THE timing of The Break-Up Of Britain conference is key, writes Peter McColl, co-director and organiser of the event...

AS surely as the tide comes in, so too does it goes out again. We all watched the seemingly unstoppable wave of support for Scottish independence wash over a decade of political upheaval. But now – even though the democratic case for independence is, if anything, stronger than it was nine years ago – the effectiveness of our movement is beginning to ebb.

At a point when international events seem unremittingly bleak, we need to carefully reassess the next step in Scotland’s journey.


The SNP’s hammering in Rutherglen underscored this necessity. Support for Scottish self-government remains strong, but no-one – including the current First Minister – has a convincing route map for achieving that aim. Instead, as the SNP’s electoral prospects have narrowed, their parliamentarians have turned self-destructively on one another.

Lisa Cameron’s defection to the Tories earlier this month stands as the latest, unedifying case in point.

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In part, nationalism’s inertia reflects a grassroots revolution of rising expectations, spurred by the relative success of 2014 and Nicola Sturgeon’s rout of Jim Murphy’s Labour Party eight months later, in May 2015. We started to believe that independence was inevitable. That belief bred complacency. Sturgeon – by consensus, the most formidable political operator in these islands – had a masterplan for indyref2. All the rest of us had to do was sit back and watch it unfold.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling last year, confirming Westminster’s legislative veto over Scotland, revealed the true powerlessness of our situation. And it brought the limitations of Sturgeon’s strategic vision to the fore. By the spring, the all-conquering SNP leader was gone. The wider Yes campaign is still grappling with the fallout from her departure.

The key lessons of Sturgeon’s sudden exit are nonetheless clear. The first is that independence is a long-term game. Keir Starmer, almost certain to be the next UK prime minister, is unequivocal about Labour’s status as a Unionist party. He is no more likely to compromise on a second Scottish ballot than Rishi Sunak. That means we have to steel ourselves for a 10 or 15-year fight – the British state is more resilient than we have thus far assumed.

Second, independence as a concept has to be decoupled from the SNP, and a social and intellectual infrastructure has to be developed that can ride out the Westminster and Holyrood electoral cycles. Without meaningful autonomy, the notion of Scottish sovereignty itself stands or falls on the success of a single political party and, as we’ve seen, the SNP aren’t exactly infallible.

Finally, demands for the break-up of the Union and the modernisation of British democracy can’t be limited to Scotland alone. Scotland’s constitutional future is inescapably tied to the constitutional futures of Wales, Northern Ireland and England.

Voters in every part of the UK suffer the effects of an intransigent political system that hoards wealth and power in the hands of a tiny southern elite. Scots need to join forces with progressive voices south of the Border and west of the Irish Sea. In the end, we will all benefit from the domino effects of devolution and far-reaching decentralisation

In fact, this is the premise of the conference I and others have been organising for the past six months. In the first instance, The Break-Up Of Britain? Confronting The UK’s Democratic Crisis – a major public event that will take place at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh on November 18 – will act as a public tribute to the late, great Tom Nairn, the Scottish political theorist who died in January, aged 90. Nairn analysed the integrated nature of British power more accurately and with greater prophetic force than any of his contemporaries. “England is due a future,” he wrote in the late 1990s. “One that can smartly exorcise the ghosts of Balmoral and Windsor.”

At the same time, it will function as a landmark gathering of radical journalists, thinkers, writers and activists from across the UK, Ireland, and Europe. The message from us, the organisers of the event, will be clear: Britain is a pseudo-democracy built on fossilised institutions and run by a dysfunctional clique.

Over the summer, we brought together a line-up of speakers, including Lesley Riddoch, Caroline Lucas, Neal Ascherson, Joyce McMillan and Allan Little. In recent weeks, we have added more of the UK’s sharpest political commentators, among them Richard Seymour, Moya Lothian-McLean, Hannah Rose Woods and James Meadway.

Our conference will explore and discuss not just the future of Scottish politics, but the future of Irish politics – Jacobin’s Daniel Finn and Una Mullally of The Irish Times are flying over from Dublin – the evolving nature of European politics as Russia’s war in Ukraine rages, and democracy’s capacity to survive an accelerated climate breakdown.

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Tickets for the full-day event are going quickly and can be purchased at the conference’s website, where donations – to help meet the considerable costs of venue hire and travel and accommodation for the speakers – are also welcome. Elsewhere on the page, you will find the agenda for our plenary sessions.

The impetus and timing of the conference could not be more urgent. Tides turn gradually, imperceptibly and inevitably. Few can see the shift as it happens. But sooner or later, they always come back in again. We need to be ready when the tide turns again for Scotland. In Edinburgh on November 18, help us prepare.

To buy tickets or donate, click HERE

For more information on the event and for tickets or to donate, visit