DESPITE EXITING EURO 2020 with a grand total of one point, the men’s national football team has lifted Scotland’s spirits. Even unreconstructed football-phobes have developed a peculiar parasocial bond with a cast of underdogs ranging from John McGinn and Kieran Tierney to Grant Hanley and Stephen O’Donnell. It was heartening to enjoy a brief moment of solidarity, built, if nothing else, on common revulsion at sneering English pundits.
However, for all the surge in patriotism, was there a sense of a nation imminently heading for independence? Like it or not, football is an outlet for political passions, as we saw last night with German fans and players protesting anti-LGBT laws in Hungary, or Marco Arnautovic’s ban for anti-Albanian slurs, or, indeed, the debate on Scotland taking the knee. Sport is the one area where Scotland is defiantly autonomous on the global stage. But even with a match against England at Wembley, constitutional politics barely featured as a point of interest or controversy.
Some might judge it best that divisive questions of nationality are kept out of sport. But that moral judgement seems trite: the best of political change always invites the ugliness of a backlash; in real history, darkness and light are inextricable. And when change is coming and interests feels threatened, sport cannot avoid politicisation.
So, the puzzle remains. Another resounding mandate for independence has failed to electrify the country. It has left a sense of diffidence and resignation. Formally speaking, conflicts continue: this week, Michael Gove’s comments on a prospective referendum kept the news cycle chuntering away. But there is a sense of dispassionately going through the motions, for all that football briefly roused the national spirit.
Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and reviewing the positives. In the past decade, independence has expanded far beyond its old base. It’s no longer a fringe cause. For younger people especially, independence has been normalised. Yes supporters are out of the closet; indeed, nationalism has considerable social cache. That fact alone testifies to progress. When the Yes campaign started, it was a ragtag of misfits; nowadays, the SNP is the establishment. Corporate interests may have cannibalised the Yes movement, but that is a backhanded tribute to its success in transforming the consensus.
Conversely, unionism is in ideological tatters. Conservative hegemony effectively means English hegemony: there is no prospect of Boris Johnson’s national project enjoying consent in Scotland. Witness the reaction to the ejection of Home Office patrols from Kenmure Street. Only a minority of hardened right-wingers were willing to defend the sovereignty of British institutions.
Labour’s disastrous embrace of the People’s Vote has shattered any remaining credibility in England. A succession of by-election defeats testifies to the problems. Keir Starmer was supposed to be the Electable One, and while his shortcomings as a leader are now apparent, the evidence suggests that Labour’s problems are about structure not agency. Replacing him with the Electable One Mark Two, an Andy Burnham, will make little difference; nor, I fear, will another lurch to the right or to the left.
In England, Labour cannot perform its part of the unionist bargain; thus, any talk of “progressive federalism” is for the birds.
Lastly, support for independence remains high. It has fallen away since late last year when the SNP was speaking of a “settled majority”. However, roughly half the population remains supportive.
There are unanswered questions about the resilience of that support. It grew from a unique period of British history, as the ruling parties underwent arguably the biggest ever peacetime crisis of the state. And the arguments are untested. Much of Nicola Sturgeon’s imagined prospectus for independence involves mutually inconsistent promises that would not stand the cold, scrutinising glare of a referendum. Would middle class liberal support collapse if it proved impossible to re-join the EU?
So, there are grounds for optimism, but also grounds for wondering whether any of this is real. This investment in fantasy may seem peculiarly Scottish (did anyone doubt we’d beat Croatia?), but it’s also how all ruling ideas work. Indeed, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek says that all ideologies have the formula: “I know very well that X does not hold, but I do X anyway”. I know very well that there is no difference between hand soap at Lidl and hand soap at Waitrose, but I pay the extra 30p anyway, for an illusion I pretend not to believe in.
Scotland’s establishment very precisely follows this ideological formula. We know very well that the referendum is unlikely to happen, but we must act as if it will. Some may interpret this cynically: Peter Murrell needs a pension, so along comes another indyref fundraiser. And it’s said that, for the problems of vulgar Marxism, the formula of “follow the money” accurately explains 90 percent of history.
Equally, there is a non-cynical, even moralistic side to Scotland’s reigning ideology. Many fear that, by admitting that the referendum is unlikely to happen, we hand victory to Boris Johnson. And there’s no disguising the truth here. With Labourism dead, the cause of Scottish independence appears as the last viable challenge to post-Brexit Conservative rule. It would be much easier to break the ideological spell if the motives were purely cynical.
But at some stage fantasy must reckon with reality. Another SNP fundraiser is coming, premised, again, on the imminence of a referendum. The uptake may serve as a measure of the gap between fantasy and reality.
Finally, let’s not forget the potential reality in fantasy. Even if the SNP leadership is trading on myths, that doesn’t preclude a referendum happening within this term. I certainly hope it will, and sometimes, I reassure myself, history runs away like a greasy pig: just look at David Cameron’s brinksmanship with the Brexit referendum. Supporters of independence are thus left with a dilemma: do we call out our ruling hypocrisies, or do we call the SNP’s bluff, gambling that it might pay off by accident? I wish I had an easy answer.