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Scotland Still Has to Navigate a Rocky Road to Independence

Jamie Maxwell

In the wake of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, support for Scottish independence is higher than ever. But the Scottish National Party still has many hurdles to clear before it can break up the United Kingdom.

Nicola Sturgeon speaking during an event in Edinburgh. (Jane Barlow / PA Images via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

Since Boris Johnson won the UK general election at the end of 2019, support for an independent Scotland has gone up in the polls. The Scottish National Party (SNP) won this year’s Scottish Parliament election for the fourth consecutive time. They’ve agreed on a coalition pact with the Scottish Greens, who also support independence.

The SNP’s primary goal is to hold a second referendum after falling short in 2014. Johnson’s Tory government in London says it won’t even consider the idea. Johnson’s Brexit deal has strengthened the case for independence in a country that voted decisively against any form of Brexit back in 2016. But it has also made the economics of an independent Scotland far more challenging. Ending a union that has lasted for three centuries won’t be straightforward.

This is an edited transcript from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.


DF

What were the main implications of this year’s Scottish parliament elections for the cause of Scottish independence?

JM

In some ways, the election result didn’t change all that much. There was a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood during the last term, and that didn’t automatically prompt the break up of Britain. Although this election result was an emphatic victory for the SNP, it didn’t really change the fundamentals of the debate.

The SNP and the Scottish Greens, a separate, left-leaning party, want a second independence referendum. The Conservatives and the Labour Party don’t. That uneasy constitutional standoff between nationalists and unionists isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

But I think what the election did confirm was the electoral dominance of the SNP and the durability of support for independence. There is a baseline of 45 to 50 percent of Scots who want to leave the UK. Between 1970 and 2010, support for independence rarely breached the 30 or 35 percent mark.

It’s that gradual, but relentless increase in separatist sentiment that I think also terrifies British political leaders, because they have no answer to it. Everything they’ve tried so far — increasing Scotland’s legislative autonomy within the UK, attacking the economics of independence, and now belligerently waiving the Union Jack post-Brexit — has failed.

So even if the road map to a separate Scottish state isn’t all that clear — and it still isn’t, despite the result — for me, the idea of independence seems to be becoming more and more powerful or at least more generally accepted. I think Scotland’s Overton window has shifted quite significantly over the past five or ten years, and unionist parties haven’t worked out yet how to shift it back.

DF

The SNP had a big membership surge after the 2014 referendum, arguably foreshadowing the Labour Party’s membership surge under Jeremy Corbyn. Has that made a real difference to the party’s internal life?

JM

No, it hasn’t, which is extraordinary. The SNP became a mass-membership party in the wake of the 2014 referendum. Its membership grew from around twenty or thirty thousand to more than a hundred thousand in a very short amount of time — almost overnight. Many of those joining were ex-Labour members or voters who backed independence in September 2014 as a sort of social-democratic escape from austerity Britain. And yet over the course of the last five, six, or seven years, the SNP has not become a more meaningfully democratic organization.

It’s still very tightly controlled from the top down by a relatively small number of people around Nicola Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, who’s the party’s chief executive. Conference resolutions are still routinely ignored by party elites. The strategy for independence is still more or less exclusively decided by those elites.

Although 2014 was celebrated by independence supporters as a great democratic moment in Scottish public life, and although in other ways it was undoubtedly an important staging post in the broader disintegration of the Union and Anglo-Scottish ties, it didn’t materially change the balance of power in Scotland. It’s not as though Scottish politics suddenly became more open or participatory as a result of the SNP’s subsequent success.

I think that gives you a key insight into the sort of party the SNP is. It’s a highly effective, very disciplined election machine, very good at mobilizing its base periodically in the run-up to an election, but it’s not interested in radically democratizing Scotland. That’s not Nicola Sturgeon’s overarching political project.

The most remarkable thing of all, perhaps, is that the SNP membership doesn’t seem to mind. They’ll stay in line and maintain their discipline for as long as Sturgeon retains her grip on power at Holyrood, and for as long as the prospect of a second referendum is somewhere on the horizon.

DF

What lay behind the very public falling out between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond? Have the attacks on Sturgeon by Salmond since his court case damaged her political standing?

JM

This is a very long, convoluted, and unpleasant story. I think its roots stretch back to the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, when Salmond resigned as SNP leader and Scottish first minister, having lost the independence vote, and Sturgeon was rapidly appointed leader in his place.

I remember interviewing Salmond just before the 2015 UK election in Aberdeenshire, which is where the constituency he was running for at the time was. I asked him what role he played in the day-to-day management of the SNP: he was thrown by the question, because the answer was obviously “none.” He’d been cut loose, I think, by Sturgeon, as had a number of other senior nationalist politicians. He was uneasily trying to find a new role for himself in this organization that he had spent the last thirty years building.

But the real breaking point in the relationship came a few years later in 2018, when accusations of sexual assault against Salmond surfaced, at first internally in the Scottish government, dating back to his time as first minister from 2007 to 2014. Salmond seemed in the wake of these allegations to expect Sturgeon to shelter him from them, which is something she refused to do — although her government did go on to botch its investigation into the claims, and that became a huge source of contention in the ensuing controversy.

Salmond in March last year was acquitted of twelve allegations of sexual assault in a courtroom. What followed was a lengthy, intensely bitter, and messy inquiry process at Holyrood. Salmond appeared to allege that he had been the victim of an elaborate conspiracy, orchestrated by people in and around Sturgeon’s orbit, the motivations of which were never entirely clear.

During that inquiry process, Salmond went all-out to pile pressure on Sturgeon, and even went so far as to say that the SNP’s current leadership was not fit to deliver independence. That was a remarkable thing to hear for a number of reasons, not least because the SNP in its current form exists because of Alex Salmond. He built the modern SNP, and it is fashioned to a greater or lesser extent in his image.

Nonetheless, despite his explosive inquiry appearance, I think Salmond failed to seriously damage Sturgeon’s political standing. Arguably it just ended up destroying his own. By the time the process had concluded in the spring of this year, the media and public consensus was that Salmond looked like a man out for blood. He looked like he was determined to sink his female successor and perhaps the wider independence project for reasons of personal enmity.

Sturgeon, on the other hand, who by consensus is a hugely astute and self-assured politician, was seen as being a much more empathetic performer in front of the inquiry. She denied the accusations of conspiracy and emerged from the entire convoluted saga with her reputation intact, if not strengthened.

DF

What impact, if any, has Salmond’s breakaway group Alba had on the Scottish political scene?

JM

Ultimately, I think that the impact of Alba has been marginal. The party secured less than 2 percent of the vote nationwide. Salmond was roundly beaten by the Greens in his own political backyard in the northeast of Scotland.

At best, from Salmond’s perspective, Alba managed to fleetingly galvanize the most restive and impatient parts of the independence movement into an alternative to Sturgeon’s SNP, which is viewed by some nationalists as being far too cautious in its approach to independence. At worst, Alba essentially just siloed off all the most crankish, socially conservative, and anti-woke parts of the movement into a now defunct fringe outfit. When you talk to senior SNP liberals, they’re very happy with the way that what they consider to be a sort of Trumpian contingent of the SNP or the broader nationalist movement has been vanquished and sidelined from the mainstream.

I don’t think there’s any future for Alba. They have a couple of MPs — defectors from the SNP’s Westminster group. They have a handful of councillors across Scotland. But in the wake of the main result, they will no longer see the kind of media attention they need in order to build a national political presence.

My guess is that Salmond, having dominated the Scottish political scene for the last ten, fifteen, or twenty years, is done as a national political figure. He’ll probably stalk the landscape a bit, and, where possible, opportunistically make life uncomfortable for Sturgeon. It’s not really clear what his overarching political purpose is anymore, other than to disrupt Sturgeon’s governance of the country.

DF

Going back to 2014, at the time of the referendum vote, the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) seemed to punch above its weight in terms of public profile, perhaps harking back to the high point of the Scottish Socialist Party in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, before the court case involving Tommy Sheridan. Why do you think the radical pro-independence left has not been able to build upon that?

JM

I think the influence of the Radical Independence Campaign has disappeared for a couple of reasons. The first is that the SNP soaked up most of the grassroots energy that developed during the 2014 referendum, and the Scottish Greens soaked up whatever was left. There really wasn’t an awful lot of space available politically and electorally for an organization like RIC to flourish once that initial referendum rush had worn off. That became brutally apparent when Rise, which was an alliance between RIC and the Scottish Socialist Party, tried and failed pretty miserably to win seats in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.

But the second reason is that it’s difficult to sustain an organization like RIC in the absence of a referendum or a clear rallying point for activists. Perhaps if a second referendum is called, RIC will reemerge and play a central role in the debate, organizing and agitating for independence from the left. But before then, for as long as the debate focuses on questions of process and constitutional technicality, it’s difficult to see what kind of impact RIC will be able to have. It’s difficult to see it, or any other organization in the broader independence movement for that matter, escaping from the SNP’s shadow.

DF

Where is the Scottish Labour Party going under its new leadership? How is Labour positioning itself between the SNP and the Scottish Tories?

JM

Anas Sarwar, the new leader of Scottish Labour, would claim that he has steadied the ship and salvaged the party from near oblivion, which is where he would say it was heading under the leadership of Richard Leonard, his predecessor, who was a Jeremy Corbyn sympathizer. In reality, Sarwar led Scottish Labour in May this year to its worst ever devolved parliamentary election result. The party finished in third place, nine seats behind the Conservatives. Its share of the vote on both the constituency and the party-list ballot dropped.

Sarwar is a young man at thirty-eight, and he’s presented himself as a fresh face in Scottish politics, but he’s actually been around for a long time. He has a track record as a serial loser, not to put too fine a point on it. He helped write Scottish Labour’s manifesto for the 2007 election, which inaugurated the first SNP government. He inherited a Westminster seat, Glasgow Central, from his father Mohammad Sarwar, who’s now governor of Punjab in Pakistan. He then lost that seat to the SNP in 2015 and has been floating around the leadership of the Labour Party in Scotland since then.

Sarwar is viewed as being a slick media performer — pretty implausibly in my view — but that apparent likability disguises the fact that he has no meaningful political orientation. He’s a career legislator. Crucially, he has nothing new to say on the constitutional question. His position is that he just does not want to talk about independence. That’s a problem when independence is a dominant issue in Scottish political life and at least 50 percent of the population does want to discuss it.

He has developed these tortured constitutional positions. He opposes a second referendum, but he doesn’t want English Conservatives telling Scots what to do. He’s against Brexit, but he doesn’t think Scotland should re-enter the EU on its own terms. In my view, these contradictions point to the dynamics of Scottish Labour’s decline.

The SNP is the party of liberal or center-left nationalism, the Tories are the party of center-right unionism, and Scottish Labour — not just under Sarwar but under a succession of different leaders — has sat in a nebulous middle ground. It’s not all that left-wing. It’s not all that right-wing. It lacks an identity and a plan. As a result, its appeal resonates with an ever-shrinking slice of the Scottish electorate. There’s nothing that Anas Sarwar has done so far that suggests he’s capable of reversing any of those trends.

DF

How has the resolution of the Brexit crisis on terms ultimately dictated by the Tory right affected the political landscape in Scotland and the prospects for independence?

JM

The standard take on this question is probably the correct one. The standard take is that Brexit has simultaneously bolstered and complicated the case for Scottish independence. It has bolstered it in political and democratic terms. Scotland voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, but still exited the EU. They’re having Brexit foisted upon them by the Conservatives, who haven’t won a general election in Scotland since 1955.

On the other hand, Brexit has complicated the case for independence, because an independent Scotland inside the EU would likely face a hard border with its largest trading partner, England. That would potentially have hugely disruptive consequences for a newly independent state trying to find its fiscal and financial feet. The SNP has not produced a persuasive response to that issue. The case for independence won’t be salable until the party has produced a decent response to it.

Brexit has changed Scottish politics in another important respect in my view. Middle-class Scotland, which traditionally has been very hostile to radical constitutional change, is now more open to the prospect of independence than it was prior to the Brexit referendum. That feeds directly into Nicola Sturgeon’s independence strategy.

Her strategy is to de-risk independence — to make it seem like the more moderate course of constitutional action when set against the apparent chaos of the English political landscape under Johnson’s leadership. I think that strategy genuinely does appeal to sections of the Scottish public who would not naturally consider themselves nationalist. That has been one of the major shifts in Scottish political life over the last four or five years.

DF

Do you think it’s politically tenable for Boris Johnson — or any Tory prime minister for that matter — to simply ignore the SNP’s call for a second referendum indefinitely? And does the SNP have a plan for that scenario?

JM

It’s not tenable in my view for Johnson to ignore demands for a second referendum indefinitely, because of the persistent success of the SNP. The SNP’s popularity ensures that the national question remains at the forefront of Scottish and increasingly British political life. In fact, even behind the scenes, Conservative ministers recognize the scale of the challenge posed to the future of the union by the SNP.

The UK government’s independence strategy, as far as I can tell, is essentially to dissemble and push back the date of a prospective referendum so far that it just fades from view. That could work. Most opinion polls in Scotland show that Scots do not want to vote on independence tomorrow but might like a vote on independence in four or five years’ time. Sturgeon is acutely conscious of that tendency in Scottish public opinion and has pledged to deal with the COVID-19 crisis before pressing ahead with her application for a second referendum.

That said, I don’t think the Tory strategy of delay and defer is cost-free. If Scots conclude that Boris Johnson, who is massively unpopular in Scotland, is keeping them inside the union against their will, the long-term damage to the Anglo-Scottish relationship would be huge and irreversible. The union was never meant to be a mechanism for English political control over Scotland. It is, in theory at least, a partnership of equal nations.

For Scots, there’s always been a transactional dimension to that relationship. What’s happened over the course of the last seventy years or so is that the institutions that once bound Britain together — the industrial economy, the welfare state, the Labour Party, and the Empire — have all weakened and atrophied. In some cases, they’ve been actively dismantled or attacked by successive British governments.

That has left Scots increasingly with a sense that they no longer have a clear stake in the British state. Unless Johnson has a serious plan for reversing the long-term decline of the British state and for bolstering Britishness as a coherent identity — and I don’t think he does — it’s very difficult to see demands for Scottish independence dying off.

As for your second question, does the SNP have a plan for the scenario I’ve laid out? Probably not. Nicola Sturgeon is determined to secure a legitimate referendum. Legitimacy is a hugely important concept to Sturgeon. In the Scottish context, it means a referendum that is beyond legal and political challenge, and that has the tacit or explicit support of the international community — in particular, the European Union.

Europe is absolutely central to Sturgeon’s independence strategy. Sturgeon wants Scotland to be an independent member state of the EU. Some senior nationalists even talk about Scotland joining the euro if and when it exits the UK.

In the absence of being able to secure that consensual, legally binding, and politically agreed referendum, I don’t think Sturgeon really has a plan B. Indeed, that was part of the impetus behind Salmond’s Alba project. Despite the fact that the vast majority of SNP members remained loyal to Sturgeon and her party in the run-up to the election this year, there is a sense of frustration at the grassroots level with the way Sturgeon runs things. There is a growing perception that she does not have a coherent plan to secure the second referendum. That perception may well be right, but we’ll have to wait and see.

I think it’s likely that there’ll be legal challenges that will test the capacity of Holyrood to hold, for instance, a consultative referendum. Sturgeon will want to see those court challenges through before making that final bid for independence toward the second half of this parliamentary term, which will run from this year until probably 2026.

DF

Following on from that point, do you think it would be too alarmist to speculate about potential parallels between Scotland and Catalonia, if there is no agreed pathway for a referendum between Edinburgh and London?

JM

I think it probably is too alarmist, because of this question of legitimacy. The SNP has poured a huge amount of time and effort over the course of the last few years into courting European political leaders, because they want endorsement. They want European leaders to come out and say, “if you vote yes in a future referendum, we will readmit you relatively quickly into the European Union.”

That won’t happen if the process of secession is heavily contested. Countries like Spain, Italy, and France, with incipient or fully developed breakaway movements, simply would not allow it to happen. On the other hand, senior Spanish politicians have acknowledged that if Scotland votes to leave the UK consensually and legally, they wouldn’t block Scottish accession to the EU.

There’s also a more practical argument against a Catalan-style wildcat vote, which is that it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t yield the desired result if the UK government and the unionist parties said that they did not support a second referendum and then Sturgeon staged one anyway. The likelihood is that the unionist half of Scotland would just boycott the vote, so the result would not be viewed as binding.

Sturgeon does understand that. Indeed, it’s essential to her entire approach to the question of independence. But what she does in the event that the UK government just continues refusing to play ball is a separate question entirely. A growing sense of impatience among the nationalist basis is understandable for that reason.

DF

In the event of Scotland becoming an independent state over the next decade, perhaps, how do you think the content of Scottish independence is likely to measure up to the hopes that have been invested in it by many people?

JM

It depends on how high you say your expectations are. The central tension in contemporary Scottish nationalism is between the disruptive and populist demands of a grassroots movement, trying to do something very radical, which is to break up the British state, and then on the other hand the small “c” conservative and managerial instincts of the SNP leadership.

The vision of independence advanced by the SNP hierarchy as I understand it is one that sticks as closely as possible to the neoliberal consensus in British public life, for want of a better term. Under the SNP, an independent Scotland would go on using the pound as its currency. It would have low corporate tax rates. It would keep the UK system of financial regulation. There would probably be a bit more redistribution, a bit more social democracy, but only a bit. It certainly wouldn’t be funded by sizable tax increases on the rich.

What all that amounts to is an independent Scotland that looks quite like a nonindependent Scotland. The left case for independence is that leaving the UK would widen the scope of political possibility for Scotland. We might, for instance, be able to dislodge nuclear weapons from the Clyde or more rapidly wind down the North Sea oil and gas sector or design a constitutional structure that doesn’t have the monarchy at its head.

But the SNP is absolutely not proposing to overhaul the Scottish class system. This is a party that under Sturgeon’s leadership has meticulously avoided any hint of class antagonism. I think independence would almost certainly be a deflating and a disillusioning experience for a lot of people. Equally, that sense of disappointment would have to be measured against the reality of life as part of the UK, which is not exactly free of its own disappointments.

The SNP is actually engaged in a process of expectation management. Currently they’re saying they’ll be very conscious of the size and scale of Scotland’s deficit. They’re not committing to far-reaching new spending plans. They’re trying to present themselves as responsible stewards of Scotland’s economic and national interests.

DF

As things stand, what do you think the economic prospects are for an independent Scotland, and how realistic are the plans of the SNP for the Scottish economy?

JM

These days, the SNP’s economic vision for independence is heavily dependent on attracting foreign direct investment into the country. The SNP’s approach to the economics of independence has changed over the course of the last forty or fifty years. The intensifying debate over the future of North Sea oil and gas, for instance, and Scotland’s considerable renewable assets is a case in point.

In the 1970s, after significant mineral deposits were first discovered in the North Sea, the SNP advanced a relatively interventionist or statist economic model. Crudely speaking, the party wanted an independent Scotland to own most or all of the country’s fossil fuel assets, and for the value of those assets to be channeled into a sovereign wealth fund. They advanced a kind of national strategic capitalism in keeping with that pioneered by Norway and other mineral-rich Northern social democracies.

Today, the SNP is much more relaxed about foreign ownership of Scottish assets. The North Sea, for example, is monopolized not just by US oil companies, but by private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds attached to various foreign states, including Norway. Scotland doesn’t control licensing — London does. But Sturgeon’s government has taken a relatively hands-off approach to the country’s burgeoning green infrastructure, too.

At the end of last year, Holyrood allowed BiFab, a flagship engineering yard in Fife that was going to build the next generation of wind turbines, to go with the wall, having already bailed it out once. The Scottish renewables industry is littered with other examples like BiFab. The major investors by far are from South Korea, France, or Denmark. The major investments are not from a publicly owned Scottish national investment bank — not yet at least.

The obvious irony here for me is that whereas British political elites allowed the multibillion-dollar benefits of Scotland’s oil to be squandered in the 1980s and ’90s, devolved Scottish elites led by the SNP are presiding over a similar process today with regards to Scotland’s renewables potential, which is huge.

It’s not hard to see from there what kind of economic challenges and pitfalls might confront an independent Scottish state. I think if you challenge the SNP on this, they’d say their economics were essentially Brownite (although maybe they won’t admit to this). The party would say it supports a dynamic market economy strong enough to bankroll a relatively generous welfare settlement.

There’s a real dearth of creativity and imagination at the heart of the SNP when it comes to economics and imagining what an independent Scotland could look like. The party doesn’t stray far from whatever ideological or economic consensus happens to be in place in Britain at any given time.

DF

What will the coalition pact between the SNP and the Greens mean for the period to come in Scottish politics?

JM

It’s quite hard to say precisely what it is going to mean. It depends on how long it lasts for one thing. There were obvious political grounds for cooperation between the two parties. Both support independence and want to see a second independence referendum; both are staunchly pro-European and anti-Brexit.

Sturgeon’s motivations were relatively clear in that she fell one seat short of a majority and wanted to govern without the constant looming threat of a vote of no confidence in parliament. The Greens currently have seven seats in parliament. They won eight, but one of their MSPs went on to become the presiding officer of the Holyrood chamber.

The Greens have been a feature of life at Holyrood since the parliament was created in 1999. I think they were at a point now where they were desperate to exercise actual government power for the first time. They were keen to amplify their political influence in a way they haven’t been able to do previously.

On a more cynical level, I think Sturgeon saw a couple of benefits from a coalition with the Greens. The first was that the COP26 climate summit was being held in Glasgow in November. Glasgow is not only Scotland’s largest city — it’s also Sturgeon’s adopted hometown, and the center of the SNP’s urban, Central Belt support. Sturgeon brought the Greens into government in an effort, I think, to bolster her environmental credentials ahead of the summit.

She was also now a decade and a half into power, and I suspect that she saw a need to cover her left flank and freshen up the SNP government. She can do that by working alongside the Greens, who are a broadly anti-capitalist party and to Sturgeon’s left on essentially every issue. They’ll be able to work together on the climate, on the constitution, and on various aspects of social policies.

They published a shared policy document, and there was some quite promising stuff in there, particularly on rent controls and reform of the Gender Recognition Act, which is a hugely contentious issue in Scottish political life, and possibly on land reform. There were some fairly big-ticket commitments on the de-carbonization of Scotland’s public transport infrastructure as well.

If the most eye-catching aspects of the coalition deal are implemented, then it probably would signal a new and more radical turn in Sturgeon’s governing style, but that is a sizable “if.” Over the course of the last fourteen years in office, Sturgeon has shown an incredible capacity, in my view, to bury radical proposals in the long grass of reviews, consultations, and policy investigations. The danger for the Greens is that they get absorbed into this technocracy that the SNP has built at Holyrood and end up taking the flack for the SNP’s failings, much as Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats took the flak as part of David Cameron’s austerity coalition between 2010 and 2015 at Westminster.

The Greens are acutely aware of that, but Sturgeon can be an incredibly ruthless, unsentimental politician when she needs to be. The key dividing line between the Greens and the SNP is that the Greens are ultimately a party of social transformation, while the SNP is ultimately a party of political and electoral management.

The Greens want to change Scotland, while the SNP’s long-term goal is to stay in power and if possible, build a sustainable majority for independence. I feel like that fault line will at least create some new strains in the coming months. Over the course of years, it might just unbridgeable, when the day-to-day challenges of government start to kick in.

If this works and Sturgeon is sincere in the commitments she’s made in the shared policy documents, Scotland could see some pretty exciting, left-leaning reforms over the next few years. If it doesn’t, Scotland could end up losing its only authentically anti-capitalist voice in the Scottish parliament. The Greens could pay a political price for going into government with Sturgeon.

It’s quite finely balanced at this point in time. The fact that the deal happened at all is a testament to the personal relationship between Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie, one of the two co-conveners of the Greens. They just seem to like each other. They’ve been in parliament together for a long time. But again, Sturgeon has seen a number of these personal relationships come and go over the course of her long political career, and I don’t think one more will worry her too much if it’s in her own political interests.