“That ‘black hole’, that ‘nothing at all’, is the image of a society aware of itself only as an absence, a society living in the aftermath of its failure to be reborn.” - Cairns Craig

THERE’S a feeling of defeat, of ­end-times that doesn’t fit with spring. This is not just about the Rishi Sunak government staggering on until a General Election finally puts them out of their misery, nor is it after witnessing a terrible week for the incumbent Scottish Government, which had to announce a humiliating climbdown on its much-vaunted climate targets, before seeing the ruling party’s former chief executive arrested and charged with embezzlement.

The feeling of defeat, or end times feels more like the end of an era in which devolution seemed like a credible political project that you could place some faith in. This is not to chime with the endlessly ­trotted-out analysis that Holyrood makes bad policy, that no-one can legislate, that the building is full of bad actors acting in bad faith and incompetence.

It is true that the SNP are hoisted by their own ­petard, with a long list of political failures, mistakes and ­missteps – though I don’t subscribe to the lazy ­rhetoric that, basically, “Everything In Scotland Is ­Awful”. But even as the ruling party seems to ­implode, week by week, Scotland remains a strange and ­contradictory place. Despite the main vehicle that was supposed to deliver independence – the SNP – being in seemingly constant meltdown, the fact remains that support for independence holds at between 45-50%.

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Why is this? How is this possible given the ­catastrophic leadership shown by the supposed ­high-heidyins of the fragile, crumbling Yes ­movement? Well, it’s because the alternative is palpably worse.

Writing in The Scotsman, Joyce McMillan ­suggests: “With one or two exceptions, there is barely a single area in that vision of Scotland where the UK-wide situation is not arguably worse, and that includes not only shocking child poverty figures, but also areas involving civil rights and freedoms. ­Human Rights Watch reported that in 2022 alone, the UK ­Government ­introduced laws that stripped rights from asylum seekers, encouraged voter ­disenfranchisement, limited judicial oversight of ­government actions, and placed new restrictions on the right to peaceful protest.”


This is then, a negative movement, essentially ­reacting against the failure of Britain and the toxic politics of Westminster – whether that be the ­constant stream of corruption and farce that comes out of the House of Commons like a sitcom, or the dark ­pantomime of Liz Truss and the rest of the Tory far-right.

We used to ask where the “positive case” for the Union was, but now the same question can be asked of the independence movement. McMillan ­concludes: “Post-Brexit, the difference of opinion about what kind of future our countries should seek is now both serious and entrenched, and support for independence remains high not because 45% or 50% of Scots are fools seduced by romantic nationalism, but ­because the UK no longer offers a political project to which they can subscribe, or with which they wish to identify.”

Even Gordon Brown (below), trotted out last week in the Financial Times, looks at the state of Britain and concedes that: “I ­really didn’t think we could go as far backwards as we’ve gone.”

The National: Gordon Brown said unionists had to put forward a "positive argument"

But this is not good enough. The idea of being allergic to the toxicity of ­Westminster or being repelled by the ­actions of the British State does not take us forward. Support for independence is high but it is also flatlining. Now, the old idea that devolution would be a sort of “proving ground” for independence seems completely redundant.

The idea had been floating around for over a decade. A devolved administration would “prove” competence in ­government, earning the voters’ trust and laying a pathway to independence by showing how Scotland could make its own way and carve out a distinct policy framework. We could, in effect, “fake it until we make it”.

There was even the thought that a pro-independence government could create some of the structures and institutions that a newly independent government would need. This hasn’t happened.

But this idea of devolution as proving ground now seems in pieces, and not just because of actual policy failure – but because the very idea of devolution, once tolerated and even promoted by Unionists, is now actively attacked by them. Any deviance from a UK party line is seen as dangerous heresy and post-Brexit the creation of the “internal market” means that any original indigenous policy must be quashed.

READ MORE: Caroline Lucas: England must talk about its future outside UK

Added to this, after so long in office, devolution is synonymous with the SNP, not its creators, the Labour Party. Just as the SNP have annoyed some by ­conflating the interests of the nation with the party, the opposition parties have ­conflated hatred of devolution with ­hatred of the SNP.

It’s difficult to see how devolution will change under a Labour government in London, or even one in Edinburgh. ­Increasingly, it is looking like more of a millstone than a stepping-stone.

While devolved governments can ­assert policy in devolved areas, they do so with only a limited budget that they do not control and with a public and media that is incessantly hostile. It’s a lose-lose ­situation. That’s not an excuse, but it is a condition. In this sense, devolution is over. We are, as Craig said, “a society living in the aftermath of its failure to be reborn”.

Devolution is not a stepping-stone to independence. The possibility of distinct policy initiatives – “Scottish solutions to Scottish problems” – is diminishing not flourishing. The powers of the ­Scottish Parliament are being curtailed, not ­widened.

We are in danger of devolution having the opposite effect than the one ­suggested previously. Instead of proving just exactly what might be possible, it’s in danger of proving that nothing is really possible at all. Instead of filling people with hope and expectation, it is in danger of filling people with doubt and self-hatred.

What we may be left with is a wholly managerial administration, a ­government in name only, unable or unwilling to ­succeed in its main reason for being, which, in the case of the SNP, is of course to achieve sovereignty. This state of ­inertia – this sense of a dead-end has a powerful effect on the Yes movement.

Writing in The National (“The Yes movement is back at square one and needs a complete renewal”, April 16) Jonathon Shafi notes: “The 2014 referendum ­became a lightning rod for a series of ­issues. The working-class character of the pro-independence movement drew on a politics based on opposition to the ­Conservatives, to austerity, and the ­failures of New Labour.

“It entailed, at its core, a powerful ­democratic impulse. Control – taken away in workplaces and communities, and wielded by Tory governments without electoral legitimacy – could be reasserted in the context of independence.

“In other words, the concept of ­Scottish autonomy could coalesce with social and economic concerns beyond a dry and ­legalistic debate about ­constitutions.

“­People, becoming involved in the ­political process for the first time ­discovered a sense of agency which had up until then felt elusive.”

Shafi makes a powerful case for the need to completely rebuild the ­independence movement from the ground up with a new prospectus, new actors and a new ­vision. He is not optimistic.

“We are not ‘on an unstoppable ­journey’, nor was 2014 a ‘stepping stone’ to an independent future. It was a defeat, and independence is in retreat.”

The need to rediscover “a powerful democratic impulse” is clear but the political landscape may not be as bleak as it currently seems. It’s unclear what any Labour or Lib-Lab Scottish administration would actually do. While Wilma Brown might have been speaking the real bit out loud when she “liked” posts suggesting that Holyrood should be abolished or run by “direct rule”, its unlikely that Scottish Labour would actually do this. But it does seem unclear what a Starmer Labour government would “do” with Holyrood.

What works for UK Labour ­– hounding the institutions of devolution while the SNP are in Bute House – would look ­awkward if Anas Sarwar resided there.

The National: Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has taken a firmer line on Israeli arms exports than the UK

And would a Labour administration at Holyrood not face a challenge?

They must do something, but to do ­anything would risk laying down ­precedent for change, an inadvertent ­argument for “more powers”, a “sense of agency” even. Perhaps they would be ­satisfied installing Brown’s “Multibanks” up and down the country.

In AL Kennedy’s 1993 novel ­Looking For The Possible Dance, she writes about ways in which Scottishness is ­institutionally constructed by Scots ­themselves, for example The Scottish Method For The Perfection Of Children is made up of 10 maxims, among them: 2. The history, language and culture of Scotland do not exist. If they did, they would be of no importance and might as well not.

4. The chosen and male shall go forth unto professions while the chosen and ­female shall be homely, fecund, docile and slightly artistic.

10. Nothing in a country which is ­nothing, we are defined by what we are not.

This often self-inflicted nihilism was palpable in the 1980s and early 1990s and if the optimism and naïveté of belief in devolution has largely been shattered, it doesn’t mean that we have been. “We” are not Holyrood. “We” are not the SNP.

The lessons mocked by Kennedy that “the history, language and culture of ­Scotland do not exist” are held in a ­different manner in 2024 than they were 30 years ago. People’s assumptions about their identity, their language, their ­history and their culture have been cemented in such a way that can’t be underestimated.

Ask anyone under 30 in Scotland about their identity, their beliefs, their hopes for the future, their sense of self and you will not get answers suggesting they don’t exist.

How this translates into self-determination is another matter. What if this sense of identity and culture can survive without a state? Young people didn’t fight for devolution and might even be bored by it, but I’m not sure that many could put up with the humiliation of having it dissolved before their eyes. People might recoil at the SNP both overreaching and under-delivering, promising much and creating too little. “It’s the hope that kills you” as supporters of the national football team joke, but how will people respond to a Labour government that promises nothing at all?

The mistake we made in 1997 was we got a parliament when it was a democracy we needed. When people realise this, we may be able to move on. But to do so, we must be more than “defined by what we are not”, we will need to imagine a Scottish democracy that moves beyond the bleak managerialism of Holyrood or the semi-feudal centrism of Westminster.

The state of the countries – and the wider metacrisis – is going to demand real radical change of a scale and nature we can’t really conceive of. Keir ­Starmer’s milder conservatism may be ­electable but it’s also unviable. That this has become clear to many before he has even ­ascended to No 10 does not speak well of their future. I suspect we are in for a very rocky road ahead – we already see a “great variety of morbid symptoms appearing” as the old order dies and the new one cannot yet be born.