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Scotland After Covid-19: Independence, Nationalism and the Myth of Devolution 

by | June 1, 2021

The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #9: That Hideous Strength, our Autumn/Winter 2020 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.  



Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has drawn effusive praise for her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘It has been painful to watch the steadiness and sombre dignity of the first ministers of the devolved parliaments – notably Nicola Sturgeon,’ writes Ferdinand Mount in the London Review of Books, ‘and then to turn to the slapdash boosterism of [Boris] Johnson and his associates.’ Endorsements have spread from liberal London into the global bloodstream of urbane commentary, and even inspired a feature article in the New York Times:

Scotland’s approach has made it a bright spot in Covid-19-ravaged Britain … As Scotland emerges from a three-month lockdown, it is moving more carefully than neighboring England, a divergence that owes a lot to Ms. Sturgeon’s cautious style and her conviction that England, under its more freewheeling leader, Boris Johnson, is taking too many risks.

Cosmopolitan audiences are rarely so excited by the business of the provincial Edinburgh parliament. However, Sturgeon, along with New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, embodies something special, a rare case of an electorally credible centrist who embodies the global establishment’s liberal aspirations. Her growing fame owes much to contrast with Boris Johnson, who, next door in Westminster, epitomises the excesses of the global establishment’s rival wing. With the fracturing of the neoliberal consensus, Scotland’s leadership on the Covid-19 has thus come to dramatise wider tensions about ‘populism’.

Sturgeon’s steely authority, in this framing, stands for faith in the coming restoration of technocratic order. Undoubtedly, the Anglo-American mode of freewheeling libertarianism has been found badly wanting. Given the discipline demanded by the pandemic, public fatigue with the antics of Trump, Johnson and Cummings has been a marked feature of the post-Covid political climate. In the most optimistic forecasts, populism is fading out as the public clamour for governance by experts. ‘Epidemiologists’, claims Mishra, again in LRB, ‘have become the idols of a frightened public and scientific rigour has gained a new status in large parts of the world. But the current regimes in the US and Britain gained power by fomenting hatred of experts and expertise.’

On the surface, polling evidence does suggest a growing preference for the cautious over the cavalier. Four-in-five Scots (82 per cent) believe Sturgeon has handled the crisis well, trouncing the comparative figures for Boris Johnson (30 per cent), her stylistic opposite. Meanwhile, with a Scottish election scheduled for May 2021, everything suggests a crushing SNP victory. The most recent poll gives the SNP seventy-four out of 129 seats, a landslide unprecedented and indeed, given Holyrood’s electoral system, long believed impossible.

While Scotland, via Sturgeon, has been co-opted into the liberal faction of the global culture war, the opposite is also true. That wing of elite opinion has become strangely complicit in the notion of Scottish exceptionalism. Those who pine for the restoration of ‘normal politics’ have absorbed the narrative of morally upright Scotland to contrast with the chaos of Westminster. While establishment opinion remains suspicious of (if not always downright hostile to) independence, there has been glowing praise for devolved governance in general and Sturgeon’s leadership in particular, with Scotland’s performance seemingly offering the definitive contrast with the experimentalism of Johnson’s Conservatives.

Yet, for all the contrasts of style, evidence from the ground paints a far more ambivalent picture. Given that Sturgeon is a Scottish nationalist, the truly eye-catching feature of her handling of the pandemic is how little Scotland has varied from London. In the crucial early days of Covid-19, when all the real damage was done, Sturgeon’s administration followed Johnson’s in lockstep. When Johnson embraced ‘herd immunity’, so did Sturgeon; when England entered lockdown, so, on the same day, did Scotland. ‘Ms Sturgeon … made no attempt to challenge the UK’s relatively late implementation of lockdown, which is widely seen as the main reason why the death rate has been higher than other nations’, notes a rare critical article in the Financial Times.

To be clear, the barriers to an earlier lockdown had little to do with anything in the constitution, as subsequent events have proved. And the repercussions were far from minimal: epidemiologists from the University of Edinburgh claim that, had lockdown ensued earlier, to mirror other countries in Europe and Asia, Scotland could have saved 2,000 lives. At one stage a survey showed that Scotland had the third worst rate of Covid-19 deaths in the world, with 733 Covid-19 deaths for every million people, behind only England (767) and Belgium (842).

In those early weeks, the Scottish Government made calamitous errors. By far the biggest was the decision to discharge elderly patients from hospitals into care homes without testing them for Covid-19, a decision one report has called ‘possibly … the single greatest failure of devolved government … since the creation of the Scottish Parliament.’ The result has been a spectacular explosion in care home deaths. While the precise death rate is contested, it has certainly been higher than England’s, and by some estimates is the worst in the advanced world.

Mistakes, some will argue, are inevitable in an emergency. But an examination of the wider, structural background to the pandemic bears out the narrative of moral grey areas. Covid-19 and the lockdown are, at a deeper level, a story of long run underinvestment. Lockdown itself was a chaotic, emergency measure, and a better prepared public health system may have been able to administer tracking and testing without the attendant economic chaos. Yet this critique only reinforces doubts about Scottish devolution, which, under persistent, uncontested centre-left governments, both Labour and the SNP, has mirrored the neoliberal (and, subsequently, the austerity) framing of public policy. The deadly care home crisis is itself a symptom of decades of privatisation and under-investment in wider public health structures.

Subsequent practical moves to differentiate Scotland have been baby steps – compulsory facemasks in shops, a week extra in lockdown – added to opportunist PR barbs against the Conservative government over the Dominic Cummings controversy. These form the basis for the gushing praise directed towards Sturgeon and Scottish governance. But, in all truth, the likely explanation for Scotland’s minimally better overall performance is demography more than policy. With few large population centres, the country possesses natural advantages relative to England. Most public health experts, certainly, are wary of drawing any definitive conclusions given how little is known about the virus’s behaviour.

Doubts could be extended a step further, because, insofar as there have been truly radical breaks with neoliberalism after Covid-19, they emerged from Westminster, not Holyrood. On matters of true strategic importance, Scotland has trailed behind. Sturgeon’s administration has never blocked Sunak’s measures (it has, in truth, little power to do so), and in some cases has extended them further. But Sturgeon also chose to hand her key commission on the post-Covid-19 economic recovery to a full complement of the Scottish ruling class led by ex-Tesco Bank CEO Benny Higgins. She has talked vaguely of bigger economic reforms while insisting that, due to Westminster restrictions, they must be postponed until after independence.

Westminster rule has become Sturgeon’s alibi for a characteristically pale palette of responses to an extraordinary crisis. Yet much of the independence movement has grown suspicious that Sturgeon is far too comfortable governing devolution and has little intention of letting the messy business of separation disrupt a platform for endless re-election.

All the trust that elites have placed in Sturgeon is premised precisely on her ability to keep independence off the agenda. The tone of features articles in liberal journals would change markedly if the SNP moved towards a more combative stance, and many are doubtful that Sturgeon will bite the hand that feeds her. The Covid-19 crisis has thus served to reinforce the central tension that defines Sturgeon’s leadership. How long can she blame Scotland’s problems on Westminster, while indefinitely deferring moves towards independence?



2014: The Foundation of SNP Hegemony
Ironically, while Sturgeon stands as an icon of liberal caution, her hegemony emerged from a quintessentially disruptive post-2008 populist movement. Indeed, the independence referendum of 2014 served as the launchpad for many of the tensions which have subsequently engulfed the British state in crisis. Having begun the campaign with an unassailable lead, the forces of unionism – politically, Labour plus the Con-Dem coalition; socially, big business plus elements of the union bureaucracy – nearly collapsed under pressure from an (essentially spontaneous) grassroots movement defining itself against Westminster corruption, media complicity and austerity. Working class communities, their agency stifled by Labour dominance and written off as ‘apathetic’, exploded into political life, with the distinctive ‘Yes’ logo seemingly plastered in every second window. Having made their living narrating decades of sleepy, parochial Scottish affairs, mainstream commentators were dumbstruck.

The panic ran deep. David Cameron, then Prime Minister, took the extraordinary step of soliciting an intervention from Britain’s monarch: ‘Just a raising of the eyebrow even, you know, a quarter of an inch we thought would make a difference.’ An emergency train of New Labour dignitaries was dispatched, and whole generations of functionaries flooded into Glasgow at once, everyone from Ed Miliband, Jim Murphy and Alastair Darling to Peter Hain and Helen Liddell. The wooing did not go to plan, however, as the posse heading to Buchanan Street were upstaged by a rickshaw driver whose boombox blared the Imperial Death March from Star Wars, while he announced over his PA system, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, your imperial masters have arrived!’

Tariq Ali, one of the few London-based commentators to support the movement, was in Scotland for much of the referendum. ‘The last-minute panic of the extreme centre was pathetic, grotesque to behold’, he recalled. ‘Politicians who had never even visited Scotland suddenly poured in. Sixty MPs on one day were scrambled by train northwards. It was obvious that the metropolitan elite was totally out of touch.’

The Yes campaign would ultimately lose the referendum by a reasonably solid margin of forty-five to fifty-five. Nonetheless, having spent several days leading in the polls, the movement gave the British establishment their biggest fright in a generation.

Meanwhile, disgust at the No campaign’s tactics, especially its ‘project fear’, and (rather well founded) allegations of media and establishment bias, drove nearly a hundred thousand new members into the SNP.

Since then, given what passes for power in Scotland, they have become perhaps Europe’s most secure and most centralised governing party. The moral legitimacy of an anti-establishment mass movement has put them in an unassailable position. It is this solid base which permits Sturgeon the security to pose as the defender of liberal civilisation against the populist upsurge, most notably with her leading role in the ‘People’s Vote’ movement.

Subject to much condescension as well as mythologization, 2014 must be regarded as a defining moment in British history. Undeniably, the referendum destroyed Scottish Labour as a serious electoral competitor, significantly adding to the hurdles of gaining a majority at Westminster. Even today, this problem haunts party strategists: unable to count on Scottish obedience, internal reports calculate that a Labour victory depends on the sort of radical swing that might unseat Jacob Rees-Mogg in Somerset. Alternatively, the prospect of a ‘coalition of chaos’ between Labour and the SNP has consistently invited an English nationalist backlash. Most notably, it all but destroyed the prospects of Ed Miliband, giving David Cameron a majority even he did not expect, precipitating the Brexit referendum. Beneath these surface events, there lies a social democratic party which, like its European sisters, coasted unambitiously through the neoliberal era with its traditional base intact, until the crisis of 2008, which left an organisational husk, a cartel party unable to offer rising living standards, power or agency to their working-class supporters.



Collapse of Labourism
The SNP’s success was not random, nor merely a product of the referendum as such, but rather the product of a very particular historical era. During Salmond’s first term of office, the world underwent a colossal crisis of capitalism, perhaps the biggest crash since 1929. The 2008 crisis raised existential doubts about the combination of deregulation and debt-based growth that had dominated Western economies since the nineties. Across Europe and America, the subsequent rise and fall of parties would be based on their ability to lever these circumstances to their advantage. The biggest victims, as a rule, were the traditional parties of social democracy that had embraced neoliberal globalisation in pursuit of power. Scottish Labour’s collapse was in keeping with this pattern.

In many respects, the SNP was simply the lucky recipient of Scotland’s growing incredulity towards Labour. This interpretation has some superficial plausibility. Across the Western world, centre-left parties failed in their heartland constituencies, haemorrhaging working class votes, and populist forces of varying hues picked up their votes. In some cases, this seemed to mean a shift to the right; in others, such as Greece and Spain, to the left. The key variable appears to be political organisation, who happens to have forces on the ground to exploit the crisis. In that context, the SNP was simply the best and indeed only organised alternative to Labour.

However, the SNP had potential weaknesses of its own. It was, after all, yet another centre-left party that embraced neoliberal globalisation in the manner of the ‘Third Way’. Theoretically, the crisis did more damage to the SNP’s economic narrative than to Labour’s, since the collapse of Scotland’s two flagship corporations had required a UK taxpayer bailout that an independent nation simply could not have paid for. The crisis also dismantled ‘economic miracles’ such as Ireland and Iceland just as Salmond was trumpeting Northern Europe’s ‘Arc of Prosperity’.

Nor was the SNP benefitting from a surge of Scottish nationalism. By many measures, support for outright independence was falling to near historic lows, and, quietly, the SNP was shifting to agendas such as so-called devolution max, the transfer of all fiscal powers to Scotland, a move designed to maximise public backing and, just as importantly, secure the support of corporate boardrooms. Members of the public consistently listed independence among their lowest priorities. There was not even evidence of any social movement for independence to unite the faithful minority: demonstrations attracted weak attendances, considerably lower than, say, marches for Palestinian human rights. Even Scottish identity was in decline: in the run-up to the referendum of 2014, according to Curtice’s survey research, the Scottish public were diminishingly likely to embrace the label ‘Scottish not British’.

What ultimately counted for the SNP was its absence of historical baggage, in stark comparison with their Labour rivals. The latter’s leadership and cadres spent much of the preceding decades engaged in internal warfare to ‘modernise’ the party, enforcing a wrenching and heavily ideological break with earlier commitments to mild social democracy and pacifism.

Labour was thus simultaneously weighed down by its collectivist traditions and by the venom of its turn to neoliberalism. It had to drag along the unions and the left while neurotically observing a commitment to business-friendly modernity. Bad blood from the purges of the Labour Left complicated efforts to come to terms with neoliberalism’s economic, moral and ideological collapse. A generation of party insiders had been reared on scare stories about the disasters that befell anyone who sought to break with American power or the discipline of the market. The result was paralysis. A characteristic post-2008 Labour move was to abstain on the Conservative welfare bill, neither taking responsibility for austerity, nor embracing opposition to it. Such moves were guaranteed to stoke public contempt. 

Added to this, Scottish Labour had authored a series of market-friendly policies, most notably private finance initiatives, that appeared to capture the pragmatic, consumerist ethos of the noughties. Such legacies also weighed Labour down, particularly in Scotland. Any Labour attack on the SNP from the left has the stench of hypocrisy relative to Scottish Labour’s record in government. Equally, the party’s fetish for ‘solidarity’ with Westminster Labour governments meant it carried the can for every mistake made by Blair, Brown and their successors. 

By contrast, the SNP was new to government. Not heavily weighed down by historical traditions, it was footloose with respect to Westminster governments. There were no organised social forces to manage, whether unions or business groups. This allowed it to approach the crisis of neoliberalism in entirely opportunist terms, in stark contrast to a Labour Party sagging under a long legacy of feuds, ideological schisms and competing corporate interests.



Class, Centralisation and Professional Politics
Cynics might conclude that the SNP’s post-2014 transition into a party of power represents contemporary evidence for Michels’ infamous ‘iron law of oligarchy’. Equally, growing movement opposition to Sturgeon may suggest that the law is less immutable than imagined. Either way, there has been shockingly little academic interest in how a mass movement with working-class roots so quickly evolved into a highly centralised party machinery flanked by praetorian cadres of political professionals.

Academic indifference to party democracy is mirrored in the higher professions and journalism. The default stance of the Scottish establishment is opposition to Westminster tempered by fear that independence may be even more disruptive to settled routines. Commentators representing the liberal left thus form a protective ring around Sturgeon, fearing that anything but obedience could be a slippery slope to authoritarian populism and the revival of Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond. Leading leftist columnist Neil MacKay complains of the ‘dominance of ugly voices among the grassroots’ representing ‘the abusive, the vulgar, the reactionary, the dumb’; by contrast, Sturgeon ‘is one of the few politicians not just on the national stage, but on the world’s stage, who conducts herself with intelligence, dignity and integrity’. Such sentiments are so commonplace that they can be found even among self-described Scottish Marxists and anarcho-leftists.

This means there has been little critical appreciation of the extraordinary speed with which Sturgeon seized control of the party and control from the movement. All value judgements aside, this forms an objectively astonishing study in political sociology.

The irony is that the movement of 2014 had almost completely detached from SNP leaders. Anger at the party’s backing for NATO, and exasperation at their courting of professionals and business, fired activist autonomy. For leftists, this was epitomised by formations such as the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), which, at peak, attracted 4,000 delegates, but, in truth, RIC was the tip of the iceberg. Even beyond the explicitly leftist campaigns, Yes Scotland groups, representing perhaps the largest social movement in Scottish history, had increasingly taken matters into their own hands, in defiance of central office. This manifested in anarchic (and sometimes ill-considered) protest movements directed against BBC Scotland and clapped out unionist politicians like Jim Murphy.

Yet in an era defined by explosions against grey-suited centrists, Sturgeon somehow marshalled these inchoate forces into a machine-drilled, docile parliamentary bloc bearing an ideology that harks back to the dry era of Third Way hegemony. This ensures that the SNP controls the pace of the movement, while a tight band of PR operatives control the party.

Biographical details account for some of this. Sturgeon’s marriage to the SNP’s chief executive, Peter Murrell, helps to ensure tight control over internal operations. ‘After 21 years in control, Murrell has effectively turned the party apparatus into a machine to support the First Minister personally’, notes Kerevan. ‘Murrell and the apparatus use their patronage ruthlessly…to protect an increasingly conservative status quo’. While Kerevan’s position reflects the standpoint of an internal critic, these reports are confirmed in occasional mainstream press reporting of the Sturgeon-Murrell partnership:

Mr Murrell effectively is SNP HQ. He has worked for the SNP almost his entire adult life. By the time he became SNP chief executive in 2001 at the age of thirty-six, he had already been working for the party for 14 years in Edinburgh, London and Brussels, including a stint as its fisheries spokesman. An item since 2003, he and Ms Sturgeon married in 2010. Many in the SNP have long baulked at this circle of two having such a stranglehold on the party machine.

All moral judgement aside, this centralisation makes it possible to manage the SNP’s internal contradictions. The party has devised a formula that ensures continuous re-election, but it depends on harnessing two contradictory sentiments, which may be grouped into two ideal types. One is the logic of the status quo, with SNP rule serving to shield the Scottish polity from changes imposed by reckless Westminster administrations; a second is the logic of protest, which, post-2014, sustains the enthusiasm of much of the public and of most SNP members. Those in the first group, with fundamentally cautious motives, might formally support independence, but with sizeable reluctance. Their true preference is organisational stability, and independence, perhaps more than Brexit, involves potential ruptures. Sturgeon offers their perfect scenario: the morality of independence as a distant goal, ensuring moral distinction from Westminster; allied, in practice, to the essentially defensive mode of devolution.

However, the SNP cannot afford to abandon those who have a fundamental orientation on self-rule. These constitute a significant voting bloc and much of the party membership (though only a small fraction of MPs/MSPs). Sturgeon, supported by a phalanx of media operatives, has denounced the creation of rival pro-independence parties. Having established centralised control over a disorderly movement, she has no wish to relinquish control to potentially anarchic forces, which would potentially reopen difficult questions over independence strategy. This means keeping self-rulers inside the tent.

In that context, Sturgeon has played the sort of game that is only possible with extreme centralisation. Bizarrely, for a nationalist party, all questions related to independence have been gerrymandered off conference agendas, using the type of apparatus control pioneered by Murrell. However, pre-conference, Sturgeon will throw some red meat to the membership, talking up, with the support of pliant journalists, the probability of immediate moves for independence that, needless to say, never come to fruition post-conference. 

This combination of total dominance and utter impotence has bred All Under One Banner (AUOB), which, by some measures, is the largest protest movement in Scottish history. AUOB’s demonstrations regularly attract attendances in the tens if not the hundreds of thousands. Symbolically, Sturgeon has never once attended, emphasising the snub with ostentatious appearances at demonstrations against Brexit (where she posed for selfies alongside Alastair Campbell, propaganda architect of the Iraq invasion, in another symbolic snub to the party’s anti-war membership). While the independence marches are certainly not anti-Sturgeon, it is unclear what precisely they are targeting, since their signature identity is apolitical unity. None of its demonstrations have taken place in London, suggesting that its grievances are not merely with Westminster. AUOB has captured frustrations at Sturgeon’s leadership without giving them leadership or intellectual expression. The result is that Scotland’s most interesting, diverse and working-class movement has largely come to symbolise unconscious culture war frustrations, with the spectre of Alex Salmond lurking in the background.



The Intellectual and Moral Crisis of Devolution
Scottish Labour’s response to the Covid-19 epitomises the failure of Scotland’s opposition to transcend the national question. Interestingly, the party’s leftist leader, Richard Leonard, has criticised Sturgeon precisely for showing too much autonomy from the UK Government. ‘We cannot have the lockdown lifted in North Berwick and maintained in Berwick-on-Tweed’, Leonard tweeted. ‘Cross-border cooperation is needed to protect our health and our economy’. Leonard here reprises the default unionist critique that Sturgeon has ‘lost interest in the day job’ due to a fixation with independence. The Scottish Government’s weak link is that it consistently followed the UK Government line even at the expense of emerging global scientific consensus; however, nobody in Scotland’s political mainstream can hold them to account on these terms. Even the pro-independence Scottish Green Party is cagey in its criticisms: competing for second votes among Sturgeon-supporting professionals, they focus ire on grassroots SNP members rather than the leader.

Labour’s answer to the constitutional crisis is to offer further extensions of devolved competency, sometimes framed as ‘radical federalism’. This concept is low on specifics and tends to amount in practice, for all the communitarian rhetoric, to Fabian-style regional and energy policies intended to ameliorate oppositional consciousness, with little underlying notion of self-rule, agency or democracy. Labour continues to see devolution as their project, criticising it largely insofar as it is run by the SNP. Their alternative to independence largely rests on delivering more devolution, better.

Rather than representing a fundamental divide with the SNP leadership, Labour’s position overlaps with Sturgeon’s. Insofar as her team has a vision of independence, it likewise minimises self-rule, agency and democracy: indeed, it involves a monetary regime run by the Bank of England, a Windsor monarchy, NATO military control and an overall governance framework installed from Brussels. Sturgeon’s closest advisors often seek to downplay meaningful differences between independence and ‘devolution max’, seeing the two as a spectrum of risk and control. Here, as with most real ideological questions, there is no radical break from Salmond, who famously told an American audience that devolution max was a ‘very attractive’ alternative to independence.

Both sides of the constitutional debate, and, as the opening to this essay suggested, much of the liberal establishment, depends on the useful fiction of successful Scottish devolution. It serves numerous agendas. And it is rarely subjected to detailed critique from the left. If there are criticisms of devolution, they largely derive from a Scottish right-wing shunned by the Holyrood village’s liberal establishment. Anyone wishing to read serious analytical perspectives on Scotland’s failing public services is more likely to find them in the Spectator than the Guardian.

In devolution’s defence, the left can point to moral victories in curbing neoliberal reforms like Tony Blair’s Foundation Hospitals and school league tables. SNP governments added some further successes: abolition of Right to Buy; abolition of prescription charges; limitations on university fees; limitations on the Bedroom Tax. Under continuous centre-left governments since 1999, Holyrood has acted as a buffer against the more experimental initiatives from Westminster. Scotland has also become, in comparative terms, more socially liberal after devolution. In 1999, amid the furore over Section 28, Scotland was seen as one of the more homophobic places to live in Britain; that reputation has been transformed, and Scotland is ranked among the most LGBT-friendly destinations in Europe.

However, occasional gestures to the left do not add up to transformations in social class. The fundamentals of alienation, disenchantment and poverty remain intrinsic to national life. After two decades of devolution, Scotland has Europe’s highest incidence of drug-related deaths, and alcohol linked deaths are 50 per cent higher than in England and Wales. Mental health inequalities have been steadily increasing since data collection began under the first SNP government. Overall, health inequalities in Scotland are worse than any other country in West and Central Europe.

Scotland prides itself on a (much-sentimentalised) history of world class education, an area of traditional national autonomy. There is a long and mostly baleful tradition of thinking about equality of opportunity in schooling as a peculiarly Scottish institution. Particularly when measured against this, one of the nation’s most abiding myths, Scotland’s record since devolution makes for grim reading. Early on in her reign, Sturgeon’s administration announced that the poverty-related attainment gap within schools would be their ‘defining mission’, but progress on classroom inequality has stalled, and the government has missed numerous key targets.

Years of failure culminated, as this article was under review, in the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) examination scandal, perhaps the most extraordinary blow to Scotland’s social mobility credibility in a generation. Given the Covid-19, the normal exam schedule was cancelled, and teachers would use professional judgement of pupil ability to predict a result, which would be submitted to the SQA for moderation. However, the moderation process ended in the systemic downgrading of pupils, with the pass rate for the poorest falling by 15.2 per cent compared to only 6.9 per cent for children living in wealthier postcodes. Sturgeon resisted calls for a cancellation of the methodology, and the spate of (by the looks of things, thoroughly justified) appeals are expected to clog the system for years.

Environmental measures offer another illustration where the parliament’s worthy rhetoric fails to match reality. Scotland in general, and Sturgeon in particular, received international praise for declaring a ‘climate emergency’, as Scotland prepared to host the COP26 conference. Yet Scotland subsequently missed its climate emissions target for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, as Kerevan has shown, Scotland’s Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) remains dominated by corporate interests, including officials from big oil and suppliers to the fracking industry. Serious infringements with actual impacts on workers and local communities, such as the apocalyptic flaring of the Mossmorran petrochemical plant in Fife, have gone largely unpunished and uncontested by Scotland’s liberal establishment.

Given that so much national esteem rests on the contrast between cosmopolitan Holyrood and Brexit Britain, the record on racial inequality is stark. There have been only four BAME representatives elected to the Scottish Parliament in its history. By contrast, as of June 2020, Boris Johnson’s government had four BAME members simultaneously in positions of cabinet responsibility.

For comparison, Scotland’s BAME population is roughly equivalent to the proportion of Scots enjoying a private education. Of the Labour Party’s twenty-one MSPs elected in 2016, five were privately educated, while one Anas Sarwar, the son a millionaire Labour MP, was an ethnic minority. Of the SNP’s sixty-three, six were privately educated, with one BAME member, Humza Yousaf, who, like Sarwar, was educated at the fee-paying Hutchesons’ Grammar School. Of the Scottish Green intake of six, two were privately educated, and, even compared to elsewhere on the centre-left, the Greens have arguably Scotland’s poorest record. Similar ethnicity gaps can be found across the Scottish labour market, especially in public services.

Devolved Scotland’s white biases would be more forgivable if they did not have such substantive ideological effects. Despite decades of what passes for left-wing dominance, Holyrood has never made a systematic effort to confront or commemorate Scotland’s history of slave trading and imperialism. The murder of Sheku Bayoh by Police Scotland officers was largely forgotten by all barring a few socialist journalists, academics and campaigners, until the global George Floyd protests recovered the issue from the historical dustbin. 

As this illustrates, a generation of uncontested centre-left dominance has produced an ambivalent legacy. To the extent that Scotland did make progress on poverty, it was under a Westminster Labour government redistributing the results of a booming, deregulated economy. There is slim prospect of a return to those conditions, economically or politically, given that the hubris of that earlier boom laid the groundwork for the subsequent austerity years. Given these restraints, there is some case for saying that the SNP government has offered the left comparably more than Scottish Labour’s years in office. However, this only illustrates the gap between appeasing liberal consciences – where the SNP has succeeded – and making substantial progress given the global stakes.



Critiquing Nationalism, Winning a Referendum
Supporters of independence are routinely accused of indulging nationalism. The great irony is that, since 2016, liberal and Labourist critiques of Sturgeon’s brand of nationalism have disintegrated. Insofar as there is a critique in Scotland’s intellectually frozen public sphere, it focuses on Sturgeon’s failure to adequately police the mass movement of potential ethnic nationalist or other reactionary sentiment. There is something especially neurotic about this, given that the AUOB marches, for all their populism and nationalist displays, are pro-immigration, centre-leftist and broadly pacifist in orientation. It mirrors the campaign over allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour membership, with one crucial difference: far from limiting Sturgeon’s project, this ‘critique’ emboldens the leader against internal critics.

In mainstream terms, the only serious critique of Sturgeon’s project has emerged from Kerevan, a commentator on the SNP left. Since this article dared to say the unsayable, it inspired a firestorm of interest that stretched right into the Scottish establishment, which was an unexpected surprise to the article’s hosts, the Marxist website Conter.

The liberal left’s non-critique of Sturgeon highlights a wider failure to conceptualise the true (or, rather, the most likely) risks of nationalism. In today’s identikit liberal-left perspective, the problem with nationalism is that it divides a globalised world. While formally progressive, this framing increasingly amounts to a conservative defence of the politics of the nineties and noughties, which has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. It has licensed a nebulous internationalism that defends market globalisation and NATO militarism in the guise of a heroic moral stance. It has supported the vanity of upper layers of professionals who have little care or concern for the viewpoints of their populations. Worse, in the particular case of the Sturgeon government, this critique ironically empowers the nationalist ruling party, allowing them to contrast their open, ‘civic’ nationalism against the ugly, ‘ethnic’ nationalism of Brexit, ensuring that Scotland’s one party state rumbles on without challenge, with the full complicity of the liberal left.

Socialists must, in these circumstances, strengthen their own critique of nationalism. Rather than saying, in ethical liberal terms, that nationalism is too narrow to account for the global village of today, a materialist perspective would stress that nationalism is too broad to account for Scotland’s conflicts and divisions. Its vision of the nation is not too exclusive, as liberal critiques may imagine, but too inclusive: all the subordinate classes are incorporated under a vision defined by what can be termed, without risk of exaggeration, the Scottish bourgeoisie. It is not too hard, erecting divisive borders and so on, but rather too soft in its denial of underlying conflicts. So often in history, the danger is not that nationalism is a slippery slope to xenophobia and even fascism, but rather that it diverts attention from the reality of unjust, conflict-ridden societies.

The independence movement of 2014 was perhaps the biggest shock to the Scottish establishment in generations; the political outcome, by contrast, was a yet more entrenched Scottish establishment. However, far from being Sturgeon’s ‘obsession’, as narrowminded opposition commentators claim, independence remains her biggest fear, the most glaring intrusion into her day-to-day managerial agenda. In this sense, the paradox remains that independence could yet prove the biggest threat to nationalist hegemony in Scotland.

At present, both Sturgeon and Boris Johnson benefit equally from a constitutional deadlock. Given the failure of efforts at systemic change through UK institutions, the Scottish left’s priority should be promoting a referendum, and a vision of independence, that restores agency, autonomy and democracy to the working class. That would involve coalitions with SNP members – given that the latter is the closest thing to a mass party of the working class in Scotland – and even parliamentarians. But it inherently involves a break with Sturgeon and Murrell. To treat Sturgeon as a ‘progressive’ ally is to fail to learn from a decade of harsh lessons about class and the political establishment. Sturgeon strength lies in stability, which, looked at from another direction, amounts to continuity – the status quo.



James Foley is a postdoctoral researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University. His work focuses on Scottish and British nationalism in the context of global political economy. He is the co-author of the forthcoming books The End of Cosmopolitan Europe (Amsterdam University Press) and Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence (Verso).