The SNP's rallying cry of 'Stronger for Scotland' has until recently carried the party from one success to the next. In a recent piece, Perthshire North MP Pete Wishart argues “we have to get to a One Scotland approach”. SNP member and founder of left wing pressure group Neutral Scotland Tejas Mukerji asks the question: which Scotland?
Although I disagree with his gradualist approach to an independence referendum, there's actually much of Pete Wishart's analysis I see eye-to-eye with. The MP is correct to identify that the SNP needs to build bridges with the Eurosceptic third of its base that has felt alienated since the Brexit referendum in 2016. He’s right to call for a more nuanced understanding of British identity and to try and relate to the anxieties and concerns of 2014 No voters.
In that regard, I find it quite disheartening that his earnest insights have made him persona non grata in certain (admittedly fringe) sections of the Yes movement. Nevertheless, there's a lot to unpack in his recent blog piece, where he makes the case for not neglecting rural Scotland in a future independence campaign by reducing the independence movement’s reliance on class politics and appeal to left wing/traditional Labour voters.
Wishart begins his piece by delving into the SNP and rural Scotland’s psephological history. Although his insights into the curious nationalist characteristics of 20th Century Scottish Unionism and how they relate to SNP support today are certainly worthwhile, they don’t tell us much today – primarily because the former was fundamentally identitarian while the latter is constitutional. To the extent that identify shifts can be credited with changing the terrain of constitutional politics, these shifts occurred within the paradigm of inescapable historical-material conditions, such as the demise of empire and deindustrialisation.
Wishart states: “For so much of rural Scotland observing the talk of a movement seeking to ‘transform’ our nation was maybe just a bit too much to take.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this suggests that appealing to conservative sentiment is key to winning rural voters. Regardless of moral arguments, from a tactical point of view this is a dead end: it would alienate the far larger and more persuadable segment of Scotland’s electorate – the urban left and left-leaning working/middle class. Securing a Yes vote is a numbers game, and maximising the Yes coalition is about broadening rather than refocusing support.
The idea that “rural Scotland” is a homogenous entity which behaved in a singularly consistent manner is undermined by what the the results of at last year’s general election actually show us. The SNP’s own former heartlands themselves are quite varied. Areas like Moray, Banff and Angus had high “Leave” votes well above the national average and losses there can perhaps be chalked up to a straightforward SNP-Tory swing among Eurosceptics.
But others, like Wishart’s own Perthshire, voted strongly to Remain. Then you must factor in the seats the SNP took from Labour and the Lib Dems only 3 years ago, which can’t be considered “heartlands” in the same sense. In seats like Gordon, Aberdeenshire West and Borders, the SNP vote held up quite respectably but was swamped by former Lib Dem/Labour voters flocking to the Tories en masse.
In other rural seats like Skye & Lochaber or Na h-Eileanan an Iar, the SNP majority continued to remain healthy. What distinguishes most of these cases is the levels of wealth found in each region, with the Highlands and Islands being somewhat less developed and more economically depressed than the relative affluence found in the Borders or Aberdeenshire.
Wishart (above) calls for a 'One Scotland' approach but has inadvertently stumbled upon the reality there are at least two – he just categorises them incorrectly. Not urban vs rural – but the Scotland of “haves” and “have nots”. The dilapidated fishing communities of the North East and the council estates of Govanhill have more common interests with each other than they do with Highland landowners or Edinburgh’s West End. It may not be straightforward to put forward a independence prospectus that firmly unites both, but it cannot and should not be seen as impossible either.
A popular political, social and economic vision capable of mobilising the greatest possible support for independence would be one that has plenty to offer the working class of all regions. A national bank which democratises control of investment would help support a Green Industrial Revolution that rejuvenates the economy of the Highlands and also develop high-paid, high-tech jobs for Central Scotland.
A trade and fishing/agricultural policy which nurtures rural Scottish producers would increase quality and standards for urban consumers. A liberal and humane immigration policy would alleviate the acute labour shortages the rural economy faces after Brexit while also enriching the cultural and economic dynamism of Scotland’s cities and communities. A full employment guarantee or basic income would improve conditions for urban workers who experience greater precarity and insecurity than ever before, as well as stemming the tide of depopulation in the most remote parts of the country by those seeking a living but lacking opportunity at home.
From a member's perspective, it's important that the SNP and broader Yes movement re-engage with rural Scotland. But to frame the interests of rural and urban Scotland as somehow mutually exclusive does not help the cause of reaching either. The idea that the key to appealing to rural communities lies in appealing to their (small or big C) conservatism is mistaken – to fight for independence is to fight against the status quo, and cannot be reconciled with the desire to keep things as they were.
Politics at its most effective is both confrontational and transactional. The Yes movement has an opportunity to define itself against the total neglect and abandonment visited upon rural Scotland by successive Westminster administrations, as well as the threat posed to it today by Tory policy. At the same time, it must ensure that both rural and urban communities are sold on how independence will come to benefit them, and they must be empowered with a vision that compels them to do so.