The Never-ending Quest for Independence
Will Scotland ever become an independent country? A quick conversation with a Yes Scotland activist today gave me pause to contemplate whether the best chance in my lifetime had passed and would be difficult to generate ever again.*
I had just finished my Saturday task of posting off 18 letterbox friendly packs of Easter chocolate to my working-from-home colleagues (I am not religious, and I am not sure how many of them are, but it’s an excuse to get the company to pay for chocolate), and I wandered past the Yes Scotland stall in Perth High Street. After having a fake £1 million note emblazoned with King Charles face that on later inspection turned out to be an advert for some bible related movement, I sidled up to the Yes activist, armed with multiple copies of The National. I will confess, my first instinct was 'oooo, free paper!' but I should have known that they would be old surplus copies, in this case from February 27th where the front page highlighted the McCrone Report.
If, like me, you have been living under a rock and had no idea what the McCrone Report was, it was created by senior Civil Servant Gavin McCrone in 1974/75 and was subsequently suppressed for fear of boosting the independence movement that was, at that time, surging in popularity. Oil had been discovered off the coast of Aberdeen in the 1970's and, after the global oil crisis in October 1973 (prompted by OPEC placing an embargo on supplying oil to any countries supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The McCrone report detailed just how much money would be generated from North Sea Oil and the implications this would have had for an Independent Scotland with a Norway style oil wealth fund would have been political gold for the Scottish Nationalist Party. The activist was keen to direct me back to the table to give my reaction to the report (which I hadn't a clue about) but I had an ulterior motive for engaging with him..
The Independence movement seems to be at an interesting cross-roads, and I was intrigued to understand a little more about Yes Scotland and what their political affiliations were. From what the activist told me when I asked about political affiliation, they are a broad church of activists committed to the bringing about of Scottish Independence, whether that be by voting for the SNP, Alba, Scottish Green Party or anyone else. Interetsingly, their website carries the SNP logo in its footer that is not linked to the SNP website. The activist personally sympathised with my querulousness over having recently switched to the SNP and being faced with the prospect of Kate Forbes leading the party after she voiced her own beliefs around same-sex marriage and sex outside wedlock. Her Evangelical Calvinist roots rang so many alarm bells for me, it was a timely reminder that Scotland is a vivid dichotomy of progressive and deeply conservative viewpoints. "I stopped voting for the SNP in Westminster elections ages ago, I just don't vote. What's the point?" he answered when I broached the topic of political approach for the Yes Scotland movement. This surprised me, perhaps naïvely, so I asked again, but in terms of Holyrood elections (Scottish parliament). "Oh aye, it's all a bit of a mess and I feel sorry for him trying to sort all that out." the activist mused on the job ahead of Humza Yousaf, the new First Minister for Scotland, "but I will vote for anyone else that offers an Independence commitment, the SNP have wasted their opportunity - how long do we go on just talking about it? People will take other actions to get to Independence - like, er, voting Green or Alba or someone else."
The "take other actions" was an interesting choice of words, and I think the person was aware it was a clumsy sentence that could be interpreted in a number of different ways, doing a furious mental back-peddle through as many independence supporting parties that they could think of. From the demeanour of the person, I think it was just clumsy wording and not that they were engaged in nightly meetings, crowded in smoke-filled rooms, gnashing teeth and hammering tables with clenched fists as they discussed sealing the Scotland/England border and seizing control of all northwards-bound Waitrose deliveries. But it did make me wonder whether the more radical elements were active and in contact with moderates through groups like this. I was reminded of a story from the 1970's/1980's (I am not 100% sure on the timings) that came from my sister, via her friend, who had started dating a (much) older man who was involved in the previous upsurge of nationalism. They did very much try to take direct action by robbing a post office van to gain funds for their Independence movement - unfortunately, when hiring a vehicle to carry out the deed they used their real namesand addresses, had their council flat swiftly surrounded and were arrested. Che Guevara, they most certainly were not.
Every movement has its extreme peripheries, consisting of those who do not have patience for the speed of change or disillusionment with the process in place to achieve whatever their goals are, which is where the comment about the disengagement from Westminster elections of this activist caught my attention. While I understand the seeming futility of electing representatives to a parliament which is acting like a pantomime for populists and career politicians whilst standing against your key political objective- the cherry-picking of which part of democracy you engage in feels like a missed opportunity in a number of ways. It would seem to me that a strong Scottish Independence supporting cohort combined with those supporting Welsh Independence is a desirous contingent to have at the disposal of the Independence campaign, ready to take advantage of any hung parliament and extract concessions wherever possible to get the ultimate goal of a further referendum on the future of the United Kingdom. It also sends a worrying message to younger voters, over 50% of whom are independence minded and risks creating generations of disengagement from the UK parliamentary system that is currently the only vehicle available for achieving the eventual goal. Will this open the door to more idiotic Guevara-lite revolutionaries in the future? Hopefully not.
There are precedents for Parliamentary disengagement with MP's in Northern Ireland elected to the UK parliament from Sinn Fein refusing to take their seat at Westminster, as all Irish Republicans have for the last 100 years. Current Sinn Fein MP's still lobby on behalf of constituents and engage with other political parties in the interest of Ireland, but do not draw a wage in relation to being a UK MP or visit Westminster to take part in voting. It could be argued that SNP, Scottish Green and Alba MPs should take the same approach however Scotland lacks any other levers to affect change, such as the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and the mechanism by which a Republican majority in the country could prompt a referendum on Irish unification (border poll), currently under threat from the twin threats of Brexit and a diminishing Unionist population torpedoing any chance of a sitting administration in Stormont.
Like it or not, for Scotland, the UK Parliament is currently the only avenue open to push for a re-run of the 2014 Independence Referendum. Following the seismic change of Brexit, which Scotland roundly rejected, the justification for another vote is real enough. Westminster however appears frightened by any further interruption to its four-year cycles, compounded by an opposition Labour Party who are in turn frightened of spooking those who thought Brexit was the golden uplands and turned the red wall of Northern England into a jolly Boris hullabalo. To Labour, it seems that the fracturing of the Independence movement is being viewed as an opportunity to return Scottish Labour to relevance and bolster their bid for UK re-election. Whether this is a sensible, long-term approach is debatable. As a former Labour voter (in an area where Labour never wins!) I have seen nothing from Scottish Labour to coax back the independence curious, and Keir Starmer seems content to wrap himself in the Union Jack while treating any idea of proper federalisation as something to be wrapped in sound bites, possibly placed in a committee and quietly forgotten about.
So what is the future of the Independence movement in Scotland? Well, it's hard to tell. There are a lot of echoes of the 1970's playing out today. While moving away from fossil fuel reliance is (or should be) at the forefront of government thinking, we are riding our own global energy crises sparked by the war in Ukraine tied up with other global tensions. Scotland is disproportionately effected by fuel poverty compared to the wealth of renewable generation it has at its disposal and this time it is energy generators such as SSE PLC who are busily harvesting Scotland's resources to direct them to lucrative English markets. This is aided by UK government regulation through OFGEM and National Grid price controls penalise Scottish Energy users with higher charges for being in a smaller and more remote energy market, ironically in the shadow of the turbines and dams generating the much vaunted clean energy. Do we all need to get a bit more French in our opposition to UK Government? Does the Independence movement need to body-swerve falling into the trap of the career politician sausage factory to create a strong, inclusive movement to re-invigorate and amplify the fracturing support? Or are those who dream of an Independent Scotland doomed to shake their fists and hang their heads from the sidelines of the UK pantomime parliament for countless further generations? Let me know what you think.
*Context - I voted 'no' in the 2014 Independence referendum and 'remain' in the Brexit vote of 2016. I voted SNP in the 2019 UK General Election and 2021 Scottish elections.