Skip to content

Making The Scottish Revolution

Is Scotland a nation?
How can a stateless nation become a state?


The only way to resolve this is to ask, in short: does it wish to be a nation? The answer to this is simple: if she so wishes, she shall be – everything else is detail. The problem is, who is voicing the wish? And what are they wishing for?

Scotland contains many of the articulations – the details – of a state. It administers and defines large sectors of the apparatus of social reproduction in its own legislature and executive, especially within the spheres of education, law and health care – these are the services of a modern state, and the maintainers of a body politic. Many of them – including its aesthetic and symbolic structures – date in some sense from the pre-1707 Kingdom of Scotland. Services and symbols alone, however, do not make a state.

They might be, however, a ‘latent’ state; what Amy Westwell in ‘To Constitute the People‘ refers to as a “constitution of institutions”, the content of a state without the shell of sovereignty. They are, formally and practically, devolved issues within a larger body which claims ultimate sovereignty – the British State. Scotland plays the decorative airs of doctor, teacher, advocate, but the drum-beat of formal self-determination still resides at Westminster, a discordance which is increasingly apparent.

But when combined with the cultural imaginary of Scotland – an issue in much dispute – we have an idea of Scotland which is ready to be ‘stood on its feet’. This can only be done in combination with the institutions of civil society, where the ideal of Scotland can be made manifest in a social, economic, and political formation as an independent state. It is only through a Scottish political imaginary – one cautiously but consistently built up over the past 30 years – that this idea of Scotland becomes a desire for a Scotland equal to that in the imagination1. This fantasy world of Scottish politics must mobilize the will, as it is only by an expression of will – picking up the drumsticks – that the current simulation of an independent Scotland can realize it’s desire. A Scottish constitution is already latent, it needs to become actual.


So the test of this desire must become a test of the people’s will, and the referendum in 2014 is the apparatus by which the question of will is to be tested. So far so good. However, this differs greatly from previous processes of British state formation, a process which is, by one framework, still incomplete. A process which has produced the position from which we are attempting to act.

The English Political Revolution

What Scotland will precipitate out of the British morass?

Scottish history is inextricably bound up with the English and British projects. The history is well known. In the two-part ‘English revolution’ which took place in the late 17th century Charles I was overthrown during the English Civil war, and the absolutist monarchy was replaced with direct rule by the nascent merchant classes and middling gentry during the Commonwealth republic (1649-53). This prototype ‘bourgeois revolution’ could not maintain itself, and after Cromwell’s Protectorate (1653-59), the monarchy was restored with Charles II (1660) in a counter-revolution, since called the ‘Restoration’.

But the capitalistic aspects of this revolution were not going away – the return of the threat of absolutism under James VII (James II of England) was as intolerable to the re-enfranchised aristocratic classes as it was to the merchants – and while the absolutist state came to be limited by the Bill of Rights (1689) it was not completely discarded. Instead it was appropriated to parliament by the Glorious Revolution (1688), to be exercised by that body in a mildly democratic form via what has been come to be known as a constitutional monarchy. The king’s state, previously his personal property, was expropriated, and therefore nationalized on behalf of the emerging middle-classes which would come to operate the state apparatus. Today the UK Parliament nominally still has this unlimited power (though the executive has periodically appropriated it), and instead of a written constitution it has an activist constitution: it is what it does (its will) that constitutes the constitution:

No Act of Parliament can be unconstitutional, for the law of the land knows not the word or the idea.

(Chrimes, S B (1967). English Constitutional History. London: Oxford University Press. p. 42.)

It truly is a living constitution (an idea proposed by many contemporary reformers), alive in the brains of our political class and constantly emended in a permanent parliamentary process – but this life is the life of a Hobbesian Frankenstein, it does not act independently or fully and the breath it breathes is that of the ruling class. The arrangement erected by the Glorious Revolution stands as the material birth point of many enlightenment ideas – of sovereignty of the people, the rule of law, limited powers, national unification, representation – long before their full theoretical birth. It is a birth that was immediately strangled by tender mercies, first those of the aristocracy, and later by the great industrial barons with which they politically and genealogically interbred.


History does not move by clear narrative, however, and the Enlightenment proper was arrive at a later stage. Westwell looks forward to a point where the people of Scotland (indeed, of England) can act as “democratic citizens”, where sovereignty is a force that is constituted by those people who submit to it, in “a real political rather than institutional movement, which talks about democracy, active citizenship, and public law in terms of the constitution, so that when the constitution comes to be formed it is seen as a political statement…” The fatal limitation of these ideals – important as they are – is that they look forward to an eighteenth century movement which never quite managed to shift all the structures of the British state, which have remained forever somewhat provisional. That a re-enactment of this struggle is best we can propose for twenty-first century Scotland seems, to me, absurd. The time for such changes is long past.

The British Social Revolution

However, there are two key sorts of revolution, political revolutions and social revolutions. While a political revolution changes the names of the rulers, a social revolution changes the natures of the ruled. Constitutions are political, but markets are social, and it is the markets of Britain which reconfigured the lives of its people. At the point (1707) that Scotland was absorbed into the English political system  it took on the Glorious Revolution’s political aspect and collated it with its own political developments. What was yet to come was the gradual – and not so gradual – social revolutions: the agricultural2 and industrial revolutions.3

What is certain is that in the 18th century the powers gained in the English Political revolution were used by English and Scottish landowners, the “committee of landlords”4, to pass various pieces of legislation – particularly the Inclosure Acts (c.1750-1860) – which terminally wounded the previous social organization of the Scottish and English lowlands. The resulting exodus of people from the land created a surplus population ready to work in the factories of the industrial revolution, and soon the booming towns and cities. Their new entertainments, opportunities and modes of life, attracted millions and created a fundamental change in the manner in which people lived and reproduced themselves socially.

The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization,’ when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement…

Tacitus, on the Roman conquering of Britain, Agricola, c.98

While the political foundations of the constitution of Britain were an English project, the new social order was a fundamentally British project, undertaken by a Britain-izing elite made up of the English and Scots in collaboration. Unable to carry out their own political revolution, the works of the Scottish Enlightenment carry out in political tracts what was done in political fact in France and the USA. The yearning for an independent Scottish state today is the wish to carry off the political projects of these ancestors to become truly modern: indeed David Hume explicitly advocated that the first act a serious reformer of the British state would be to restore the “plan of Cromwell’s parliament”5, something which is yet to be achieved. This misses the point, because while Britain has never had  a fully-formed democratic state on the terms the theorists laid out, it has been periodically the most developed of all capitalist economies.

Deferred Revolution

pyramid_gfxWhile Edinburgh and Glasgow remained – and indeed became – centres of law, industry and commerce, it was the City of London which emerged as the dominant centre of the expanding capital-investing classes and vehicles from an early stage. Without independence from this nexus – by no means an impossibility – Scotland cannot become anything other than politically independent.6

Today we are left with a constitutional, political, and cultural state which is the result of centuries of pseudomorphosis. The structures of ancien regime have been invaded with aspects of republican ideology; they have the been reformed by aristocratic values; and in turn these has been reconfigured as a middle-class cultural imaginary, all without any of these aspects being completely demolished. The composition of land ownership – concentrated in the hands of nobles – was first turned to the needs of early commodity production; later it enriched the inheritors of a feudal class when minerals were found throughout Britain; and this wealth gave Britain a military and political dominance which drove it on towards Empire. This class are still with us to a huge extent (half of Scotland is owned by just 500 people), and by the beginning of the twentieth century they had largely transformed themselves into an international force which acts as much upon as within nations. We are today left, yet again, in a situation where:

… an older alien Culture lies so massively over the land that a young Culture, born in this land, cannot get its breath and fails not only to achieve pure and specific expression-forms, but even to develop fully its own self-consciousness. All that wells up from the depths of the young soul is cast in the old moulds, young feelings stiffen in senile works, and instead of rearing itself up in its own creative power, it can only hate the distant power with a hate that grows to be monstrous.

(Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West (1926), p.189)

Gerry Hassan has described perfectly how Britain has “given up on the future and instead appears content to live permanently in a fictitious past…” asking “do we really want to continue living in a culture where the loudest, most influential voices are those of past generations, who are being used to legitimise one of the most unequal places in the rich world?” The most destructive tradition of dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living is the tradition of capital, which is monstrous insofar as it has no explicit voice of its own. Without moving to “develop the material basis to challenge capital” we will get nowhere. This, however, is impossible without a change of perspective. Class consciousness in Scotland is at every turn transformed into national consciousness by the persistence of the contradictions of the British constitution, a formation which must be broken.

The Scottish Revolution & The Whig View of History

So the issue arises of what sort of state state will result from the satisfaction of the desire for a Scotland? What latent structure crawls towards birth, spurred by a exertion of will?

I argue that what is being called for in this current proposal emerging from the debate is for state formation as the completion of the eternally deferred Scottish Revolution – an event which has never been able to appear, submerged as it is in morbid national boundaries and political accidents. The dominant narrative – though it is never put this clearly – is that Scotland has inherited an incompetent and incomplete political structure foreign to its intellectual history, and wishes to shrug it off in favour of the best of the political philosophical tradition it did so much to found. Within the framework of Britain this is impossible – supporters of the current British ‘constitution’ read its logic correctly when they find the current devolution of powers to Holyrood to be a “ridiculous” sort of innovation, which must be abolished (“Losers should lose.”) if the referendum in 2014 goes against independence.

Independence is certainly not a revolution in the true sense, it is a recombination of previously existing ideas, moulded in the image of currently functioning democracies and state systems. There is nothing heroic in a plebiscite (except in the imaginary); it is only a mass-bureaucratic form-filling of a licence for the political class to act on behalf of the ‘national will’. The most radical end of this debate is contained in the concept the Common Weal, though its plausibility has been challenged.

For me this is a version of the Liberal Democrat utopia – that we can fix all social and democratic deficits by pushing at the logic of ‘Whig history’, re-enacting the arguments of the heroic stage of the bourgeoisie and discarding the remaining feudal encrustations, most prominently the Lords. The old Liberal shriek of Reform! Reform! Reform! is reborn. While this attracts a certain sort of  completionist – the constitutional fetishist who feels they must tick off every aspect of a liberal state in order to clear the ground for any further progress – we must instead call for something else through and beyond this aim. The Scottish Whig aspiration is that an every more perfect independence will provide a framework to fulfil the currently twisted aspirations of a re-energized ‘young’ culture. It won’t. Gramsci sets out the stakes:

…the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only “dominant”, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear…. the mechanical impediment that has been imposed on those who could exercise hegemony… prevents them from carrying out their mission… The death of the old ideologies takes the form of scepticism with regard to all theories and general formulae… But this reduction to economics and politics [leads to] the possibility and necessity of creating a new culture.

(Gramsci, Antonio, The Prison Notebooks (1972), p.275-6)

By focusing on ‘the constitution’ question we risk carrying out an old project of political revolution – replacing one section of the political class for another, within a slightly modernized framework – rather than the necessary project of social revolution.

Radical ‘Constitutionalism’


Neil Davidson says that the idea that “ the Scottish Revolution has presumably still to be consummated in the absence of an independent Scottish state” is an absurdity. I agree, it is an absurdity, because what is being proposed by those who view Scottish Independence as an opportunity for a republic with a written constitution is in fact the final battle of the incomplete English Revolution ((There is a certain irony that demanding independence in this framework is undertaking the job of rationalizing the unfinished historical projects of political ‘colonists’!)). It risks becoming a historical re-enactment of the English Civil War with – in full the Hollywood tradition – the wrong outfits and wristwatches. We are proposing to vote off the head of the monarch, but do nothing about the model of the state which we inherit from the liberal tradition.

As a brief aside, the only thing more absurd than attempting to complete this revolution is the suggestion that we might avoid its completion. This is what Alex Salmond is suggesting by retaining ‘The Crown’. Not just the Queen as Head of State, but the remnants of the absolutist power which so infuriated the followers of Oliver Cromwell (and which the ruling class of Britain have so well exercised to reconfigure the social life of England, Scotland and its fellow colonial victims) is to be maintained. The white paper, which promises to carry out the melding of culture and institution with its invite to writers for the preamble, may prove to contain interesting innovations, but how far that can be pushed is doubtful. Constitutions are always written by the constitutionally literate, always imposed by an elite, even when they deign to convene a convention to draft the text.

A Scottish Revolution must therefore be a Scottish Revolution. It must develop out the contradictions of its time and place, not of the 17th Century. These are the contradictions of exploitation, lack of ownership of necessary social services, and that great unknown continent, the working class as constituted in a world of call centres, 0-hour contracts, tourism, high-finance, and a global rather than a simply national elite. Scotland, like all societies today, is in great need of a conceptual shift in a context where the state itself is becoming increasingly irrelevant, even as a mediation between and suppression of powers. Rory Scothorn in ‘Curse of the Unicorn‘:

The SNP is not a party of class politics. At its best, it is a party of social democratic nationalist politics, and as such aims for a state in which workers and capital can happily coexist, the inherent tension between the two carefully mediated by a supposedly classless party acting in the national interest.


Making the Scottish Revolution

This ‘Whig history’ of development towards the ‘ideal’ liberal social democracy has a backside, not in the options which were suggested but not acted on, but in the resistances to the policies which were instituted. The fight between absolutism and proto-capitalism resulted in parliamentarianism, but outside this logic there were other groups, groups which were ultimately erased from the mainstream tradition, who were playing a different game. Neil Davidson:

One set consists of our socialist predecessors – that is, those who looked towards collectivist solutions which were unachievable in their own time, like the Diggers in England or the Conspiracy of Equals in France. The other set consists of our bourgeois equivalents – that is, those who actually carried the only revolutions possible at the time, which were, whatever their formal goals, to establish the dominance of capital.

(Davidson, Neil ‘Bourgeois Revolutions: On the Road to Salvation for all Mankind’, Isaac Deutscher lecture (2004))

We must attempt to carry out the only real Scottish Revolution that is possible today, following the projects which were ‘unachievable’ once, but may be possible now. It is not enough to simply put the last piece into our own version of an edifice of the ‘modern’ nation state and liberal democracy: that was the ultimately failed task of previous generations. The nation state as constituted is defunct, and internal experiments with land reform or local legislatures is not going to bring about the social revolution that is needed. As Gramsci points out, it is not the imposition of a reheated Enlightenment constitution which will prevent an alien power from yet again sitting astride the Scottish people7.

Independence was always a tactical beginning – those who see it as an end in itself are mistaking the part for the whole – shrugging off the old powers of legitimation and statecraft, the pomp and grandeur of a British state which still has the power to bedazzle. We should be planning to win this political revolution, but we must also be getting ready to win the social revolution – one where no ballot boxes will be required, and one where we must be prepared to abandon the traditional ideas of the state entirely, even if that seems like an impossibility.


  1. That culture acts as the realm of the ‘younger son’ of the bourgeoisie needs to be tackled. []
  2. i.e. the doubling of crop yields between 1600-1800 []
  3. Whether you see the political changes as a necessary adjustment to make government adequate to emerging economic forms, or that vis versa the political changes began the agricultural and industrial revolutions, will determine your eventual access to classical Marxist heaven. Here I am remaining in dialectical purgatory on the issue. []
  4. Moore, Barrington (1966). Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press. []
  5. Hume, David, Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth, 1754 []
  6. This is the most damning critique of Scottish Independence I have come across – that Scotland can be legally independent, but financially remain tied to British social formations by economic chains. []
  7. “No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.” (Marx, Karl Critique of Political Economy, p. 13 []

3 Pingbacks/Trackbacks