The issue of Scotland's place within the United Kingdom has become big news this year. Yet there is little sign of a popular nationalist movement demanding Scottish independence. Kirk Williams examines what's really behind the new turn of events
What is not happening in Scotland
At the heart of the debate now raging about Scottish nationalism there is an irony which few here have commented upon: at a time when Scotland is supposed to be experiencing a nationalist upsurge and a cultural revival, popular struggles over social issues in Scotland are at an all-time low.
Perhaps the clearest example of the gap between words and action came in January, with the announcement by British Steel that its Ravenscraig works was to close. Ravenscraig has long been considered an important symbol of Scotland's industrial traditions and national pride, and Scottish politicians of all parties had sworn to defend it. Yet when the closure announcement finally came, the reaction was muted. Opposition MPs said it was a 'betrayal', union officials wept on TV, but nobody put up a fight.
It is much the same story on other social issues in Scotland today. Even the anti-poll tax campaign has passed quietly away. Foreign observers coming to Scotland fresh from Eastern Europe have noted the peculiarly passive character of the demand for Scottish independence, which takes place, as the German paper Die Zeit put it, 'without...mass demonstrations, without pressure from the street and the threat of disorder' (quoted in Independent on Sunday, 9 February 1992).
Opinion polls which show between 30 and 50 per cent of Scots supporting independence have been widely publicised; it is less well known that the same polls show Scottish independence some way down the list of people's concerns, well below issues like jobs or the NHS. There is a sizeable pool of private support for independence, but the intense constitutional debate among politicians is not yet matched by a mood of real public excitement.
What is clearly not happening in Scotland is any sort of popular struggle to transform the way that society is run. So what is going on? How can we explain the approach of a possible constitutional crisis?
The origins of the crisis stem more from a general malaise in Britain than a nationalist rising in Scotland. Britain now looks increasingly like a dead-end society. Among young people especially, there is a growing disaffection with the traditional British way of life and an alienation from the established political process. The impact of these trends can be seen in many small ways, from the difficulty which the establishment now has in raising money for royal monuments, to the widely expressed fears about high rates of abstention in the coming general election.
In Scotland such alienation has acquired the form of a sense of difference, of 'Scottishness'. But this sense of Scottishness is the negative product of estrangement from the idea of being British, rather than a positive endorsement of the programme of Scottish nationalism.
Many Scottish people feel bitterly let down by the Westminster parliament and its parties, which have presided over the economic and social decline of recent years. The Tories, who now have just nine out of the 72 Scottish MPs, are almost entirely discredited. The Labour Party, in many ways the political establishment north of the border, has also disenchanted Scots through its ineffective opposition to Thatcher and Major, and its complicity in implementing Tory policies like the poll tax.
There has been a widespread loss of belief in the old British parties and institutions. As the Ravenscraig episode illustrates, however, there is also a lack of any dynamic opposition movement in Scotland. With no alternative solution on offer, many more Scottish people are endorsing the idea of independence as an untried option; but so far only as a privatised protest to be registered in an opinion poll.
Young Scots are even more alienated from the burned-out remains of British society. Yet here too, the predominant sentiment is political passivity. Their rejection of what they see as 'Britishness' is still much more likely to be reflected in support for a band like Runrig than in active support for any policies of the Scottish National Party (SNP).
To say that the current situation results from the weakness of identification with Britain rather than the strength of Scottish nationalism may be controversial. But even that does not go far enough. Far from being due to specific national feeling, developments in Scotland are part of a much wider international pattern of social fragmentation.
The end of the long Cold War era has opened a new age in world history and called old loyalties into question. The Soviet bloc has collapsed, and the Western Alliance is riven by fresh tensions. With the disappearance of the Cold War politics which imposed coherence on societies East and West, many individual nations are also in danger of cracking up.
This is clearest in the East, where the ex-Soviet bloc is splitting and re-splitting into new republics, regions and statelets. But in the West too, it has become clear that there is little to hold capitalist societies together.
The unified existence of developed EC member states like Belgium and Italy has already been called into question, as parochial and particularist interests come to the fore. There is no reason to imagine that Britain - and within it, Scotland - could remain immune to these global shifts.
Everywhere from the former Soviet Union to the USA, the old bonds which held societies together over past decades are loosening or breaking altogether. As yet, however, no strong new bonds have developed. The consequence is an international and national loss of cohesion, of which the renewed call for Scotland to separate from the rest of the UK is but one reflection.
As the independence debate has intensified, a lot of attention has been focused on the role of the Scottish National Party. But if the Scottish situation is understood in context, as a consequence of wider trends, it suggests that the SNP can have only a limited ability to progress of its own volition. The party which could explode the situation however (probably to the benefit of the SNP), is the Tories.
The government's handling of the Scottish issue to date demonstrates that the Conservative Party is perfectly capable of creating a constitutional crisis. The exhaustion of the Tories' political programme has led to a loss of direction on everything from the economy to education. Perhaps more than any other issue, the Scottish debate has exposed the Tories' loss of touch and lack of control today.
The Scottish Office, under Tory minister Ian Lang, has sought to polarise the issue in the run-up to the election, by insisting that there is a straight choice between the Union as it exists and Scottish independence. The result has been to raise the stakes, boost the SNP's poll ratings, and spread even more panic in Tory Party ranks. It is an explosive mixture, and the final outcome remains uncertain.
Sections of the establishment have taken panic measures to try to cover every eventuality. Old Stalinists in the Ukraine recently converted themselves into leading nationalists in order to cope with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In a similar fashion, some Tories, prominent businessmen and newspapers are now trying to project a more Scottish profile, in a bid to help them manage any further moves towards devolution or independence.
The Scottish version of Rupert Murdoch's Sun has flown the highest such kite so far. In January it gave over its entire front page to the declaration 'Rise now and be a nation again' - making it the first national newspaper in Britain to declare support for full Scottish independence.
No doubt this was a typically cynical bid to boost circulation rather than a heartfelt political choice; the English edition of the paper simultaneously backed the decision to close Ravenscraig. But if even the Sun can desert the Conservatives, it suggests that anything is possible, as the old arrangements start to unravel around the world.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992