For me as leader [of the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Government], my time is nearly over. But for Scotland, the campaign continues, and the dream shall never die.
These words, with which Alex Salmond closed his resignation speech after Scotland voted to remain within the United Kingdom in 2014, contain one enduring (and, for the Union, dangerous) truth. “The dream shall never die” has become a slogan of Salmond’s—he used it as the title for the publication of his diaries in 2015 and repeated it but a few days ago on Sky News.
The dream shall never die. The terse romance of this phrase is a stroke of genius, evoking the entire history of Scottish resistance to English rule from William Wallace and Robert the Bruce to the miner’s strikes and beyond. (Whether it was a conscious reference to Ted Kennedy’s famous 1980 speech I don’t know.) And Salmond does indeed summon up the spectres of Bruce and Wallace in The Dream Shall Never Die. In that book, he also stirs up the spirit of Bannockburn to make a laboured point about how the underdog can come out on top and alter the balance of power:
In 1302 the Flemish peasants humbled the flower of French chivalry at Courtrai. In 1314 the Scottish foot soldiers shattered the English heavy horse at Bannockburn. Both battles demonstrated that the medieval world had changed and the established certainties of power altered.
The enduring and dangerous truth is that the dream really will never die. There have always been diehard separatists in Scotland since 1707 and there always will be. And, as Salmond’s rhetoric shows, the independence dream is heady, romantic stuff. It will always, in other words, appeal. How could it not? Spin a story about oppression by posh southerners, weave in some heroic and epic medieval history, and enthuse about a utopian future free of subjugation, and watch as the people rise up to don Bruce’s helmet and wield his great axe once more. This is the essence of the emotional case for independence.
Of course, it’s not the only reason (emotional or otherwise) why one might support breaking from the Union, but I suspect something like it is at the heart of many, if not most, of those Scots who want independence. Salmond was (perhaps still is, though his new party Alba hasn’t done too well) a master manipulator of the sentiments inspired by this narrative.
So the real question is not “shall the dream ever die?”, because the answer to that is a resounding NO, but: how popular and how powerful shall the dream of independence be?
With the resignation of Salmond’s successor Nicola Sturgeon, some have said the dream, in the sense of its achievability, is dead and buried. Others are not so sure. I’m one of the pessimistically inclined. I think the power of the dream has been unleashed and is unlikely to ever be damped down again.
One of the main reasons for the rise of the modern independence movement was Margaret Thatcher. Specifically, the impositions of her Tory Westminster government upon a Scottish populace which had not voted for that government. This divergence is a marked shift away from the popularity the Tories once held in Scotland in the early/mid-twentieth century and is unlikely to reverse. Scotland became a pretty solid Labour bloc until the rise of the SNP, who took power in 2007 as a minority government in the new parliament. Since then, the SNP have more or less led in both Scottish and Westminster elections.
A vote for the SNP is not, of course, a vote for independence. It could be a vote for the policies they would enact in government (though the SNP’s dismal record ought to have put a dent in that kind of support) or a protest vote against Labour and the Tories. For a while, the SNP had a majority in the Scottish Parliament, which the designers of the Scottish voting system had hoped to make impossible—a measure of just how sophisticated their political operations have become and of how popular, for whatever reason, they are (currently, the SNP is in coalition with the Greens, who also want independence).
Still, the ability of the SNP to dominate Scottish politics is impressive, whatever the crests and dips. And it’s another symptom of the divergence between Scotland and Westminster, which continues to be led by a Tory government detested by most Scots. This, as I said, is an aspect of the core appeal of independence—why should Scotland, a historic nation, have to accept a government it never votes for? Why should England, and very often the wealthy south of England, be able to impose Tory governments upon us?
This is really the heart of all pro-independence arguments and sentiments. Many independence supporters are on the hard left and aren’t necessarily fond of the SNP, but see them as a way to break off from the rotten British political system and away from Tory economics and to establish a fairer, more socialist state.
What is to be done, then? I’ve come this far without explicitly saying so, but I hope it’s clear that I’m not an independence supporter. But nor am I their opposite: a Protestant, Queen/King-loving, Bible-thumping hater of Catholics. My unionism is more of the old Labour variety. Being part of this union, for all its imperfections, is the best way to pool and redistribute wealth. It made the establishment of the welfare state possible. I have no particular love for the monarchy. I know that there is great imbalance and unfairness in the Union. I have quite a lot of sympathy for the independence crowd’s critique. In fact, I’d tear down much of the British political system and start again.
But, yes, I have an attachment to a particular idea of Britain—a great nation of radicals and artists and scientists as well as imperialism and jingoism and narrow-mindedness. I would prefer Britain to have remained in the European Union, it is true, but there is no guarantee an independent Scotland would be able to join the EU easily or quickly, and in any case, the British Union of cooperation has enriched us (in all ways) and allowed us to enrich its other members. The case for re-joining the EU, for abolishing the monarchy, for a fairer economic system, and all the other things I desire is best made by a Scotland within Britain. We have more power and influence than we know and should use it wisely. Scots have been at the forefront with our fellow Brits in the battles for suffrage, universal healthcare, and many other noble and democratic causes.I also do not believe that nationalism, however supposedly progressive, is the answer to any of our troubles. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the Union (in many ways despite itself) is a good example of internationalist cooperation. The name of the NO campaign in 2014 was ‘Better Together’. Anodyne it was, but through the lens I’m advocating here, it has a much more energising and radical spirit.
This perspective may not be very popular. It undermines the traditional unionist case and embraces some of the ideals of the radical independence crowd while rejecting their central aim and method. But it is an example of a counter-narrative, a story to set against the blood and soil and utopianism of the nationalists (but one, I believe, rooted in the rational). If the Union is to survive, it will need such stories to enliven and inspire, for ‘Project Fear’ is an unsustainable way of cementing it.
I do hope that the optimists are correct. Perhaps Sturgeon’s end means the end, at least for now, of the independence dream. They make some good points. Nobody in the SNP is charismatic enough to replace her (whatever you think of her, and I don’t think much, it’s impossible to deny her sheer presence). Despite Brexit and continued Tory dominance and endless Tory scandals and incompetence, polling overall shows support for the Union. Perhaps, perhaps.
The problem is that such optimism breeds complacency. Even if the optimists are correct, they leave themselves wide open, and the SNP (and the independence movement more broadly) has come a very long way in the past couple of decades, quite able to pull off upsets and outmanoeuvre their often moribund foes. For that reason, even if my pessimism is wrong, those who care about the Union should be hard at work on the case for unionism. And this case should be one of feeling as well as of reason, and reason and feeling should be rooted in each other (so no fantasising of the independence = utopia variety).
Yes, economic woe would probably result from independence, but fear is subject to diminishing returns and very often turns its targets against you. Besides, even if the SNP could prove beyond a doubt that Scotland would be better off economically outside the Union, should that change your mind? There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your economy…
Whether making such a case is possible remains to be seen. For one thing, how on earth I would find any commonality between my unionism and the unionism of an Orange Order bigot I cannot begin to imagine. All ideals are partial, and my Scotland is the Scotland of the Enlightenment, not of sectarianism and monarchy fetishism, and I don’t care to dilute my ideals or views on the basis of any affiliation or alliance. I merely proffer a few of my own thoughts and advice, for however much or however little they may be worth. I have no desire to be shackled by a movement.And then again, perhaps there doesn't need to be just one unionist case. There are many ways to be in favour of the Union, just as there are many ways to believe in independence, and maybe that is a strength rather than a weakness.
So: will the dream ever die? No. More prosaically but more importantly, will it ever be realised? That is the question, and I am very far from certain of the answer.
For readers unfamiliar with Scottish politics, some of this essay might be opaque. Here’s a brief rundown: the Scottish National Party has formed the Scottish Government in one form or another since 2007. In 2014, there was a referendum on the question of whether Scotland should be independent. Salmond led the YES campaign as leader of the SNP and as First Minister (the official title for the leader of the devolved Scottish Government, established in 1999 alongside the Scottish Parliament). The result was 55% NO and 45% YES. Salmond resigned and was replaced by Nicola Sturgeon, who has continued to canvass for another referendum, especially after Britain as a whole voted to leave the European Union in 2016 (because Scotland taken as a bloc voted to remain).
Though formerly staunch comrades, Salmond and Sturgeon have parted ways in the past few years. Salmond was accused of sexual harassment in 2017 and claims that he was set up by senior SNP figures who wanted him removed from public life (much tangled controversy on a range of issues ensued). Salmond helped to form an alternative pro-independence party in 2021, the Alba Party, as a result of this feud, and some SNP defected to Alba. Alba did not do well in the 2021 parliamentary elections.
Sturgeon announced her own resignation earlier this year for reasons that are still unclear—perhaps they are to do with the furore over the trans rapist Isla Bryson, who was remanded in a women’s prison not long after (but not actually because of) the passing of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill by the Scottish Parliament which allowed for gender self-ID. Or perhaps she resigned because of the simmering controversy about a large sum of SNP money which has gone AWOL (her husband is the chief executive officer of the SNP and has faced some uncomfortable questions about the missing funds).
For a fuller and deeper history of modern Scotland, particularly its position within the Union, I recommend the great Scottish historian Professor Sir T.M. Devine’s books The Scottish Nation: A Modern History and Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present. These go up to around the 2014 referendum, but other books and articles on more recent developments are easy to find online.
(An aside: while many unionists are sick of Sturgeon’s continual calls for a second referendum, I actually agree with her. Yes, the 2014 referendum was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation thing. But Britain remaining within the EU was one of the central planks of the pro-Union argument in 2014 and, even if they don’t support independence, Scots have continued to elect the SNP knowing full well that independence is part of their program. On this basis and as a democrat, I can see no good argument for rejecting calls for another referendum. Also, Westminster shutting down the possibility of another referendum is such an idiotic own goal because it so obviously buttresses the independence case—i.e. Westminster unfairly imposes upon Scotland—that one would be forgiven for thinking the Tories are really separatists in disguise.)
My friend Jamie Weir noted, in response to a recent speech by Salmond, that Salmond now seems to be more on “the blood and soil, working man’s end of the independence movement.” And in the wake of the split between Salmond and his old protégé Nicola Sturgeon and the split between the SNP and Salmond’s new Alba Party, it looks to me as though Salmond is positioning himself as the leader of “anti-woke” Scottish nationalism. That recent speech, for example, was largely about how the SNP’s adoption of the “daft ideology” of transgender activism had undermined support for independence. Anyway, I only mean to point out that the “blood and soil” element might be more pronounced now, but it was always there, as Salmond’s earlier recourse to medieval references shows.
I should say that there are dissenters on the trans issue within the SNP, and one of Sturgeon’s possible successors appears to be something of a Christian conservative: Kate Forbes. Forbes’ positions (on gay marriage, for example) have raised some screeches from the easily offended and I’ve wondered whether I should write a piece about this. On the one hand, the hysteria among some about her views; on the other, the self-pity emanating from the religious with their cries of “persecution!” to said hysteria—both are as stupid as the other. Yes, a politician’s religious beliefs are fair game, as they can inform her decisions. No, Kate Forbes as First Minister would not usher in a theocracy—she doesn’t seek to alter established law around gay marriage, for example. I personally wouldn’t vote for her because of her religious beliefs (among other things), and that isn’t persecution. Equally, she is entitled to her beliefs and can spout them all she wants (and must take what comes her way because of it). It’s democracy, stupid.
I saw Salmond speak once, at the Battle of Ideas in 2021. He’s a brilliant orator and very cleverly glib, able to raise a laugh from the audience with some quip (usually spoken in broad Scottish vernacular for extra effect) when he doesn’t want to engage with the substance of a question. I went up to him after the panel but didn’t really get a chance to say anything. I was interested in seeing him up close and I observed as he interacted with others one-on-one before shaking his hand myself. He’s an impressive (and large) man, but my main impression was of how slippery he was. Not literally, but in his demeanour, his way of speaking and interacting. He was octopus-like (again, not literally—I’m not getting into whether the allegations of sexual harassment against him were true or a Sturgeon stitch-up). This is more of an instinctual response to him up close, not based on anything specific he said or did, but I trust my instinct. And it does gel with his skill at evasiveness and uncanny ability to handle an audience—even I, no fan, laughed at his quips.
I.e. to the Scottish Parliament and the central parliament at Westminster from which the Scottish Parliament is devolved—Scotland is represented in both. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s somewhat like—but only somewhat, and very broadly at that—the federal/state system in the U.S. Only Scotland votes for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government has a range of powers devolved to it by Westminster, while Westminster keeps some powers reserved (such as foreign policy). The whole of the UK votes for the Westminster Parliament. So the SNP can be voted into power in the Scottish Parliament and can also win Scottish seats in Westminster (which count for 59 out of a total 650 Westminster seats).
There is much, much more I could say about the SNP, from its appalling record on education to its gutting of the Scottish Parliament’s, ahem, independence. The SNP’s power over the civil service and government, along with serious flaws in the devolutionary settlement concerning the separation of powers, are quite alarming; see this piece on the Salmond controversy by Stephen Daisley for a good example.
On the Scottish Parliament more generally, and the argument that we are subjugated by an often-Tory Westminster, I would argue that Scotland has great devolved power, which the Parliament has used time and again to pursue its own ends (a stirring example is its repeal of the anti-gay Section 28 in 2000 under Labour First Minister Donald Dewar. Westminster would not repeal it until 2003). It is not utterly bound by Westminster but a powerful force in its own right. I think even more power should be devolved, but the SNP excuse that they are hamstrung by Westminster is just that—an excuse. In the areas where they have significant power, they have failed miserably, and cannot blame their failures on Westminster (though it is a handy diversionary tactic).
Some supporters of the Union want to see the Scottish Parliament abolished. And, indeed, one of the main justifications for it—to undermine the case for independence by giving Scotland more power within the Union—has spectacularly backfired. But as a democrat, I ultimately believe in a powerful Holyrood. So, there might be great flaws in its design, and I would certainly favour a constitutional overhaul, but I don’t want to see it torn down. I think it is an inspiring democratic achievement. I’ve even come to appreciate the oft-mocked architecture of the Scottish Parliament building.
Which is not to ignore the many ignoble things Scots have done in the Union. One of the cruder pro-independence narratives is that we are victims of English colonisers. In fact, we have always been great exploiters of the Union—particularly when colonising others. To cite just one statistic (from Devine’s Independence or Union): in 1740, Scots accounted for one in three ranked as colonels in the army of the East India Company.
Though I would respond to that last point that such polling is all too easily shown up as fantasy in ‘real’ politics. Anyway, at times YES has gained a majority. Also, the polling is uncomfortably close, almost as uncomfortable as the 45/55 result in 2014, which many people read with relief as it was a larger NO margin than had been thought possible but which is actually quite staggering—45% on a very high turnout is nothing to laugh at.
I’d also note that independence is most popular among the young and the thing about young voters is that they tend to last longer than the old (and more unionist) voters.
There is, in fairness, at least one organisation currently attempting to make a case along these lines: Our Scottish Future, set up by the often-unfairly maligned Gordon Brown (whose My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing also makes a similar case) to “build the positive, progressive and patriotic case for a better Scotland in a reformed UK”. While I have some sympathy with Our Scottish Future (and with Brown’s recent constitutional proposals), some of my differences with them are quite vast and I don’t see them as having made a great difference so far. Still, best of luck to them.
This raises an interesting question: what would change my mind? Because my view is not based entirely on emotion and because I view the emotional and rational cases to be interwoven, I cannot honestly say that I would be against independence tout court. One thing that would sorely tempt me is if a Scottish Republic with a written constitution enshrining democracy and free speech was on offer. Alas, the mainstream independence movement would keep the monarchy and the censoriousness of the SNP is something I have railed against in the Washington Examiner previously—I can’t imagine their Scotland having a First Amendment. But if that changed, if a Scotland true to its oft-overlooked radical traditions was an option…well, perhaps.
As it happens, I suggested a unionist narrative along the lines of what I advocate in this essay in that Examiner piece:
Instead of prevaricating on the topic, the Unionist parties could explicitly support absolute free speech and the radical Enlightenment legacy of Scotland. If we are looking for an inspiring and motivational program, what better?
To be clear: that doesn’t mean I won’t support or even be aligned with any formal or informal movement—provided that my, well, independence remains intact.
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Excellent as usual. Thanks for helping an American better understand the issue.
I did find this statement from a well educated countryman of Hume a little puzzling:
"Because my view is not based entirely on emotion and because I view the emotional and rational cases to be interwoven, I cannot honestly say that I would be against independence tout court."
Aren't reason and emotion always interwoven?
You've got me there, though - my apologies to the spirit of Hume!