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INTERVIEW: Scotland After Britain
We sit down with Ben Wray and James Foley to discuss their new book on Scottish independence
In this edition of Independence Captured I am delighted to release the first ever interview carried on the newsletter. As promised, this new feature aims to bring a variety of critical perspectives to the table.
This week, a new book published by Verso became available to pre-order. Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence, is in my view at any rate, going to be the essential book for left-wing independence supporters in the coming period.
For an insight into the content and the core ideas explored in the work, I spoke to Ben Wray and James Foley, who co-authored the book alongside the late Neil Davidson.
It’s a long read, but I’m sure you will agree, a engrossing one.
Can I start by asking what motivated you to write the book?
Sure. The writing process began about five years ago, and initially involved Neil Davidson, our co-author, who sadly died as the book was being written. But essentially the book was a response to the twin referendums of 2014 and 2016.
Most especially, we had participated in 2014, which was probably the biggest upsurge and popular protest and social movement activity in living memory, for ourselves, certainly, within Scotland and perhaps since the poll tax. It was an inspiring political moment.
But we began to notice after 2016 that this movement which started off on an anti-establishment footing, with a working class character, was increasingly becoming acceptable for the establishment, and was embracing its role as being the increasingly “respectable” face of politics in Scotland.
So really what we were trying to do first of all was to warn the Scottish independence movement about the trajectory that was taking place after Brexit, which was not just a move towards the right, but was a shift towards the position of being the establishment in Scotland and starting to represent continuity with the status quo, rather than an opposition to it. So that was initially where the book came from.
Over the five years I think it evolved in various different directions, partly because we were constantly met with the prospect that there might be another referendum in the offing and how we might respond to that. Pretty much since we started writing this book, we've seemed to be about one year away from a referendum and of course, as we publish it, we are still, formally speaking, one year away from the referendum.
Over the course of writing, I think it became increasingly clear that there was something structural going on in this process, and that the prospect of an imminent referendum and of constitutional conflict was working to reproduce the status quo, not just in Holyrood, but also in Westminster as well, and was performing a lot of useful functions for the established ruling cliques in both parliaments.
So we wanted to excavate the foundations of that, trying to understand what was going on with full respect for the popular origins as a social movement, but also the history of how ruling elites have used nationalism, constitutional politics and also popular politics to form a foundation for rule. Particularly in a context where we aren’t experiencing the “gains from globalisation” and growth, and in which people are facing up to austerity, declining living standards and so on.
We started to look, I think, on Scottish independence and constitutional politics in Britain as being part of the picture of how ruling elites, ruling classes, and governing classes, were reconsolidating themselves and making themselves appear legitimate in a period where capitalism is in decline.
That's an absolutely fascinating premise for a book. Ben, I wonder if you could unpack some of these themes. What for you are the central ideas in the book?
I think one of the main ideas is about where independence fits into the era that we live in today, which we've called in the book an “era of ruptures”. That is to say, an age of permanent volatility, where one crisis rolls into the next. Whether it's the pandemic, whether it's the economy, whether it's political shocks or war, it seems like we're in an age of permanent crisis.
Now, that's an extremely different backdrop from the one which the SNP traditionally considered to be a good context for independence to happen. Independence was always premised on the basis that it would come in a period of economic growth and a political stability, where Scots would feel sort of at ease and confident enough to vote for independence. Or indeed, that Scotland could just evolve into some form of independence through further rounds of devolution.
This was always the kind of SNP establishment vision. If you go back and read all the interviews from the first SNP government in 2007, you'll see this was the concept they were working with. Suddenly, we are in a era where that's completely torn up, and it's clear that if independence were to happen in this moment, it would happen in an era of rupture.
Despite that, the SNP case has become even more about continuity. Essentially, it hasn't evolved from a vision of independence based on retro, early 2000s neoliberalism, where you have smooth international trade and where the cracks in globalisation were less obvious. Here, the proposition was simple: Scotland can just fit in as a “normal” European country and become wealthy and profitable.
In fact, even the SNP's latest “scene setter” for its new perspective papers, offers the same sort of concept. Scotland could be a small, wealthy country like Norway or like Sweden or something like that.
Now, obviously this is very distant from the fact that capitalism in all these countries is in crisis. We have massive problems with declining living standards, with demographic challenges, with ecological crises and so on. Independence in that context should represent something very different if it's to be meaningful. If it is to be meaningful, in other words, it should mean a rupture with the status quo.
So, partly what we're trying to do with this book is to explore these contradictions and point towards an alternative to the approach of the SNP leadership, which is not only intellectually incoherent - because you can't have become an independent country and have straightforward continuity with both Brexit rUK and with the European Union - but also offers a plan that doesn't solve any of the major problems the world is facing, particularly those most disadvantaged by the system.
James, building on all this, you talked about 2016 and the impact of Brexit on the national question. For you, this is a pivot around which the texture and meaning of Scottish nationalism in the modern context starts to evolve in some way. Can you explain in a little bit more detail what you mean by that?
It’s probably worth saying that the authors of the book, the three of us, including Neil, took different stances on 2016 at the time. But what we are all agreed on is that Brexit marked a pivotal moment in the shift towards the SNP, and particularly Nicola Sturgeon's cohort, becoming an embedded part of the establishment. They became acceptable to important parts of the ruling class, not just in Scotland, but further afield as well.
My colleague Pete Ramand has done some very interesting research into this, and what you see after 2016 is that support amongst the professional managerial elite in Scotland for Scottish independence rises, I believe, from about 19% to 59%. So the elite section of managers in Scotland, in other words, go from being the least likely segment of Scotland to support Scottish independence in 2014, to being the most likely, while working class support in that same time flatlines.
So I think what you go from, is the fact that 2014 would seem to be a rupture with an era of free market globalisation and the austerity that followed from it, to the fact that beyond 2016, increasingly, the SNP policy program becomes about restoration and about keeping an existing order going and insulated from challenges.
As Ben said, though, there's massive contradictions within that. The SNP is the biggest beneficiary still in British politics, arguably, of the chaos and disruption that took place after the financial crisis of 2008. And again, to be clear, we think that Scottish Labour was absolutely deserving of its abandonment from vast sections of the working class after 2008, having been the ruling elite in Scottish politics for so long.
But at the same time, the SNP have a program for independence, which frankly doesn't make any sense in this current era and is all about restoring many of the conditions which led to the succession of crises in the first place. The Sustainable Growth Commission is probably the most obvious example of that.
So I think Brexit secured a very establishment vision of what independence should be about, making it socially acceptable to the Scottish, and indeed parts of the British liberal elite. This would de-radicalise the movement, and eventually demobilise the working class elements, which formed such a central aspect of the social movement in 2014.
It’s sad to see what has become of Scottish independence intellectually, which at one time was sitting there alongside the Corbyn movement in England, where there were significant energies released around questions of the constitution, radical social policy and so on. That is no longer the case.
Ben, thinking about this idea of elites utilising nationalism, or even referendums, in a way that shores up their own political support, to what extent do you think the SNP leadership have organised in this way?
The term we use in the book to describe a politics where you maintain a constant nationalist posture, or nationalist framing, but where this never actually corresponds to any movement towards statehood, is “neo-autonomism.” This is a phrase we've borrowed from the Catalan left, which has been used to describe similar types of politics in the Catalan context.
Clearly this is part of the dynamic that's going on with the SNP in that it suits the party's agenda to maintain the idea of independence being on the horizon, because it keeps their support base going and it keeps people believing that they stand for something other than just the status quo.
It maintains a constant conflict with the Conservatives and Westminster. So there's a permanent enemy to mobilise against. This can also become a kind of identity and a way to express your political leanings. Scotland in this sense, almost becomes “independent” as an imagined community, but not in terms of actually having the powers of an independent country.
I think it's important to say that's not the only factor at play in the SNP. I think there remains a genuine pull towards independence. Partly, that's about the party's base, which must be retained for the purposes of activism and finance. The base can be subject to erosion over time too. So that's one limit to the neo-autonomous strategy.
This all said, I think one of the themes of our book is we reject the kind of “goodies” or “baddies” interpretation of Nicola Sturgeon. On the one hand, some project her to be a politician who's just the perfect leader, who we should always get behind no matter what. On the other hand, some argue that she doesn't really care about independence. That she's just a technocrat led by pure cynicism.
I don’t think either of those are helpful, because what they do is over-invest in the personality instead of analysing the structures of power which create these contradictions in the first place.
If you look at what's happening right now, I would describe what Sturgeon is doing as a kind of cautious probing towards a referendum, either through the acceptance of Westminster or via a court ruling. And it seems likely that the latter is based on a watered down question compared to 2014.
That's entirely in keeping with our analysis in the book, which suggests that this is a politician that is pushed towards independence in some ways, but without wanting to risk the reproduction of SNP hegemony, which is her main main priority. So she's not going to risk anything that's going to be electorally damaging. She wants to keep things within official channels. But she does want to try to push in that direction and if it doesn't work out, then she just had another two years of focusing public energy on conflict with the Tories, having rallied the party base.
There's one constraint in terms of just retreating into being this post-democratic, post-political governing party, which people might think would be the natural tendency of the SNP. You have to remember, parties like that across Europe and elsewhere aren't achieving a great deal of success electorally. And part of the reason that the SNP has been so persistently successful is that independence is part of the formula that works for them.
If you don't have, at the very least, the ability to blame the problems on Westminster, then they become accountable for a whole succession of problems in terms of the governance of devolved Scotland, which are kind of natural to living in an era of austerity and class retrenchment, to be honest.
But some of the issues are particular to Scotland. You think of the massive incidents of drug deaths, the highest in Europe, and these are Scottish specific problems. But there's sufficient confusion about the fact that Westminster might be partially responsible for these things as well. If you take independence away from that formula, the SNP game starts to make a great deal less sense.
Now, part of the calculation socialists and others who are properly invested in independence have to make here is to assess the likelihood that events could run past what Nicola Sturgeon and others are intending.
Is there a likelihood that all these promises of an imminent referendum are ultimately going to lead by a series of contingent circumstances to the fact that we actually get towards a referendum? In which case, of course, I think all of us here would support the independence of Scotland.
But I think if they aren't going to go in that direction, then you have to face up to the fact that class politics must include opposition to the governing class in Scotland. We are talking about massive cuts coming, about huge hits to wages and all these other things, and if you're forming a properly coherent, class based politics in Scotland, you have to take into consideration the fact that the Scottish governing elite is part of the story.
And you can't just say, well, there's an imminent prospect of a referendum on the cards, as it has been for the last six years, therefore we should defer questions of social class until we can sort out Scotland's constitutional future. I think it's part of the dilemma that has bedevilled a lot of socialist analysis and resistance to the dominant politics in Scotland.
You've talked about the “Scottish establishment” in the book. What do you mean, in a material sense, when you refer to the Scottish establishment?
The establishment, of course, is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down. What we probably would accept as Marxists in Scotland is that the Scottish capitalist class is quite globalized in nature. Much of it is transnational and not a lot of business at the top end is often owned in Scotland. What that means is in terms of what passes for the state in Scotland, the devolved parliament in Edinburgh and all of its institutions and so on, is much of the ruling class in the Marxist sense is not always that invested in what happens in Scottish politics and hasn't been since the onset of devolution.
If you think of the major big business institutions that have dominated in the Scottish economy, you're thinking of finance, you're thinking of energy, and you're thinking of those types of things. Most of those things are predominantly regulated from London and therefore those big battalions of capitalism in Scotland haven't always been that invested in the Scottish governing class.
But what you do have, I think, is a whole range of people who might be either smaller businesses, or more often, just people who are invested in controlling the resources of the state, and who might be dependent on the state in various different ways.
So I think here of people who might be part of the elite media class, elite academics, those involved in ideological reproduction and so on, as very much part of the establishment or the governing class as well, if you want to define it in those terms.
Now, those are the people - lawyers, academics, heads of NGOs, senior health officials and so on - who form the essential landscape of Sturgeon's rule in Scotland and are very close to the Holyrood governance community. And it's kind of a small world, a village world, the way that type of politics works. Most people who work in some level of any seniority in a professional career in Scotland will know some government ministers and so on.
So that's the way it tends to work. You have quite a tight knit governance community and governing class, with links, often financial, but also “buddy” relationships across numerous sectors of Scotland. It's quite hard to criticize the Scottish government within those circumstances. Even much of the media is financially dependent on the Holyrood parliament. On the other hand, you have the big forces of Scottish capitalism, much of it transnational in nature, and not very invested in what really goes on in Scotland.
This means what you tend to find in Scotland is an establishment which is quite dependent on the state and which is broadly soft centre-left in its orientation and will not brook any criticism of Sturgeon, partly because of the aspect of independence. On the other hand, you have capitalism going on as it always has done, with little control and little critique, and the reproduction of a broadly neoliberal or post-neoliberal society in Scotland that has in many ways become more unequal since devolution.
So I think in terms of Marxist class analysis, that is the contradiction that you're trying to face. I myself think that if you want to have an honest approach to class politics, you've got to start with the fact that, yes, a lot of our problems are generated by Westminster rule, but also if you want to think about how our resources are distributed, there is a huge amount that you can point to at the level of the Scottish governance class in terms of their culpability and accountability.
Of course. I support independence, but when it's not a real debate, what you get is simply an absence of accountability and most of the people who should be critical of the Scottish government and its various policy failures essentially becoming cover for them.
Ben, we all go back to our student days together. There we got involved in politics primarily through the anti-war movement to oppose Tony Blair. We then engaged in the independence campaign, partly on the basis of disrupting British imperialism and constructing some kind of new, progressive foreign policy. Do you talk about these issues in the book?
Yes, we do talk about foreign policy quite a lot in terms of especially in terms of our critique of Britain and the British state. The book doesn't look at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, because it was written before that war began.
But everything that has happened fits within our basic analysis in the book, which is that Britain is an imperialist state, closely aligned with the United States. As the most reliable ally of the United States, Trident nuclear missiles are a symbol of Anglo-American imperialism, and can’t actually be used without the say so of the US State Department. We argue that ridding the UK of Trident via independence would be one of the great achievements of the movement.
Now obviously what we are seeing, what I think is in motion right now, is the SNP leadership starting to shift towards a softer position on Trident. Nicola Sturgeon made a speech in the United States recently where she talked about her commitment to NATO and she didn't mention that the party's policy is for unilateral disarmament.
We've seen SNP politicians speaking in the media suggesting that Trident could stay for a substantial period of time before it's removed and that sort of thing. So there's a watering down of the position and that's for a very obvious reason, which is that the current mood within the Western world is extremely pro-NATO, and we are seeing that with countries like Sweden and Finland looking to join.
There is, in this way, a unifying around American leadership in Europe. Which is remarkable really, considering in the Trump era, which wasn't so long ago, everyone was talking about the need for a separate European defence policy from NATO. As the SNP usually does, it's trying to shift with the mood of where Western elite sentiment is at the moment.
I think it's essential that the independence movement maintains a hard position on opposition to Trident. And secondly, there should be a critical position put towards NATO, though that is not popular at the moment. You just have to look at NATOs role in the world, at Libya and Afghanistan for example. These things aren't ancient history. Turkey is also worth mentioning here, where a NATO member is involved in the ethnic cleansing of Kurdish people in Syria. So there's all these contradictions that need to be pointed out, and won’t be by the SNP.
Lots of topics that you've talked about here have been issues which have been raised in an Independence Captured. One of the common responses that I get is, well, okay, maybe everything you say is true, maybe your analysis is right, but it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that we get an independence referendum and that we vote for independence and that once we have independence, we can deal with everything else. I wonder, by way of conclusion, what your response to that kind of approach is?
I would, if it came down to it, and it was a choice between the status quo or a vision of independence that was based on the Growth Commission and all of that entails, probably still vote for independence.
And I think it's important that we're honest about that. So for those people who say it's all about independence, it's not like I'm entirely without sympathy for it. I do think that the world would be a better place without the British state within it for a number of historical and contemporary reasons. But also because I think that it would help to restore some level of accountability to Scottish politics.
Having said all that, I think trying to dodge difficult questions because it's convenient and it may help accelerate the process towards independence is something that we've been doing since at least 2016, I would say since far before then.
But we end up in a number of contradictions that we can't really get ourselves out of. For instance, around the question of currency, but also around the question of the European Union. There's a failure to face some hard realities here that would be ruthlessly exposed by unionists and others in the process of a referendum. So, for example, the currency issues obviously came up already during 2014 and are probably the major reason that Yes lost the referendum.
We weren't able to have, subsequently, an honest debate about what went wrong under those circumstances. And the whole time the policy was based on complete lack of principle, and just trying to do the easiest thing in order to get us over the finish line. This has has left us with a build up of unresolved tensions, which is part of the reason that Nicola Sturgeon is not willing to put them to the acid test.
The same is true of the European Union. The whole purpose of independence now is premised on the basis of contingent circumstances after 2016 and is purely and simply in order to get us back in the European Union. What that doesn't account for is the fact that being inside the European Union, regardless of whether you're for it or against it, is significantly harder if your goal is to maintain smooth trading relations with England.
There is a lot of evidence by normal, centrist, academics, which will tell you that process is going to be a significantly harder than it is often presented, and might well look like “Brexit times ten,” as one of Nicola Sturgeon's senior advisors put it.
So by saying, we're just not going to examine the hard, “wicked” issues, as Stephen Maxwell called them, on the basis that will get to independence quicker, this has actually slowed the process.
At present, Nicola Sturgeon can't possibly intellectually defend the existing vision of independence without it crumbling before her eyes, because it just simply doesn't add up. They've got their own words to condemn them here because they condemned the Brexiteers for making a proposal that wasn't properly costed and hadn't been properly thought through. Yet, that is precisely what they would have to do if they were to run a referendum tomorrow, because they have no intellectual basis for the type of independence that they are going to try to defend.
Regardless of whether you want that independence to be one based on socialism, to be one based on social justice, or to be the most economically competitive neoliberalism, on any of those terms, Sturgeon's version of independence does not add up. So if that is all true, then you cannot divorce the contradictions within the independence case from the business of trying to get the process of independence underway as quickly as possible. This is why critical analysis is not an optional extra for independence supporters.
I'm going to ask you the same kind of question to end, Ben. You used the phrase “meaningful independence” earlier. We all agree that we want Scottish sovereignty. But if that's not actually on offer from the SNP, how do we unravel this paradox?
I think it's important to say that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership aren't the only subjective factor in terms of the cause of achieving Scottish independence. In fact, what we tried to put emphasis on in the book is that history, the real engine of history, is created by the masses in action, taking things into their own hands and trying to push for change from below.
This is why we contrast the SNP leadership project of independence from above with the idea of independence from below. And the reason why I say that is, firstly, in terms of answering your question, that an independent Scotland would be determined both by the sort of movement which shapes it before hand, but also the political forces that coalesce after that point
So in this sense, it's not just about what Sturgeon wants. Secondly, and I think this is probably an even more important point, I can't foresee independence being achieved without a large and politically engaged movement independent of the SNP leadership.
Remember, founding a newly independent state is not something that happens very much anymore. If you look around Europe, it's been a long time since any country has achieved independent statehood. Aside from Yugoslavia and the breakup of the USSR, you are talking a very a long time ago. It is not something that happens easily.
Major political conflict is required to create an independent state. The moment of 2014 and the Edinburgh Agreement, where we could have won independence with Westminster’s democratic consent, is gone now. The mobilisation of mass social forces will be required to break the deadlock.
That isn't usually something that's achieved by a mainstream leader, or at least, not only by a mainstream leader. Boris Johnson has no interest in negotiating seriously with Nicola Sturgeon currently, because the First Minister can't really apply any real pressure which could force him to concede to a referendum that's consented by Westminster.
So I think it's really important that the independence movement doesn't see itself as just a kind of passive object, that follows what Nicola Sturgeon says, and agrees sometimes and criticises other times, but instead sees it itself as an active agent in history that can force new openings in the situation. Without that, I’m very doubtful that Scottish independence will ever happen in any meaningful, sovereigntist, sense.