Lessons from Scotland: “Helplessness, not independence, is the false dream… “

If you’ve read nothing else about Scottish politics (or more precisely, Scottish political culture), Neil Ascherton in the Sunday Herald yesterday reveals what underwrites the appeal of the discourse around Scottish independence:

Some people now let themselves hope that the “independence dream is dead” or at least dying. In that Tuesday debate, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale were irritated, as well as surprised, to find that Sturgeon had merely shifted the next indyref along the calendar. They want the idea of Scotland’s independence to dwindle into a childish night fancy, wiped out of memory by the bright morning of “the day job”.

But that’s not how it works. What’s true is that the SNP and their leader have been seriously damaged – possibly holed below the waterline in ways which aren’t yet visible. What isn’t true is the assumption that independence sinks or swims with the SNP’s fortunes. It has its own buoyancy.

The First Minister’s most significant act on Tuesday was her turn towards the wider non-party independence movement –the place where the ideas and energy now seem to come from.

To switch the metaphor to biology, the idea of independence never leaves a body politic once it gets into the system. It can go quiet and almost dormant for long periods. Like many Scots today, many Czech, Irish and Polish people a century ago thought: “I’d be so proud to see my country take its own place among the nations, but with the world in this chaos, it’s not likely to happen.”

But then they changed their minds, or the world changed their minds for them, and the smouldering idea suddenly flamed. “Wake up ! It’s time, it’s now!”

The idea is irrevocably in the Scottish genome today. No longer a fancy-dress pageant or a “bourgeois deviation”, but a sober policy option. Hard to say when it entered the bloodstream decisively. Perhaps in the 1970s, as the SNP began to score victories.

Or perhaps, as I suspect, in the run-up years to the 1997 and 2014 referendums when – for the first time – campaigners asked the people what they wanted. “What sort of Scotland? Grass-roots local democracy? A land tax? An oil fund?”

No-one quite gets over the shock of being asked by politicians, instead of told. Invited to help design your own country? Devolution has thrown up many reform ideas, but not provided the tools to do enough about them. So the “independence infection” means that active people will continue to glance at what might be done better in a nation which could take all its own decisions.

But it’s in his conclusion I think he hits several nails on the head, for Scotland and one or two places much nearer to home…

Helplessness, not independence, is the false dream, the “sleep, wonderful sleep” now tempting Scotland again. But the alarm is going off. Time to wake and get back to the real day job, which is (apologies to Alasdair Gray’s famous line) to work as if you lived in the early days of an independent nation. Because if you do, that is exactly where you will be living.


    Counter point: Quebec, where, despite running so very close in the 1995 referendum, independence is dead as a very dead thing, because its fortunes were linked to BQ in not such a dissimilar way to the link between SNP and Scots Indy.

    Neither SNP nor BQ/PQ are the only parties that support independence within their respective polities, but they dominate the pro-independence position to such a massive extent as to leave no political oxygen in which smaller pro-indy parties can thrive (see the failure of the Scots Greens and the SSP for examples of this).

    They also tie independence to a particular wing of the political spectrum – the left in the case of the SNP, from which they will always repel those who disagree with their political stance beyond independence.

  • Brian Walker

    But Scotland was designed ages ago. How much designing can one wee country take? The cause of Independence peaked as a false dream reacting to globalisation. We cannae afford it anyway. That’s true Scots thinking for you. Let’s stick together somehow and get back into Europe after the English get over their own fit of the staggers. All this madness happens when we havent had a big war to fight and unite us. In a perverse way that’s a good thing provided we get over it.

  • runnymede

    I see the fact that the Welsh voted for Brexit is once again ignored here. Must do better Brian.

  • eamoncorbett

    Port Talbot voted for Brexit in spite of the fact that EU millions were responsible for keeping the steelworks open.

  • Christopher Mc Camley

    in the longer term it might help that the SNP lost those westminister seats – the numbers are more realistic, but still suggest a strong solid nationalist cohort.

  • Barneyt

    You perhaps argue that a failed border poll (depends on your outlook) might be the catalyst to cause us in NI to naval gaze for a bit and think about how we improve things. However, a failure would buy NI 7 years minimum. Hardly long enough to enact change and based on current effectiveness (11 year old agreements yet to be implemented) I wont hold my breath.

    A close run thing in favour of remaining part of the UK is the only thing that might get unionisms attention and have them think properly about NI as a shared space and making some gestures. It would aslo keep nationalism in engaged.

    I think I have just talked myself into complete dispair!

  • Barneyt

    The UK has a design, but like NI, we cant easily identify and agree on the parts.
    NI is Ulster?
    NI is the wee six?
    NI is a country!!!!
    Ulster has 9 counties.
    God owns ulster!
    NI is in Britain.
    Britain has four countries.
    The UK has two countries, a principality and a region.
    GB = UK.
    GB and UK are interchangeably.
    You can have Scottish British but never have Irish British.
    NI is the North which is bad.
    ROI is the south which is good.
    If we had a definition, perhaps the post 1945 one, that might help. dont forget UKEXIT…! wait a minute.

  • Skibo

    The problem for the SNP were they were too successful after the indyref. If they has achieved the more realistic result they achieved this time, they could have went from strength to strength.
    Instead they have looked like they have fallen back but what actually happened is the anti independence body put that policy above social policies. The actions of the Tories and the DUP with rebalance things.

  • Skibo

    If this shows Republicanism anything, they have to give the people ownership of the whole idea of reunification and what Ireland could look like.
    Perhaps the rest of the nationalist and Republican parties have to be shamed into doing their part.

  • Conchúr

    The Welsh are much like the Lib Dems: irrelevant.

  • Damien Mullan

    It has to be said that the underlining premise of Mick’s article, of its implications ‘nearer home’, is that it takes no leaps of faith to fathom what a post United Ireland looks like. That’s why I think a United Ireland will be achieved before, or if, Scotland ever achieves independence.

    Unionists may not like it, but at least they must concede that a fully functioning liberal democratic state presides over five-sixths of the island. They know what it entails, they know its a parliamentary system of government, they know its a member of the EU and the Eurozone, they know its outward vestiges; the tricolour, the national anthem, and the like. These are all quantifiable variables that one can measure against peoples prejudices positively or negatively, something which Scots cannot. They have no model perfected over the course of a century to subsume into in the event of Independence, or as a tactic to persuade or dissuade in an independence campaign.

    And that draws me to a further point. There has been a lot of nonsensical stuff written in recent times by ‘outreach to unionist’ nationalists/republicans politicians concerning a post United Ireland.

    Lets be very clear, the unionist population in a post reunification environment will have zero leverage to request, let alone demand, changes to the state that exists. A United Ireland will have been achieved because Irish nationalism grinded out a long term victory over unionist intransigence, because lets be equally clear, it will be crude demographics that will deliver a United Ireland not outreach or other patronising nonsense. There will be no indulgence of unionism claiming a retrospect leverage, that might have existed in 1922, but will by the point of reunification via referendum have all but evaporated.

    Its losing sides that make concessions and adapt not winning campaigns. So there will be no change to the unitary state, the constitution, the flag, the anthem, or much of anything else. And unionists have choices of their own to make in a post United Ireland, they can ‘get on with the day job’, or they can avail of any of the ports of entry and exit, either by plane or ship, and make ‘getting on with the day job’ on the other island.