Scotland – what next?

In the fifth and final part of his analysis of Scottish politics after the referendum, written in late September, Scottish historian and activist Neil Davidson looks at events since the vote. A printable PDF of all five articles is available here.

Photo: allster, flickr
Photo: allster, flickr

Defeat in victory, victory in defeat

I quoted earlier the concerns of Scottish historian Colin Kidd to the prospect of a Yes vote. It is only fair, therefore, to quote his response to its removal:

The relief was visceral… coming to at 4.00am I experienced a calm I hadn’t felt for months. I sensed that the nationalists [sic] had lost. Total silence: the sound of the quiet Unionist majority celebrating.

His relief was widely shared, and not only by this silent majority. No sooner was the result beyond dispute than markets began to rally: the value of stocks in Scottish financial companies, which had been in freefall during the final stages of the campaign, soared by £2 billion with RBS and Lloyds at the forefront. The FTSE 100 index rose 18.6 points to 6837.9. Even sterling reached a two-year high against the euro and a two-week high against the dollar, before falling back to more realistic levels. According to Cameron the monarch purred with delight on being told the result. The Prime Minister himself knew that he would not now go down in history as the modern Lord North, responsible for “losing” Scotland as his predecessor had “lost” America, but more importantly that he had averted what one Telegraph columnist described as “the biggest constitutional crisis in the nation’s history”, a crisis which would have engulfed, not merely the coalition government, but the entire British political system. Nor was the relief felt only in the UK itself. Ulster Loyalists relaxed. In Washington, Obama and Clinton could rest easy in the knowledge that their nuclear arsenal would remain safely ensconced on the Clyde, twenty-five miles from one of the largest population centres in Western Europe. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang no longer worried that nationalist movements in Catalonia and Xinjiang province would be able to draw sustenance from the Scottish example.

Despite these manifestations of international ruling class satisfaction with the result, some No supporters continued to delude themselves as to the progressive nature of the outcome. Stephen Low, a Labour member of the Red Paper Collective, noted: “Scotland’s membership of the UK has been transformed from being the work of a ‘parcel o’ rogues’ in the eighteenth century to being the freely expressed view of significant majority of Scotland’s people in the twenty first.” But what exactly had the Scots endorsed? Not some notion of Britishness dating back to the dawn of the eighteenth century, but a very specific contemporary one. For one consequence of the No victory has been to undercut the admittedly self-satisfied claim that Scotland as a nation had never accepted “Thatcherism”, as neoliberalism still tends to be described here. In fact, that is exactly what we have done. In future, anyone attempting to claim that we did not vote for privatisation or austerity will simply be told by our rulers that we had our chance to vote for an alternative and refused to do so, thereby implicitly accepting the neoliberal order, to which all three Unionist parties are deeply committed. If the Scots will accept anything, why should the coalition or any future Tory government hold back? During the Conservative annual conference early in October George Osborne announced policies which included a 2-year benefits freeze and denying housing benefit to 18-21 year olds: the fact that these will affect around a million Scottish families gives some indication of the levels of poverty which already exist and which will now be made even worse. But perhaps the first action of the UK parliament after the referendum was the most symbolic of the geopolitical imperatives which lay behind the No campaign. After allowing a decent interval for the Labour Party annual conference to conclude without embarrassment, MPs voted by 524 to 43 to resume bombing Iraq. Britain, the USA and murderous fundamentalist Saudi Arabian regime: together.

As the counts were declared, Labour activists had exulted alongside their supposedly hated Conservative enemies. The Observer’s Scottish columnist Kevin McKenna quoted a conversation with his daughter Clare, who had become a Yes activist during the campaign: “So many on the side of the rich and powerful must have been cheering themselves hoarse about the No vote and there were Labour people, our very own, cheering and dancing with them.” Labour’s attack dogs were now quite uninhibited in expressing their contempt for the whole process. “The quiet people have spoken and no amount of Saltire-waving can spin that story any other way”, wrote former Labour MP and arch-Unionist Brian Wilson: “What happens next is important but also distinctly secondary to the result we already know.” Throughout the campaign No supporters had to intone through gritted teeth and frozen smiles how marvellous the carnival of democracy was, how excellent for the country, whatever the result. But now the rictus grin could be removed: “We are awash with high-minded twaddle about what a civilised exercise in democracy it was.” Wilson’s approval of the quiet, dutiful No voters is matched only by his hatred and rage at the campaign which destabilised what he evidently regards as the natural order in Scotland: “high minded twaddle” – this is what Labour figures actually think about democracy, if it involves anything other than voting for their party every five years. There had been a Labour for Independence group – a heroic endeavour under the circumstances, which was widely derided by the leadership and received relatively little publicity. Allan Grogan, one of the co-convenors, resigned from the party after the referendum and made this, I think accurate, assessment:

The irony is that with a “yes” vote we would have seen a return to a real Labour Party which most people would have voted for in Scotland. The party, particularly in this nation [i.e. Scotland] is in deep decline, and I fear it may be permanent.

We need not accept the myth of Labour’s Golden Past to recognise that independence would potentially have allowed the party to formulate a politics unimpeded by the rightward stampede of the London leadership – although whether they would have accepted the opportunity is of course another question.

The cheering and dancing among Conservative and Labour activists did not last for long. Will Hutton initially sighed with relief that the threatened ethnic holocaust had been avoided: “Millions of English – and two million Scots – find ourselves delighted that the noxious, destructive division of our island has not happened.” But there is a shadow clouding their delight – unthinkably, the Tories are using the constitutional issue for party advantage! At 7am on 19 September Cameron had given a brief speech outside Downing Street in which he said, amongst other things, that further powers for Scotland would be devolved and a suitably distinguished crossbench peer – Lord Smith of Kelvin – would be appointed to set up a Commission to investigate the options in due course. However, he also intimated that the issue would be tied to that of what has come to be called English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). In plain language, the Tories were now going to use the situation to force a final solution to the West Lothian Question by excluding Scottish MPs – the overwhelming majority of whom are Labour – from voting on so-called “English” issues. As Murray Pittock wrote of EVEL, long before the campaign began: “Enthusiasm for it is evidence that devolution is still seen in England not as fundamental change to the government of the UK, but as a sop to the Scots, and that any further developments must punish Scotland not reform England.”

New dawn fades?

Early in the evening of 19 September I took part in the first of many discussions about the future of the Scottish left following the referendum. I had to catch an early train home and, after leaving comrades in a café on Ingram Street in Glasgow’s Merchant City, I wandered into George Square, which in the weeks prior to the vote had been the site of daily mass gatherings of Yes supporters – not to listen to formal speeches or participate in rallies, but to meet, discuss, sing or simply to make visible the size and diversity of the movement. It was as if people who were canvassing, leafleting or flyposting – activities which tend to be carried out in small groups – had to return to the Square to refresh themselves in a public space over which they had regularly taking collective control. It was in these days that Glasgow most resembled the Greek and Spanish cities during the Movement of the Squares – to a far greater extent than in relatively small-scale Scottish manifestations of Occupy.

But on this evening Yes supporters were scattered and few and most overcome with grief. Instead, the Square was filling with triumphant Orange Lodge members, sans regalia, alongside the outright fascists of Britain First and the Scottish Defence League singing “Rule, Britannia” and “God Save the Queen”, waving Union Jacks, burning Saltires, throwing Nazi salutes and howling homophobic, racist and sectarian abuse: the poisonous pus seeping from the wounded, fever-ridden body of the threatened state; the monstrous id of British nationalism awakened by the menace of Scottish self-determination.

What happened the following day was an extraordinary moment of grace. In response to the violence of Friday night, Yes-supporting father and son Andrew and Darren Carnegie of the food share project, Glasgow’s Needy, began to make speeches calling for unity, peace and reconciliation. Over the next two days the Square began to fill with boxes and bags of food, over 2,000 in the end from as far afield as Aberdeen, requiring eight vans and 11 cars to transport them. But was this display of human solidarity with the poverty stricken and state-sanctioned (immediately denounced by disgraced Falkirk Labour MP Eric Joyce as “poverty porn”) also an elegiac farewell to the activism unleashed by campaign? Would the inhabitants of housing schemes such as Northfield in Aberdeen, Fintry in Dundee, Craigmillar in Edinburgh and Drumchapel in Glasgow, so recently awakened to political life, now be returned to the silence and oblivion which has been their usual lot before the referendum campaign?

In fact, precisely the opposite happened. Membership of all the pro-independence parties massively increased immediately after the referendum. By Saturday 27 September, that of the SSP had risen from 1,000 to 3,600; of the Scottish Greens from 1,720 to 6,235, and of the SNP from 25,642 to 68,200. (Labour has not reported any rise in membership, although there have been unquantified reports of resignations.) This growth was replicated in the local RIC meetings: in Edinburgh RIC, which had around 20 regular attendees shot up to 137 in the week after the ballot. A series of demonstrations and rallies took place, including one of around 3,000 people outside the Scottish Parliament. The Women for Independence conference on Saturday 4 October in Perth attracted 1,000. Over 7,000 people indicated on Facebook that they were ‘attending’ the RIC conference on 22 November in Glasgow.

For many Yes supporters, particularly those who have only recently become active and have not yet become accustomed to the experience of defeat, their feelings of incomprehension, rage and humiliation could lead them into the trap of blaming those Scots who voted No and to write them off as participants in any further attempt to shape the future. “Hell mend them”, as the Scottish phrase goes. Understandable though these feelings are – I confess I shared them in the dark dawn of 19 September – they should be resisted. This is why the slogan of “we are the 45%”, raised in the immediate aftermath of the result, is deeply unhelpful: unlike “we are the 99%”, it enshrines minority status rather than seeking to overcome it. There are of course limits to how large a majority can ever be, although not, apparently, for Gerry Hassan:

A traditional left approach of embracing ‘the ghetto’ or minority ‘rainbow coalition’ will not deliver a majority to Yes. This is something many on the left and left nationalists have not understood over the last three or four decades: namely, that a political contest carried out by constant retreat and conducted defensively, only results in defeat and demoralisation. The politics of Scotland’s future has to entail getting into the heads and hearts of the middle classes with all their varieties and different sub-parts, from the well-heeled and affluent, to the doing comfortably, and struggling to keep up appearances. … We are one Scotland. Not 45%, or 55%, or even 99%.

Leaving aside the totalitarian implications of “the 100%” or “one Scotland” – the idea that there could ever be complete agreement among the Scots is not only impossible but, given the class divisions within Scottish society, undesirable – there are two problems with this line of argument.

First, it depends on assumptions about both the middle classes and the working class which involve massively overestimating the size of former and equally massively underestimating that of the latter. Taken together, the three components of the middle classes – the petty bourgeoisie, the professions and the technical-managerial New Middle Class (NMC) – constitute at most 25% of the Scottish population. Victory in any future referendum will only be secured by winning over, not these classes, but those working-class people who feared for their pensions and jobs – scarcely surprising given the conditions of crisis and austerity under which most of us live – and those others who believed that voting No was the genuinely internationalist or solidaristic course. I believe the latter group were mistaken, but Yes supporters have to convince them of this, not denounce them: the achievement of independence, let alone any concrete moves towards socialism, will only be achieved alongside those working-class people who voted No.

Second, even in relation to the middle classes, the divisions are too great for appeals to “one Scotland” to cut much ice. For some middle-class Scots, voting No was a perfectly rational decision based on an accurate assessment of – and here I apologise for using such a terribly old-fashioned term – their class interests. Others, notably those in certain categories of financial, managerial and administrative employment which previously had the greatest security are now become more vulnerable, not least because of the extent of corporate rationalisation and downsizing that tended to follow the acquisitions and mergers boom of the 1990s and 2000s. The public sector jobs which their university-educated children would once have found waiting in graduation are decreasingly available, while Starbucks beckons. In terms of seeking alliances then, the independence movement is unlikely to find them in those sections of the professions and the private sector NMC which still have a material interest in preserving the capitalist system. There are, however, far greater possibilities among the petty bourgeoisie and the public sector and liberal NMC. As always, the very indeterminacy and volatility of middle class attitudes means that their ultimate direction will depend on the availability of a persuasive alternative, not vapid rhetoric which seeks to smooth over fundamental class differences.

Against Devo Max

In the aftermath, Yes campaigners are understandably also concerned to ensure that the promises of greater devolution emphasised in the final panic-stricken stages of the No campaign should be honoured. It is understandable because of a healthy distrust of these parties, given their record of being (in Brown’s typically pompous phrase) “promise breakers” over the NHS, student fees and rail renationalisation, to name but a few. However, although voters were originally asked to choose between the status quo and the potentially threatening alternative of independence, the status quo was never going to be an option. The panic of 6 September pressurised the Unionist parties into bringing forward their existing plans; it did not generate them and it would be a terrible mistake for the radical left to become fixated with the extent of new devolved powers or the length of time it will take to introduce them.

The parties made different if overlapping offers about the new powers that were coming to Holyrood over taxation. Labour: the ability to set and control income tax by up to 15p in the pound – the Tories and Lib Dems: to set and control all Scottish income tax. The latter sounds attractive, but as Iain MacWhirter has pointed out, it is a trap. If the Scottish government is left in control over income tax, without corporation tax, inheritance tax, VAT and the rest, there will still be a £4 billion deficit: “What the Tories hope is this: the financial squeeze will force radical service cuts that will damage the SNP fatally, because they will have to implement them, and will undermine Labour by reducing its public sector client base.” But even further tax powers bring their own problems. As the Observer’s business editor notes:

And what if devo max includes some control of corporation tax, national insurance, VAT, capital gains tax or air passenger duty? Following the Irish example, which Salmond was keen to do, regional politicians with the right to vary tax will offer huge tax inducements to win a factory or warehouse, creating a deep financial hole with the promise of taxpaying jobs in the future to bail them out. It is the same on the global stage, where countries outbid each other for the investment of multinationals. So whatever structure of regional government can be agreed in the wake of the referendum in Scotland (and there is no reason to be optimistic that an agreement is possible), the freedom on offer is one that provides councils with little more than the tools to undercut their neighbours.

What this seems to suggest is that only the most complete form of devo max would constitute a viable solution. Devo max in this sense means, as Brown has said on numerous occasions, “as close to a federal state as you can be in a country where one nation is 85 per cent of the population”. The current enthusiasm for federalism stretches from the reformist left to the centre-right.  However, it is no more attractive a proposition.

I wrote earlier that Cameron was not opposed to devo max in this “federal” sense, quite the contrary. If the essential integrity of the British state was maintained at the military-diplomatic level, then further devolution, even to the point of outright federalism, would be an acceptable outcome for the majority of the British ruling class. On 11 July 2011 John Major gave an interesting speech to the Ditchley Foundation in which he asked these rhetorical questions:

Why not devolve all responsibilities except foreign policy, defence and management of the economy? Why not let Scotland have wider tax-raising powers to pay for their policies and, in return, abolish the present block-grant settlement, reduce Scottish representation in the Commons, and cut the legislative burden at Westminster?

The Scottish Constitutional Commission, which is not noted for being sympathetic to Tory ideas, proposed a very similar arrangement, called “Secure Autonomy”: “It would deliver most of the proposed advantages of independence while preserving the security, economic, military and diplomatic advantages commonly attributed to the Union by its supporters.” There are serious dangers here, at least for any approach to independence which sees it as opening up possibilities for socialist change.

The meaning of devolution has changed over the decades. Previously, it was a way of meeting popular aspirations without threatening the economic order; now it also potentially useful to further implanting social neoliberalism. The more politics is emptied of content, the more social neoliberal regimes need to prove that democracy is still meaningful – not of course by extending the areas of social life under democratic control, but by multiplying the opportunities for citizen-consumers to take part in elections for local councillors, mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners, members of the Welsh and London Assemblies, and the Scottish, European and British Parliaments. Here, responsibility for implementing anti-reforms is spread beyond governing parties and central state apparatuses to elected bodies whose policy options are severely restricted both by statute and – as in the case of local councils – reliance on the central state for most of their funding. In the case of the devolved nations the assumption is that the people most likely to participate in local decision-making will be members of the middle class, who can be expected to behave, en masse, in ways which will impose restrictions on local taxation and public spending, and thus maintain the neoliberal order with a supposedly popular mandate: atomised citizens voting for which services they want to close. Consequently, devo max is not just an inadequate, but still desirable alternative to independence: it is a means of preserving the British state and the neoliberal order. As expected the SNP have now come out for the most complete form of devo max – one reason why socialists cannot simply call for an SNP vote. Far from shifting attention from independence to devo max, the radical left should reject the latter completely except in so far as it involves the greater democratisation of Scottish society rather than “powers” for the Scottish sub-state.

What next?

The main impetus for the Yes campaign was not nationalism, but a desire for social change expressed through the demand for self-determination. The danger is that it will now become nationalist in orientation, particularly if the movement simply becomes an electoral support-group for the SNP. The thousands of mainly working-class people who have joined that organisation will change its inner dynamics, but they are unlikely to change its overall character as a mildly reformist party on the left wing of the social neoliberal spectrum.

The way in which campaigners flooded into the three main independence-supporting parties is indicative of a deeply-felt need to find a form of political expression, which none of them will be able to fully provide. RIC can only do so in part. Existing on the borderland between a campaign and a social movement, it faces the problem of how to continue campaigning for the  goals which it sought to achieve through independence when the prospect of independence is no longer on the immediate agenda. Can it do so without simply fragmenting into multiple adjuncts to existing campaigns? This is the main question which confronts it as third and most important conference looms. RIC at any rate exists: the second issue is the absence from the Scottish political scene of a party of the left, large and serious enough to stand for election, but also committed to activity in the streets and workplaces. As a united front involving existing parties, RIC cannot become that kind of party, but the unaffiliated individuals, who were the basis of its mass support and that of the wider campaign, will have to be the basis of its membership.

All of the existing left groups contain militants and activists who would make a valuable contribution to any new formation; but simply attempting to recombine these groups, with all their inherited historic divisions and internal membership structures, whether as “platforms” or permanent factions, would be fatal to this enterprise, as would a recapitulation of the cult of personality, the politics of celebrity, which helped destroy the SSP. Podemos in Spain, which also emerged from an actual movement, is perhaps the closest to what is required, but it too has problems, not least those stemming from the attempt to position itself as “beyond left or right” – anti-politics in this sense being precisely what Scotland does not need right now. There are no exact models and we will consequently have to build our own. Politically, such a formation will certainly require a revolutionary current, but part of a process in which new activists can actually find out what the terms reform and revolution currently mean, and where they stand in relation to them. In terms of the programme for an independent Scotland, some elements are obvious: withdrawal from NATO and the EU, establishment of a republic and a Scottish currency unencumbered by the Bank of England, renationalisation of services and utilities, and the repeal of the anti-trade union laws. Nationalisation of the oil industry will be an urgent task, not least to pay for the social reconstruction required after the devastations of neoliberalism and austerity. These are not in themselves revolutionary demands – that they seem so is an indication of how far right politics has moved in the last 40 years – but in the current context they will rightly be seen as a breach with the order of capital. Working towards that will involve not only necessary defensive struggles against austerity, war and environmental destruction, but for the democratisation of Scottish society, in readiness for when the moment of independence becomes a possibility again.

That may not take as long as some imagine. I noted earlier that, in the eyes of the ruling class, the No vote effectively amounted to an endorsement of the neoliberal project. Working-class No voters obviously did not intend this, and no-one on either side was consciously inviting an escalation of austerity, but that is what is happening, with Labour abetting or endorsing the attacks. Resistance should be conducted on an UK-wide basis wherever possible, but as the attacks deepen, the question for the Scots of whether there is more “risk” involved in remaining in the UK than breaking with it will come to the fore again, especially if the 2015 General Election produces another Tory-led government. The British state is unlikely to allow another “official” referendum, especially one which our rulers think they will lose, so an “unofficial” manifestation along Catalan lines will be necessary and that situation, the question will become who is stronger, the social movement or the state. One of the advisers to the No campaign, Adam Tompkins of the University of Glasgow, wrote in the aftermath:

The Union was not saved on Thursday; it won a reprieve… I have long thought that the Union could withstand the threat of Scottish separation, once. But if circumstances were to bring us to a second independence referendum any time soon, I would place a large sum on the outcome being very different.

I would also make that bet.

Download all five of Neil’s articles as a single PDF here.

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


[1] Colin Kidd, ‘After the Referendum’, London Review of Books, vol. 36, no. 19 (9 October 2014), 20.

[2] Mick Brown, ‘After Scotland Votes No, the Kingdom is still United, but uneasily so’, The Sunday Telegraph (20 September 2014).

[3] Stephen Low, ‘Remember “Class over Nation”‘, Scottish Left Review 83 (October 2014), 14.

[4] Iain S Bruce, ‘United Against a War on the Poor’, The Sunday Herald (5 October 2014).

[5] Kevin McKenna, ‘How Can You Console a Heartbroken and Angry Daughter? You Can’t’, The Observer (21 September 2014).

[6] Brian Wilson, ‘Labour Must Fight on the Social Issues’, The Scotsman (20 September 2014).

[7] Allan Brogan, ‘Out with the Old: in with the New?’, Scottish Left Review 83 (October 2014), 7.

[8] Will Hutton, ‘After the Scottish Referendum – David Cameron’s Attempt to Manipulate the Constitution is crudely Cynical’, The Observer (21 September 2014). Apparently the Tories fail to realise what the ‘real problem at the heart of British government’ is: ‘the British state, feudal in its origins, remain feudally centralised even in the 21st century’. The myth that the British state is some peculiarly archaic formation involves confusing form (the Monarchy, the House of Lords, etc.) and content (how well it actually serves the interests of the British capitalist class). In fact, the British state is one of the most brilliantly successful, endlessly adaptive states in the history of capitalism – as it has just reminded us yet again.

[9] Murray J. Pittock, The Road to Independence? Scotland since the Sixties (London: Reaktion Books, 2008), 87.

[10] Gerry Hassan, ‘We Are One Scotland: Anatomy of a Referendum’, One Kingdom (27 September 2014),

[11] Iain MacWhirter, ‘Trouble if Austerity is Heaped on Austerity’, The Herald (30 September 2014).

[12] ‘The More Power in Britain is Devolved, the Faster Tax Revenues Race to the Bottom’, The Observer (20 September 2014).

[13] See, for example, Andrew Whitaker, ‘Gordon Brown backs Federalism in Event of No Vote’, The Scotsman (15 August 2014).

[14] Timothy Garten Ash, ‘We Need a Federal Britain in a Confederal Europe’, The Guardian (22 September 2014); Bryan, ‘Powers for Political Change’, 194-197; David Torrance, Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal Union (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2014).

[15] ‘Sir John Major’s Ditchley Foundation Speech – the Full Transcript on Devolution’, Thanks to Jim Slaven for bringing this speech to my attention.

[16] W. Elliot Bulmer, ‘Scotland’s Future After the Referendum’, Herald Scotland, 27 September 2014,

[17] Magnus Gardham, ‘Sturgeon sets out SNP Stall with Demand for Devo Max’, The Herald (11 October 2014).

[18] Adam Tomkins, ‘The Union can’t Withstand English nationalism’, New Statesman (26 September – 2 October 2014), 52.


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