Is Scotland not yet ready for independence? – Joyce McMillan

Choosing the right moment will be key to free Scotland from right-wing Tory governments, writes Joyce McMillan.

Boris Johnson's 'charisma' seems to vanish when he crosses the Border, says Joyce McMillan (Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire)
Boris Johnson's 'charisma' seems to vanish when he crosses the Border, says Joyce McMillan (Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire)

It was the late, great Seamus Heaney, in his 1991 play-text The Cure At Troy, who wrote those wonderful words about those rare, once-in-a-lifetime moments when “the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme”; and I count myself lucky to have lived through a few of them, in the decade of hope that ran from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the release of Nelson Mandela the following year through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, to the election of the first Scottish Parliament for almost 300 years, in the spring of 1999. The campaign for a Scottish Parliament was the one that I experienced at first hand, of course; and I remember the breath-catching feeling of the moment of realisation, somewhere in the last years of John Major’s government, that all the road-blocks to what had long been dismissed as a radical constitutional pipe-dream were suddenly falling away.

It was clear, though, that hope and history were rhyming – and propelling us towards a huge and peaceful constitutional change – for reasons that were far beyond the control of any one party or campaign. On one hand, there was the key role within the Labour Party of Scottish politicians like Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar who were committed supporters of devolution; on the other, there was a huge and unprecedented “rhyming” of Scottish public opinion, with parties fully committed to Scottish home rule – either devolution or independence – winning an overwhelming 80 per cent of the votes cast in Scotland in the 1997 general election.

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All of which is enough to provoke some sober thoughts about the constitutional stalemate facing Scotland today, in the week when Boris Johnson jaunted towards his northern territories, anxious to counter a new surge in support for independence with a wave of his cheque-book, and the claim that an independent Scotland – alone among five million-strong European nations – would assuredly have been too small, too poor and too useless to organise its own Covid-19 bailout, without England’s help. It is, of course, more than three decades since the Conservative and Unionist Party embraced a Thatcherism which Scotland always rejected, and therefore ceased to be the main political force holding the Union together; and after 2005, the gradual disintegration of Labour into two warring factions gradually robbed centre-left Scottish voters of any remaining hope that the UK might soon return to a rational path, as a European social democracy. Hence the historic 15-year surge in support for the SNP, only enhanced by the recent madness of Brexit.

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Unsurprisingly, though, that surge continues to encounter stout opposition both from a large section of Scottish opinion, and from a British state which may pretend that Scotland is a burden, but which almost visibly panics whenever it senses that this precious one-third or more of its territory might somehow manage to slip away. Hence this week’s Prime Ministerial visit; although for cultural reasons probably too murky to penetrate, Boris Johnson’s much-vaunted “charisma” seems mysteriously to vanish as soon as he crosses the Border.

Unpopular in Scotland or not, though, it is crystal clear that Boris Johnson, as Prime Minister, will never concede another referendum on Scottish independence, for fear of losing it; and this means that we in Scotland face a long haul indeed, if our aim is to get out from under what is arguably the worst and most reactionary British government since the Reform Act of 1832. Keir Starmer’s constitutionally conservative Labour Party, were it ever to come to government, also seems unlikely to offer much hope, either of radical change in the UK, or of a second independence vote; and meanwhile, here in Scotland, the 75 per cent who remain bitterly opposed to the Tories are now deeply divided between those who are prepared to contemplate the breaking of the Union, and those who will always put the Union first, even when it dooms us to decades of right-wing Tory government.

We therefore face a grim political impasse, as we square up to the triple threat of a hard Brexit, a China trade war, and the catastrophic economic consequences of Europe’s worst Covid epidemic; and it’s hardly surprising, under these pressures, that many lifelong independence supporters have taken to fighting like terriers in a sack against the SNP leadership and other members of their own party. Some are setting up new parties, to try to maximise the pro-independence vote through the list element of the Holyrood electoral system; others find themselves in the bizarre position of mounting bitter and highly personal attacks on the beliefs and motives of their own leader, at a time when her popularity has never been higher.

History suggests, though, that for the cause of independence to move decisively forward, we still need at least four things in Scotland that are currently absent. We need a grassroots Yes movement that is not organised by the SNP, but that sets its own agenda, and brings together communities across the country. We need a robust and convincing outline plan for our first steps to an independent future, written by and through that movement, and not by any one party. We need that plan to command not 50-55 per cent support in Scotland, but something more like 70 per cent, so that moves to block it can be seen as blatantly undemocratic.

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And then, to achieve peaceful change, we will still need a little luck, and that helpful twist of fate that might put the right Scottish and UK politicians in the right place, at the right time.

Small wonder that Nicola Sturgeon – acutely aware that not one of those four ducks is currently in a row – prefers a path of caution, particularly at the height of the worst public health and economic crisis for more than a century.

Because for all the sound and fury surrounding the constitutional debate in the last decade, it seems to me that Scotland is not yet fully prepared for the final step to independence; and experience tells us that in waiting for the rare moments when hope and history rhyme, that readiness – the vision, the plan, and the critical mass of public support – is all.

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Joy Yates

Editorial Director

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