Last night STV’s flagship politics show Scotland Tonight had a special feature on the This Islands conferencette in Newcastle. The programme was blurbed, “With rising opinion poll support for Scottish independence, how should those who want to preserve the UK respond?” There was no equivalent report on how those who want independence should respond. I was shocked, shocked I tell you. Never saw that coming. Nope. In the end the programme didn’t really tell us anything new, but then neither did the This Islands conference, so that was fair enough. It came from a strange parallel universe, where the Labour party in Scotland hadn’t been destroyed by going into alliance with the Tories in Better Together. It would appear that This Islands’ big idea to save the UK is to call Better Together by a different name in the hope that no one will notice.
Apparently 300 people attended the event. 60 of those there were speakers, there was an unknown number of journalists, which presumably left around 200 or so actual attendees in the half empty hall, some of whom would struggle to locate Scotland on a map. So it was very nice of STV to give this marginal organisation so much publicity. It would have been nicer still if STV had devoted similar time and resources to the Build conferences organised by the Scottish Independence Convention. Those conferences were actually held in Scotland, and attracted many more punters than This Islands could manage. However for some bizarre reason that no one can comprehend – no I can’t think of what it could be either – it’s thought that the Scottish public will be far more interested in attempts to resist independence than in attempts to achieve it.
For This Islands, division is something caused by other people. It’s blind to the English nationalist elephant in the room, because to admit to its existence would destroy the very myth that the organisation is founded upon, that rebranding English nationalism as Britishness somehow magically insulates the UK from English nationalism and it’s only the nationalisms of others which is problematic. Gordie Broon’s keynote speech entirely failed to mention the possibility that English nationalism or British nationalism could even exist. Instead he railed against something called Brexit nationalism. He even refused to acknowledge that British nationalists in Northern Ireland had anything to do with British nationalism, calling them “Ulster nationalists” in a pathetic attempt to absolve the British state from any responsibility.
The key to successful politics is to engage with society as it actually exists, not as you’d like it to be. On that criterion, These Islands has failed even before it’s started. The essential failure of opponents of Scottish independence is to give a credible answer to the question of what structures within the British state can protect Scotland from the malign effects of English nationalism. There are none, and for any to exist they must first attain majority support within an England which is already politically defined by the right wing Conservative resentment that gave us Brexit. The fundamental stumbling block for Scottish “Unionists” is that the greatest threat to unionism is England. England’s exceptionalism has no place for Scottish political distinctiveness.
Scotland, we were told, is one of the most divided countries in Europe. Cue hang wringing and condemnation of those vile nats who were to blamed for dividing Scotland by offering the prospect of a Scotland that’s confident, secure within itself, and where political choices are made by governments directly accountable to the people of Scotland. The solution to this division is not to have a political resolution through a referendum, the solution to these divisions is for those who see a different future for Scotland from the miserabilist vision on offer in These Islands to shut up and go away. That will solve it.
Instead we got Wullie Rennie telling the delegates that Scotland already has quite enough powers. There’s no need for a Scottish immigration policy, or Scottish powers over social security. Devolution has gone as far as it’s going to go. In doing so Wullie destroyed the tattered remnants of another of Better Together’s arguments from the last time round, the carrot in the form of a promise of a stronger Scottish Parliament. Not that anyone is going to believe another Vow.
We got speakers lining up to present graphs showing us how poor Scotland is, how hopeless, how inadequate. In the absence of a positive case for a Scotland remaining a part of Brexit Britain, we got a diet of fear and scaremongering. Tonight These Islands is gonna party like it’s 2014. Nowhere was there any recognition that a so-called union that can only be maintained by telling one of its constituent parts that it’s an economic basket case is a union that has failed on its own terms. A union that has reduced Scotland to poverty is a union that isn’t fit for purpose.
What the conference did display, albeit unwittingly, was the palpable and overwhelming fear amongst those attending of the possiblity of another Scottish independence referendum. Like many organisations which oppose independence, there was considerable focus on the past, on the supposed glories of shared history. The real reason that there’s so much focus on the past amongst supporters of the British state is because a British future has nothing to offer Scotland. Another referendum is a terrifying prospect for them, because they know that it’s supporters of the UK who have themselves destroyed the arguments deployed against Scottish independence the last time. They know that they have nothing to say, nothing new, nothing to offer. And it terrifies them.
A Brexit Britain can’t lecture supporters of Scottish independence about parochialism and nationalism. A Brexit Britain led by the populist Johnson with his extreme right wing Spads can’t lecture Scotland on the dangers of political extremism. A Brexit Britain that seeks a glorious isolation insulated by the delusion of English exceptionalism can’t lecture a European leaning Scotland on the need for unions with other nations. These Islands are a failing organisation trying desperately to prop up a failing state.
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