Nothing in his life became him like the leaving itMacbeth Act 1, Scene 4
If the pages of The National are any guide – and they probably are – then we might readily believe both that the restoration of Scotland’s independence is imminent and that credit for this is due entirely to some combination of Boris, Brexit and Covid. Or BBC as I shall henceforth refer to it in an attempt at ironic humour. “The end of the Union is nigh – killed by Johnson and Covid” proclaims a fairly typical headline, while Tom Devine gives BBC the imprimatur of a respected academic and Andrew Tickell provides a characteristically well argued account of the role and significance of political theatre in the idea that BBC is delivering independence to us.
The notion that independence is imminent is something I’ve dealt with on several occasions. It’s a notion I regard as foolish. It’s gratifying to see polls reflecting increased and increasing support for independence. But while there is nothing connecting those poll numbers to the democratic process the idea they imply that independence is imminent remains ridiculous. As things stand, Nicola Sturgeon has made no commitment to holding a free and fair referendum in 2021. On the contrary, she remains stubbornly wedded to a process which cannot possibly lead to a free and fair referendum.
The restoration of Scotland’s independence is neither imminent nor inevitable. The complacency implied and fostered by such notions stands as one of the greatest threats to Scotland’s cause. It is not imminent because our elected representatives have shown themselves unable or unwilling to take the political action necessary to bring it about. It is not inevitable because a very powerful British political elite is prepared to do absolutely anything to prevent it coming about. And because we don’t have political leaders who will stand firm against these efforts.
I may be accused of contradicting myself – possibly even of hypocrisy – when I say that independence isn’t inevitable. It’s likely that at least one person out there will recall me saying precisely the opposite. In March 2016, for example, I wrote,
The first and most important thing to remember is that independence is coming anyway. Independence is inevitable. It is inevitable because any devolution measure which succeeds in terms of the aims and objectives of the British state necessarily fails in terms of the aspirations and priorities of Scotland’s people.EU referendum is not Scotland’s fight
I stand by those words. They are correct, as far as they go. But I now realise that the statement needs a qualifier. Independence should be inevitable. It should be inevitable for the reasons given. The fact that there can never be a constitutional settlement which satisfies the imperatives of both British imperialism and Scottish democracy should make independence inevitable. In a functioning democracy it would make independence inevitable. But Scotland’s cause is not being fought in the context of a functioning democracy. Scotland’s cause is being fought in the context of British ‘demockracy’. So called because it isn’t real democracy and because it makes a mockery of fundamental democratic principles.
The restoration of Scotland’s independence should be inevitable. But it would be inevitable only if we had political leaders who are prepared to alter the context in which Scotland’s cause is being fought. Political leaders who are prepared to step outside the context of British ‘demockracy’ in order to create a truly democratic context. Political leaders who are prepared to reframe the constitutional issue rather than meekly accept the way it has been framed by the British state. Political leaders who are prepared to confront the British political elite rather than kow-tow to them while rationalising their obsequiousness by calling it ‘sticking to the rules’.
I long ago recognised that the fight to restore Scotland’s independence would have to be fought on numerous fronts. What I have realised since writing the above is that one of those fronts is Scotland’s own political establishment. I had thought it safe to assume that an SNP government would do whatever was necessary to achieve the primary aim of the party as set out in its constitution. I was mistaken. Far from being prepared to do whatever is necessary to get Scotland’s independence restored our present government has been prepared to do so little that it is effectively nothing. It turns out that it’s not only those who oppose Scotland’s cause who must be fought. The first line of resistance we must overcome is the self-proclaimed ‘party of independence’.
I’ve realised something else in the past year. I’ve long known that restoring Scotland’s independence is a matter of existential necessity for our nation. Lately, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of how we go about that task. It is vital that we leave the Union. But there is great and largely unrecognised significance in the manner of our leaving.
Now, I’m not saying we should forsake Scotland’s cause if we can’t pursue it in a particular way. It’s too crucial for that. What I am saying is that we should be mindful of the manner of our leaving. Where there are options we should always take care to choose those which we will be able to look back on with some satisfaction if not great pride.
We’ll be independent a long time. Surely it matters what will be the story told of our cause and how it succeeded. Surely it matters that we be able to say we did it ourselves. Surely that story would be less engaging if it told of independence restored by underhanded subterfuge. Or independence with a less than impeccably democratic provenance. Or, worst of all, independence which was not won but gifted by the British state in a manner which made Scotland’s inferiority an indelible theme in the story. Arguably, this would be worse even than independence stained with the blood of innocents. The story might present those innocents’ lives as having been lost in a worthy cause. Independence as a boon bestowed by our gracious and beneficent superiors would be a story without heroes of any kind.
How might the manner of our leaving affect the national psyche in the years and decades over which the story will be told? Were the manner of our leaving less than something that could be recounted with pride, is it not wise to assume this might have a deleterious effect on how we regard our nation – and ourselves? Would we not be forever diminished by a manner of leaving which didn’t lend itself to us being the heroes in our own saga?
This is what concerns me about the whole BBC thing. Where are we, the people of Scotland, in this story? At present, it reads as if all the heavy lifting is being done by external agencies or being brought about by events outwith our control. It reads almost as if independence would be no more than a by-product of stuff that’s going on without us – or despite us. We appear as ciphers. Incidental characters in what should be our story.
History will doubtless note the rise of the Yes movement. But will the Yes movement earn more than a passing mention in a story where the principal characters are a malignant child-clown who happens to be the British Prime Minister; an act of monumental idiocy; and a virus?
Imagine yourself a parent in independent Scotland many years hence. What story do you want to tell your children about how their country’s independence was restored after more than three centuries trapped in a Union which did untold harm to Scotland?
Start writing that story now! Or somebody else will write it for you.