I remember hearing Jim Sillars speak in the late eighties about independence, and how dead set he was against any path that went via devolution as an interim stage towards a fully independent Scotland. Jim was very clear about it – no country had ever become independent after having a devolved status. In a way, it was the same contention that George Robertson was embracing, when he bragged some ten years later that devolution would kill independence ‘stone dead’.
Jim’s contention slightly confused me, because my (admittedly slightly sketchy) knowledge of the Habsburg Empire seemed to me to indicate otherwise – so I went to my friend, the Scottish historian Owen Dudley Edwards, and asked his opinion. He agreed with me that Hungary was a noteable exception to Jim’s argument, and cited a couple of other examples.
Fast forward almost thirty years, and it seems that we might (at least) be on the verge of creating another exception.
But clearly, one could see why such an argument could be made, that devolved government would forestall such independent political objectives: in an environment with little overt deprivation or discrimination, devolution should really be enough to satisfy most senses of political disempowerment. So what has – potentially – rendered things different for Scotland?
I would argue that there has almost been a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances – a convergence of Opportunity, Timing and Chance – which have created a highly unusual sociopolitical environment within the UK to galvanise such feelings. The most predictable part of this ‘recipe’ would be a Conservative-led government at Westminster. What would be less easy to anticipate would be the parallel discrediting of the LibDems (who had built up such a respectable powerbase over decades in Scotland) through their coalition in that same government (in a political system designed to favour majority government), following so swiftly after a Labour government so right wing that it was enthusiastically participating in illegal wars. This politically- fated convergence continues with a majority SNP government at Holyrood (in a political system designed to favour coalition government), a Westminster government pursuing a ruthless ideological agenda, cutting welfare back so harshly that hundreds of thousands are pushed into poverty, foodbank usage rocketing as the working poor balloon in numbers, the NHS is under threat through creeping privatization south of the border, and the leadership of Westminster is so out of touch and tactless or weak that they fail to realize how they are losing the PR war with the people in the process.
So we have a Westminster government, uncaring about any distinct Scottish political identity that argues for social justice, and a Holyrood government fighting tooth and nail to prove that there is another way, in the face of a sea of cuts being sent out across the country from London. In a sense, this is almost the most perfect imaginable set of circumstances for a population to be shocked out of their political apathy into opting for massive political change, just for even an outside chance of something better. It is almost like Fate is saying to the SNP ‘Go on, I’ve given you the best chance that you are ever going to get to persuade the people in Scotland of the case for independence, so go for it’. In that sense, maybe Alex Salmond is right when he says that this referendum will ‘settle’ the question for a generation, as it is hard to imagine such a synergy of circumstance recurring again in the near future, to make such a compelling and urgent argument for an exit.
Unless, of course, in the wake of a ‘No’ vote, Westminster flagrantly discards any lip service so far paid to extended devolution…and the people don’t accept that.
“[Devolution is] a motorway to Independence with no U-turns and no exits” (Tam Dalyell)