Scottish independence: when, not if -- how Westminster lost Scotland

Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland
By Iain MacWhirter
Cargo Publishing, 2014,
174 pages

Review by Alex Miller

February 4, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The independence referendum on September 18, 2014, has been hailed by many as the most important single event in the recent history of Scotland.

The result was far closer than any supporter of independence would have dared predict even a few months before the vote, with 1.6 million voters (45%) refusing to be swayed by a sustained campaign of fear-mongering by the UK state and its allies to vote n favour of Scotland resuming the status of an independent country (signed away in the 1707 Treaty of Union).

A significant number of voters chose to vote against independence due to a commitment made by the major (panic-stricken) UK parties immediately before the referendum to give substantial new powers to the (devolved) Scottish Parliament, the so-called “Vow”.

Voters in Scotland were promised that if they voted No, “home rule”, “devo-max” and “near federalism” would be granted. The “Smith Commission”, charged with drafting a plan for the implementation of “the Vow”, failed to satisfy the aspirations of the Scottish public for political autonomy from the UK.

Now, the “Command Paper” published by the UK government on January 23 has watered-down even further the inadequate proposals made by the Smith Commission: Westminster retains a veto, not only on Scottish government proposals on the welfare system, but even over road and and traffic signage! Under the proposal, Westminster cedes only minority fiscal powers to the Scottish government. The latest proposals are regarded as completely inadequate, not only by the pro-independence political parties and groups, but also by significant players in Scottish civil society, such as the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Citizens Advice, the Poverty Alliance and countless others.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the self-proclaimed “guarantors” of “the Vow” – ex-Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and Alasdair Darling, leader of the No “Better Together” campaign – have announced that they are leaving politics in May 2015. Well might they hang their heads in shame. The main party in favour of staying in the British union in Scotland – the Labour Party – has gone into meltdown, with erstwhile leader Johann Lamont resigning only a month after the referendum “victory”, describing the UK Labour Party as treating Scottish Labour as a “branch office”.

Membership of the political parties supporting independence – the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Scottish Green Party – have mushroomed: these now have around 100,000 members between them, and the SNP alone is now the third biggest political party in the whole of the UK.

Groups like Women for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign have continued to meet and organise, and have also grown in numbers since the referendum. The Scottish Left Project  ( has opened up welcome space for the disparate groups on the left in Scotland to engage constructively about the way forward. 

Opinion polls currently suggest that in the Westminster (UK-wide) election scheduled for May 2015 the Labour Party could retain as few as four of its current 41  Scottish seats in Westminster, going the way of Greece’s PASOK for its collusion with David Cameron’s Conservative Party-led UK government over the referendum.

‘Project Fear’

In this excellent and highly readable book, independence-supporting journalist Iain MacWhirter recounts from first-hand experience the events of the referendum and its continuing aftermath. In particular, he highlights the role played by the mainstream media in peddling disinformation about independence in order to bolster the UK establishment’s “Project Fear” and he gives a good sense of how independence would open up space for progressive forces in Scotland to develop an alternative to the bankrupt neoliberalism of the UK.

The book isn’t perfect. MacWhirter tends to see any demand for national self-determination as necessarily in tension with a class-based politics. However, as Lenin himself argued on a number of occasions, while socialists do not give unconditional support to nationalist demands, in certain circumstances support for a demand for national self-determination is justified – specifically, where it advances the working-class cause. Arguably, this is the case in contemporary Scotland. Independence would not only open up more space for the left, it would also advance the working-class cause at an international level by weakening the British state’s capacity to service US imperialism. For one thing, the UK would face the very difficult prospect of having to find a new home for its nuclear arsenal (currently based in its entirety in lochs close to the urban West of Scotland).

Historical resistance

He also underplays the extent of historical resistance to the Treaty of Union across the 300 years of its existence. For example, he writes that in Ireland “political agitation against the union began almost as soon as it joined in 1801”, whereas the Scots became “enthusiastic partners in the Union and British Empire”. This is an exaggeration, to say the least, and ignores the large scale armed resistance to the Union that broke out on more than one occasion in Scotland in the 18th century, as well as the political insurrections of the 19th (for a good account of both, see Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History by Alan McCombes and Roz Paterson, Calton Books 2014). 

Despite this, MacWhirter’s book provides an insightful and generally accurate snapshot of referendum and post-referendum politics in Scotland that can be recommended to anyone with an interest in Scotland’s future.

It ends on an optimistic note:

The hundreds of thousands of Scots who have been persuaded that they need independence to create a fairer nuclear free society are not going to go away. It is my firm belief now, having seen the reaction to the referendum, that Scotland will be an independent country. And we may not have to wait very long to see it.

[Alex Miller is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.]