Scottish independence? Just say no!

Brendan O’Neill kicks off spiked's campaign against Scottish separation.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

In just over a month, Scots will go to the polls to decide whether their nation should become independent. spiked hopes they say no. Why? Because the ‘movement for independence’ is no such thing. It is better seen, not as some Braveheart-style stab for ‘FREEDOM!’, but as the product of some of the most regressive political trends of our time.

The potential Scottish breakaway is being shaped, not by a true thirst among Scots to create a new nation, but by two backward political developments. First, by the crisis of the United Kingdom’s political elites more broadly, who seem totally incapable of defending their own institutions, their own Union, their own state. And secondly by the neediness of the new nationalists in the north, who are actually demanding recognition for their identity, for their feelings ultimately, rather than respect for their sovereign rights. It is this crashing together of the crisis of the British state and the rise of the divisive politics of identity that has propelled what is called ‘Scottish independence’ on to the agenda, and which makes it something worth interrogating and opposing.

Reading the British press, you could be forgiven for thinking the United Kingdom is currently riven by a clash between unionists on one side, largely made up of stuffy English folk, and nationalists on the other, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and devoted to the project of carving out a new sovereign nation. But you’d be wrong. For what is most striking about the debate over Scottish independence is what unconvincing unionists the pro-Union lobby is made up of and what shallow nationalists inhabit the corridors of power in Scotland. What we’re witnessing is not any kind of principled argument between opposing political poles, but rather an unholy marriage between unionists incapable of defending the Union and nationalists who sense in this corrosion of the UK’s state institutions an opportunity to assert their cultural identity and try their luck for ‘independence’. Scotland is not bravely breaking away – the UK is sleepwalking into separation.

Let’s start with the nationalist side. These must be the lamest nationalists ever. There have been many forms of nationalism in modern history, from Napoleonic-style universalist nationalism to the more xenophobic kinds devoted to asserting the cultural superiority of one people over another. Modern Scottish nationalism doesn’t conform to any of those past styles. Instead it is strikingly hollow, obsessed with cultural symbols over old ideals of territory or state, and very easily swayed by PR polls and media debate. Nationalism is surely not even the right word to describe this thing which, contradictorily, is so unrooted, so sensitive to media criticism and shifting agendas rather than being underpinned by an anchored sense of self and nationhood.

Some of the debates about what it would mean for Scotland to be independent, and about what Scottishness itself means, have been embarrassing. Pro-independence people openly talked about finding the ‘formula for Scottishness’, suggesting this is an identity that can be magicked up, in a test tube perhaps. One journalist says ‘my accent, vocabulary and appetite for cholesterol-rich foodstuffs… mark me out as a Scot’, and celebrates the fact that ‘in the event of independence, my Scottishness would gain legal expression’. The Scottish writer Janey Godley says the best thing about ‘Scottish identity’ is that ‘it travels’: ‘It’s not hard to figure out. The scenery, Billy Connolly, haggis… everyone recognises it.’ A Scottish reporter says Scots should ‘take pride in being so easily understood by outsiders’. This is Scottishness as defined by the expectations of American tourists. Kilt? Check. Fatty foods? Check. Funny blokes? Check – you’re Scottish!

It isn’t only among the opinion-forming set that Scottishness has been self-consciously reduced to a formulaic thing. It is believed that the SNP itself based the date of its referendum on independence – 18 September 2014 – around key cultural events, in the hope that these events might ‘instil a greater sense of Scottishness among the population’. It’s thought the SNP hopes that both this year’s Commonwealth Games, which took place in Glasgow, and the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn will help ‘generate an increased sense of Scottishness’. SNP mediamen have apparently been carefully measuring the ups-and-downs of ‘feelings of Scottishness’ among the Scottish populace – such feelings apparently went up in 1999, following devolution, and down during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the 2012 London Olympics – and have worked out when these feelings might peak again and thus be politically useful.

What we have here is not any kind of true nationalist mission but rather a poll-driven, PR-infused assertion of feelings and identity. Campaigners’ keenness for their Scottishness to ‘gain legal expression’, and their focus on making Scottishness ‘easily understood among outsiders’, really gets to the core of this movement – it’s really about winning recognition for one’s identity rather than winning governance over a new state; it is a national version of the politics of therapy, not nationalism as we once understood it.

And one of the most important things about the modern cult of recognition, this need for validation of one’s identity and lifestyle, is that it is an insatiable beast. One always needs more recognition. The ‘New Scotland’ would not be an endpoint to any kind of nationalist dream but rather would find itself in a perpetual search for more recognition, for more external affirmation of its identity. This is why the architects of Scottish independence have been at such pains to say that their new nation will swiftly join the EU, effectively collapsing their newfound sovereignty into a monolithic institution hardly known for respecting nation states’ integrity: because their goal isn’t actually national independence but rather identity approval. The authority of the New Scotland would not be derived from the desires of its people but from the recognition of external players. It would be the opposite of independent; it would be reliant on the okaying of outsiders, on winning, not just ‘legal expression of Scottishness’ within the British Isles, but also validation of its narrowly defined checklist of cultural virtues from international actors.

Alongside making Scotland into the political equivalent of a sad sap on a therapist’s couch, so-called Scottish independence could also unleash a divisive dynamic elsewhere in the UK, possibly encouraging other identity groups or regions to seek separation and recognition. And this is where we get to the second key problem in the Scottish issue: the inability of the ruling elites of the United Kingdom even to take seriously the threats to their kingdom’s existence, far less do anything about them.

The existence of groups like Better Together, and the willingness of a few politicians to have a pop at SNP leader Alex Salmond and tell him his New Scotland won’t be allowed to keep the pound, has convinced some people that the UK state is putting up a fight for its survival. It isn’t. Indeed, in many ways it is the very feebleness of modern state institutions, our rulers’ cavalier attitude towards the state structures that their forebears created over great periods of time, which has allowed the call for Scottish separation to go as far as it has. ‘Scottish independence’ represents as much an internal corrosion of the institutions of the United Kingdom as it does any strike by Scots against those institutions.

The reluctance of so many UK politicians to defend their kingdom from deconstruction has been remarkable. Even where they have tried to hold back the dissolution of the UK, they have done so in far-from-principled terms. So even Alistair Darling’s celebrated televisual showdown with Salmond did not offer any ‘defence of the Union’, as one report points out. Darling ‘did his best to avoid mentioning Britain or Britishness’, because apparently ‘voters are put off by [such] talk’. Unwilling to big up the kingdom, pro-Union politicians have instead resorted to the politics of fear, raising panic about the potential economic consequences in particular of independence. Better Together claims that in focus groups, terms like ‘risk and uncertainty’ test well, whereas talk of unions and nation apparently does not.

What we have here is the moral abandonment of the ideal of the Union by those whose very job is to defend and govern it. The pro-Union side’s claims that the public don’t want to hear gabbing about nationalism is really a projection on to us of their own reluctance to defend the nation. The fragility of the United Kingdom today is not actually down to Scottish nationalism – it’s a product of an historic hollowing-out of the very idea of the state, the crisis of the bourgeoisie itself, which from Britain to Italy to the Middle East seems increasingly incapable of putting any kind of strong case for maintaining state institutions. If the state was, for most of the modern period, the embodiment of the bourgeoisie’s desire to rule, and to rule in a particular way, then the contemporary crisis of the state speaks to a massive crisis of confidence among the bourgeoisie. It is this crisis which implicitly invites separatist and nationalist groups to try cutting themselves off.

Alongside cowardly unionists and shallow nationalists, there’s a third component to the rise of the Scottish issue in recent years: the desperation and opportunism of the left.

As OpenDemocracy reports, ‘Overwhelmingly, the left in Scotland now supports the campaign for independence’. The reason they support it should be of profound concern to anyone who thinks of himself as progressive: it’s because, having failed to win over a majority in the United Kingdom to their anti-Tory outlook, sections of the left now hope that the creation of an independent Scotland, where the Tories are unpopular, will provide them with an easy sphere of influence. As one left-wing observer says, the left desire to see an independent Scotland is in part driven by a consciousness of ‘the sheer scale of the defeats suffered by the left’. Former SWP leader Chris Bambery says it is wrong for communities that didn’t vote Tory to have to live under a Tory government, and he sees Scottish independence as a ‘potential escape mechanism’ for one such community. What he means is that it could be an escape mechanism for Scottish leftists, an escape mechanism from reality, allowing them to ditch the hard task of trying to build left-wing sentiment in the UK in favour of speaking to what they see as a readymade audience of sympathetic Scots. In short: Can’t win an argument with the majority? Then cut yourself off and form a new minority. What extraordinary defeatism. Watching the left throw its lot in with petty separatists speaks volumes about their abandonment of the old ideals of universalism and embrace of opportunistic sectionalism.

In essence, then, the new phenomenon of ‘Scottish independence’ can be seen as an end result of the dual crisis of our times: the crisis of the state and the crisis of the left, with the former inciting separatism and the latter undermining the old values of universalism. The new idea of Scottish independence is born from backwardness, not democracy, from the inability of our rulers to defend their ruling institutions and the failure of opposition forces to build or sustain any kind of progressive movement.

No, opposing Scottish independence, which is only an outward expression of so much internal disarray, won’t solve all these political problems. But it will allow us to focus on addressing the real political crises of our times and to discuss what might be done about them. And it will allow us to do it together, from a universalist view that overcoming problems as a people is better than avoiding those problems by withdrawing from the people and creating new bubbles of self-reinforcing belief and identity. So vote No, keep the kingdom together, and let’s start discussing what needs to be done to make politics, life and liberty in this nation better than they currently are.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture: Candidate standing as William Wallace, Scottish Parliament elections 1999. David Cheskin/PA Archive/Press Association Images.

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Topics Politics UK


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