Fintan O’Toole: Nicola Sturgeon’s staunch ally in her push for independence – Boris Johnson
Brexit could help Scotland’s first minister over some of the obstacles to independence
This article relates to the upcoming Irish Times Winter Nights festival. More details at the bottom of this page. For full line-up and tickets go to irishtimes.com/winternights.
In 1979, I was staying with a friend in Renfrew, a working-class suburb of Glasgow. The Westminster parliament had passed legislation allowing for the establishment in Scotland of a devolved parliament with limited powers. But it required a referendum, and the campaign was in full swing.
There was a public debate in the community hall in Renfrew. The place was packed and, for an outsider, the level of attention was highly impressive.
The debate was riveting because it seemed that, while there were partisans on both sides, most people in the audience were genuinely uncertain. The mood seemed to shift with each speaker. These Scots were open to persuasion.
The decisive moment came when a young Welsh Labour MP got up to speak. Neil Kinnock was a brilliant rhetorician; fiery, commanding and fluent.
But it was not just his style that mattered. It was his content. The audience members were clearly, overwhelmingly Labour voters. Kinnock conjured for them a deeply moving fusion of Britishness and socialism.
He didn’t talk about the royal family or the union flag or the empire. He evoked the common struggles of the Welsh and Scottish miners, the shared history of battling for decent wages and conditions, the fight against fascism in the second World War, the building of the National Health Service, the expansion of free university education.
This, Kinnock said, was Britishness. And they should oppose devolution because it would ultimately shatter the unity of the labour movement and weaken working people in every part of the UK.
It was obvious from the rapt attention, the interruptions for applause, and the reaction when he finished that Kinnock had won. This idea of Britain as the polity in which ordinary Scots could with confidence invest their hopes for a better life still held.
This debate, remember, was not even about Scottish independence. It was on a modest proposal, coming from a Labour government at Westminster, for a local assembly.
In the event, Scotland voted in favour of devolution by 52 per cent to 48 per cent – but only one-third of the electorate had voted for it and the legislation had stipulated that 40 per cent had to do so. So even devolution was dead.
As for real, full-on Scottish nationalism, it was still very much a minority taste. There was a speaker from the Scottish National Party at that debate, but she was greeted by mumbles about “Tartan Tories”.
SNP in decline
The SNP had re-emerged in the 1970s, but by the time of the devolution debate it seemed to be a party in decline. In the general election of 1979, it would lose most of its seats. Labour’s cautious turn towards home rule had stolen its clothes. The ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher in that election would, initially at least, revitalise class politics, making the national question seem irrelevant.
The SNP itself was a strange beast. Its roots lay in a semi-fascist 1930s racialised nationalism. (It campaigned against conscription in the second World War.) Even in the late 1970s, it still had a significant far-right faction. But it also had a lot of left-wingers and social democrats.
At any event, though, it didn’t seem to matter very much. If Scotland couldn’t even muster 40 per cent of its electorate to support a mild version of regional autonomy, independence was always going to be a pipedream.
It would remain, like a lot of Irish nationalism, a recreational indulgence: singing Flower of Scotland and waving the saltire at soccer and rugby internationals; reciting Scots Wha’ Hae after several Glenfiddichs at Burns Night suppers; wearing kilts at weddings; buying tins of biscuits with pictures of Rob Roy on the box, and (later) weeping at Braveheart.
There is a story that Brigadoon, Hollywood’s Scottish equivalent of The Quiet Man, was filmed in California because the director Vincente Minnelli had been unable to find anywhere in Scotland that “looked enough like Scotland”.
And for a long time, the same could be said for Scottish nationalism – it didn’t look enough like the Scotland that those people in Renfrew, or in any other city, actually lived in. It was a Scottish Dreamtime that could never walk for long in the waking world.
What happened? How did a hopeless cause make Nicola Sturgeon first minister of Scotland and her party by far the dominant force in the nation’s politics? How did the idea of Scottish independence become viable enough to win 45 per cent of the vote in the referendum of 2014? Why, even after that apparently decisive defeat, does Sturgeon have every chance of winning a mandate for a second referendum in the parliamentary elections in May?
The reasons operate at different speeds: slow, gradual and sudden.
The slow reason is to do with empire and industry. The UK was always an imperial state. The great bargain of 1707, when Scotland gave up its independence, was that it would get in return a share in an expanding empire. Over time, Scots came to run much of that empire abroad and to take a huge slice of the imperial-industrial economy at home (shipbuilding being the obvious example).
But this logic went into reverse in a post-imperial and post-industrial Britain – when there are no imperial spoils to be shared, and when Britain’s industrial might has evaporated, the original bargain no longer holds.
Among the gradual reasons is the decline of that very social democratic settlement that Kinnock evoked so powerfully that day in 1979. Thatcher’s assault on the welfare state and on the industrial culture that sustained trade unionism, was not specifically anti-Scottish – it was just as brutal in Liverpool as it was in Glasgow.
But it was experienced in Scotland as an imposition from without. The Thatcher revolution was not without support in Scotland: 30 per cent of Scots voted for her in 1979. But it never enjoyed anything approaching majority national consent.
The idea that there was something fundamentally incompatible between an English-based Toryism and Scottish egalitarianism is a myth. Since the second World War, only one party has ever won an absolute majority in Scotland. That was Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in 1955.
But, after 1979, Thatcher did become an authentic hate figure in Scotland. In 1988, when she attended the Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Dundee United, 70,000 fans of both clubs waved red cards at her. The belief that Scots were being subjected to radical right-wing policies for which they had not voted had taken hold.
This, in turn, gradually transformed the internal logic of the SNP. There was simply no market for Tartan Toryism. The SNP had to move to the left.
It did this in economic terms, but also by gradually shifting from ethnic to civic nationalism. It still has elements of mere Anglophobia and of Braveheart mythologising. But the SNP has been largely successful in reshaping itself as an open, liberal and anti-racist party. It has long since stepped out from behind the Tartan curtain.
The other gradual factor is the very existence, after 1999, of the Scottish parliament. In a sense, Kinnock and those who argued against devolution in 1979, were right.
The thing about conceding autonomy to stave off independence is that it can cut both ways. Maybe it works: consider Quebec.
In 1995, a referendum to make the Canadian province an independent state was defeated by a margin of less than one per cent. But concessions recognising Quebec as a “separate society” took the sting out of the movement. Support for independence has receded to about 20 per cent.
But concessions can work the other way around. Devolution in Scotland didn’t just respond to a sense of separateness; it created it. Scotland has always had its own legal system, but it has now evolved a distinctive electoral system, party structure and policy framework. It is to Sturgeon, not to Boris Johnson, that Scots look for leadership in the pandemic.
On its own, this might have been containable within the inherited structures of the UK. But what no one really anticipated was that the Scottish Question would create the English Question.
The polling evidence is stark. It shows a huge reaction to Scottish separatism in England, beginning at the turn of the century and culminating in the Brexit referendum of 2016; if the Scots wanted to play the nationalist game, so would the English.
Which brings us to the sudden reason for the resurgence of Scottish independence as a realistic political project: the English nationalist revolution that channelled itself into the decision to take the UK as a whole out of the EU.
It is a great historic irony that one of the key reasons David Cameron went ahead and called the momentous Brexit plebiscite in 2016 was his deluded belief both that he had personally won the Scottish referendum two years earlier and that this victory settled the Scottish question once and for all.
It was not ridiculous, in the aftermath of the 2014, to think that this might have been Scotland’s Quebec moment – a nationalist tide had surged to unexpected and unprecedented heights. But it had still failed to overpower the sea walls of the existing British state. Its moment would not come again for at least a generation.
Perhaps this might indeed have been so – if the English establishment had taken note of two big things. One was that Scottish nationalism had transformed itself precisely around the notion of European identity.
Another historic irony is that, in 1975, when the UK had its first referendum on Europe, Scotland was the most Europhobic part of Britain. But a crucial part of the reshaping of Scottish nationalism after 1979 was the idea that by being enthusiastic for the European project, Scotland could avoid the traps of chauvinism and isolation.
The other big absence from English debate on Europe was an awareness that the single biggest reason cited by those who voted against independence in 2014 was the risk it would pose to the status quo, including the risk to membership of the EU.
Brexit has reanimated both of these factors. It offends against the sense of being European held by most (though of course by no means all) Scots. And it turns one of the best arguments against independence (you’ll be outside the EU) into one of the best arguments for it (you can apply to rejoin).
Above all, though, Brexit has rubbed the noses of the Scots in their status as junior partners in the union. They have been told repeatedly that their vote against it means nothing, and that their duty is just to suck it up.
None of this means that there is any certainty about Nicola Sturgeon’s destiny to be the first prime minister of an independent Scotland. Her challenges in even getting a second referendum, let alone successfully answering the questions about the practicalities of independence that sunk her cause in 2014, are formidable.
But she has the most unexpected of allies. For five years, Johnson and his ruling faction have been preaching the gospel that national sovereignty matters above all else, including mere economics. He has placed on the table those radioactive questions: so what is the nation and how can it become sovereign?
Sturgeon has one eloquent and forceful set of answers to those questions.
The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival is a series of online talks and events taking place from January 25th to 29th.
On Thursday 28th at 6.30pm, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon talks to Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole in an event entitled Beyond Brexit.
For full line-up and tickets, see irishtimes.com/winternights. A single ticket costing €50 admits ticket holders to all events at the festival. Irish Times digital subscribers can purchase tickets at the discounted price of €25.
Just make sure you are signed in, and the discount will be applied automatically. The festival is supported by Peugeot