Scotland – project fear and the ruling class panic

In the third part of his analysis of Scottish politics after the referendum, Scottish historian and activist Neil Davidson looks at the No campaign.

Photo: Kyoshi Masamune, flickr
Photo: Kyoshi Masamune, flickr

Occasionally, writers have to resort to what might be called historically-informed speculation about the collective attitude of political actors. For the British ruling class in the referendum crisis, however, no speculation is necessary since its representatives have been admirably clear about their reasons for opposing Scottish independence. It is obviously not because secession would pose an immediate threat to the existence of capitalism. Indeed, withdrawal from the EU following an “in-out” referendum of the sort proposed by UKIP and supported by the Conservative right would actually involve far greater problems for British business. The real concerns are geopolitical, and were well expressed, six months before the referendum, by a Labour figure: George Robertson.

Robertson has a career path characteristic of certain kind of reformist politician. A Scottish MP from 1978, opposition defence spokesperson from 1992, Minister for Defence in the Labour Government from 1997 and Secretary General of NATO from 1999, he was finally rewarded for his services to Western imperialism with a seat in the House of Lords in 2004: arise, Baron Robertson of Port Ellen. In a hysterical speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington on 7 April, Robertson asked who would cheer in the event of a Yes vote:

Not the nearly half of the Scottish population who might oppose separation. Not the English who would find themselves in a country that is minus a third of its landmass, without 10 percent of its GNP, and losing five million of its population. And this would be for them a much diminished country whose global position would be open to question.

Leave aside the implication that Scotland belongs to England – the key words here are “global position”:

The loudest cheers for the breakup of Britain would come from our adversaries and from our enemies. For the second military power in the West to shatter this year would be cataclysmic in geopolitical terms.

The only beneficiaries, Robertson intoned, would be “the forces of darkness”, by which he appeared to include the national movements in Catalonia, the Basque country and Flanders.

These are not simply the twilight ravings of a Labour buffoon. The SNP is committed removing nuclear weapons from Scotland and there are virtually no other deep water bases on the UK coastline where the submarines which carry them can be docked. To construct an alternative would involve massive expenditure – the Ministry of Defence calculated the potential cost of relocating Trident from the Clyde to the south of England, at £35 billion – and will provoke resistance from the populations now expected to live with next to them. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office regularly expressed fears that the UK might be removed as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – with the power of veto which this position confers – as the result of an Argentinean conspiracy backed by other Latin American states and India, which would be well-placed to inherit the position of its former colonial master. Serious organs of ruling class opinion made similar judgements in the final weeks of the campaign. “Unionists elsewhere in the UK should admit more than a modicum of self-interest”, wrote Phillip Stephens in the Financial Times: “The loss of Scotland would diminish Britain in almost every dimension one can think of.” The Economist agreed:

The rump of Britain would be diminished in every international forum: why should anyone heed a country whose own people shun it? Since Britain broadly stands for free trade and the maintenance of international order, this would be bad for the world.

In other words, Scottish secession would at the very least make it more difficult Britain to play its current role in “the international order”, if only by reducing its practical importance for the USA.

Finally, in this connection, the British ruling class were also aware that an immediate consequence of a vote for Scottish independence would be to place a question mark over the existential viability of Northern Ireland, since the Union has always been with Britain, not England, as Ulster Unionists of all varieties were perfectly well aware. This is not because Sinn Féin and the SDLP are particularly enthusiastic for Scottish independence: “While the unionist parties have repeatedly called for an independent Scotland to be rejected, the nationalist parties have remained quiet despite their backing for independence”, noted the Belfast Telegraph: “Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP have over the last two years taken an effective vow of silence on the issue – even though they continue to campaign for a united Ireland.” The article then quotes Sinn Féin’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Phil Flanagan expressing general support for Scottish self-determination, before adding:

But it is not for us to lecture the people of Scotland on how they should vote. It is not for anyone to cross the Irish Sea and tell the people of Scotland what their own decision should be; we are all the better if we leave this in their hands.

These comments express more than political discretion, as James Maxwell points out:

Despite [Sinn Féin] being the largest nationalist party at the Stormont Assembly for nearly a decade and steadily increasing its share of the vote at Irish parliamentary elections, support for a 32-county Ireland remains remarkably low. The most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, an authoritative account of political attitudes in the north, shows that 73 per cent of the Ulster electorate as a whole wants to remain part of the UK, with 52 per cent of Catholic voters content to maintain the union with Britain. (The figure for Protestants is 96 per cent.) A number of factors have eroded republican sentiment in recent years: economic crisis and austerity in the south, the growing indifference of the Dublin political class to the all-Ireland project, the emergence of a northern Catholic middle-class, much of which is employed in a public sector widely assumed to be dependent on British state subsidies.

Sinn Féin have established themselves in a governing-party niche from which – quite like the SNP in this respect – they pursue a social neoliberal agenda (which has also entrenched religious-“ethnic” divisions) in which the former left republicanism of at least some of the leadership is now largely rhetorical. Scottish independence would destabilise the situation in ways that no-one could foresee, thus threatening the Good Friday settlement. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how they could avoid calling for a referendum on unification, however unwillingly, without losing significant levels of support, even though it would not be in conditions or to a timetable of their choosing. And so potentially the rump of the British state could be reduced still further.

These geopolitical considerations did not, of course, feature strongly in the arguments of Better Together. As the Scottish historian Colin Kidd correctly noted: “The welfare state apart, Britishness inspires acquiescence rather than vocal commitment among ‘No’ supporters. Anxiety predominates.” Kidd shared these anxieties: “[Salmond] is taking major risks – on EU membership, cross-border pensions schemes, the currency, and an economy geared for centuries to an integrated British market.” It was these issues on which the No campaign focussed,  Darling even letting slip that the name which most aptly summarised the objectives of Better Together was “Project Fear”, the essence of which was to terrorise the population with threats to jobs, pensions and services.

On 13 February 2014 Conservative Chancellor George Osborne came to Edinburgh to announce that all three Unionist parties agreed Scotland would not be allowed to join a currency union with Rest of the UK (RUK) in the event of a Yes vote. Salmond was widely mocked for his unwillingness, in the first of his televised debates with Darling on 5 August, to say what Plan B for the currency would involve if RUK refused to agree to a currency union. In fact, as he pointed out subsequently, there were another three options – using the pound as a floating currency, adopting the Euro or establishing a Scottish currency – but his core position was that refusal would be irrational and self-defeating for RUK. That may well have been the case, although faced with a challenge from the right by UKIP it is unwise to rely on the capitalist rationality of the Tories, otherwise we would not now be looking at a referendum on EU membership and departure from the European Court of Human Rights; but from the perspective of the socialist left, the problem with Salmond’s position was precisely that RUK would have agreed to a currency union. A nominally independent Scotland would have remained under the tutelage of the Bank of England, which would have underwritten Scottish banks and financial institutions, and the Treasury, which would have underwritten Scotland’s historical debt and issued any new debt. As their price, the Bank of England-Treasury nexus would have require a fiscal compact setting a limit on the size of Scotland’s structural deficit relative to a fixed percentage of GDP. If either the structural deficit or the ratio of debt to GDP were above that fixed percentage at the point when the currency union was established, then the Scottish government would be required to implement a regime of cuts to reduce them to the agreed levels: failure to do so would trigger the end of the end of the currency union. This was a recipe for permanent subjection to the neoliberal regime.

The arguments of No supporters therefore oscillated between two claims. One involved the SNP deliberately imposing neoliberal policies as a matter of choice, the key evidence for this being the Salmond’s aim of cutting corporation tax by 3%. This was indeed an odious policy and one opposed by Yes campaigners outside the SNP, but it was scarcely convincing coming from supporters of a Labour Party that had actually cut corporation tax by 5%: the Scottish Labour manifesto in 2001 even boasted that the New Labour government had “lowered corporation tax rates to their ever lowest level”. The other was that the SNP might wish to deliver reforms, but that would be helpless in the face of international capital. “The reality is that the left in and labour movement in Scotland, decimated by decades of deindustrialisation and defeats, are currently too weak to shape a new Scottish state”, wrote Seumas Milne: “Instead the SNP and its business friends would be likely to do that – a neoliberal world where small states are at the mercy of corporate power without an exceptionally determined political leadership.” Ben Jackson was similarly depressed:

If left-nationalists aspire to something more radical than a social-democratic Labour government, then they are of course correct to suppose that no such agenda will be forthcoming from any British government in the foreseeable future. But they are wrong to if they think that such an agenda will emerge in an independent Scotland. There is insufficient popular support in Scotland for such radical policies, just as there is insufficient popular support for it elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The nature of the Yes campaign itself refutes these claims. What was perhaps most dispiriting about the arguments for No was the utter feeling of helplessness and despair which they engendered. As we have seen, the movement for Yes was occasionally referred to as an example of anti-politics, but this is actually more true of the No side, in the sense that it did not argue on political grounds at all, but simply pretended that inescapable economic facts meant that the choice to secede was irrational and self-destructive. “Do you honestly think that a UK company is going to situate in a more socialist Scotland when the Tory government had created the perfect low tax, low regulation, low wage capitalist environment?” Thus George Galloway, the Respect MP, on his speaking tour against independence; but consider the utterly defeatist implications of his statement: if financial markets and capitalist investment strategies would prevent an independent Scotland moving leftwards, they would also do the same to the UK. Socialism in a single country, the UK no less than Scotland, is certainly impossible, but these arguments – if taken seriously rather than as a stick with which to beat the Yes campaign – would mean there was no point in even beginning to initiate radical change of any sort. This is to capitulate to bourgeois political economy; there is no understanding of how a Yes vote, achieved on the basis of a mass left-wing insurgency would immediately change the balance of forces and open up a new field of possibilities.

The moment of crisis

Complacent and assured of victory for the majority of the campaign, the British ruling class were seized by sudden panic as it entered the penultimate week. A YouGov poll published in the Sunday Times on 7 September put Yes in the lead for the first time with 51%. The reaction was well captured by a headline in the Financial Times: “Ruling elite aghast as union wobbles”. This is sometimes treated as a “rogue” poll, but it was not quite as isolated as is sometimes represented. Two days later the Guardian reported: ‘The [new] poll by TNS found that support for independence has jumped by six points in the last month, putting the yes vote at 38% and the no vote at 39%, wiping out a 12-point lead for the pro-UK campaign led by former chancellor Alistair Darling”. According to Ashcroft’s data, only 48% of Yes voters had made their minds up before the final month of campaigning and it is at least conceivable that this was reflected in YouGov’s findings.

What happened next was instructive about how the British ruling class operates. Downing Street held a reception for business leaders: “‘He left us in no doubt we should speak out’, said one chief executive who attended.” Campaign leaders from the Unionist parties made calls: “‘Those phone calls can be very persuasive’, said one figure familiar with the operation.” And, by Thursday 11 September, businesses were competing to warn of the dangers of Scottish independence. First the oil companies Shell and BP claimed that jobs were at risk in Aberdeen and Shetland; then a stream of banks and financial institutions including the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Lloyds Banking Group, Standard Life and Tesco Bank announced contingency plans for the departure of their headquarters from Edinburgh to London; finally Asda, John Lewis, and Marks and Spencer and threatened the price rises that would follow. Many of these companies wrote to individual staff members highlighting the threat to their continued employment in the event of independence – a none-too-subtle hint about how they were expected to behave in the polling booth and a genuine example of intimidation, although it was of course not reported in that context. The example of the RBS is particularly interesting in relation to the unity of state and capital in this operation. On the evening of Wednesday, while the RBS Board were discussing whether to announce to its shareholders a plan to move its registered office to London, officials at the Treasury already were emailing the BBC about the decision, forty-five minutes before it had actually been made, although the BBC reported it immediately as established fact.

These manoeuvres were in most respects simply an amplification of existing components of Project Fear, but now voiced by representatives of capital themselves. The panic of 6 September however also resulted in a new theme being introduced into the rhetoric of Better Together. The possibility of a Yes victory arose because of shifts in attitude among two groups: former non-voters who were registering in order to vote Yes, and Labour voters who were disregarding their instructions to vote No. Whether these shifts would have been enough to actually deliver victory it is impossible to say; it may have been that the distance which the campaign had to make up was simply too great. Nevertheless, the British ruling class genuinely believed that it was possible and the burden of responsibility which weighed on the Scottish Labour Party to save the Union was therefore immense. The theme with which it sought to do so was not exactly Hope – which is always a dangerous emotion to arouse if your intention is ultimately to bury it beneath new waves of austerity – but Vaguely Uplifting if Unspecific Sentiments about Our Shared Past, Present and Future. One figure was absolutely central to this endeavour: Gordon Brown.

Immediately prior to the referendum, John Curtice of Strathclyde University told the Economist: “The truth is that David Cameron is reliant on Gordon Brown to save his skin.” He certainly did his best. During a speech at a Labour rally in Maryhill on the eve of the poll Brown strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage, impressing metropolitan journalists – apparently unfamiliar with the rhetorical techniques deployed by any half-way competent speaker at a trade union conference or left-wing meeting – with his “passion”: “And what we’ve built together with solidarity and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder.” Nationalisms are always “narrow”, unless the subject is British nationalism, which now apparently encompasses the dreams and wishes of the entire global population, since at one point Brown claimed that, “through our membership of the UK” “we” would be able to fight for “our dream… our demand”: “A world not of a separate state, but a world of social justice people can believe in.” As George Monbiot justly remarked:

There’s another New Labour weasel word to add to its lexicon (other examples include reform, which now means privatisation; and partnership, which means selling out to big business). Once solidarity meant making common cause with the exploited, the underpaid, the excluded. Now, to these cyborgs in suits, it means keeping faith with the banks, the corporate press, cuts, a tollbooth economy and market fundamentalism.

The overblown and barely coherent verbiage with which Brown treated his audience was mainly for internal Labour consumption, to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood of the waverers, but he had other admirers. Tory intellectual Allan Massie called Brown’s speech “the rhetorical highpoint of the debate. It gave renewed heart to Unionists of all parties”. Tory MSP Murdo Fraser spoke of how there had been “an urgent need for the No campaign to stop the this leakage of Labour support and who better to address this but Gordon Brown”, whose “late intervention and his powerful case for keeping the UK together” was, according to Fraser, “undoubtedly very significant in meaning Labour supporters fell behind the No vote”.

Anyone inclined to give Brown the benefit of the doubt should contrast his marked reluctance to show solidarity with any actual workers in struggle with his eagerness to please the City of London. In his last Mansion House speech prior to becoming Prime Minister, in June 2007, Brown made his tenth and final obeisance to the assembled Masters of the Universe (London Branch):

Brown congratulated himself for presiding over a light-touch system of regulation and asked them to applaud him for “resisting pressure” for a crackdown. Moving to his peroration, he smothered them with more unction. “Britain needs more of vigour, ingenuity and inspiration that you already demonstrate”. He extolled the City for inventing “the most modern instruments of finance” – the very instruments that would soon afterwards bring the entire Western banking system to the edge of destruction.

Brown often invokes his father, a Church of Scotland minister. At St Bryce’s Kirk in Kirkcaldy, where John Ebenezer Brown used to preach, there is now a food bank: welcome to the Britain we have built together with solidarity and sharing.

Brown’s most important intervention in relation to the outcome was actually made on 8 September when he – a backbench Opposition MP – announced a fast-track timetable for further devolution, beginning on 19 September, in the event of a No vote. In doing this he was merely consolidating the desperate promises made by all three of the Unionist party leaders after the YouGov poll showing Yes in the lead. And, sure enough, on 16 September, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband all appeared on the front of the Labour’s loyal Scottish tabloid, the Daily Record, their signatures adorning a mock-vellum parchment headed “The Vow”, confirming that the Scottish Parliament would indeed be granted further powers if only the Scots would consent to stay within the Union. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the meaning of this episode. Cameron, remember, had been so anxious to exclude a third option of further devolution from the ballot paper that he gave Salmond everything else he demanded in order to ensure this outcome. Now, facing the unthinkable, he and the other Unionists had effectively changed the nature of the question within a fortnight of the ballot taking place. From being a choice between the status quo and independence it had effectively become a choice between devo max and independence, even though tens of thousands had already used their postal vote, unaware that the terms of the referendum had shifted.

On the basis of Ashcroft’s polling, the majority of No voters (72%) had already decided on their position before the final month of campaigning and had done so on the basis of concerns about the pound (57%), pensions (37%), the NHS (36%) and defence and security (29%). What the Vow seems to have done was shift the No vote at the margins of the undecided and give some existing No voters, particularly in the Labour Party, a justification for voting No that was not simply based on fear.  I noted earlier that, when the referendum was first announced, the majority position was for devo max. What happened in the course of the campaign was that, having no way of expressing their position in the ballot, voters in the devo max camp polarised, with the majority opting for independence as being closer to their desired outcome. The late reintroduction of devo max as the actual alternative to independence was enough to sway a sufficient number of voters into retreating from their recent conversion. The very success of the Yes campaign had pushed the political leadership of the British state into side-lining Better Together and offering their only remaining inducement: constitutional change short of independence. It is, however, almost certain that the Unionist parties would have offered this anyway.

On 11 September sixty English and Welsh Labour MPs arrived at Glasgow Central Station on the so-called “Love Train” or “Save the Union Express”. They were met, not only by their Scottish colleagues, but by Yes supporter Matt Lygate, who accompanied them along Buchanan Street on a rickshaw with a sound system playing “The Imperial March” from Star Wars and declaiming through a loudhailer: “Our imperial masters have arrived!” and “People of Glasgow! Welcome your imperial masters!” One notably humourless response to this comedic highpoint of the campaign complained: “The implication is that Scotland, like Kenya or India, is just another colony, at last seeking its rightful independence.” In fact, most Yes supporters are perfectly aware that Scotland is not a colonised or oppressed nation. On the contrary, one of the main socialist reasons for independence is precisely because, as part of the UK, Scotland is itself an oppressor and one, in relation to its size and population, with a disproportionately important role in both the British Empire and in the contemporary nuclear strategy of US imperialism. The point was more about Labour’s attitude towards its supporters; the assumption that they could simply be summoned to vote in obedience with the leadership’s wishes, than with Scotland’s position in the world order. But there is a sense in which to describe Labour as “imperial masters” is wrong, because it is of course not the master but the ever-eager servant of Empire. What better way for Labour to celebrate the centenary of the Social Democracy’s great betrayal of August 1914, than with another affirmation that its primary loyalty lies, not with the working class, but with maintaining the territorial integrity of the British state?

Tomorrow – Part 4: Understanding the Result

A substantially different version of these articles has appeared in New Left Review.


[1] Fred Dews, ‘Lord George Robertson: “Forces of Darkness Would Love Scottish Split from United Kingdom”‘, Brookings Now,

[2] See, for example, Simon Johnson, ‘Britain’s Enemies Will “Exploit Scottish Independence to Cut UK Power”’, The Telegraph (17 October 2012).

[3] Stephens, ‘The World is Saying No to Scottish Separation’.

[4] ‘UK RIP?’, The Economist (13 September 2014).

[5] Noel McAdam, ‘Sinn Fein Sympathy for Scottish Yes Vote, but It Won’t Take Sides’, Belfast Telegraph (2 September 2014).

[6] James Maxwell, ‘Scottish Independence: the View from Belfast’, 2 July 2012,


[7] Colin Kidd, ‘Reflections on the Independence Referendum’, London Review of Books (11 September 2014), 14. The way in which the Kidd personalises the Yes argument as an expression of Salmond’s will is typical of No supporters. ‘Meanwhile, the English, even those who are inclined to support the Union, are increasingly wondering if they want to tolerate much more of this [i.e. Salmond’s behaviour]’, harrumphed Ed Smith: ‘Salmond may wink at the gallery and get a laugh – but would you trust his judgement in a crisis?’, New Statesman (5-11 September 2014), 52.

[8] Tom Gordon, ‘One Year on: Will Better Together Change Their Tactics?’, The Sunday Herald (23 June 2013).

[9] The Labour Party in Scotland, Ambition for Scotland (Glasgow: Scottish Labour Party, 2001), 11.

[10] Seamus Milne, ‘Salmond’s Scotland won’t be an Escape from Britain’, The Guardian (11 September 2014). See also Aditya Chakraborty, ‘A Go-Alone Scottish Economy Would be Viable but Would it be Any Better?’, The Guardian (16 September 2014). Similar arguments were made by one of the few Marxist political economists to address the issue. See Michael Roberts, ‘Scotland: Yes or No?’,

[11] Ben Jackson, ‘The Break-up of Britain: the Left and Scottish Nationalism’, Renewal, vol. 22, nos 1/2 (2014), 20-21.

[12] George Galloway, ‘Just Say Naw…’: an Evening with George Galloway (Glasgow: Respect, 2014),  [3].

[13] Tim Shipman and Jason Allardyce, ‘Yes Leads in Scots Poll Shock’, The Sunday Times (7 September 2014); Sarah Neville and Clive Cookson, ‘Ruling Elite Aghast as Union Wobbles’, Financial Times (12 September 2014).

[14] Severin Carrell, ‘Scottish Independence: TNS Poll finds Single Point Separates Yes and No’, The Guardian (8 September 2014).

[15] Kiran Stacey, George Parker, Mure Dickie and Beth Rigby, ‘Scottish Referendum: How Complacency Nearly Lost a United Kingdom’, Financial Times (19 September 2014).

[16] Judith Duffy, ‘An Explosive Breach of the Rules: Salmond Blasts Treasury as its BBC Email is Exposed’, The Sunday Herald (14 September 2014).

[17] ‘Rise of the Ayes’, The Economist (13 September 2014), 30.

[18] Magnus Gardham, ‘Brown’s Plea: Vote No for the Sake of Our Children’, The Guardian (18 September 2014); Nicholas Watt, ‘A Scottish Plea and Scottish Play as Brown takes to Stage’, The Herald (18 September 2014).

[19] George Monbiot, ‘A Yes Vote in Scotland would Unleash the Most Dangerous Thing of All – Hope’, The Guardian (9 September 2014).

[20] Allan Massie, ‘In Truth, the SNP were Lamentable’; Andrew Whitaker, ‘Labour’s Big Beasts “Hauled No Camp Back from Brink”‘; both in The Scotsman (20 September 2014).

[21] Andrew Rawnsley, The End of the Party: the Rise and Fall of New Labour (London: Allen Lane, 2010), 476.

[22] Tim Adams, ‘”It Wasn’t a Raucous Crowd at Gretna Green. Then Again, Silent Majorities Rarely Are”‘, The Observer (21 September 2014).

[23] Comparable figures for Yes voters were: disaffection with Westminster politics (74%), the NHS (54%), tax and public spending (33%) and oil (20%).

[24] Sam Wetherell, ‘Exit Stage Right: the Case Against Scottish Independence’, Jacobin,

[25] Neil Davidson, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 90-127.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here