Everyone else is doing it — so why didn’t Scotland?
Trump’s triumphed, Britain’s Brexiting, Le Pen’s close enough to being la presidente that she’s going on Andrew Marr. The three most powerful words in politics are Take Back Control. The world is engaged in one of its cyclical bouts of disaggregation, having bumped up against the reality, yet again, that our species is intractably tribal, predominantly self-interested and, when it comes down to it, pretty psychologically basic. People everywhere are taking their lead from charismatic insurgents who promise to save them from aliens in their midst or at their door. Nationalisms of one form or another are winning elections and referendums and remaking the world we thought we lived in. So for those of us here in North Britain one particular question becomes all the more fascinating and deserves to be freshly put: why, in 2014, did Scotland buck the trend? Put another way, what’s wrong (or right) with us?
What was it about the self-described ‘joyous and civic’ Yes campaign in the independence referendum that saw it rejected by what in light of recent votes now seems a healthy majority? Why did Scotland the Brave, that doughty little pit pony, refuse the fence when President-Elect Trump’s startled nag flew over and the arthritic Brexit mare barely clipped the top? Why, when electorates everywhere are saying yes to revolution, do the polls show Scots remain majority no?
This must be the kind of thing that keeps Nicola Sturgeon awake at nights in the chilly, cavernous splendour of Bute House. She is mighty: civil servants aplenty at her beck and call, all the power and resources of government at her disposal, personally feted far and wide, a party machine and membership to be envied. She is selling what is claimed to be a radical cause in radical times. There is no serious political challenge on the horizon. And yet she is stuck fast. Even in her pomp, at her giddy height, she can only look on enviously as others achieve almost by accident that for which she has passionately fought her whole political life. The Scots who elevated her have apparently reached their limit: sorry boss, but we — and you — are staying British.
How the SNP’s leaders must curse their luck that they were forced to go first. The Scottish referendum of 2014 came at the beginning of an era that is now, everywhere else, delivering stunningly successful uprisings against the existing order. The party was effectively forced into it by its unexpected overall majority in 2011. Alex Salmond didn’t expect to win the indyref, which is why he wanted a ‘devo max’ option on the ballot paper. There was at that point no precedent or wider momentum behind the idea of doing something that would shock the world.
The same people gave the same warnings that they’ve given each time. Big business, the financial sector, foreign leaders, central banks, big chunks of the media, super-rich musicians and Hollywood actors: they told us not to leave the UK, as they told us not to leave the EU and the US not to elect Trump. Only one electorate listened, suggesting this schtick has rather lost its potency with repetition. Ask yourself: if the circumstances were different, if the SNP were holding its first referendum in, say, 2018 rather than having done so in 2014, what might the arguments and outcome be? Imagine having the debate in earnest for the first time in the age of Trump and Brexit and Corbyn. As it is, the next time Scotland votes, if there is a next time, it will inevitably be in the shadow of 2014. The fights have been had before, hard positions have already been taken, strengths and weaknesses have been exposed, the room for persuasion is much more restricted. There are those of us for whom Brexit has opened an intellectual avenue to an independent Scotland that did not previously exist, but the polls suggest there are not that many of us. Not enough, certainly. And anyway, we are unfashionable liberals.
It’s not that Scots aren’t as tribal as anyone else. We have elected a nationalist government twice in succession. We have ejected practically every non-nationalist MP from Westminster. We like the SNP, we vote for the SNP, because we perceive that they stand up for Scotland’s interests within the United Kingdom, both at Holyrood and at Westminster. Looking at the energy Ms Sturgeon has put into fighting our corner post-Brexit, and the mandate with which she speaks, that doesn’t feel like such a bad decision at the moment.
Nor are we free of self-interest. We are no nicer or kinder than people elsewhere. Ignore all the rubbish talked about being a more welcoming nation, which is largely based on our vanishingly low levels of immigration: we simply haven’t been tested. Ignore the ‘we’re more generous’ guff: there’s a good reason for the SNP’s reluctance to use Holyrood’s new economic powers to do anything dramatically different. It’s easy to occupy the high ground in the abstract, but it’s also easy to see that an influx of immigrants would create familiar, seething tensions, and that a hike in taxes would sink the Nats. Only the tragically naïve could believe otherwise. Although the nation voted strongly to stay in the EU, nearly 40 per cent voted to leave, including a third of SNP voters and even, we learn, some SNP ministers. We sent a Ukip MEP to Brussels. What do you think are the views held by many of these people on immigration and borders and national identity and taxation? Why would Scots be any less susceptible to the worries and prejudices resurfacing around the world to such bone-shaking effect?
It’s a complex thing, being Scottish. You’re asked to think a lot about who you are and why. It seems like you are constantly expected to justify why you hold the views you do. Nothing’s ever settled, everything’s layered and everyone’s got an opinion or nine. You’re always getting on someone’s nerves. In trying to judge and understand the public mood, I make a rule of speaking regularly to people who are smart and engaged but outside the political bubble that surrounds people like me. This week I asked one friend, a woman in her 70s of middling politics who voted to stay in the UK but to leave the EU, for her take on why the independence argument failed while Brexit and Trump succeeded. This was her response:
‘I’m happy with a devolved Scottish government doing what’s best for Scotland, but also with us being part of UK for security reasons, and at this time we can’t afford to be financially separate. At a micro level it’s become increasingly obvious to me that communities are being eroded for various reasons, but a major contributory factor is centralisation, with decisions being taken by those unaware of, or disinterested in, and far removed from local issues. Maybe the problem is all about losing control of decision-making and a lack of trust in people who don’t know or don’t understand your local issues. This is how a population lives.
‘I understand the US vote. Younger people in general don’t have the experience of the security of a community — I took it for granted and it’s only when it’s not there that you fully appreciate it. For some, I think it also causes deeper problems: not belonging, people with different values. Ultimately, the basic community is the family, extended included. It’s about knowing your place in the Universe.’
This almost exactly mirrors what’s coming out on the other side of the Atlantic. Kathy Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently published a book called ‘The Politics of Resentment’ and has spent years visiting and listening to disaffected rural voters in her state — the kind who have just delivered the presidency to Donald Trump.
She says their rejection of the status quo is based on the sense they are being denied the ‘power, stuff and respect’ that is due to them. ‘First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power,’ she told the Washington Post. ‘For example, people would say: all the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.
‘Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs. And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: the real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.
‘So it’s all three of these things — the power, the money, the respect. People are feeling like they’re not getting their fair share of any of that.’
You could fit all of this neatly on to the Brexit vote and Brexit voters, and it helps you to understand that outcome. But when you apply it to the Scottish nationalist movement it all gets a bit confusing, and perhaps starts to explain why they fell short.
At the heart of the successful revolutions of the past few years has been a nativism, an appeal to a narrowing identity, a sense of societies rejecting the Other and circling the caravans more tightly around themselves. This has licensed an unpleasant rise in racism and other illiberal attitudes, but it has also been a rational reaction to the chill winds of globalisation’s failings. It has been accompanied by anger towards what’s seen as an unaccountable global establishment that made the rules, got rich on the back of them and has been protected from their negative consequences — Hillary Clinton is the perfect example of such a figure. This is a key reason behind the US result: enough people hated Clinton and her kind more than they hated Trump’s baseness and cynicism.
The Scottish separatist movement doesn’t sit comfortably in any category. It is a mess, with a number of gross incoherences at its heart. For example, it deploys liberal rhetoric but hosts a nasty dose of nativism. A visceral anti-Englishness was easily enough found during the 2014 campaign, and indeed some of its more cretinous advocates now sit on the green benches at Westminster. Alex Salmond was not averse to blowing the dog whistle when it suited him — remember ‘Team Scotland’? But still, somehow, its message to voters is one of inclusion and openness.
It defines itself against a stereotype of Britain and Westminster that is unfamiliar and unfair to anyone who spends more than a few seconds thinking about it. In doing so, it attempts to build positivity on a shaky base of malicious snark. You could get away with this against an institution as unlovely as the EU — and Brexiters did — but the UK had and has a bit more going for it than that, a fact to which the fat London expense accounts of many SNP MPs testify.
The independent Scotland that was ostensibly on offer in 2014 — a handsome new dude in the neighbourhood, open to immigration, generous with welfare, progressive on taxation, a nation where wonderful if as yet unidentified left-wing solutions would be found to dastardly neoliberal problems — looks ever more like an unconvincing, ill-judged fantasy. It was not a serious proposal then, and is even less so in this challenging new era. Yet I detect no real attempt to wrestle with the cold hard facts of change as they swirl around us.
Just as worrying for Ms Sturgeon should be the reality that she is the establishment, a kilted Clinton who could soon enough find herself in the crosshairs. The moment where the Nats and their fellow travellers could claim to be punk outsiders has passed — they have a track record in government that disproves their claim to be authentic radicals. They are ineluctably, inextricably, members of the liberal global elite that is being taken out at the knees in most developed countries. Amid her Bute House magnificence, as she pulls gently on the levers of power and chats on the phone to her new pals in Brussels, the First Minister lives a gilded existence that protects her from the buffeting being experienced by her electorate.
They will notice. Scotland is not on another planet, and neither would I bet on Scots being altruistic saints who are forever immune to the dark forces gathering around us. Does our separatist version of the global revolution address that compelling demand for ‘power, stuff and respect’? Yet again, I expect the answer will be No.
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 12, 2016