History, as I am perhaps a little over-fond of pointing out, is not a series of events but a process. This presents a problem when discussing past events inasmuch as it is necessary to identify a start point. And to stop somewhere that can never be the end. ‘Identify’ is probably the wrong word to use here. Unless we bear in mind that the ‘identification’ is almost entirely subjective. By selecting a start point we are inevitably discounting what went before. And given that in history as in the universe, all things are connected, we can’t help but ignore things which can’t help but be to some extent relevant precursors to what we have opted to use as the beginning of our story.
Despite the near-impossibility of finding an objectively identifiable starting point, we find it convenient to divide history into periods and ages. This is harmless so long as we never lose sight of the fact that those periods and ages are abstractions. In examining, analysing and reaching conclusions about the events and development within these chunks hacked out of history we must be ever mindful that those chunks ultimately must fit back in whence they came. We must beware of any appreciation of these events and development which creates a jarring disconnect from preceding history.
Established power purposefully creates the historical disconnects that rational analysis seeks to avoid. The horrific terrorists attacks in the US on 11 September 2003 illustrate the point quite vividly. The first instinct of commentators who were only sitting in that chair because they could be relied upon to speak for established power was to immediately and forcefully disconnect those attacks from all of preceding history. To even hint at some connection between the murderous acts of ‘9/11’ and decades of US foreign policy was to invite shrill accusations of trying to justify the killing. The events of that fateful day were to be looked at in isolation. Hence, they were never to be properly understood. Which was precisely the intention.
We might also mention in passing the now painfully familiar way in which every massive failure of capitalism is treated as a one-off. Something totally exceptional that in no way related to anything that went before and something so extraordinary that it was silly to suppose it might ever happen again. Therefore, no drastic changes are required. Once the system devised for the advantage of the few has been rescued at whatever cost to the many, the few can return to business as usual. Until the next unprecedented incident. And so it goes.
Coming down to cases, a proposed start point for the modern period of Scotland’s fight to restore independence will be as subjective and arbitrary as any other such convenience. Some might choose a point in the mid to late 1970s on the grounds that the rejection of Thatcherism marked the point at which Scotland and England-as-Britain began to noticeably drift apart. Others would maintain that 1999 and the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament deserves to be regarded as launching the modern independence movement. Both suggestions have merit and either would suffice, I’m sure, for various purposes. But tracing a trail backwards from where Scotland stands today I find myself inexorably drawn to a ‘start point’ in March 2007 and the Scottish Parliament election which resulted in the first SNP administration. Or as I prefer to think of it, the first genuine Scottish Government of the democratic era.
Pre-devolution, many British Nationalists and Unionists feared that it would lead to the British state losing its grip on Scotland – which for all relevant purposes was then, had long been and continues to be regarded and treated as territory informally annexed by England-as-Britain. March 2007 brought the realisation of those fears. so long as the British parties controlled the Scottish Parliament, the Union could be supposed fairly secure. When the British parties lost control to a party that was Scottish in more than just name, it was as if Scotland had been cast off fore and aft. We may not have been making headway. But we were free to drift apart from the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. Thatcher and a gerrymandered referendum and much else besides may have put the mooring ropes under strain. But Thursday 3 May 2007 was the historical moment when those ropes were severed completely. Scotland was not yet free of the Union. But we had some leeway in setting our own course. Differences between Scotland and England-as-Britain which had previously been mainly rhetorical could now become real.
Notwithstanding the fact that Scotland’s cause has been in the Doldrums for approaching eight damaging years, as a nation we have drifted and travelled a long way since March 2007. Nicola Sturgeon has been a pish-poor leader of the fight to restore Scotland’s independence, but she has been much better at defending and maintaining and increasing Scotland’s distinctiveness. Which is why she is so detested by British Nationalists who see such distinctiveness as a threat.
This is not to say that Sturgeon has done enough in this regard. There is, I am confident, not a person in the Yes movement who would not wish to have seen our distinctive identity better defended and our political culture brought closer to the distinctiveness we aspire to. Many – excepting of course the Sturgeon/SNP loyalists – are disappointed and angry that the First Minister has relied so heavily on the British political elite to do the diverging. But few would deny that there has been considerable divergence. Whether by steering our own course or simply declining to follow the course taken by England-as-Britain or some combination of the two, the space between the two ‘partners’ in the Union has grown to a gulf.
That gulf between Scotland and England-as-Britain may be gaping and not yet quite yawning, but it is already unbridgeable. The campaign to preserve the Union cannot now be operating within the realm of Scotland’s politics. It must be viewed as an attack from outwith that realm. British Nationalism’s project to bind Scotland in a ‘reformed’ Union cannot be perceived as other than an attack on our distinctive identity as a nation and our distinctive political culture and our democracy being conducted by an external power.
Boris Johnson’s Britain – Borissia? – is foreign to Scotland in the most pejorative sense of that term. It is alien to our minds and ugly in our eyes. A great and growing gulf divides us. The British political elite no longer talk to the people of Scotland. They shout at us across this chasm in a language we can barely understand and in a voice which falls harsh upon our ears. Yes, Priti Patel! I’m referring to you!
The normal processes of democratic politics are incapable of maintaining a political union characterised by irreconcilable differences between the parties to the arrangement. It follows, therefore, that should one party be determined to preserve that political union at any cost it will increasing be obliged to resort to methods that are not part of the democratic process. Methods which show scant regard and less for the principles of democracy. Methods which take no account of consequences. When the dominant partner in the Union resorts to such methods either they are defeated or we start a new and decidedly dark period in Scotland’s history.
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