This must be why every state in early modernity tried to get rid of regional politics altogether. Up until around a year ago, Britain’s news media could find easy comparison between the Scottish National Party and the dour massed ranks of the Covenanters, a silly media trope which, I’m ashamed to say, I was taken in by. They were, to use that sickly phrase, ‘the adults in the room’. These clichés would all be packaged up as a kind of morality play: a complacent Westminster, personified by the rumpled patrician Boris Johnson, is undone by a wave of righteous Scottish fury. But behind it all seems instead to lie a perfectly respectable local racket – old, tired and seedy.
The national conversation about Scottish independence has shrunk to match. It does not turn on great questions of identity or nationhood – not even ‘Austerity’, which hung over the referendum of 2014. The debate has instead boiled down to a series of lurid and banal ‘dog bites man’ stories. A man is put in a woman’s prison. People cannot get off their islands because there are no boats. A swindle of £600,000.
That the project for an independent Scotland might break on the rocks of ferry timetables seems like a squalid anti-climax. I doubt that it will, and one clue in this regard is the SNP’s new leader, Humza Yousaf. His position is an embattled one. But he remains strangely chipper. Locked underground for a Channel 4 leadership debate, Humza cheerily answers some very grave questions about his party’s record. He is unfailingly polite to journalists; there is none of the testiness of Ash Regan.
Indeed, Humza seems to genuinely love the old racket. “We are a family,” he declares – he will do anything to hold together “the party I love so dearly”. This is a strange departure from some very longstanding ideas. The SNP, as we are often told, is first and always a marriage of convenience between disparate elements united by one aim, which elements all promise to scatter to the four winds when it is finally achieved. As a result, the party has never been about coming together to work through the humdrum of roads, taxation and hospitals. Each of these issues, like the latter-day stance against austerity, was adopted more-or-less opportunistically, as wedge issues to lever the union apart. “It’s Scotland’s oil” was the old slogan; now the promise is to keep it underground. Humza is a party man for a party whose only purpose is to achieve a solitary aim and then stop existing.
Equally strange is the eagerness to get on with the business of government. The idea of separation from the United Kingdom is only mentioned halfway through Humza’s first speech as party leader. He instead leads with policy, promising action on childcare, prices, wages, ‘life chances’ and climate change. “Your priorities are our priorities,” he finishes, in a Mayite flourish. Humza’s strategy for independence is for the SNP to govern well and earn the trust of the Scottish people. But what would this accomplish? The constituency of people who like the SNP’s ideas but do not want separation is a real one – according to a recent poll it is a little over ten% of their voters. Fixing the ferries and erecting windmills does nothing to advance the cause of independence; what it may advance is the SNP itself.
It is here that we discover why Humza Yousaf now seems so untroubled. For Salmond and Sturgeon, and still more for Yousaf, independence is a way to implement a particular agenda in Scotland, an agenda whose time they think has come. This is, broadly speaking, a new reactionary global order of stakeholder capitalism and degrowth, with a generous amount of old-school Fenianism stirred in. This might seem a strange and unlikely combination, but it’s one that enjoys the backing of the Biden administration, which criticises any move towards economic liberalism abroad, and can never resist extending a feline paw to the cause of irredentism in Ireland. It is an agenda that is pursued by the SNP with real vigour, even at the expense of independence itself. One of Humza Yousaf’s first acts as leader was to dispatch Shona Robinson to overturn, not the Supreme Court’s referendum verdict, but Rishi Sunak’s use of ‘Section 35’ to block the Gender Recognition Bill; a knight errant quest that shows where the party’s priorities really lie.
Of course, trying to recast society in your own image is no sin. In one lifetime, John Knox transformed Scotland from a sleepy kingdom on the edge of Europe to a country famous for its literacy, zeal and energy. But the SNP’s own arid and grassy vision has none of these charms. It is reactionary in the extreme. It looks to the countryside rather than to the city; to the ancient universities rather than the bankers of Edinburgh and the shipbuilders of the Clyde. It envisages Scotland at best as a tourist destination, at worst as a series of windfarms over empty fields. This society will not produce any David Humes. It will not produce anything at all. It will contain nothing of what has made Scotland a worthwhile place over the past five centuries. It will be only a dismal anti-England, perched above a great power as a tool to be used by its enemies.
What has changed with Humza Yousaf is that the pretence of real nationalism is no longer sustainable. Watch him blurt out that Scotland is too white; see his pledge not to pursue independence until a “sustained majority” of Scottish people support it – a miserable clause that, in practice, adjourns the contest forever. The pretence must be kept up all the same; this can perhaps explain the showy lashings of tartan, evermore frequent. Humza has his agenda all worked out, and only waits for the go-ahead. His order of march will eventually come, whether from Brussels, or Washington, or even from Whitehall. In the meantime, no wonder he seems happy to talk about ferries.
J. Sorel is a pseudonym.