Nationalist Realism? Un-dreaming Scotland’s Future

As the Scottish National Party prepares to publish the results of its ‘Growth Commission’ on independence, Scott Hames reviews ‘How To Start A New Country,’ a new pamphlet from Common Weal on the practicalities of setting up a Scottish state.

It is a curious moment for pro-independence politics, and its pervasive calculus of risk. Steady public support in the region of 40% would have thrilled every previous generation of campaigners, but creates difficult circumstances in which to advocate for one last heave. The tantalising nearness of the goal leads to exuberance as well as its vehement suppression, with stern warnings not to waste the opportunity by trying anything too bold or fancy. But political momentum cannot simply be ‘banked’ against future jeopardies, like a football manager holding out for penalties. Standing by the corner flag from the 60th minute carries the risk of all your players being stricken with cramp.

Earlier this spring, the Common Weal published a book-length pamphlet entitled How to Start a New Country: A Practical Guide for Scotland. This document is an opportunity to view the present dilemmas of Scottish nationalism in a broader recent history of constitutional discourse. What we find is that the pragmatic caution of the most detailed and ‘realistic’ plans for statehood tend to drain away the imaginative and emotional dimension of nation-building. Briefly comparing Common Weal’s 2018 blueprint with the 1988 Claim of Right reveals a number of telling contrasts in the rhetoric of self-government over the past three decades. The anti-utopian prudence of How to Start a New Country underscores a pattern whereby the closer and more ‘realistic’ the prospect of Scottish independence becomes, the more tacit and ‘commonsensical’ becomes the case for change – and the more difficult to connect with any appetite to break with the status quo.

The Claim of Right

The Claim of Right was first issued in July 1988, as the report of the Constitutional Steering Committee of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA), the pro-devolution body formed one year after the failed referendum of 1979. In the CSA’s official history Bob McLean offers the following synopsis:

The logic of the ‘Claim’ was as follows. Scots in 1707, and since, assumed that the Union with England guaranteed certain aspects of Scottish identity, including the church and the law. The ‘Claim’ concluded that, as old assumptions were no longer being fulfilled there was a need for a Constitutional Convention.[1]

This summary undersells the rhetorical force and dynamism of the document, which frequently voices ideals well in excess of launching a Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC). While framed as a practical intervention setting out ‘what we consider must be done if the health of Scottish government is to be restored’, the Claim begins with a bracingly radical historical critique of ‘fundamental flaws in the British constitution’ and argues that ‘the Union has always been, and remains, a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland’.[2]

This seems an extraordinarily anti-unionist stance to find in a document seeking support from UK parties arguing that devolution would strengthen and modernise Britishness. Reviewing the book-length version of the Claim (with accompanying commentaries) in the key pro-devolution magazine Radical Scotland, the political scientist James Kellas noted its affinities with earlier ‘Claims of Right’ in 1689 and 1842, in its character of mounting ‘a revolutionary challenge to the authority of Government and Parliament’:

The authors of the Claim (worthy Scots from the middle-class professions on the whole) do not baulk at civil disobedience, challenging the authority of Government, and decrying the ‘English Constitution’ as giving the Prime Minister ‘a degree of arbitrary power few, if any, English and no Scottish monarchs have rivalled’.[3]

‘Even more surprising’, Kellas added, was that such worthies and MPs ‘should subscribe to such sedition – and get away with it (in 1793 the penalty was transportation to Botany Bay)’ (ibid).

1988’s Claim of Right. Scottish Political Archive

Given its more stridently nationalist moments, it is indeed remarkable that the Labour leadership (under Donald Dewar) ultimately committed the party to the Claim’s key recommendation of establishing a Scottish Constitutional Convention. The potential dangers of this move were clear: Murray Elder recalls Donald Dewar ‘saying that it would be like riding on the back of a tiger’.[4] Announcing Labour’s support in a speech at the University of Stirling in October 1988, Dewar concluded ‘the people must decide if they are prepared to live a little dangerously to achieve what they want’.[5]

There was a simple strategic reason for audacity: even at the risk of over-reaching itself, the Claim needed to establish a fundamental moral logic for devolution, capable of building a public consensus (or ‘settled will’) more durable than the brittle cross-party alliance which had emerged after Thatcher’s 1987 election victory. The demand for a Constitutional Convention needed to be anchored in deeper soil and stronger attachments, speaking ‘for’ as well as to the nation. This involved the classic sleight of hand of nationalist elites: as James Mitchell points out, the document ‘used the language of popular sovereignty … but in practice the proposals had no popular democratic component’.[6] Thus the Claim voiced a ‘national’ political desire that far surpassed its own representative mandate, in order to create the mandate of the proto-parliamentary body it effectively launched (the SCC). Indeed, one of its fundamental achievements was simply being accepted as a ‘national’ statement, issuing from a national-democratic mouth called into being by the utterance itself. As Tom Nairn notes in his commentary on the Claim of Right, the document ‘presents itself as an “articulation” of Scotland’s need for political institutions: the voice of a common identity as yet unrepresented by institutions of its own’.[7]

Building on more than a decade’s worth of wily alliance-making by pro-devolution groups, the Claim leapt beyond its own democratic grounding to persuade key sections of the Scottish political class to contemplate dramatic constitutional change – in order to arrest the dramatic cultural damage of which it accused the Thatcher government. In the button-holing cadence of the document, ’Scotland faces a crisis of identity and survival’:

It is now being governed without consent and subject to the declared intention of having imposed upon it a radical change of outlook and behavior pattern which it shows no sign of wanting. All questions as to whether consent should be a part of government are brushed aside. The comments of Adam Smith are put to uses which would have astonished him, Scottish history is selectively distorted and the Scots are told that their votes are lying; that they secretly love what they constantly vote against. (p. 51)

The hyperbole here stems from the document’s open intention of awakening the Scottish political class to its true humiliation (and its true responsibility), aiming to persuade its target audience that a disagreeable condition was in fact intolerable. At issue here was the normalisation of Scottish ‘undemocracy’ after Thatcher’s third election victory, and an urgent plea not to accede to the growing familiarity of ‘no mandate’ UK governance. Contesting the ‘normal’ in this way was an inherently imaginative process, premised on the meaningful difference of the possible future from the present, and the sense that something urgently necessary and genuinely ‘new’ would be worth the risks of tiger-riding. In short, the Claim offers a compelling narrative of political desire, and one voiced against the deadening effects of ‘normalisation’, where the very persistence of the status quo contrives to make it seem less scandalous.

Protesters gather outside the old Royal High School, proposed site of the Scottish Assembly, during the ‘Scotland Demands Democracy’ March in 1992. Scottish Political Archive spa.773.12

Statehood without Tears

If we flash forward thirty years, including two decades of devolution, we find that the 2018 Common Weal pamphlet does almost precisely the opposite. This blueprint for independence is premised on unbroken continuities and sacrosanct norms, explaining in detail how Scotland can achieve statehood with the bare minimum of risk and disruption, either to itself or to the various financial, diplomatic or technical systems with which it will be seeking to assimilate. (These systems are themselves placed largely beyond critique.)

Like the Claim, How to Start a New Country plunges ahead of accepted realities – but into a future with no emotional ballast in the present. Taking as their ‘starting point the day after a referendum at which a majority of the population of Scotland have voted for independence’,[8] the authors begin by neatly and completely severing the ‘how’ of statehood from the ‘why’. In this plan, the new country is less a cause than a bundle of capacities to be ‘delivered’. Accordingly, this future Scotland is cut off from the energies and arguments that could produce it: deliberately treating the shift to independence as a ‘very major project management process’ (31) obscures the forces that might motivate such an endeavour. Thus How to Start a New Country has no account of the political appetite that might find satisfaction in adequate currency reserves or ‘a new Scottish IT landscape’ (81). The resulting vision is an impressively wonkish but narrowly technocratic box of solutions to anticipated economic headwinds, bureaucratic snags and technical glitches. A studied silence hangs over the question of supplying the political impetus for all this: it’s as though Common Weal have produced a detailed blueprint for a space station that says nothing about what it’s for, or how to get into orbit.

Enric Miralles’ design for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood

Conceived as a matter of establishing structures and capacities that can be smoothly integrated into the wretched way of the world, the process of nation-building is much closer to that of reverse engineering: looking at what ‘modern states’ do, and commissioning a smart, sleek and efficient Scotland to match. Perhaps surprisingly, it is largely a matter of assembling the resources that will allow Scotland to re-duplicate the functions of really-existing (British) statehood. If the Claim of Right reaches boldly for tropes of full-fat sovereignty and peoplehood, anchoring its logic beyond the superficial spats and tactics of the present, the Common Weal pamphlet is unflinching in its embrace of corporate management thinking, treating ‘what works’ as its final vocabulary of empowerment:

Scottish independence has sometimes been presented as being, at heart, a procurement issue – ‘from where will you be able to get your tanks/consulates/software systems?’ In fact, it would be much more accurate to see it as a major recruitment and human resources issue. We will need the best negotiators that we can find. We will need people who have wide experience of defence and military issues. If we are able to secure people of a high enough calibre and provide them with a solid plan to enact, we can be confident of the quality of what they will achieve. (p. 24)

This approach can be applied to any large-scale organisational problem, and the Common Weal authors are convinced this counts in its favour. Their aim is to de-mystify the nuts and bolts of state-making and treat it like any other enterprise for which you might need spreadsheets and flowcharts. Viewed in this aspect, national flourishing is largely a matter of correctly aligning incentives and outcomes: ‘if we are imaginative about our recruitment process Scotland ought to be able to provide a very tempting opportunity for an ambitious professional who would see the exciting possibilities contained in a “blank canvas” opportunity like setting up a new nation state’ (25). Such is the HR manager’s view of achieving complex objectives; but if this one – national self-determination – can be delivered by a form of political rationality indistinguishable from that of (say) the operations manager for a global packaging firm, won’t that affect the ultimate ‘product’ – namely, the better nationhood that is the point of all the fuss?

The emptiness of the ‘blank canvas’ begins to seem less a space of political possibility than a templated organogram, a table of abstract competences that only remains to be populated with correctly incentivised professionals. Where the Claim of Right seeks to stiffen the spines of a dejected polity-in-waiting, How to Start a New Country assures us that the experts will handle everything. But in surgically detaching the techne from the ethics of independence, Common Weal have risked the moral and emotional coherence of the cause whose victory their plan assumes in advance – the arguments for which they leave un-made.

‘Becoming real’

The more How to Start a New Country engages with the consequence of its founding premise, the more its swagger evaporates. The opening chapter timidly charts a way for Scotland – a country which has just voted to dismantle the British constitution – to ‘become real’, since Scotland must acquire watertight legal personality before it can do or be what the vote itself would seem to enact (sovereignty). Again, the authors prove far more conservative than their predecessors, deferring in advance to a legal and constitutional superstructure whose moral validity is swiftly rubbished and jettisoned in the Claim of Right. Whereas the 1988 document assumed in advance the nation’s right to decide and define its own governance, in this hyper-liberal vision of 2018 the ‘new country’ is only as credible as the external rule-based system in which its rights and obligations are secured.

‘Scotland’s Future’, the Scottish Government’s 2013 White Paper on independence

It gradually becomes clear that Common Weal is advocating for a state-building project that flaunts its strict continuity with the political rationality of the status quo: a responsible, dreamless programme of engineering a clean and modern power-container according to international best practice. Far from creating or inventing new national ‘forms’, this is a matter of installing and operationalising a selection of pre-given models, assembling a Scottish version of off-the-peg institutions. Common Weal have consciously eliminated any visionary ‘content’ or policy from this enterprise, focusing entirely on proving and securing institutional capacity. Unlike the 2013 independence white paper Scotland’s Future, the shell of future statehood is here considered in explicit isolation from how that state would be legitimated (i.e. how to persuade the electorate to want and choose it), or how a radical constitutional break would transform what Scotland is. Indeed, it is very unclear what’s wrong or lacking in the old, pre-vote Scotland to motivate the leap into ‘new countryhood’.

‘Especially on the left’, the authors concede, supporters of independence ‘often think of the constitution as a transformative, aspirational document. And it can be that – but primarily the constitution must be defensive and preservative, preventing governments from abusing power by undermining rights or by rigging the rules of democracy’ (34-5). This passage condenses the curious double-think of the ‘new country’ blueprint: we should assiduously follow the latest expert advice for starting a new Scotland, as cautiously as possible, to ensure we don’t break or disrupt any of the valued democratic norms and institutions of our constitutional status quo, which we must carefully dismantle in order to be free to recreate it as our very own.

With a nod to Mark Fisher we might call this ‘nationalist realism’, where it is assumed in advance that there is no alternative to the available forms of nation-statehood, and that to imagine or desire anything substantively different from the British state will risk the whole project of escaping the British state. This approach marries an ultra-pragmatic timidity – refusing to deviate from the dominant state-models or the proven tolerances of transnational capital – with nerdish fantasy: a whirring space-station with no visible means of propulsion, or reason for leaving the ground in the first place. The dream does not die; it withers into that anti-utopian escapism indistinguishable from common sense.

Dr. Scott Hames lectures on Scottish Literature at the University of Stirling. He writes mainly about the cultural politics of Scottish writing since 1979. Related interests include literary nationalism, devolution, and the politics of voice, class and authenticity. He co-founded the International Journal of Scottish Literature, and is the editor of Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence and The Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman. He is on twitter @hinesjumpedup.

[1] Bob McLean, Getting it Together: The History of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly/Parliament 1980-1999 (Edinburgh: Luath, 2005), p. 107.

[2] A Claim of Right for Scotland, ed. by Owen Dudley Edwards (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1989), pp. 13, pp. 14.

[3] James G. Kellas, ‘Restless Natives’ [reviewing A Claim of Right for Scotland, ed. Owen Dudley Edwards], Radical Scotland 39 (June/July 89): 37 (p. 37).

[4] Murray Elder, ‘A Scottish Labour Leader’ in Donald Dewar: Scotland’s First First Minister, ed. by Wendy Alexander (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2006), pp. 84-103 (p. 87).

[5] David Stewart, The Path to Devolution and Change: A Political History of Scotland Under Margaret Thatcher (London: Tauris, 2009), p. 212.

[6] James Mitchell, ‘Factions, Tendencies and Consensus in the SNP in the 1980s’, Scottish Government Yearbook 1990, ed. by Alice Brown and Richard Parry (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1990), pp. 49-61 (p. 59).

[7] Tom Nairn, ‘The Timeless Girn’ in A Claim of Right for Scotland, ed. Dudley Edwards, pp. 163-78 (p. 164).

[8] How to Start a New Country: A Practical Guide for Scotland (Glasgow: Common Print, 2018), p. 1.


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