Scotland: State and Devolution…but not Revolution…as yet?

Scotland: State and Devolution…but not Revolution…as yet?

Gerry Mooney (The Open University in Scotland)


In the debate on Scottish independence there has been much emphasis on policy architecture, administrative and policy processes and outcomes. While these are not without importance, the more fundamental questions of state power and powerlessness are often side-lined. The sources of political authority and legitimacy are all too often taken for granted. The state comes to be reduced to government – and often more specifically to welfare state, while the wider agencies and apparatus of the state – the legal system, judiciary, police, civil service and armed forces – remain unquestioned. The class basis of state power, reflected for instance in state sponsored neoliberalism, is almost completely absent in this debate, wherein independence is all too frequently presented as little more than a further gradual or linear step towards ‘normal statehood’.

However, the state, or the Scottish state, features in many of the political visions and popular imaginations as to what a future independent Scottish society might look like, even if ‘the state’ is never explicitly discussed. Political and public debate constantly invokes imaginings and myths about Scotland: yesterday, today, and following independence! Here I will explore just some of these issues.

That ‘Scotland is different’ to the rest of the UK – and not least to ‘England’ – is a long expressed but increasingly vociferously-made claim that surrounds both the independence debate and Scottish politics more generally. The bases for this claim are complex and we need to be cautious about the terms ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’, and avoid any homogenising or the downplaying of social divisions – in both countries. The national-isation of Scotland, that is the increasing emphasis on Scotland as a nation (and perhaps also of England too – though that is often constructed and presented as what might be termed a ‘non-nation nation’), works to eclipse the fundamental fault-lines that structure Scotland as a hugely unequal and divided society. In particular the structuring effects of class (and other sources of social division) are all too often absent in most accounts.

The Scotland is different mantra is based primarily on the assumption that there is a set of essentially Scottish values and attitudes that distinguish Scots from others elsewhere in the UK, and especially ‘the English’. This mantra has been critically discussed, but it remains potent. Most notably for this discussion are the components of this general claim which advance the idea of Scots and Scotland as egalitarian, collectivist, inclusive and not only democratic – but social democratic too! This is not to deny that the political landscape of Scotland is distinctive in important respects – and the tenor of debate is also often distinctive – and this goes beyond constitutional questions. The two main parties, SNP and Labour, vie to be the guardians of what is constructed as a particularly Scottish variant of social democracy.

From this we can begin to understand one of the key ways in which the idea of the state is mobilised. The view of Scotland as essentially social democratic is deployed to advance a number of inter-related claims. There is an historic dimension here in the arguments – often made by Scottish nationalists – that an independent Scotland would be the last bastion of the post-1945 Beveridgean welfare state, which would serve as a ‘beacon’ for the rest of the UK – and in particular for England, where public services are on the retreat. Indeed, the issue of the welfare state and its future has become a central, if not the central, plank in the independence debate. Debate has increasingly centred on the future of the NHS in an independent Scotland, the YES camp arguing that only with independence will it be protected from the rampant privatisation which emanates from Westminster. This reflects another claim of the YES campaign – that social welfare and public services in an independent Scotland will be publicly provided, democratically controlled, universalist and free from the punitive and increasingly conditional aspects of welfare that have developed under successive UK governments.

The independence debate has become a debate not about a future Scottish state, or of the UK state, but about the kind of welfare state that people wish to see in Scotland – independent or not. While at both the individual and collective level, there is of course antipathy to the state in Scotland – arguably this does not match the intensity expressed in England, at least a political level, though it is evident at a popular level in attitudes towards policing and other sources of authority. That said there is hostility to ‘austerity’, to privatisation, to punitive welfare, policing, and wars across the entire UK.  But in Scotland the main parties are not anti-state in the way that dominates much of the political climate in England. Notions of a state dependent ‘broken society’, for instance, have no resonance in Scotland; there is no political clamour to roll back the state – and while the Scottish Tories are in tune with their colleagues elsewhere in the UK in this regard, they are a redundant political force.  All of this perhaps partly reflects the fact that public service provision and employment is more significant in Scotland.

This brings us to the question of the impact of neoliberalism in Scotland. That Scotland might have a distinctive political landscape does not mean that neoliberalism has less or little resonance. Scotland is not immune to neoliberalism as a result of progressive Scottish attitudes or civil society which has seemingly protected the country from the worst ravages of market-driven policies. Once again, the question of the state is important. Neoliberalism needs the state and the devolved Scottish state has been instrumental in enabling neoliberal visions of Scotland as a competitive nation that is ‘open for business’, while the SNP have a neoliberal vision of a competitive economy with low corporation tax, supported by a socially neoliberal state.

The SNP vision is founded on an assumption that this side of independence, Scotland is a ‘stateless’ nation, and that independence will bring transition in a Whig-like fashion to ‘normal’ nation-statehood. The state in thus presented as a benign and neutral entity, and an independent Scotland envisioned as something approaching a Nordic state with a Scandinavian-type welfare regime at its core. Not only do such arguments – which encompass large parts of the pro-independence camp – ignore the role of the state in Scotland today and its defence of particular class interests, and of other inequalities and social divisions, they simultaneously romanticise the Nordic/Scandic states and societies and ignore also the wider context of global economic crisis and rising inequality.

Importantly this also betrays the inherent conservatism that lies at the heart of the vision of independence promoted by the SNP, and others. Not only is there a gradualism which implies little will change with independence – at least with regard to issues of order and the sources of authority and the drivers of inequality – but that independence will also be the best way of guaranteeing the continuation of that social order. Further, this invokes also a mythical golden age of the pre-Thatcher welfare state – and a refusal to understand that social welfare has always been as much about control as it has been about care.

Such visions of an independent Scotland – built around a beneficent welfare state founded upon progressive Scottish values – misunderstand and mystify the nature and the role of the state. They also neglect fundamental questions of power and of powerlessness – and these are as pressing in Scotland as elsewhere. While Scottish independence would represent a defeat for the UK imperial state, without a deeper understanding of relations and processes power and powerlessness, there is a risk that with independence one class-based state will simply be replaced by another, and that this new state will operate in ways which will reflect and seek to secure and consolidate particular class interests.

In the clamour to see in an independent Scotland an ‘active’ state that operates in the interests of ‘all’, much is overlooked. The Scottish state operates now to construct a ‘new Scotland’ in which a civic nationalism is promulgated, underpinned by a competitive economy, which at a the surface appears inclusive, but which also identifies particular groups as not being part of a revitalised civic nation. The SNP have demonstrated an authoritarian streak in their attitudes in their concern to control apparently disorderly ‘problem populations’. Those who indulge in the over-consumption of alcohol, or who are involved in delinquency and other behaviours seen as pathological, have felt the force of a Scottish state that seeks to civilise through criminalising. Concerns about the high incidences of stop and search by Police Scotland, and the harsh policing of football fan groups have given rise to claims of a ‘Police State’! The denigration of particular disadvantaged groups in Scottish society, in part by a language which works to ‘other’ such groups, reflects wider class and other antagonisms and hatreds.

Scottish devolution has not meant the reduction of state capabilities, but their territorial reorganisation, redistribution and recombination. The effects of state power have not changed; the interests that state power defends remain the same. With apologies to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, without a revolution in our understanding of the state in Scotland, of Scotland as a class-based society with huge disparities in wealth and power, no new formal political settlement – further devolution or independent Scottish nation statehood – will lead to the fundamental social transformation of Scottish society. To paraphrase James Connolly’s comment in 1897, when referring to British rule in Ireland, simply changing the flag that flies over Edinburgh and other Scottish institutions without a wider appreciation of power and powerlessness will leave existing inequalities entrenched.


Gerry Mooney is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University in Scotland. He has written widely on issues relating to Scottish social welfare, devolution, criminal justice in Scotland, urban studies, class and the city, and poverty and inequality. He has authored a number of articles relating to Scottish devolution and independence which can be accessed at The Open University’s OpenLearn website, and where other materials relating to devolution and independence can be found.