Scottish independence: Why Dominic Cummings' gift to the Yes campaign is no good reason to leave the UK – Alastair Stewart

Somewhere, sometime in the future, there will be a book written on the final years of the United Kingdom.

And it won't say it was the SNP. They won't say it was Boris Johnson. They'll say it was Dominic Cummings.

But that's not his fault, really. He can't surely be the first sacked employee to go on national television, condemn his former colleagues in government and accuse them of being responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. But, well, don't you just miss the days of the tell-all book, the extracts in the Sunday papers and the snide little read-between-the-lines innuendos?

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Cummings' shame list was a gift to the Yes movement in Scotland Some happy nuggets range from the UK government's industrial incompetence to its wilful ignorance over the worst pandemic this country has seen in a century.

In Scotland, so much of the case for independence is reactive. The discussion is so far behind where it needs to be and sits still at the adolescent name-calling. All we know is what we will not be. No Boris. No austerity. No Tories.

Sociologist George Mead called it the idea of the generalised other (or symbolic interactionism). We understand and form what we are by constant interaction with others, not from within. Political scientist Alexander Wendt went further: entire cultures and nations and countries define themselves only when they encounter what they vehemently oppose. Scottish nationalism is most potent when it has a despicable foil down at Westminster.

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For years Johnson was a buffoon. In simpler times, he was damn good entertainment on the Have I Got News For You. His articles were acerbic and contrary and naughty. That buffoonery has made Johnson a poster boy for a Westminster system wrapped in fear and loathing.

Dominic Cummings' description of chaos at the heart of government as the Covid pandemic hit was a gift to the SNP, but should actually be a reason to support independence, says Alastair Stewart (Picture: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)Dominic Cummings' description of chaos at the heart of government as the Covid pandemic hit was a gift to the SNP, but should actually be a reason to support independence, says Alastair Stewart (Picture: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
Dominic Cummings' description of chaos at the heart of government as the Covid pandemic hit was a gift to the SNP, but should actually be a reason to support independence, says Alastair Stewart (Picture: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

The UK could not have a worse Prime Minister for such a sensitive time. Scottish independence doesn't need a bland, 1,000-page blueprint for the challenging years ahead. No: the First Minister, her party, and the Yes movement have only to point at “that” and “them” and say “do you want more of that?” It's ugly politics, unifying only by its divisiveness.

It would be interesting to step into a mirror universe and see where those punches landed. If a mildly competent left-wing government was in power and handing out reserved matters to Holyrood like sweeties, would this argument stick? Would it be enough to complain about the personalities and the system ad nauseam without offering alternatives?

The independence argument has never delved into the realm of intricate logistical detail. Its absence destroyed the 2014 independence argument. No lessons have been learnt since – basic assurances on tax and currency are still not there. Many senior officials wish to make it OK by simply saying it will be fine on the night.

The SNP's Social Justice and Fairness Commission's report on independence is less a route map than a wish list. It reads like a deliberate and sharply shocking policy stall. 'We are not the Conservatives, we are not Westminster.' But any forthcoming White Paper on independence has already come with the caveat that it would not “necessarily” be how independence works in practice.

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Calling the Tories bogeymen can only get you so far. Does Scottish independence preclude brutal tax cuts in the future? Does it guarantee the existence of a post-independence, left-wing consensus until the end of time? Will the tasty morsels of free health, tuition, etc, be available or the first low-hanging fruit for a future spending chop?

The history of the Houses of Parliament spans over 900 years. Scots have sat there since 1708. Universal suffrage has been in effect since 1929. Let's say, from ‘Independence Day’, the rest of the UK has a century head start on an independent Scotland.

If you consider all the democracies which have achieved independence, you can't help but notice that they launched with the same puritan zeal and naivety we see in Scotland now. The United States started as deliberately anathema to European politics. Its very soul was forged from a bitter belief that the corrupt rule of distant kings was not for them.

Two hundred and forty-four years later, the US government has obliterated that ideal globally. The country has meddled in most countries around the world. It is a shadow of the 'shining city upon a hill' exemplar it set out to be. Contemporary presidential rhetoric is wholly out of sync with domestic realities and there’s an awkward global track record of torture, corruption and murder in the last century alone.

The 2014 White Paper on independence, successive SNP manifestos and recent foreign policy papers all frame Scotland as a “good global citizen”. This is taken as fact and a promise. 'Good' throughout the long history of international relations is wholly subjective. International standards of morality are subject to spectacular theological, philosophical, historical and even scientific debates and inquiry.

Most countries, whatever their size or original intent, fall short eventually. It's a hard pill to swallow and accept that the younger democracies share the same fate. Westminster is not alone in this. None are perfect. Corruption, failure, intransigence, hypocrisy, folly and outright stupidity are inevitable as long as the human condition exists.

If Indyref2 comes, as it surely will, it would be disastrous to rest the arguments on the current defective premise. The likes of Johnson and Cummings are a continued gift. But the emotional can only take you so far.

The idea that we can buck the trend of history just because we want to is ludicrous. It ignores the arguments and journey of every other country, never mind small countries that have self-determination.

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We're in the arena of personality politics. But who we hate cannot be a rational basis for independence.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. Follow Alastair @agjstewart and read more from him at

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