For Scotland, independence day has already dawned
The Guardian, by Neal Ascherson
Nicola Sturgeon was telling the truth when she said her campaign wasn’t about winning independence. Scots, submerging the nation under an SNP flood, weren’t seeking independence. They were doing it.
In the course of a few years Scotland changed, grew up, liked what it saw in the mirror. Not just the yes voters in the September referendum. Many no voters felt empowered too. From such “Yes, we can!” moments, there’s no way back.
Glasgow went daft with “yes city” pride after the referendum, roaring as if it had just set up the Paris Commune. But last week, after an even more devastating rebellion that swept away all seven Labour MPs and half a century’s power monopoly, Glasgow kept cool. “See us, this is what we do!” And what they were doing, in the limited field of electoral choice, was independence.
In these Scottish politics, the people race ahead of their politicians – the SNP included. At the UK level, grave men and women debate constitutional options for problems that are already solving themselves.
First, “how to save the union”. But the 1707 union between England and Scotland is already dead. As a piece of architecture, it was abandoned in 1999, when the devolved Scottish parliament met. Rain blew in as slates fell off; pews were looted; and the Holyrood elections of 2007 and 2011 brought down more of the roof. Last week Alex Salmond said he heard the Scottish lion roaring. I heard the rumble as the union’s floor gave way and fell into the crypt.
Today, what exists instead is a constantly changing, fluid set of relationships between London and Edinburgh, confused by feeble constitutional wheezes that arrive too late. “Save the union!” Why? In Scotland, there are still unionists who know why and will fight for it. But in England the “why?” question usually meets with baffled silence.
The second “great challenge” which has begun to solve itself is EVEL – English votes for English laws. But Westminster is well on the way to becoming an English parliament anyway. As Michael Kenny writes in his book The Politics of English Nationhood, “As an unintended consequence of devolution … an increasingly Anglicised polity has quietly emerged as an incubus at the heart of the UK state … the Westminster parliament is gradually evolving into an English-focused one.”
Last Thursday crippled the Labour party as a parliamentary force. So the context in which Scottish MPs could force unwanted legislation on England has vanished. No more, Nicola Sturgeon’s vision of a progressive alliance with Labour. SNP interventions on English legislation will be annoying to English chauvinists but usually ineffectual. And I think most Scots feel their MPs should not decide purely English issues. After all, before devolution they had 292 years’ experience of English MPs outvoting the Scots on Scottish issues .
So what is the SNP eruption into the House of Commons going to do with itself? The election programme, based on hope for a hung parliament, promised to reverse austerity. But now there’s no balance of power to hold, no obvious way to resist five more years of Osborne cuts demolishing what’s left of the welfare state and slashing public spending in ways that directly affect Scotland’s budget. Sturgeon can make sure that “Scotland’s voice will be heard”. But not that it will be obeyed. In the 1980s Scotland’s army of Labour MPs was unable to protect the country from Margaret Thatcher’s onslaught against “society” and the public interest. Back then the SNP cruelly called them “the feeble fifty”. Now Salmond and his 55 comrades march on to on the same unfair battlefield. Can they do better?
The best card Sturgeon holds is David Cameron’s pride. He really does not want to “go down in history as the prime minister who lost Scotland”. He lacks the satanic realism to grab permanent control of England by letting the Scots go. But, like most English politicians, he simply does not get Scotland. John Major thought the “loopy” devolution thing only arose because “the Scots feel out of things up there; I really should go there more often”. Michael (Lord) Forsyth, although Scottish enough to know better, persuaded himself that returning the Stone of Destiny would throw the Scots into a grateful coma. Scottish nationalism to Cameron is a disfiguring, un-British infection, which can be treated with dabs of shiny ointment.
So there will be offers to transfer further tax and benefits. Maybe even some right to foreign representation. (At last month’s EU fisheries summit, Westminster refused to send the Scottish minister and dispatched an English Tory hereditary peer – “Lord Rupert” Ponsonby – instead.) A constitutional convention to talk about federalism (a non-starter, because the English don’t want to be split up into federal states)? But no devolution of immigration, asylum, broadcasting – powers that really matter. Nothing approaching devo max or home rule: control of everything save foreign affairs and defence.
And yet Cameron said on Friday that he would grant Scotland “the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world”. Hard to know what he meant by that. No other country in the world has British-style devolution, in which the centre retains an absolute veto over the periphery. And the single most important devolution is not for governments to make.
I mean the disconnection of political parties. What if Scottish Tories, Lib Dems and Labour reinvent their links with London headquarters, “independent allies” rather than branch offices? The Christian Social Union in Bavaria is a separate party, in a stable alliance with Germany’s Christian Democrats. The Scottish Tories played with such a scheme recently but rejected it. In this election campaign, Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy boasted briefly that he would take no orders from Labour in London. But the meaning of last week is that the SNP has been adopted as “Scotland’s party”, not least because it has no strings to London. The battered survivors of Scotland’s opposition must take that on board.
If Scotland is already doing independence, next year’s Holyrood elections matter even more than Thursday’s. Should the party – if it can repeat last week’s success under the Scottish proportional system – promise another independence referendum?
This is a fateful moment for Sturgeon. Her nationalism is instrumental rather than existential: independence as the means to social justice and prosperity, not the end. Most people who voted yes thought the same way. But there are many passionate activists who don’t. She knows she can’t afford to lose a second referendum, so timing is everything. By May 2016 excitement about the approaching Europe referendum will be coming to the boil. Loud voices will be urging her to seize the chance: England will vote to leave the EU, Scotland to stay in, and at that point another independence vote could be won.
The trouble is that the facts don’t yet fit. The English may reel back from the brink of Brexit, while the Scots are not dramatically more pro-EU than their southern neighbours. And a big slice of those who gave Sturgeon this stunning vote last week are Scots who like the SNP’s style but voted no to independence.
But time, and steadily hardening Scottish self-confidence are on the SNP’s side. By 2017, opinion may have radicalised still further. Then a head-on collision over Europe might see those 56 men and women leave the green benches, head back to Edinburgh, and proclaim a sovereign Scotland under the Saltire.
That doesn’t have to be a calamity. Many problems would vanish, replaced by a friendly Scotland in a British confederation. England could start taking itself in hand, while Scotland is quietly doing independence already. Devolution didn’t hurt, did it? So relax, England! You’ll feel so much better when it’s over.