Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Wishart flying kite for independence-lite

Pete Wishart's Better Nation post about embracing Britishness in a post-independence Scotland has engendered a fair degree of comment, since of course we all got a bit bored with the minutiae of what independence means and the conduct of the requisite referendum. Thus the debate made it into the MSM, culminating in a discussion on last night's Newsnicht, albeit that there's been a degree of 'fish & chips v deep-fried Mars bar'* levity to it all.

On the other hand, the discussion has been rumbling on since a debate about this kind of identity politics was conducted on Newsnight, with a Kenny Farquharson Scotland on Sunday article fuelling the social media fire.

Of course, the difference with the MP's contribution is that he's a prominent SNP politician, rather than a dyed-in-the-wool Unionist. Thus the predictable ire on Newsnet Scotland normally reserved for the likes of the Portillos and Farquharsons has been unleashed on Mr Wishart by the unreconstructed wing of nationalist opinion.

But the often highfalutin air to all of this perhaps misses the point slightly. The referendum will be won or lost on the day-to-day issues concerning the Scottish people rather than which national/supra national identity they adhere to. Thus while we all subscribe to Scottish and/or British identities to a greater or lesser extent, on the day of reckoning these matters will be subordinated to the practical application of political matters, as will similarly abstract ideas about sovereignty and autonomy.

Therefore Pete Wishart's intervention - whether or not endorsed by the upper echelons of the SNP - is all part of the process of flying a kite to test reaction to the watering down of the independence goal to the degree that both public opinion and nationalist support will buy it without the whole referendum process imploding, as it did during the last parliament.

And the more ethereal and nebulous ideas like national identity are in effect surrogates and euphemisms for the more divisive issues like defence, the monarchy, the currency and economic policy generally, about which there is clearly a degree of SNP uncertainty, in part because they don't yet know what form of independence can be sold to the public.

Thus while Mr Wishart claimed that Unionism was couched in terms of "motherhood and apple pie", the same could surely be said of an independent Scotland. That's because we don't yet know what that entails, and even if more meat was put on the bones there would be a huge element of a shot in the dark about the whole thing.

Of course, on the Newsnight debate Joan McAlpine made similarly positive comments about the "social union", and the less fundamentalist strand of online nationalist opinion has proffered similarly revisionist and consensual comments, such as that the Unionist notion of devo-max isn't too far away from what the SNP desires, whatever that is precisely.

Obviously there will be a lot more of this softening up and testing the waters in the forthcoming months and years. But given the oft-cited support of Scotland for more powers for the Scottish parliament it seems likely that the SNP can construct a form of greater Holyrood autonomy that could become the "settled will" of the Scottish people.

Likewise, mainstream gradualist nationalism is likely to prefer such a solution to that proposed by Westminster's Scotland Bill, but perhaps the big imponderable is the degree to which the pro-independence movement can be held together in view of the inevitable opprobrium from the fundamentalists and militant absolutists.

*If anyone feels insulted by my attempt at a little joke then perhaps it should have read "fish and chips v fish suppers". But perhaps that alludes that there is a strong degree of social and cultural convergence between Scotland and England and/or the UK generally. How about "fish suppers v haggis, neeps and tatties" then? Except that the latter isn't eaten that often anyway? On the other hand, it's just over ten years ago since Robin Cook pronounced, in a speech extolling the virtues of, um, civic Brit-nat-ism: "Chicken tikka masala is now Britain's true national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences."

Or perhaps he should have said England rather than Britain. Gosh, this is getting complicated...


Malc said...


My interpretation of Pete's comments - and granted, its a very simple interpretation - is that post-independence, Britain will still exist as a geographic rather than political concept. Thus people are more likely to be amenable to describing themselves as coming from these islands (as "British") than perhaps they currently are as a political entity (as Great Britain & NI). That's what I took from the Scandinavia comparison anyway.

I think Iain Gray & Jo Swinson missed that entirely - and tried to argue Britishness in the context of the UK, which was simply confusing a number of concepts...

Whether Pete Wishart is right or not is obviously debatable - but Unionists challenging him need to at least be on the same page when it comes to the argument (as David Torrance was).

Malc said...

Incidentally, I agree that the idea is another test balloon for independence campaigning - the "don't worry about independence, you'll still be able to call yourself British if you want" idea might win over a few waverers. But the Unionists need a better argument against it than "you're watering down independence".

Positivity won over negativity in May 2011, and if the independence campaign is run positively, then it might well run out victorious.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks Malc, indeed I think you're right about the positivity argument, but on the other hand the dilution exercise is to an extent intended to make nationalism more unionist(!), thus while the unionists pointing that out will manage to stir up the nationalist fundamentalist wing I doubt if the dilution argumet will have much traction with the electorate, since after all that seems to be what voters want.

And I kind of brushed over the minutiae of the Britishness arguments as well, since that seems a bit of a diversion from the real issues, but I think Pete Wishart is wrong about independence 'enhancing' Britishiness.

Not sure why he would make such an argument either, since it seems a bit far-fetched and guaranteed to attract the ire of many nationalists. Surely if he wanted to promote the Britishness argument he would have been better to say it would survive independence rather than trying to overegg it a bit.

Lallands Peat Worrier said...

As I believe you once memorably put it of another piece, this was probably one of my more "typically dense cogitations"!

I don't disagree, by the way, with your contention that: "The referendum will be won or lost on the day-to-day issues concerning the Scottish people rather than which national/supra national identity they adhere to.". Talking to friends who are not nationalists, but who shall vote in the referendum, they have recognised in themselves that how the case for or agin independence is framed is important. Asked "do you believe Scotland should be independent?" - one friend quibbled and quavered. Asked a series of questions of the sort "do you think Holyrood should be able to decide x, y or z for itself, or do we need Westminster to do it, and do it best?" - he supported more and more powers for the Scottish Parliament, such that his position was increasingly indistinguishable for support for independence.

For me, like you I suspect, an independence campaign must speak to practical political issues, not get lost the indeterminable cul de sac of identities and superstitious attempts to divine what the implications for our politics should be, once our identities have been enumerated.

That said, I wouldn't accept altogether your idea that discussing nationalism at this level is simply a proxy for other things, a diversion. General interest despite, it is worth thinking about because folk on the Yes-No side may take a number of different tacks towards the referendum. Kenny Farquharson articulates one affective British nationalist approach which the "No" side might adopt, even contending that this identity-predicated case is stronger than all of the real, practical political arguments. That being so, it is I think interesting to peer into the structure of that sort of case, to try to work out what makes it tick, gives it sense, lends it its consistency. At least in the minds of those promoting it.

Braveheart said...

Stuart, I've commented at Better Nation and at LPW and now here. so the argument has some resonance.

For me it's simple: Mr Wishart thinks its a good idea to let cybernats know that "independence" is no longer the goal, please vote devolution max......

What cybernats think of the dropping of "independence" is not yet recorded.

The Aberdonian said...

Is devolution max-independence lite merely a convuluted attempt for Scotland or the nations of the UK to come to a Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich (compromise)?

In 1867 Austria granted Hungary its "independence" from the Austrian Empire - which it voluntarily entered into along with the Czech Lands after the Turks killed the Czech-Hungarian king at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. It was a union designed to keep the Turks from advancing further into Europe with the aim of eventually driving them back. Heavy hint - the two battles of Vienna.

Over the years the Czechs and the Hungarians and other nations within the Habsburg state grew unhappy with Viennese domination. There were rebellions. Look up the 30 Years War and the Hungarian Revolt of 1848 for details.

But of course there were rebellions in there islands as well---

In 1867 Vienna agreed to go down the "independence lite" road with Hungary. Hungary became independent and then negotiated a new union with Vienna - the so-called compromise.

Under the conditions of this union, the two nations shared the same monarch, currency, nationality laws, postal/telegraphs service, foreign policy, customs union and defence policy.

This union was administered by three union ministries - finance, defence and foreign affairs.

There was no direct taxation in the union - the finance ministry drew up a bill for common services for both sides and sent it to the "common assembly" - a body composed of delegates from the Austrian and Hungarian national parliaments who would approve it along with other common measures and then the bill would be sent to the national parliaments/authorities to pass the tax laws to raise the money.

There was just one flaw to this plan - it worked so well - the Hungarians stopped demanding full independence - that the Czechs and the Southern Slavic peoples started demanding similar relationships.

(Remember the destruction of that state in 1918 was part of British foriegn policy - Treaty of London 1915, Treaties of St Germain and Trianon, Corfu Declaration, support for the Pittsburgh Agreement).

Would a deeper version of the "Ausgleich" fulfill the aspirations of most unionists and nationalists in these islands?

Interestingly when Sinn Fein was founded in 1905, its initial policy was not full Irish independence but an adoption of a Ausgleich-style settlement between Ireland and Britain with the creation of a "British-Irish Empire".

Stuart Winton said...


Indeed, the Kenny Farquharson-style argument will certainly be used by the 'No' campaign, if only because in truth the more practical case for the Union is difficult to make.

On the other hand, the 'Yes' campaign will emphasise the more practical argument - more powers to grow Scotland's economy, sort of thing - because of its positivity, a la Malc. Thus it sounds seductive, even though it's difficult to prove it one way or the other.

Which argument will have greater public traction is of course the even bigger unknown, but personally I don't find either side particularly compelling in those terms - Britishness doesn't float my boat, while I'm sceptical about what an independent Scotland would do. Which I think will broadly reflect public opinion, but I suspect that is more amemable to change than my own more atypical stance.

Of course, the Nationalist goalpost moving is an attempt to accomodate public risk aversion to the full independence monty.


Yes, I think that's it in a nutshell. Of course, the reaction on NNS has been largely hostile, and I suppose the million euro question is to what extent that represents mainstream Nationalist opinion and thus whether Alex Salmond et al can carry the movement with them.

Of course, it seems improbable that NNS does reflect the mainstream SNP, but the degree to which dissent will surface and to that extent alienate the public is of course a fundamental question and one that SNP big wigs will be applying their minds to as they test the waters.


Thanks for the history lesson, and I don't mean that sarcastically!

It's certainly an interesting example, but on your mention of postal and telecommunications I couldn't help imagining the possibility of Alex Salmond replacing the Queen's head on postage stamps.

In which case I certainly am being sarcastic!

Anonymous said...

newsnet published is piece and if you want an idea of the views of cybernats, go and read the comments.

shocking is probably what is printable.

so much for the cybernats being a myth.

Braveheart said...

"it seems improbable that NNS does reflect the mainstream SNP,"

depends what you mean by "mainstream".

In May many people who don't believe in "independence" voted SNP.

I know a number of SNP activists who would have no problem agreeing with the views expressed on NNS. I doubt they would go along with dev max as a policy...

So the SNP loses these people... 10%, 20% maybe 30% of their votes..... suddenly they are no longer in power...

Angus McLellan said...

I'm baffled by the claims - wilful misunderstanding or wishful thinking in some cases - that Wishart is backtracking on independence.

Ever since "Independence in Europe" was adopted, a degree of cooperation and sovereignty sharing has been SNP policy. If it's acceptable to share some elements of sovereignty with the UN, the WTO, the IMF - and these are inescapable really - and the EU - by choice - why should limited sharing of services with the UK government be a step too far? I'd suggest that in the short term it would be sensible to adopt a gradualist approach in areas where that is practicable. The DVLA has been mentioned, the CAA too, management of the national debt strikes me as another, diplomatic representation, international aid, and no doubt many more areas would not need to be separated at once in the post-independence "big bang" but could instead follow a much more gradual process of untying the kingdoms.

As Donald Dewar famously never said, "independence is a process not an event".

Stuart Winton said...


Indeed I had a lookie last night and it seems that they've done some more moderating today and gotten rid of some of the more questionable comments. Boo hoo.


Well I'm not close enough to politics to know much about that sort of thing, and had assumed that the wilder fringes of cybernattery didn't concur with the public face of the more moderate SNP, so I'm in no position to disagree with you.

But of course what people say in public is often very different to what they'll say in private, which perhaps explains why most NNS contributors are anonymous.

And no doubt many of those who don't agree with what the SNP Govt put to the voters will put on a brave face in public but a different one in private - as indeed will Salmond and Co - but of course that's politics!

Stuart Winton said...

Angus, indeed you're correct in terms of crude questions of sovereignty and power sharing, but of course there are poltical and emotional differences when comparing the relationship of Scottish nationalism with the UK as compared to the EU.

Which comes back to what I was saying the other week about questions of ideology and politics trumping sovereignty, autonomy and 'forging our own destiny' etc.

Braveheart said...


You are standing the argument on its head...cedingf sovereignty to the EU while claiming "independence" from the UK was always a contradiction. It made and makes no sense.

And as you say, share sovereignty with the UK, the EU, the WTO, the UN....keep the same royalty, immigration policies, DVLA, Coastguard, Military, national grid.. (add as you feel fit)...

.. then....what's the point of "independence"?

And as you concede yourself, the post implies a gradualist approach, i.e. no "independence" now, no "Scotland free in '93", allthe rallying cries of Natiobalism past...

And, as I said, vote dev max.

Not likely to appeal to SNP lifelong members or the more dedicated supporter of Scottish "independence".

Angus McLellan said...

If you belong to the school of thought that believes the UK isn't really independent any more, independence in Europe can make no sense. I don't agree with the basic premise - the UK is independent - so it would be strange indeed if I agreed with the conclusion which is drawn from it.

The second case of minds not meeting is an underlying assumption that devolution and independence are similar. For me, they aren't. Independent states can share a part of their sovereign powers, if they wish. Confederations involve, in theory anyway, shared sovereignty. Devolved governments within the UK are not sovereign in any way and have no sovereignty to share. Anything done at Holyrood can be undone at Westminster. The idea of legislative consent is a sham. Of course independence isn't a variant of devolution.

A gradual approach to implementing independence is not to be confused with a gradualist approach to achieving it. The UK would be entirely unprepared, mentally and organisationally, if a Yes vote were to happen. From the MoD to the Treasury, nobody is thinking about the unthinkable.

My preference is for independence at the earliest possible date. Problems which can be resolved after independence is achieved should be deferred. If there is no need to address the fate of the CAA or the DVLA immediately, and if an interim solution to the problem of dividing the national debt can be put in place, then why not delay? Unionists might like the idea of independence negotiations to be as ugly as possible, to scare voters, but I'd like to keep things as simple and as quick as possible.

Braveheart, as usual, misses the point. Until now, nobody has had to give much consideration to questions like these. Never mind Bouchard's winning conditions, the first requirement for a referendum to be held was a majority in favour at Holyrood. That has only been in place for a matter of weeks. There's no point in the Scottish government devoting a great deal of thought to what happens in the event of a Yes vote when the referendum hasn't even been called yet. Sorting out the mechanics of independence is unlikely, however much some might wish it, to cause much drama inside the SNP.