As part of H-Nationalism's series "Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives" Michael Keating examines Scotland's postion as a minority nation within the Union.
Scotland is not usually seen as a ‘national minority’ in the sense of a people living within a nation-state but not identifying with it. Certainly, Scots are not a minority identifying with a kin-state elsewhere. Scotland, rather, is seen as a self-recognizing nation within a plurinational union. As in any nation, the criteria for membership are multiple but the exercise of political rights is defined by territorial criteria, as shown in the franchise for Scottish Parliament and local elections and the independence referendum of 2014. This means UK, Commonwealth and (until Brexit) European citizens over the age of 16 and resident in Scotland.
It would, however, be accurate to call Scotland a minority nation since it accounts for only some eight per cent of the population of the United Kingdom. Scottish votes have rarely decided the outcome of a UK election and the first-past-the-post electoral system usually produces enough seats for the winning party in England to guarantee a majority across the UK as a whole.
Historically, Scotland was managed as a distinct part of the union, without conceding legislative power. Important domains for the reproduction of the nation, including established religion and education, were governed by local institutions. A dedicated government department, the Scottish Office, with its own minister in the UK government, administered domestic policy outside of taxation and welfare. UK regional policies and the distribution of public expenditure were handled with a view to Scotland. The British political parties dominated political representation but took care to present a Scottish image and cultivate their local roots. Patronage networks in the cities (dominated by Labour) and the rural areas (the Unionists, as Conservatives were known) bolstered support both for the parties and for the union.
For long periods of the twentieth century, the Labour and Conservative parties largely monopolized the Scottish vote, while performing there more or less as well as they did in England. There were two exceptions. One was the late nineteenth century, when Conservative dominance in England co-existed with Liberal hegemony in Scotland. This was one factor in sparking demands for legislative autonomy or Home Rule, the other factor being the example of Ireland. From the 1960s, the gap opened again as the Unionists/ Conservatives (dominant in the 1950s) went into long-term decline. Labour gained a plurality of votes and a majority seats and at every election between 1964 and 2010. The Home Rule movement revived although it was not until 1999 that Scotland gained a devolved Parliament.
Scottish devolution has been interpreted in different ways. For some, it represents an adjustment of policy roles in a unitary state. Westminster has lent powers to Scotland, which can be taken back at any time. There has been no reform of the central state to take account to devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Rather, they remain exceptions to the norm of majoritarian Westminster politics. Under the principle of ‘devolve and forget’ they have been allowed to make policy within their own domains, representing a significant extension of the sphere of local autonomy but not a break in principle.
For others, devolution represents a measure of self-determination, affirmed in the referendum of 1997 setting up the new Parliament. This builds on early ideas about the union as a partnership of nations in which the principle of parliamentary sovereignty was never resolved. The two interpretations have coexisted ever since. Strangely enough, even the independence referendum of 2014 barely touched on this issue, since that was about whether Scotland should become a separate, sovereign state, not about what devolution meant. Only at the end of the campaign did the unionist parties agree on a package of measures that were vaguely linked to federal understandings. What the referendum did, however, was establish a rather clear division within Scotland between those who believe that the logical consequence of Scottish nationhood is an independent state and those who give primacy to the British nation and UK state.
The division was deepened by the results of the Brexit referendum when Scotland voted by a majority of 62 per cent to remain in the UK while England and the UK as a whole voted narrowly to leave. While the various formulas of autonomy, devolution, Home Rule and federalism can be managed to map out ‘middle ways’ between the unitary state and independence, membership of the EU is a clear cut choice of ‘in’ or ‘out’. This was reinforced by the turn on the part of the UK Government to a ‘hard’ Brexit, excluding membership of the EU single market or customs union, and by the refusal to allow a differentiated Brexit for Scotland.
This has been accompanied by a more muscular unionism within the UK Government, determined to assert its presence in Scotland. Powers coming back from Europe have been taken back to the centre rather than devolved, although not as comprehensively as originally proposed. The UK Government has started to spend in Scotland in both reserved and devolved matters. The language of ‘unitary state’ has been revived (for example in the Internal Market White Paper).
At the same time, the old model of territorial management through the party system has broken down. The Scottish National Party (helped by the electoral system) has won a large majority of Scottish seats at the last three UK General Elections. Labour, the main party of territorial management since the 1960s, has been reduced twice to only one seat. The Conservative ‘revival’ has been limited.
In many ways, Scottish politics have become more self-referential and detached from the British level. The UK Government is barely visible except to collect taxes and distribute payments from a welfare system that itself has been stigmatized and no longer underpinned by a concept of social citizenship. The Covid crisis has allowed the Scottish Government to occupy the main political space as it takes the lead in responding – even if the substantive policies are not so different from those south of the border.
Support for independence, which was 45 per cent in the referendum of 2014, has held up and even increased in response to Brexit and Covid.
A return to the managed union would require a revival of the fortunes of the British parties in Scotland. This looks unlikely. Indeed, their retreat has deprived them of troops on the ground and contacts with Scottish opinion, making it ever more difficult to know how to respond to the new politics. Alternatively, they could accept the new party panorama and seek to accommodate Scottish nationalism within UK politics at the centre, the way the Gladstonian Liberals did with the Irish Party in the late nineteenth century. That, however, risks alienating support in England. In any case, Scottish nationalism is now associated with independence and not with the gamut of formulas from Home Rule to devolution-max, which have served to blur the issue in the past. It is also linked with a commitment to Europe which neither of the main UK parties would countenance.
There is no teleological rule that nations must become states. Scottish independence is not inevitable and support for it, while over 50 per cent, is not overwhelming. The meaning of independence itself is in question in the modern world. In the independence referendum campaign of 2014, SNP leader Alex Salmond promised that Scotland would remain within five ‘unions’ – monarchical, monetary, defence, European and social – and withdraw only from the political one. The independence prospectus is now closely linked to membership of the European Union – or perhaps the European Economic Area. There are multiple other external reference points, including the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the world trading system, the Council of Europe and NATO. Scotland will remain, as before, a small nation nested in larger systems of regulation and policy-making but can no longer be understood just as a minority within the United Kingdom.
This blog is part of the series Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives, a collaboration between the Centre on Constitutional Change, H-Nationalism, and the ‘Myth of Homogeneity’ Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International Development Studies, Geneva.
Image by Roy on Flickr.