When the SNP’s Mike Russell announced recently that he was stepping down from Holyrood as he’s approaching retirement age, he remarked that Scotland is closer now to independence than it has ever been. Despite the hand-wringing in certain quarters about a perceived lack of progress in challenging Boris Johnson’s blanket refusal to countenance another independence referendum, Mike was right. Amidst all the gloom and despair about Tory rule, about Brexit, about the coronavirus, about a certain looming trial, Scotland is indeed closer to independence than it has ever been. The independence movement is in a far stronger position than it has ever been, and the institutions of the British state in Scotland are weaker and more discredited than they have ever been. We live in a country which is heading for independence.
The most important reason why Scotland is closer to independence than it has ever been is a reason that many within the independence movement take for granted, without truly appreciating just how significant it is. That reason is that the idea of independence is not merely a mainstream political idea in Scotland, it is the single most important question in Scottish politics around which all other political discussion revolves. That is a remarkable and unprecedented shift in Scottish political discourse.
There has previously never been, at any point in the history of Scotland since the introduction of the democratic franchise, a time when independence was an idea that was taken seriously by the mainstream of Scottish politics. Even during the 1970s when the SNP enjoyed its first significant surge in support, independence remained a concept supported by a minority, and the anti-independence parties had little difficulty in ensuring that it remained marginalised and sidelined. They can’t do that nowadays. The independence genie is out of the bottle. You can no longer discuss Scottish politics without discussing independence.
It was not so long ago that the British nationalist parties in Scotland could ignore the question of independence. They simply didn’t have to engage with it, and were likewise insulated from having to confront the nature of British nationalism and the British state. Britishness was taken for granted, it was the water in which Scottish politics swam. The rise of pro-independence critiques of Britishness, and above all Brexit, mean that the question of British nationalism can no longer be avoided. That in turn means that those opposed to independence can no longer convincingly claim that the independence debate is a debate between nationalists who want independence and non-nationalists who oppose it. No one who insists that Scotland must submit to Brexit and to the English nationalism of Conservative rule can realistically claim that they are espousing a non-nationalist position. At least not without an unhealthy dose of self-delusion which is evident to everyone else. Brexit means that the traditional defence of Britishness in Scotland, that it is a necessary defence and bulwark against the evils of a reactionary parochial nationalism, has been destroyed by a reactionary and parochial British nationalism itself.
It was of course the first independence referendum campaign of 2014 which more than anything normalised the idea of independence in Scotland. In retrospect we will see the great acheivement of that campaign as bringing the idea of independence out of the cold and establishing it as a serious prospect for Scotland which merited serious consideration. That independence referendum campaign also signalled another important shift in Scottish opinion. 2014 spelled the end of a Scottish public which was resigned to being taken for granted by Westminster. It taught us that the hopelessness which reigned in Scotland in the face of Thatcher’s rule was not inevitable, that Scotland could strike out on a different path. Scottish politics is now defined by the knowledge that an alternative path is not only possible, but it is realistic and feasible.
We’re closer to independence than we have ever been because the British government stands exposed as a bunch of incompetent charlatans, racists, and liars. Today we had the Governor General Alister Jack opine the racist trope that people only move to the UK in order to take advantage of the NHS and the benefits system. Because living on Universal Credit is such an attractive prospect. Meanwhile he’s also told us that a “bridge” between Scotland and Ireland is merely a “euphemism” for a tunnel between the two countries, in the process proving he doesn’t know what a euphemism is. And there was me thinking it was a euphemism for Boris Johnson’s distraction techniques. A euphemism is when you call the way in which the Conservatives have ignored the results of Scottish elections and treated Scotland with contempt throughout the Brexit process a “union”.
The tunnel would have to go under water over 200-300 metres (700 to 1000 feet) deep – by way of comparison the English Channel is an average of 45 metres (148 feet) deep between Dover and Calais. Not only that but the waters are full of conventional munitions, chemical warheads, and radioactive waste dumped there by successive British administrations. At a depth of 1000 feet, water exerts a pressure of around 27 tons per square foot, meaning that the walls of any tunnel would have to be even thicker than Alister Jack’s skull.
Meanwhile we have Priti Patel facing yet more calls for her resignation after even more allegations that she had bullied staff have come to light. There’s no smirk without fire, after all. Still, if she does have to resign because of bullying it will at least be an improvement on the last time, when she was sacked for treason.
In Boris Johnson we have a part time Prime Minister who gets up in the morning and lies, has breakfast and lies some more, then has lunch and puts in another shift of lying in the afternoon. There was a time, well within living memory, when a majority of people in Scotland had a grudging respect for the institutions of the British state. There was an acceptance that “they” knew what they were doing, even if they were greedy and self-serving. Those days are gone. It’s one thing for a British government to be unaccountable to the people of Scotland when it’s competent in its callous indifference. It’s quite another when it’s incompetent and shambolic. The change in perception of the British state amongst the people of Scotland is a huge shift in public opinion, and one which only strengthens arguments for an independent Scotland in which the political class can be held to account.
The biggest reason of all that we are closer to independence than we have ever been is that it is no longer surprising when an opinion poll shows that there’s majority support for independence. All the way through the independence referendum campaign of 2014 there was only one single poll which showed a very narrow majority for independence. Now they come along regularly. The more that support for independence builds, the more that we can be certain of majority support in Scotland for an alternative approach to a referendum should Boris Johnson continue in his refusal to cooperate with a Section 30 order. It would be a waste of time if we were to embark upon a path to independence which didn’t enjoy majority support. It would end in failure. If we seek an effective democratic strike against British rule in Scotland, we have to ensure that there’s a firm and secure platform from which to launch it. Majority support for independence in the polls provides it.
The independence ducks are lining up in a row. We’re closer now to achieving the dream of a Scotland that defines itself, determines it own way, and which is responsive to the needs of the Scottish people than ever before. That’s a reason to be cheerful.
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