Is Scotland really on the road to independence ?


On May 6th 2021, the Scottish National Party (SNP) independentists topped the polls in Scotland’s parliamentary election. By taking 64 seats out of 129 in the Holyrood Parliament – just one seat short of an absolute majority – the SNP secured a fourth mandate in the government of Scotland. With the additional support of the eight seats won by the Scottish Greens – also strongly in favour of leaving the UK – the “independence movement” thus reaffirmed its position of power vis-à-vis London. This electoral outcome was immediately interpreted by Nicola Sturgeon – leader of the SPN and Scotland’s Prime Minister since 2014 – as a resounding “yes” to the question she put to voters in her campaign manifesto[1], that is, the granting of their “permission” to hold an independence referendum when the Covid 19 crisis is over. In her first speeches after the election, Nicola Sturgeon made sure to clarify that this referendum was “the will of the Scottish people” and not some narrowly partisan, nor personal, design. The First Lady of Scotland could now draw upon this democratic mandate to complete the historical task set by her party: that of putting an end to the Union between England and Scotland, sealed over three centuries ago, in 1707.

How could England and Scotland have come to this crossroads? For it was indeed against a background of diverging sets of values that the May election unfolded. The independentist side deployed a Manichean grammar to urge Scottish people to choose the sort of society to which they aspire: whether social-democratic and European Scotland or neo-liberal and Brexit-bound Britain. A Brexit which 62% of Scottish voters rejected in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. The hegemony acquired by the SNP can appear confounding in the old Labour stronghold that Scotland was up to the early 2000s, and considering devolution had been implemented by the Blair governement, from 1999 onwards, with a view to appeasing nationalist claims by transferring significant decision-making powers from Westminster to a Scottish Assembly elected through universal suffrage. The Scottish nationalists’ hegemony is all the more spectacular as the pro-independence movement is a recent phenomenon in Scotland. Unlike their Irish neighbours, who won their independence through the force of weapons in 1921, Scottish people for long remained contented with their advantageous position within Britain’s great imperialist enterprise. Claims for Scotland’s autonomy admittingly go way back, yet up until the mid-20th century such autonomy was largely conceptualised within the framework of a preserved political union with England. It was not until the 1960s-70s – and most accutely after the sting of Thatcherism in the 1980s – that a more radical brand of Scottish nationalism flourished, aiming explicitely at the creation of an independent Scotland. The movement has expanded quite dramatically in the last fifteen years, impelling London to hold a first independence referendum in 2014, which was lost by 45% against 55% of the vote. But the 2014 defeat has not quenched the appeal of the independence idea, quite the contrary. Galvanized by Brexit, nationalism has become a mass movement for the first time in Scottish history. A movement which now mobilises thousands of activists and grass-roots organisations, feeds a constellation of online discussion fora and communities, and affiliates an audience large enough to sustain a dedicated daily newspaper, The National.

This paper proposes an investigation of the “separatist” version of Scottish nationalism endorsed by the SNP since its creation in 1934. It looks at the main drivers of the contemporary nationalist project, while also shedding light on the historical and intellectual developments which  underpinned its advancement. Indeed the rise of the SNP within the space of a few decades is inseparable from the rich ideological work undertaken by a small number of intellectuals who rallied to the cause of independence. Their trenchant critique of the British State and Scotland’s position within it largely contributed to shape the SNP’s nationalist agenda as a “progressist” political project, anchored to an emancipatory vision of social justice, rather than an endeavour in historical and cultural reparation. We shall therefore examine successively the two pillars of the SNP’s “leftwing populism”, namely:

  • An agenda of social-democratic reform rooted in the trauma visited upon industrial Scotland by Margaret Thatcher’s government;
  • A vision of democracy and popular sovereignty that draws from the well of Scotland’s unique constitutional tradition.

[1]Scotland’s Future,  SNP Manifesto 2021