognoses and its political evasions. Several recent reports, for example from the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies, cite both external factors (the ending of the British government formula that grants Scotland higher levels of public spending than England) and internal (Scotland’s economic structure and demographic profile) to suggest that independence will require painful readjustment and have a negative impact on living standards.

Many observers also question the SNP’s belief that the path to statehood following a “yes” vote would be smooth. Some European Union opposition to Scotland’s automatic membership is certain, both in Brussels and from member states such as Spain and Belgium worried about setting precedents for Catalonia and Flanders. Negotiations with London over contentious issues (such as the division of debt and pension obligations, and of hydrocarbon resources) could be fierce. And agreement between separate states with diverging economies to a sterling zone and Bank of England oversight would be difficult. The “rUK” (“rest of,” “residual,” “remaining” or “rump” – perhaps also “resentful” – United Kingdom) would, it is said, have little incentive to be generous.

With all this weaponry, the “no” side ostensibly has every reason for confidence. In fact, its nervousness is palpable, and reservations about its campaign are beginning to be expressed. The most fundamental is that the effort to halt the independence train is by default a negative one, making it vulnerable to several kinds of entrapment: a reactive stance, exposure to a “hope against fear” drumbeat, difficulty in mobilising support, and confusion over its chosen ground. (Is the campaign to be waged in Scotland alone, or with the input of voices from across the United Kingdom? But would too much outside engagement, from London especially, prove counterproductive in a political arena highly sensitised to any southern interference? The conundrum is symbolised by prime minister David Cameron’s refusal to enter into direct debate with Alex Salmond.)

This key limitation is reinforced by organisational strains and political circumstances. Better Together was chosen as the governing slogan of the anti-independence campaign precisely to accentuate the positive. The political union created by the joining of Scotland and England’s parliaments in 1707 is a success, was the message; the union has been tested by fire and girded by social solidarity; the devolution of powers in the 1990s has proved its flexibility and democratic responsiveness; it is worth preserving.

A united front of habitual enemies – Scotland’s Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties – was assembled under the Better Together banner, launched in June 2012. It was backed by the Scottish secretary in the UK government (initially the emollient Michael Moore, abruptly replaced in October 2013 by his notionally more pugnacious LibDem colleague Alistair Carmichael); was provided occasional foghorn support by David Cameron, chancellor George Osborne, and sundry Westminster committees; and was headed by the unflappable Alistair Darling, who had emerged with credit from a tough role as Labour chancellor during the financial whirlwind of 2007–10. (Yes, Scottish politics is still largely a boys’ club, though its Labour and Conservative parties are led by women, respectively Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson.)

But if the firepower is there, the spark is missing. The very diversity of voices, in contrast to the greater focus of Yes Scotland (the umbrella of the SNP-dominated pro-independence campaign), may partly be to blame. Time and chance also contribute. The timing of the referendum in September 2014 owes much to the unexpected SNP landslide in the Scottish election of 2011, which followed its four years of minority government. The party was bound to convene a plebiscite on its raison d’être during its four-year term, with the wider electoral calendar making 2014 near certain. It proved impossible to agree a third, “devo max” voting option, offering Scots more autonomy short of independence (as many wanted), thus making the referendum a zero-sum affair. Their choice will coincide with the fifth year of Britain’s Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition, whose record and style have depleted further what little support it had in Scotland. The health and education policies of the London and Edinburgh governments have increasingly diverged in these years, accentuating Scottish awareness of cross-border policy difference and where the potential for more rests. On such fortuitous sequences the destiny of nations may depend.

IF SERENDIPITY favours Yes Scotland over Better Together, so does the war of teleology. The battleground here is history itself: will the referendum process vindicate or condemn the 300-year British union, fulfil or rebuff the old-new idea of Scottish statehood?

For the “no” side, Scotland’s choice to remain in Britain (leaving the Edinburgh parliament intact, with a promise from London to discuss extending its powers) would be proof that a capacious plurinational union can enable relaxed expression of dual – indeed multiple – identities while retaining popular legitimacy on its own account. For the “yes” side, statehood would be the culmination of Scotland’s long march from submerged partner to self-realised actor on the world stage. (Even after a defeat – the narrower the better – many independistas would conclude that the long-term momentum remained with them, and after a decent interval press for a rerun.)

Scotland’s history is rich enough in principle to feed both camps, which makes the current disparity – where the independistas seem replete and the unionists famished – all the more striking. At root, the former believe, and the latter worry, that as the binding forces which “forged” Britain in earlier centuries (religion, empire, industry, war, welfare) have eroded, the underlying tendency now is towards its “break-up.” (The landmark works alluded to, which are just the tip of an immense historiography, are Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation published in 1992, and Tom Nairn’s The Break-up of Britain, published in 1977, each of which opened and influenced minds at a critical juncture.)

The last two decades of change have given this view an extra injection: the idea that modern Scotland is embarked on a journey of self-realisation. Its traces can be observed across genres, among them television (the STV series Road to Referendum, presented by the astute Glasgow Herald columnist Iain Macwhirter), literature (James Robertson’s epic novel And the Land Lay Still), art (the National Collective’s manifesto) and publishing (the collection Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence). Scotland’s creatives, it can seem, are all Hegelians now.

The pull of the idea, for all that its precise influence is hard to assess, lies in the linkages it allows: between a degraded past and an imagined future, a liberated culture and a hoped-for social transformation of personal and national experience. The last is perhaps the most alluring. Macwhirter’s TV documentary (which merges politics and economics, soccer and celebrity into a super-compressed narrative of seven decades) is emblematic of a wider, popular standardisation of Scotland’s post-1945 story in light of the drive towards greater self-government. The saga – a purposive national journey binding countless individual memories and associations – mixes nostalgia and idealism, a potent brew that finds a congenial echo among many Scots.

It also seems more plausible than any other saga on offer. The growing political gulf between Scotland and England makes Scotland’s independence look more a natural extension of existing trends than would be a Britain-wide constitutional settlement. England’s perennial lack of democratic voice is both anomalous and dysfunctional to the whole system. As the cracks widen, a new progressive orthodoxy on both sides of the border contrasts Scotland’s fluid, dynamic, hope-filled political landscape with Britain’s inert, sclerotic, fear-filled one. It is an invitation to hyperbole, especially on an invigorated left, but also a tale with shaping potential.

It would be too much to say that no rival portrayal of “Scotland in Britain” can compete. After all, plenty of contemporary British institutions and events have a Scottish component (political, sporting and military, for example.) But it is ever harder to cohere these into a justification for continued union, above all one that combines head and heart. Here also, the anti-independence side – having long evinced complacency – is starting to admit to the thinness of its message. Its most historically literate sympathiser, the novelist Allan Massie, enjoins fellow unionists to “strike a chord of feeling,” as well as offer to reconstruct the union “in some quasi-federal or confederal form.”

It’s late in the day for that, and in any case it may be a flawed diagnosis. The former Tory leaders John Major and William Hague, and their Scottish equivalents, when opposing claims to more self-government in the early 1990s, sought (as Massie advises) to “challenge the emotional appeal of nationalism”; they sounded tinny and anachronistic, and were unsuccessful. Moreover, alternative constitutional proposals tend to be seen as “concessions” that serve to confirm the integrity of the independence case. The Labour politician Brian Wilson, Scottish nationalism’s most trenchant critic, takes a more combative line that puts partnership at the heart: “Britain together is not a failed state and Scotland, within it, is not a failed nation. Together, we have built great institutions including the Welfare State, the National Health Service, the BBC, the armed forces, the labour movement and many more. We defeated Fascism together and have created a liberal, tolerant democracy together... It is our entitlement to turn our backs on all of that, but why would we do it?”

What, though, if the erosion of such foundation stones by successive market-friendly London governments leaves Scotland capable of and intent on protecting them on its own account? This is the contention of Neal Ascherson, former Observer foreign correspondent and author of Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. The model promised by Scotland’s Future, he writes, is a “moderate, statist social democracy” of the kind millions hoped for when electing Tony Blair in 1997; attempting to “preserve and grow” what was built in the post-1945 years makes the SNP “in spite of itself, the most truly British party in these islands.” In addition, “Scotland’s departure from the union could mean all kinds of liberations and reinventions for the islanders who live under the crown,” with England at last able to “disinter its identity and the buried radicalism of its people.”

THESE compelling arguments make 2014 seem even more a pivotal year. And the collisions between contingency and destiny keep on coming. The September referendum is preceded by two anniversaries laden with national symbolism (and that’s leaving aside the Commonwealth Games to be held in Glasgow in July–August, where Scotland, unlike in the Olympics, competes under its own flag).

The first is of Bannockburn, the battle near Stirling in June 1314 won decisively by Scottish pikemen against English knights, which secured the kingdom’s independence against its aggrandising southern neighbour. An event cherished by generations of Scots, which began to be marked by nationalists only in the 1950s, is bound to be coloured on this occasion by a degree of anticipatory fervour – though no doubt, too, by recollections of Victorian-era “unionist nationalism,” according to which the Scots’ medieval struggles permitted them to embark on political union with England centuries later on equal terms and with honour intact. Teleology with a dash of chutzpah, which might yet be the unionists’ last card.

The second anniversary, in August, is the opening shot in a four-year series of Great War commemorations. The British government’s choice of Glasgow Cathedral for the launch ceremony can be regarded as appropriate, not least as the casualty rate among Scots in 1914–18 was among the highest in Europe. Moreover, the war was, as pointed out by the thoughtful libertarian Alex Massie, invested with an intense Scottish (qua Scottish–British) patriotism. Again, though, the combination of location and timing makes it inevitable that the event will be infused by awareness of the big decision to come, and take on an even more politicised feel as a result. The SNP parliamentarian and journalist Joan McAlpine, writing in the (pro-Labour) Daily Record, is off the mark early: “The outburst of hysterical patriotism in 1914 represented the worst of British – arrogance, self-delusion and a desire to dominate on the world stage.”

THIS high-pressure climax will turn the referendum dial up to eleven. (The malice, especially in much online commentary, is already tedious and unpleasant beyond measure.) It’s on the ground, though, among the people – strangely, often forgotten – that things could become more complicated and interesting. Scots, at once a diverse and federative bunch, have proved adept at getting what they want, constitutionally and politically. (Their shuffling of votes between local, Scottish, British and European elections is a democratic masterclass.) They will be calculating what kind of referendum outcome is most conducive to their society’s coherence, to their own life chances, and to their country’s prosperity. The risks of a missed chance for independence will weigh on many minds. So too may the possibility that deferring that leap could well create space for “devo max,” after its regretted absence from the ballot paper. The ability of the consumer-citizen Scots to extract a “three-for-two” deal from a zero-sum choice mustn’t be underestimated. They are, after all, dedicated shoppers.

A near dead heat, a low turnout? After a three-year clash of certitudes, such outcomes might carry a Through the Looking Glass touch. (“On this occasion, the kitten only purred: and it was impossible to guess whether it meant ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”) They would also raise uncomfortable echoes of 1979, when just such a referendum result left a long trail of regrets. However the independence question in 2014 is answered, the Scots will also want to leave doors to the future open.