A Day For Scotland and arts-based campaigning for self-government

MAIKE DINGER

What role might cultural activism play in a second referendum on Scottish independence? Journalist Chris Deerin predicts that any second Yes campaign would be characterised by ‘wearisome attention to detail, cold engagement with facts and, yes, a healthy measure of political cynicism’ – a stark contrast with the artistic enthusiasm which ‘bestowed glamour on the independence movement’ in 2014.[i] For many Yes supporters, in that burst of creativity it seemed anything was possible as long as it was imaginable. The hopeful, positive aura of the ‘cultural movement’ continues to shape the referendum in popular memory, despite suggestions that creatives’ messages had a limited social and geographic reach within the broader debate.[ii]

But the festivalisation of Scottish politics did not begin with National Collective, the leading body of ‘artists and creatives for independence’. In fact, the aim of National Collective’s ‘Yestival’ in 2014 – to showcase ‘a country that celebrates diversity and creativity […] with the desire and motivation to make a better future’[iii] – has clear echoes of an event held 24 years earlier.

A Day for Scotland (ADFS) was a day-long festival of music and fun held in Stirling on 14 July 1990, and it invoked a similar image of the plural and hopeful nation. Local councillor John Hendry described the free, family-friendly event as

a unique opportunity for people of all ages, interests and backgrounds to join together in celebrating Scotland’s past and present achievements through music, drama, dance, comedy, sport, food and everything that is good about Scottish culture. But we are also looking ahead to a great new future for Scotland in the 1990s and beyond.[iv]

These aspirational themes reference a growing popular appetite for Scottish devolution, rather than full independence, but there are telling parallels between the two festivals.

All images: Scottish Political Archive

The confluence of art and politics is a central theme in press coverage of the 1990 Day, with the Stirling Observer pleading to ‘Keep the politics out of festivals – enjoy the music’. Unlike National Collective’s activities, ADFS was publicly funded by taxpayers, and this brought a host of challenges and compromises. This was a central theme at the commemorative virtual event ‘A Day For Scotland – 30 years on’, held on 14 July 2020. Organised by the Scottish Political Archive at the University of Stirling, performers, pundits, punters and organisers of ADFS came together to excavate their memories and reflections.

Music critic Stewart Smith attended the event at the very start of his gig-going career, aged 9. If there were political overtones to the event, they went unnoticed as he drank in a range of exciting and unfamiliar sounds, from Test Department to The Shamen. His mother, literary scholar Lorna Smith, recalled

feeling part of a celebration of Scottish culture which seemed natural and unforced. There was an understated political narrative which in my memory was broadly left-wing but not in any way party political. It was a beautiful summer’s day and I remember the affection and respect shown to Hamish Henderson. We danced our way out of Falleninch Field to Runrig’s Gaelic version of “Loch Lomond”. A special day, the significance of which I didn’t fully appreciate at the time.

While ADFS – like the 2014 Yestival – might not have been party political, it made no secret of its enthusiasm for constitutional change. In the event programme, Pat Kane of Hue and Cry described the festival as ‘the largest meeting of Scottish artists under a commitment to self-determination’,[v] and Runrig’s Donny Munro cited ‘our basic right to self-determination’. The programme foreword by Campbell Christie, General Secretary of the STUC, ‘welcome[d] the role so many in the arts world have played in campaigning for constitutional and democratic change’, noting that ‘today we are celebrating our cultural heritage while demanding our democratic rights’, overtly linking the festival to the demand for the ‘establishment of a Scottish Parliament with wide-ranging powers’. Folk legend Dick Gaughan brought these themes together, writing:

Today is about music and the performing arts but it is about more than that – it is about art and struggle. Let today see the forging of an unbreakable alliance between the STUC, artists, and most important of all, you the audience, the people of Scotland […] to establish a Scottish Assembly as the next vital step in the defence of the Scottish people and towards us taking our rightful place among the community of nations.

Press coverage was broadly favourable, with the Stirling Observer noting that ‘speeches from the stage tended toward moderation rather than fanaticism’ while instilling a ‘real nationalist pride in the largely Scottish audience’ of 30,000.[vi] Another report, from Steve Fairweather, complained that so many statements on ‘rights, freedom and respect’ turned the event into ‘a political football’.[vii] Pat Kane countered that while ADFS was ‘a day for Scottish culture […] there is no way it could be called that without involving politics’.[viii] Despite the ‘political overtone’ of ADFS, journalist Stephen Smith agreed that you simply ‘had to celebrate’.[ix]

Unsurprisingly, the political dimension of the event met with opposition, including local ‘Tory attempts to sour the event with a campaign against the misuse of public money’.[x] Political historian and director of the Scottish Political Archive, Dr Peter Lynch, highlighted the political and economic insecurities which came with the event. Fears that Stirling Council could be fined for reckless spending (were the event to flop) were stirred by local Conservatives alongside broader complaints about the event’s lightly coded but unmistakable political aims. In Lynch’s view, the real significance of the festival was in using art and music to broaden the appeal of devolution, mobilising a large audience through a positive, future-centric approach at one remove from formal politics. And the event took place at a highly politicised moment, as several participants recalled, when Scottish popular anger against Thatcherism and the Poll Tax were reaching their peak.

In the festival programme, Elaine C. Smith alluded to ‘a government of another country [which] has done its worst to help destroy the core of our industry, attack our education service and our health service’. By contrast, ADFS would ‘celebrate what is truly ours’,[xi] placing national culture on centre-stage and (in Kane’s words) raising ‘the new Scottish Voice to a fever pitch’.[xii] Celebrating national pride on these terms drew a large audience into the festival politics of performing the nation – somewhat akin to an international football tournament – but in conditions where pro-Scotland symbolism carried extra constitutional significance.[xiii]

By 2014, the political and cultural realties had changed significantly. While in 1990 the focus was on civic goals of democratic representation, cultural activism was complemented by a clear – even fierce – rhetoric of national pride and self-assertion. By 2014, national culture and distinction were not felt to be threatened. In fact, the assertion of Scottish identity had been markedly depoliticised since devolution in 1999. Whereas ADFS was shaped by a call for cultural affirmation (‘of what is truly ours’), Scotland-centred politics were ‘normal’ and uncontroversial by the time of National Collective. Perhaps the embedding of a distinctly national political framework (in devolution) freed artists and creatives from their representative roles and burdens. If art and culture in Scotland ever worked as a substitute for political representation – as suggested by the ‘dreamers’[xiv] of the pro-devolution movement – this role was certainly altered by the establishment of the new Scottish Parliament. By 2014, artists and creatives were not called upon to fly the flag or defend ‘the Scottish voice’, precisely because these roles were now ‘baked in’ to the structures of devolved political culture.[xv]

Instead, National Collective provided alternative narratives of independence at a distance from the official SNP-led campaign, adding colour, passion and imagination to the case for Yes. It maintained a broad appeal partly by abstaining from politically radical thought and art and focusing instead on the ‘hopes and ambitions’ of the Scottish people as the unifying factor of the independence movement.[xvi] At the centre of this engagement was the invitation to the public to imagine their version of a future Scotland: through wish trees, knitting projects, poster competitions and Twitter takeovers.

One irony of the cultural activism of 2014 was the strong presence of nostalgia for an (imagined) past – without successfully accounting for the changed realities of the present. This tendency is evident in the theoretical framing of the culture-based activism, e.g. National Collective’s aim to offer ‘imaginative visions of a different Scotland [by] building upon the cultural gains of devolution’,[xvii] and the revival of culture-based campaigning formats, such as the Bus Party, which brought back activism and memories from the devolution campaign in the 1990s.[xviii] Broad gestures of national pride – though common in the wider Yes campaign – were replaced by predominantly small-scale creative exercises to inspire designs for a hypothetical country.[xix] Because of the binary nature of the referendum question and debate,[xx] many pro-Yes cultural arguments were heard mainly by the already ‘converted’.[xxi] Thus, the 2014 arts-based movement was not defined by assertions of identity but calls for different forms of civic representation and social and political accountability, coupled to imaginings of a different future. In general, both official campaigns in 2014 avoided overt arguments ‘from’ national culture,[xxii] and scepticism towards culture-based political activism was widespread.[xxiii]

This discussion lays bare the convulsion of politics and culture in the Scottish context: it links to the deeply engrained paradox of ascribing artists, and particularly writers, a vanguard role in national politics,[xxiv] while criticising political art for diminishing national culture (by selling out to politics). This practice gestures to larger continuities – and ruptures – in the Scottish independence discourse, namely a tendency to legitimate politics through culture-based activism based on nostalgia and national narratives of (self-) identification. My PhD research explores these themes further, exploring arts-based activism and the discursive mediation of ‘popular political participation’ during ‘indyref’ 2012-14. This project explores the political and media construct of a whole country engaged in creative debate and activism, despite quantitative media analyses indicating the marginal role of culture and identity in the wider debate.[xxv] Against this backdrop, my project contextualises the ‘different voices’ of the Scottish independence debate and explores how citizens chose to participate in creative grassroots activism, whose ‘voices’ were heard, and how artists and writers contributed through commentary and writing to the debate. (I am therefore very keen to speak with creatives, writers, journalists, activists, and campaigners about their experience and memories of indyref!)

Can we expect another artistic festival on national politics? Time will tell, but past experience shows us that art and culture have the potential to be much more than creative add-ons to a civic debate, based on their powerful legitimating function for various claims to political power (employed by different political parties, on different sides of the constitutional debate). The intrinsically political nature of national art and culture needs to be recognised, mobilised, and realised through cultural production rather than iterative commentary. There might still be space in the debate for the ‘dreamers’, but only if they succeed in promoting a shared dream to larger segments of society, and explore – both critically and creatively – the mobilising power of national art.


[i] Chris Deerin, “Hard to see where poetry will lie come second independence referendum,” Press and Journal (2 Feb. 2021), https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/opinion/columnists/chris-deerin/2863723/chris-deerin-hard-to-see-where-poetry-will-lie-come-second-independence-referendum/.

[ii] David Torrance, “Curious Case of Creatives Who Support Independence,” HeraldScotland (28 July 2014), https://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/13172112.curious-case-of-creatives-who-support-independence/.

[iii] Mairi McFadyen, “More Than 30 Days, 1786 Miles, 16 Tents and One Carnival…How National Collective Took the Yestival all over Scotland,” HeraldScotland (3 Aug. 2014), www.heraldscotland.com/news/13173042.More_than_30_days__1786_miles__16_tents_and_one_carnival_____how_National_Collective_took_the_Yestival_all_over_Scotland/.

[iv] John Hendry, A Day For Scotland. Souvenir Programme (Stirling 1990), 5.

[v] Patrick Kane, Souvenir Programme, 13.

[vi] “Sunshine spectacle for all the family,” 1.

[vii] Steve Fairweather, “Keep the politics out of festivals – enjoy the music,” Stirling Observer (18 July 1990), 2.

[viii] Kane qtd. in Barr “Pat Kane and singer Fish,” 2.

[ix] Stephen Smith, “Happy crowds let the good times roll,” Stirling Observer (18 July 1990), 5.

[x] Linda Barr, “Pat Kane and singer Fish join in praise of big event,” Stirling Observer (18 July 1990), 2.

[xi] Elaine C. Smith, Souvenir Programme, 12.

[xii] Patrick Kane, Souvenir Programme, 13.

[xiii] Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London, Los Angeles, New Delhi, Singapore: Sage, [1995] 2010) 50-63.

[xiv] Scott Hames, The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), iix.

[xv] See Hames, Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution.

[xvi] National Collective, “Making a space for a human conversation,” (7 July 2013), previously published in POST magazine, http://www.nationalcollective.com/2013/07/07/manifesto-imagine-a-better-scotland/.

[xvii] National Collective, “Making a space.”

[xviii] Libby Brooks, “Artists embark on ‘listening’ bus tour of Scotland before independence vote,” The Guardian (1 May 2014), https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/may/01/artists-bus-tour-scottish-independence-vote.

[xix] National Collective, “Making a space.”

[xx] Michael Keating, ed., Debating Scotland: Issues of Independence and Union in the 2014 Referendum (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017).

[xxi] John McDermott, “Scotland’s Yestival Highlights “Bad Romance” with UK,” The Financial Times (1 Aug. 2014), www.ft.com/content/82d4627c-1989-11e4-8730-00144feabdc0.

[xxii] Donatella della Porta, Francis O‘Connor, Martín Portos and Anna Subirats Ribas, Social Movements and Referendums from Below. Direct democracy in the neoliberal crisis (Bristol, Policy Press University of Bristol, 2017), 34; 112.

[xxiii] Cal Flyn, “Scottish Independence: Aye, Have a Dream,” New Statesman (26 Sept. 2013), www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/09/scottish-independence-aye-have-dream; Alison Campsie, “James MacMillan Likens Indy Group National Collective to “Mussolini’s Cheerleaders”,” HeraldScotland (26 Aug. 2013), https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13119861.james-macmillan-likens-indy-group-national-collective-to-mussolinis-cheerleaders/.

[xxiv] Hames, Literary Politics, ix, 3-4.

[xxv] Marina Dekavalla, “Framing Referendum Campaigns: The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum in the Press,” Media, Culture & Society 38, no. 6 (2016): 793-810, SAGE. https://doi:10.1177/0163443715620929

Workshop: Narrating Scottish Devolution (31 August 2015)

Monday 31 August, University of Stirling

Narrating Scottish Devolution is a research project exploring the different ways in which devolution has been explained, understood and made culturally meaningful in Scotland. We are particularly interested in the idea of ‘cultural devolution’ — the notion that Scottish writers and artists paved the way for the politicians — and its influence in post-1999 governance and literary culture.

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A draft programme for the second and final workshop in the series follows below. A small number of places are available for interested students and members of the public who wish to attend; please email scott.hames[at]stir.ac.uk to arrange.

For full details of the project, which is supported by the British Academy, see the link above.

Cultural Devolution as Paradigm & Practice (1999- present)

9.30 Tea/Coffee

10.00 Introductory: Recalling Workshop 1 and interim developments – Scott Hames

10.20 SESSION 1: Before and After 1999: Devolution, Change and Continuity

Kathleen Jamie, David McCrone, Gerry Hassan

12.00 Lunch

1.00 SESSION 2: Cultural Devolution as Policy Frame

Paul Cairney, Gerry Mooney, Adam Tomkins

2.40 Tea/Coffee

3.00 SESSION 3: Devolved Cultural Politics and Artistic Production

Stefanie Lehner, Neil Mulholland, Aaron Kelly

4.40-5.30 CONCLUDING ROUNDTABLE
Future research directions and questions

Scotland’s Devolved Tax Powers and the Implications for Independence

tax3tax1tax2

PAUL GILLEN

Recent controversy surrounding the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – and Scottish Government powers to mitigate its impact – underscore the importance and complexity of cross-border tax politics. Stirling PhD student Paul Gillen examines the role of devolved taxation within the independence debate.

Announcing the Scottish Government’s Revenue Scotland and Tax Powers Bill in December 2013, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney MSP said ‘This Government will take a distinctly Scottish approach to taxation, including a vigorous approach to combatting tax avoidance’. Swinney added ‘We firmly believe that decisions about Scotland’s taxes should be taken by the people of Scotland. The Bill and the establishment of Revenue Scotland are important steps in taking greater responsibility for setting and collecting taxes in Scotland’.

Though the details of tax management policy seldom lead the political debate, this is a clear instance of pro-independence politics bumping up against the limits – and opportunities – of devolution. Under the new bill, the non-ministerial body Revenue Scotland will become the tax authority responsible for management and collection of the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT) and the Scottish Landfill Tax (SLfT), both of which are due to be devolved from April 2015 as per the Scotland Act (2012).

What does this tell us? Whatever the referendum outcome, the Scottish Government intends that Scottish Ministers will lead on devolved tax policy development and future legislation. The newly established Revenue Scotland will be given the lead on measures to tackle tax fraud/tax evasion through Targeted Anti-Avoidance Rules (TAARs) or through application of the General Anti-Avoidance Rule. Scottish Ministers see clamping down on tax avoidance as a key priority, the politics of which are central to financial arguments for independence. Requiring Revenue Scotland to publish an annual report, and to submit it for Ministerial as well as full parliamentary scrutiny, will strengthen the sense of Scottish fiscal accountability and democratic oversight.

Devolved tax collection can also be closely aligned with other areas of Scottish Government policy, becoming an important lever of ‘joined-up government’. The UK Government introduced Landfill Tax in 1996, attempting to ensure that landfill waste was properly priced and to discourage the disposal of waste to landfill. The new Scottish Landfill Tax includes provisions allowing the Scottish Government to alter the rates and exemptions inherited from the UK tax (via subordinate legislation). This power would allow the Scottish Government to alter the tax collection system in pursuit of policies such as its current Zero Waste Strategy.

A similar shift is in store for the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax. The Bill sets out a ‘progressive’ system of taxation, as opposed to the ‘slab’ structure of the UK Stamp Duty, set up in 2003. According to John Swinney, this ‘slab’ system ‘caused market distortions and leads to the false recording of house prices in an effort to avoid paying tax at the higher rate’.  Swinney’s assertion was supported across the chamber, including Scottish Conservative Gavin Brown MSP, a Finance Committee Member.

The Tax Powers Bill marks a critical juncture in the ability of the Scottish Government to prove that it can successfully set up a distinctly Scottish tax regime, and (over time) the opportunity to display how taxation would work in an independent Scotland. Revenue Scotland, as the authority responsible for the collection of the devolved taxes, could establish itself as tough in tackling tax avoidance and efficient by running with as few staff as possible, and on a small budget. That, of course, has implications for the independence debate.

One only has to look towards the Scottish Government’s Independence White Paper to understand the link between how successfully the Scottish Government plans for the new tax powers, and how that plays into the SNP’s overall vision of how taxation would work in an independent Scotland. Ultimately, the goal would be to use independence as an opportunity to design a tax system ‘based on a clear set of principles and to better link to complementary areas of policy such as welfare’.  What this indicates is an ideological belief in a redistributive tax system, which the Scottish Government believes to be fairer. There are a number of options open in order to achieve a more redistributive tax system, and Revenue Scotland would provide the foundation for the collection of a much wider range of taxes under independence, but also through further devolution.

It is important that the Scottish Government gets the devolution of new tax powers right. Any problems during the transition process will be pounced on by the pro-Union politicians both inside and outside Holyrood, in an attempt to negate the SNP’s claims that all tax decisions should be made at Holyrood, through a Yes vote.  This could come in the form of the argument that if the Scottish Government could not get the devolution of two new taxes right, then how could Scots have confidence in the Scottish Government to design and manage a completely independent tax system? However, if the Scottish Government does get the devolution of taxes right, pro-Union parties are equally likely to argue that it was a display of how devolution for Scotland worked best, and that independence was therefore unnecessary. Indeed, the devolution of tax powers to Scotland has already been articulated as a benefit of the Union in the debating chamber at Holyrood.

This underscores the importance of tax devolution within the context of Scotland’s constitutional debate. If the Scottish Government can oversee a smooth transition process and successfully convey the benefits of the devolved taxes to businesses and individuals, then business people in particular may decide that the Scottish Government could be trusted in designing a completely independent and robust tax system. Furthermore, if Revenue Scotland can function on a low budget with successful outcomes, this will establish the organisation as a legitimate and capable tax authority which could successfully take on the management of a wider range of taxes either through the devolution of further taxes from Westminster, or through independence.

Paul Gillen is a PhD candidate at the University of Stirling.  His thesis analyses how the Yes and No camps promote and subvert national identity during the Scottish independence referendum campaign. Paul’s other research interests include the extreme right in Britain and Europe, British counter-terrorism policy, IR theory, and environmental justice. Paul is an avid Chelsea fan, and attempts to attend a game once a season.

Back to Scotland’s Future: Re-editing the ‘new Scottish politics’

Scottish Parliament 1
(Image © Adrian Hart, 2007)

EMILY ST.DENNY

Unsurprisingly, the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future has been forward-looking: projecting the nation as capable and deserving (or not) of political autonomy. But it has also drawn from an existing toolbox of meanings and representations, situating itself in a juncture between past and potentiality. Current debates clearly reflect the legacy of ‘new politics’ discourse emergent in the devolution campaign of the 1990s. Both campaigns, I would argue, are drawing lessons from the mitigated results of the ‘new Scottish politics’ in order to bridge the gap between their rhetoric and the political and economic realities facing Scotland.

Read in this light, the White Paper (Scotland’s Future) can be seen as seeking to establish a compelling equilibrium between aspiration and reassuring realism. Both the SNP and the broader Yes campaign are attempting to reframe the principles of ‘new politics’ as compatible with independence, rather than as the exclusive dividend of well-calibrated devolution within the union.

Devolution and ‘new’ Scottish politics

Talk of ‘new politics’ in Scotland was first associated with the campaign for the Scottish Parliament in the mid to late 1990s. At the time, most advocates of home rule, including many of the parties, civic groups and churches that made up the Scottish Constitutional Convention, emphasised ‘new Scottish politics’ as the potential dividend of devolution: a break from ‘old’ Westminster politics, considered by some to be discordant and divisive. The Labour UK government saw devolution as a means of enabling the development of appropriate Scottish responses to issues faced north of the border while fostering distinctiveness within the union. While the SNP also bought into the ‘new politics’ rhetoric, it presented the progressive potential of devolution as an improvement in the broader context of a continued effort towards full independence, which they argued to be the only means of bringing about a truly new Scottish politics. Overall, proponents of devolution presented ‘new Scottish politics’ as the positive culmination of new institutions, new policy processes and a new political culture.

While devolution has undeniably transformed the way policy decisions are made and implemented in Scotland, the extent to which it has delivered on its promise of new politics is contested. Most significantly, the institution of a Scottish parliament repatriated the debate and negotiation of policy in devolved areas to those they were due to affect. Indeed, the new Parliament was imagined as a forum for cooperative and constructive deliberation, supposedly in contrast to the adversarial House of Commons. This institutional development was wedded to the principles of consultation and civic participation, which the Scottish government has since extensively operationalised by involving local authorities, associations, unions and professional bodies in the negotiation and design of policy priorities. Additionally, the willingness of the main parties to cooperate, illustrated by the experience of the 1997 campaign on the devolution referendum, as well as their substantial overlap in policy matters and electorate, led many to believe a different, and more consensual, type of political behavior would become the norm.

The Scottish government has successfully realised some of the cornerstones of ‘new politics’. In particular, devolution led to significant changes in institutions and has certainly impacted upon the policy process. Nevertheless, the contrast between ‘new’ Scottish and ‘old’ Westminster politics has been overstated, and electoral competition being what it is – the intense and fraught vying for attention and support in a context saturated by adversaries and alternative ideas – inflated hopes of consensus politics have been somewhat frustrated. In this sense, devolution has not appeared to engender and embed a new political culture in Scotland. In particular, evidence would suggest that in the sixteen years since the Scotland Act established the Scottish Parliament, there has not been a significant move away from traditional adversarial politics. Rather than being the product of a putatively distinct political culture, cooperation in Scottish politics, when it happens, has tended to be the result of perceived mutual advantage or a shared goal.

Re-editing representations of Scottish exceptionalism

The representation of Scotland as different is not new. In fact, the myth of a Scottish exception pre-dates the debate over devolution and has recurrently surfaced throughout the period of the union. It is therefore not surprising that the inter/national debate over the upcoming Scottish independence referendum has re-edited the conversation over the possibility of new and different politics in Scotland’s near future. Indeed, this is an old discussion reinterpreted and reissued. What is interesting, however, are the emerging modalities of the most recent debate, with the Yes campaign vying to shift the framing of ‘new’ Scottish politics away from its connotations of fostering political and policy distinctiveness within the union and towards a broader discussion of sovereignty and democracy.

Scotland’s Future notably couches the constitutional future of Scotland in terms of democracy and progress. As such, the Scottish Government attempts to frame the discussion as one over issues of legitimacy, appropriateness and sovereignty, placing the representation of the stakeholders in the referendum at its heart. Rather than opting for a nationalist representation of the Scottish people heavily anchored on a purported cultural or ethnic singularity, the SNP has sought to put forward a case built on civic nationalism, whereby an independent Scottish state would derive its legitimacy from the expressed will of those who live and work on its territory. In keeping with the democratic principle of self-determination through participation, this general will is posited as being expressed through the making of decisions:

Decisions about Scotland – decisions that affect us, our families, our communities and the future of our country – should be taken in Scotland to reflect the views and concerns of the Scottish people, rather than by governments at Westminster with different priorities, often rejected by voters in Scotland. (Scotland’s Future, Introduction)

Interestingly, the act of making decisions on political and policy matters is presented as inherently worthwhile, separately from the act of making the right policy decisions. Thus, prefacing the White Paper, First Minister Alex Salmond states: ‘No-one is suggesting an independent Scotland would not face challenges. We would be unique is this was not the case. But we are rich in human talent and natural resources […] With independence, we can build the kind of country we want to be.’ In this sense, the challenges an independent Scotland would undoubtedly face are not rejected but owned, as the price and privilege of self-government.

This approach seeks to establish­ the viability and desirability of path-breaking political decisions in the context of significant uncertainty and risk. In this context the Yes campaign is faced with having to find an equilibrium between providing sufficient (and sufficiently compelling) information about how it would address the implications of independence, and setting out a case for autonomy liable to attract voters with a variety of policy preferences.

In Scotland’s Future the SNP has broadly resisted the urge to instrumentalise the White Paper as a definitive manifesto on what policies would look like in an independent Scotland – which would require the unpalatable hubris of projecting both a Yes vote in the referendum and the election of an SNP government in the first democratic elections penciled in for 5 May 2016. Instead, they opt to emphasise the role independence would play in opening up the twin realms of politics and policy to democratic design by those living and working in Scotland.

The document’s 670 pages lay out a relatively detailed vision of the policy options an independent Scotland could envisage, from free childcare provision to the re-nationalisation of Royal Mail, seen through an undeniably partisan lens. This strategy nevertheless aims to decouple the partisanship of policy preference, associated with electoral competition and routine politics, from the discussion of the future of sovereignty and legitimate representation in Scotland, considered above adversarial and short-termist party politics. Attempts are made to emphasise the democratic implications of, and policymaking opportunities afforded by, independence; these are discussed more prominently than the policy minutiae that would attend realisation of these opportunities. Correspondingly, broad principles that have become recurrently linked with representations of Scottish society, such as social justice, fairness and prosperity, are preferred over discussion of how each could be achieved through policy.

This effort to depoliticize the issue aims to place at a remove the political aspect of decision-making from the referendum debate, arguably to minimize its association with the perceived pettiness of politics at a time when trust in politicians has plummeted. While depoliticisation is a strategy associated with New Labour in the late 1990s, it did not emerge as an element of the debate over independence until recently and, therefore, cannot be considered an intrinsic aspect of the original ‘new politics’ discourse.

Unsurprisingly, in the context of vigorous campaigning for Scotland to remain within the union, and in the absence of similar blueprints setting out the modalities of possible increased devolution, this particular vision of Scotland’s future has met with widely contrasting responses. Thus, proponents of a Yes vote, such as Robin McAlpine (director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation) consider it a successful harmonisation of priorities and preferences in the context of a nation-building project supposed to enhance participation and representation regardless of partisan politics:

What I was looking for was a promise that between a Yes vote and the first democratic election in 2016, the SNP wouldn’t behave like it had the right to design a new country all by itself. The paper promises we will all get to play a part in writing a constitution and that its opponents will be included in the negotiating team that agrees the deal we get when leaving the UK. So I am reassured. (Jimmy Reid Foundation)

Conversely, critics, such as leader of the Better Together campaign, Alistair Darling, interpret this stance as a smoke-and-mirrors deflection tactic resulting in the failure to address key questions about how an independent Scottish government would set about achieving its naïve and nebulous goals.

In the 1990s, talk of ‘new Scottish politics’ was tightly tethered to the campaign for devolution and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. This transformation was argued to hold the key to the development of new institutions, which would enable fair, inclusive and effective decision- and policy-making processes through which Scottish solutions to Scottish issues would be found, and ultimately would foster a consultative and cooperative political culture unlike the adversity held to characterise ‘old’ Westminster politics. Central to this argument were multiple and competing interpretations of a perceived Scottish difference. Scotland is different: her population’s problems and interests are different; the principles and priorities she is built on are different; the future she seeks for herself is different. Far from idiosyncratic, incantations of Scottish exceptionalism are a systematic fixture in debates over the nation’s political future. Unsurprisingly, with less than a year to go until the referendum on Scottish independence, the current debate has re-edited this tradition, merging old and new ideas and strategies, as the stakes are raised and Scotland’s constitutional future is reimagined once again. On the one hand, we see elements of the original ‘new politics’ discourse maintained; see the renewed interest in the possibilities an independent Scotland would afford the nurturing of a new political culture. On the other hand, elements such as the attempted depoliticisation of the democratic implications of the referendum have only recently been mobilised.

Overall, the white paper reframes the possibility of ‘new Scottish politics’ in terms of democracy and self-governance, and breaks away from traditional conceptions of representative and fair politics in Scotland solely as the reward reaped from effective devolution within the union. This exercise of projection and meaning-making seeks to navigate the obstacles presented by overwhelming uncertainty and staunch opposition – with very mixed reactions. 

Emily St.Denny is a Research Assistant at the ESRC-funded Scottish Center on Constitutional Change, working as part of a team looking at policymaking in Scotland. She is also working towards a PhD in politics and public policy on the subject of contemporary French prostitution policy. She is based at the Division of History and Politics at the University of Stirling.