duncan riders

There are two fundamental issues at the heart of the Scottish independence debate: Independence from what? And for what? The answers to both questions seem obvious. Independence for Scotland means independence from the UK, or, more specifically, from rule from London. And it would be independence for Scotland to pursue its own policies. Dig a little deeper, though, and we find that the answers are not nearly so straightforward.

The nationalists seem strangely reluctant truly to break away from Westminster. The SNP wants, for instance, to keep the British Queen as the head of state – a more potent symbol of an undemocratic system and of ‘London rule’ it would be hard to imagine. It wants also to keep sterling as its currency, a policy which would hand the Bank of England and the British Chancellor of Exchequer considerable control over the Scottish economy. For all the talk of breaking free of British rule, and of establishing a more democratic system, the pro-independence movement itself is seeking to constrain Scottish democracy and independence.

The answer to the question ‘independence for what?’ is equally problematic. For many, especially leftwing, nationalists, Scotland needs independence to pursue its own radical agenda because it is being held back by English conservatism. There are currently 304 Conservative MPs at the Westminster parliament; just one comes from Scotland. Free of England, nationalists suggest, Scotland would no longer have to suffer the Tories’ austerity policies or cuts to public services.

Whether an independent Scotland would actually ditch austerity policies or create the health service that Scots need is a moot point. But the nationalist argument is a challenge as much to democracy as it is to Tory policies. If everyone always got the government they desired, democracy would be redundant. We only need democracy because different people hold different views, and we often disagree with government policies. The Scots have, of course, a democratic right to vote for independence. But to suggest that they should do because there is a conservative-led government at Westminster seems fundamentally to misunderstand the nature and demands of democracy. Democracy puts the onus upon us to engage with people and to change their minds. Rather than create a movement that can challenge Tory policies throughout the UK, however, proponents of Scottish independence seek to create a new constituency that they think will be more amenable to their views.

An independent Scotland will not solve the dilemma that democracy often creates governments with which a large proportion, even the majority, of the population disagree. There is no single Scottish view on any issue from abortion to Iraq to independence. Scots, like the rest of the UK, are divided by class, culture, politics, gender, age and much else. And, when it comes to politics and values, rather than a mythicised national identity, Scots often have greater affinities with people in England than with fellow-Scots. As the comedian Billy Connolly has put it, ‘I’ve always remembered that I have a lot more in common with a welder from Liverpool than I do with someone with an agricultural background from the Highlands.’

The very fractiousness of the independence debate shows how divided Scotland is. If Scotland becomes independent, should the Labour-supporting areas of Glasgow, or the Orkney and Shetland Islands that for decades have voted for the Liberal Democrats, insist that they have no desire to be ruled by Edinburgh and seek to self-govern? Or should those who oppose independence seek to form their own mini-state?

annan dark mountains

Just as there is no Scottish view, so there is no single English view. Resentment of Conservatives is as great in Liverpool and Newcastle as it is in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Billy Connolly’s ‘welder from Liverpool’ is more likely to oppose the Conservatives than ‘someone with an agricultural background from the Highlands’.

There is also in England widespread resentment of the power wielded by London – though ironically, the image of London in England is often the opposite of that expressed by many Scottish nationalists. For Scottish nationalists, London rule represents a suffocating conservatism. Many in England see London, on the contrary, as too liberal, too diverse, too supportive of immigration. UKIP, the populist anti-immigration, anti-EU party, made sweeping gains throughout England in this year’s council election. The one place it did not make much headway was in London.

The irony is that many in England support UKIP for much the same reasons as many in Scotland support independence: because they feel disengaged from mainstream politics, marginalized and voiceless. Not just in Scotland, nor even just in the UK, but throughout Europe there is a crisis of political representation, a growing sense of political institutions as being remote and corrupt, of voters being denied a voice, of traditional parties abandoning their traditional constituencies. One expression of this has been growing support for populist parties, such as UKIP in Britain or the Front National in France. Scottish nationalism is another expression of this social mood. It is not that the SNP and UKIP have the same kinds of policies. Clearly they don’t. And I would not want to suggest that the SNP is reactionary in the way that UKIP is. What connects them is growing disconnect between the public and the political sphere.

As the political sphere has narrowed in recent years, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the ways in which people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations has changed. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people have come to ask themselves is not so much ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. In recent years, however, the two questions have come more and more to be regarded as synonymous.

The answer to the question ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions we want to struggle to establish than by the kind of people that we imagine we are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ defined less by the kind of society we want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly we belong. Or, to put it another way, as broader political, cultural and national identities have eroded, and as traditional social networks have weakened, so people’s sense of belonging has become more narrow and parochial, moulded less by the possibilities of a transformative future than by an often mythical past. The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity. This shift is apparent in both England and Scotland; it has merely expressed itself in different ways.

barnes graham scorpio series

There are many cases, from India to Ireland, in which nationalist movements have sought to overthrow the restraints placed by an external power upon democracy or self-determination. National identity in these cases may play a major role in fostering the collective action against injustice and for democratic rights.

Scotland today is not such a case. The problem of democracy is not one of ‘London rule’ or external restraint. It is not a matter of injustice or denial of democratic rights. Scots are not being denied the right to vote, or to celebrate their culture, or to express the identity, or to act as citizens. The problem, rather, derives from the same kinds of trends evident throughout the UK, and indeed throughout Europe – the disengagement of people from the political process, the breakdown of more universal movements for social change.

The challenge we face is to build new social mechanisms that can overcome the fragmentary character of contemporary politics, reverse the replacement of broader political and cultural identities with more narrow, parochial ones, confront the shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity. Scottish independence will not help achieve any of this. In fact, it will only exacerbate those very problems.


The pictures are, from top down, John Duncan’s ‘Riders of Sidhe’, (The McManus Gallery, Dundee); James Craig Annan, ‘The Dark Mountains’ (Scottish National Gallery); Wilhelmina Barns-Graham
’s ‘Scorpio Series 1, No. 7’ (The Barns Graham Charitable Trust). The front page image is from Dorothy Bruce’s ‘On the North Road’.


  1. Thibaut Barguil

    My natural impulse would be for independence, so i would have to disagree with this post, however inconsequential my opinion is. Especially as a Frenchman — though if Scotland gains it, it might open the question for other European region, for instance French Brittany.

    Now, even in my disagreement, i think your post raises a point i can hear: independence is a big word. It’s a striking word, but doesn’t seem the more apt to describe the situation.

    My natural impulse here is to think that within the European framework exists a possibility to establish smaller and more nimble units of political and administrative legitimacy. I don’t have the political know-how to ascertain how correct this impulse is, but i have the feeling that it would be one solution to the political and social risk averseness of the larger entities that are the European countries.

    I can more easily imagine a Europe made of smaller units that would be more apt to decide and try innovative ways to do things, in regard to social safety nets, education, and such topics were national inertia is often a problem.

    So yes, independence is a big word. Because if this process could be as beneficial as i imagine, this would not be a refutation of our common history, but a new and interesting moment of it.

  2. For most Scots I doubt it has been about genuine independence and more about leverage. The UK is so massively weighted, culturally, politically and economically, towards the South East that the threat of independence is a useful tool to gain concessions. Living in the North West I can sympathise.

  3. Johnny Gailey

    Hi Malik

    Interesting essay – thanks for writing. I agree with the trajectory of your analysis towards naming the problem as disengagement with political process, however, as someone living in Scotland, I would take issue with your conflation of the movement for independence as being that of the SNP and the nationalists. The referendum on September 19th is not an election about who governs us, but is a referendum about how we wish to be governed. Increasingly the debate is becoming about sides, in the usual knockabout adversial version of politics that Westminister specialises in, especially as the larger parties realise what could could happen in terms of disrupting their power/access to power. This is the politics that people turn off from, and results in election turnouts of circa 60%.

    Whats happening in Scotland is that large number of people who are sick of that version of politics are engaging, and it will be very interesting to see the turnout – some suggesting 90 – 95%. Thats a large number of people previosuly disenfranshised from the process, who are are engaging with politics, and I believe looking for change.

    So I agree with your last paragraph:
    “The challenge we face is to build new social mechanisms that can overcome the fragmentary character of contemporary politics,”
    (the referendum is doing that)
    “.. reverse the replacement of broader political and cultural identities with more narrow, parochial ones”
    (the potential break from the stifling party politics would actually lead to a more pluralistic and diverse parliament representing the differing opinions of the Scottish population)
    “.. confront the shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity”
    (Yes please!)
    “… Scottish independence will not help achieve any of this. In fact, it will only exacerbate those very problems.”
    (Scottish independence, in my opinion, will help achieve this – it is an opportunity to break a disfunctional political system that disengages many. It is not a power grab by the SNP, they are not the defacto government of Scotland, but a chance to restore power closer to the many diverse and differing opinions of the electorate – a better democracy. That’s why I’m voting yes)

    All the best, and thanks agin for writing

  4. Unfortunately the political ideology and identity promoted in this post, is no longer grounded in economic reality. There are few welders left in Glasgow or Liverpool for Billy Connolly to identify with and the UK has shifted position from the fourth to the third most unequal state in the world. Scotland is seeking an alternative direction, a new and progressive politics engaged in imaging what a small country with an engaged electorate, might achieve. If you follow the discussions within the Scottish independence movement (which stretches far beyond the SNP) you would see that the central focus of this movement has been on creating a vision of the society we might want to live in, not on wondering who we are. A central aim of this movement is to create a written constitution, the basic legal and moral design of our polity, in which our collective values are enshrined. Nostalgia and parochialism is a far more appropriate description of the old attachment to Great Britain. The Scottish independence movement is focused on moving towards the future, in a process, not of Being (in one identity or another), but of Becoming a newly independent state. In that optimistic endeavor, I hope you will wish us well.

    • First, my apologies for taking so long to respond – I have been away and only just catching up on comments. Billy Connolly’s point is that class and social interests are more important than national identity. That is as true in the post-industrial landscape of contemporary Scotland, and Britain, as it was when welders still plied their trade on the banks of the Clyde. You write that ‘Scotland is seeking an alternative direction, a new and progressive politics’. My point is that there is no single Scotland when it comes to politics and values. Scotland is divided, just as the rest of Britain is. And if you do want to build a better, more progressive politics, surely it is better to do so in common with those in England and Wales who also want the same, rather than with those in Scotland who don’t?

  5. matthew jones

    The UK is not the third most unequal state in the world! It’s not even the thirty-third. It is less unequal than the USA but more unequal than most countries in Western Europe (although not by much), and may even have become less unequal than Italy, Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain, given their tough austerity programmes and recent dire economic performance. Given France’s problems, it too might join that list – after all, it’s hard to have much equality with 15% unemployment – it all depends upon how you calculate the figure. Equality isn’t everything, of course. Britain is more unequal than several countries in the developing world (e.g. North Korea, Sudan, Chad, Cuba, Malawi etc.), but only because everyone in these countries is universally poor. The figures also hide some unexpected anomalies. The number of billionaires per capita is actually higher in Sweden and Germany than it is in the UK, which only goes to show that progressive tax regimes are good at constraining the middle classes, but poor at taking from the rich. Would Scotland be more equal than rUK? Probably, but for all the wrong reasons. The commanding heights of the Scottish economy would rest with the oil industry (mostly foreign owned), the whisky industry (ditto) and the financial services industry (hmm!), whilst the rest of the economy would be disproportionately dependent on the public sector. The likelihood therefore is that Scotland would have a broad equality of low and middle incomes, and a small (yet disproportionately large) elite of the untouchable super-rich.

  6. Claire Bynner

    Thank you for pointing out that mistake, the comment should have said that the UK is one of the most unequal countries in the rich world. I entirely agree with you, the top 1 per cent continue to increase their share of income in the UK. Much of the wealth of the super rich is hidden so it is difficult to estimate how wealthy they are but we know that the gap is widening. You suggest that the super-rich are untouchable, does that mean that in all rich countries the outcomes for the super rich and the poorest are the same? Or are there differences in terms of the extent to which different states turn a blind eye to extremes of wealth and greed/debt and poverty? If iScotland can achieve an increase in employment for people on low and middle incomes then that would be an welcome improvement on the current situation. The alternative to Independence is to remain in rUK in a political culture which is comfortable with elitism, tax avoidance and hiding the wealth of the super rich. The independence movement provides an opportunity for some open and honest debates about these issues in both Scotland and England.

  7. John Mulloy

    “There are many cases, from India to Ireland, in which nationalist movements have sought to overthrow the restraints placed by an external power upon democracy or self-determination. ”
    Democracy and self-determination are two very different things, and not necessarily compatible. In Irish politics, the legacy of the Enlightenment distinction between ‘the people’ – those active middle-class citizens engaged in politics – and ‘the populace’ – the disengaged, disenfranchised masses cut very deep and led to a strongly anti-democratic strand in Irish nationalism. Look at Aodh de Blacam’s book from 1921, ‘What Sinn Fein Stands For’, an official laying out of the contemporary nationalist cause aimed at a British audience. He explains how it is a conservative revolution, aimed at the establishment of a non-democratic Catholic state.
    National movements of whatever stripe require a mobilization of identity, which in a diverse society will inevitably result in the exclusion of minority groups. Elites within these groups can then form a new ‘people’, generate a heritage and identity for themselves, and drag a bunch of ‘populace’ with them in yet another quest for ‘self-determination’. This infinite regression provides great opportunities for clientelism and the consolidation of local elite power and corruption, which has definitely been the case here in Ireland. This also had the effect of strangling the country economically from the 1920s to at least the 1960s (and also again more recently).
    Most people in Ireland prior to WW1 (north and south) were happy to see themselves as a ‘home country’s within the Empire, albeit perhaps with more devolved powers. The mood changed only with the botched handling of the 1916 rebellion and the subsequent attempt at enforcing conscription in Ireland. This reinforced the idea of ‘external’ rule and facilitated the mobilisation of national identity among the previously largely apathetic ‘populace’. Ultimately this ran counter to their own class interests, and the only freedom for most was the the freedom to leave.

    Perhaps Scottish nationalism may be different, but I wouldn’t be too sure!

  8. When democracy itself is being manipulated, it is pretty redundant who’s running what if their motives and ultimate goals are the same. In this case, and every other western country, it is maintaining the facade of the vote to pacify and deflect their populations from the corporate sleight of hand.

  9. Synonymous

    An old Scottish friend of mine is very active in the ‘Yes’ campaign, despite living south of the border for the last 20 years. He denies being motivated by traditional nationalism, but seems rather coy about his true reason for advocating Scottish independence. A whole range of people with different agendas have rallied to the ‘Yes’ cause: core nationalists who have always believed that a separate state is essential for the flourishing of national identity; romantic sorts in Scotland’s arts & literary circles, excited by the prospect of ‘national freedom’; utopian radicals and ‘progressives’ who want to build a more ‘Nordic’, social democratic society; and some traditional Labour supporters, with more immediate grievances about the current UK Government’s austerity agenda and perceived threat to the welfare state. Most of these people are vaguely or wholly of the left, but there’s even a right-of-centre group that wants independence AND free markets. All of the above have different visions of the future, which will be difficult to reconcile with each other and possibly with the economic and political realities that will pertain if Scotland does indeed vote ‘Yes’. In the meantime, the common factors seem to be – as Kenan says – a suspicion of Westminster, a strong desire for ‘change’, for a voice in the political process and to give the distant ‘elite’ a bloody nose.

  10. nicholbrummer

    I wonder: since the EU has become a larger but also a closer union, the growing openness of borders seems to have made the national identities less important. But somewhat surprisingly this has also not at all held back independence movements in many countries. Each country’s identity is now less of a fortress. So it’s integrity can be loosened up now more easily from the inside. In Belgium, Spain, UK.

    So identity politics and populism can take the form of nationalism that is for the country, and against the EU. Or otherwise nationalism for the local region, against the country, looking for support from the EU.

    I’m from the Netherlands. I have ancestors from south Scotland, but I’m not going to pretend I know what is going on here. I’m mystified that this vote may actually get a majority. And what could it imply for a future ‘UK’ vote on leaving the EU?

    • Synonymous

      Quite right. I think the existence of the EU has helped to ‘de-risk’ smaller nationalisms to some extent. In theory, EU membership might allow the likes of Scotland, Catalonia or Flanders to break away, and yet still have access to a large market, free movement across borders and the common benefits of EU citizenship. Of course, this all depends critically on whether the seceding territories are able to retain or obtain EU membership, which is a controversial political-legal question.

      As for future scenarios on EU membership, well we could imagine a rump UK remaining inside the EU, but Scotland outside; or Scotland inside the EU, with the rump UK withdrawing. In either case, this could spell problems for the current common travel area within Britain and between the UK (as it currently stands) and Ireland. A key question is whether an independent Scotland would be required to sign up to the terms of the Schengen agreement as part of its membership of the EU, which is just another future imponderable…

  11. Suertes

    Perhaps a Scotland Yes will be the start of a trend. As you pointed out, the antipathy of Liverpudlians towards the Tories is about as great as it is in Glasgow. What’s preventing the Northwest from organising themselves into a new independent (or semi-independent) nation?* Wales can naturally do so, but so too could Cornwall. It’s simple – if a new Scotland does indeed achieve some degree of Nordic-style success then there will be greater pressure on London to treat its remaining territorial possessions with more respect and empathy. There will also be inspiration for these countries and countries-in-waiting to take steps towards devolution and eventual independence.

    *not football rivalries, surely

    • pv

      More borders. Lots of tiny independent states is just what the world needs. Just like in the old, more peaceful days when territorial disputes and tiffs over who owns what resources were unheard of. Italy of pre 1862 might be the model to base our new world order on. Or further back to the days when England consisted of Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex and Cornwall.
      What could possibly go wrong in such a Utopia?

  12. Lawrence Anderson Burley

    This is a good and thoughtful piece. However it suffers from a major flaw. To say that the nationalist argument is “as much a challenge to democracy as it is to Tory politics” is only defensible if you consider Scotland to be a part of England. it is not. It is an ancient kingdom, never conquered, that was recognised by, and sent its ambassadors to, every major state on Europe, before joining of its free will (well at least of the will of its elites!) another kingdom to form the UK.
    Scotland has every right to repossess its independence. It is not a challenge to democracy, as you say., because your assumption is that regions must accept the will of the majority of the polity, but that applies to … well, regions only. Scotland is not a region. It is a country. So it may decide for itself.

    • Thanks for your comment. I don’t ‘consider Scotland to be a part of England’. But both England and Scotland are, currently, part of Britain. It is true, as I myself pointed out, that Scotland has the democratic right to vote for independence. The question I am raising is whether it would be progressive for it to do so. In answering this question, what matters to me is not whether or not Scotland was an ancient kingdom, but what it takes to build a progressive movement today. I cannot see how an independent Scotland would help do so.

  13. This is why the referendum is a joke. Scotland is an independent country and always has been. Scotland joined the union voluntarily and has had 300 years to walk away from it. The UK is fantastic and if we walk away from it, we will lose very badly indeed.

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