IT HAS DOMINATED a decade of Scottish politics, but the movement for independence has little to show for it save faded memories, cushy careers and bitter rivalries. The polls might be favourable, and nationalist elites might be untouchable, but the movement has been mired in melancholy. Nostalgia for 2014 remains a powerful mobilising tool, but the years are ticking on, and it’s sobering to recall that, when our referendum journey started, today’s university students were at primary school.
Last month’s election brought less a sense of triumph than of stalemate. Yet another mandate that few expect to see fulfilled. The fact that we’ve experienced the biggest peacetime crisis of the British state in centuries only adds to the frustration. This was meant to be Scotland’s moment, but instead we’re left with that very Scottish sense of being scunnered by a last-minute penalty.
Equally, independence isn’t about to disappear. There’s too much at stake on both sides of the aisle, and even a right-leaning Labour looks incapable of a UK-wide majority. So the national question will be the lens through which all other conflicts are refracted. Both sides will indulge in performative gestures of constitutional struggle. But without a clean, substantive breakthrough, this merely serves to insulate elites from critique.
The result is that Scottish politics feels cramped in its bonsai parliament, unable to relate to wider events or even to grasp what we’ve been arguing about for the past decade. Symptomatically, far from debating the meaning of national sovereignty, much of the movement has descended into rancorous online culture wars.
It’s said that a fish rots from the head down, and online negativity flows from the mainstream leadership’s straitened vision of independence. Insofar as Nicola Sturgeon has made a case for Scottish sovereignty, it now consists solely of opposition to Brexit. This negativity doesn’t just narrow Scotland’s debate, it also cuts us adrift from the forces shaping European politics. Paradoxically, EU-philia has made our national debate more parochial than ever. Titanic crises of neoliberal globalisation are flying over our heads; our leaders promise to restore “normality” in an era of incredulity to normal politics.
The launch of the People United, a cross-border campaign for Scottish independence, will hopefully inject some positivity into a melancholic movement. It aims to start an international debate about self-determination, not just for Scotland, but for the rest of the UK, Catalonia, the Basque Country and beyond. Explaining Scotland’s case to the wider world could help get us out of our funk.
But there’s more to this than just internationalising the struggle. It’s also about remembering the best of 2014, a political moment when Scotland’s working-class constituencies experienced (for many) their first real moment of political agency. Beneath the haze of nostalgia and the post-2014 cronyism, it’s crucial to fight for that kernel of anti-establishment upheaval which supplanted a generation of Scottish Labour rule.
2014 has become a narrowly Scottish, narrowly nationalist but also narrowly EU-phile moment under Sturgeon’s watch. Yet in retrospect it was part of a succession of radically democratic, anti-austerity revolts that struck European politics, coinciding with Syriza and Podemos in their pomp, and helping inspire the best of Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum.
To recover what we’ve lost, we need a positive vision of sovereignty, agency and democracy as an insurrectionary force. That requires a break with the SNP’s intellectually lazy vision of restoring “normality” in the EU.
Equally, to restore the best of 2014, the wider movement must accept that melancholy has become a trap. Iain Macwhirter isn’t wrong when he says “the 2014 project is clearly dead”. Whether it’s a top-down campaign for devolution max or a bottom-up revival of independence, we’ll have to embrace the excitement of rebuilding the case from scratch. Thankfully, we’ll begin that process with a host of new international allies.