WE were in the heat of the 2014 independence referendum campaign, with a growing sense of anticipation. The polls had altered substantially since the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement. The Yes movement was in the ascendency.

It seemed that many of the core arguments had broken through to wide social layers in Scotland. Certainly our experience on the doorsteps told us Labour heartlands were on the brink of tilting towards backing independence.

That was no mean feat. I remember taking quite an emotional phone call in this context, from an activist who had been running a stall encouraging people to register to vote. He reported a long line of people queuing up to take part. It is no exaggeration to say this had, until then, been quite unheard of.

Something was stirring. It is a cliche now, but for large numbers of Scots, the 2014 referendum offered meaning and agency to hundreds of thousands of people who previously saw little point in voting.

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Sometimes referred to as the “wild card” during the referendum, owing to a lack of polling data on Scotland’s “missing million”, many in this cohort also formed the guts of the ground campaign.

In this week’s column, I’m exploring this phenomenon in a little more detail, in a bid to draw some conclusions about how such energy, and hope, might be re-animated. It is a story of political alienation and class, of democracy and dreams, for the moment, deferred.

In 2022, the Fraser of Allander Institute produced an interesting study examining inequalities in voting and volunteering in Scotland. They found, not unsurprisingly, that: “Scotland suffers from unequal participation across a number of metrics, most notably education, income, health and benefit receipt status. Poorer, less educated and less healthy Scottish residents are less likely to have participated in voting and volunteering.”

This finding requires explanation. The overriding variable, I’d argue, is whether people feel that political parties and institutions represent and respond to their interests. The experience, time and again, is that they don’t. Democracy, in that sense, has been hollowed of meaning and purpose for extensive, and growing, parts of the population.

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What is remarkable is the pace of democratic decline and internal political decay across much of the West since 2014. The processes set in play by the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing austerity programme have had long-term consequences related to the future of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

Historically, the movement around the trade unions offered some measurable counterbalance to the political and financial establishment. Strikes and other forms of extra-parliamentary action well beyond the ballot box were required to resist policies which had a deleterious effect on working-class people and communities.

But this also had another important outcome. It enhanced the quality of debate and political education. It sharpened the understanding of the nature of social class, power and politics.

Politics and economics, far from being separate, operate in the same sphere and within that realm there are boundaries which cannot be crossed. As Dylan Riley, professor of sociology at the University of California, writes: “… capitalists’ tolerance of electoral democracy – which results from their highly specific political interests – is strictly limited and conditional.

“There are no historical cases of capitalists tolerating the outcome of elections which might threaten to transform the social relations on which their ability to extract surplus depends.”

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Scottish independence, had it been achieved in 2014, would not have transformed social relations in the way that Riley outlines. But the movement did challenge orthodoxy, and found the resources to take on the British state. It was irreverent and experimental.

On the socialist left, there has been a long-running debate about Scottish nationalism and independence. Some argue the independence cause is, in the eventual analysis, a liberal and bourgeoise one which obscures class politics, sows division and misplaces focus away from pressing social and economic issues. Therefore the likes of Brian Souter support the SNP.

There is a healthy debate to be had around these and many other points. But it is also true to say that, as compared to the dynamics in Catalonia and Quebec, the campaign for Scottish independence in the modern era, and in its mass form, has been more closely aligned to class questions than other autonomy movements, both in terms of the organisational roots of the movement and in the kind of issues which drove it.

This is something the Labour Party never came to terms with. It understood the drive for independence to be based on national identity, patriotism and “Scottishness”.

The National: LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 11:  A man waves a Scottish flag outside the Houses of Parliament as First Minister and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon was joined by the newly elected SNP members of parliament for a photocall outside on May 11, 2015 in London,

In June of 2014, I wrote, as part of a series of essays debating independence in The Scotsman, that instead class was the key element – far more than Scottish identity – because the debate was refracted through the lens of austerity, the loss of faith in New Labour, the Iraq war and so forth. It had become an outlet for discontent: “The referendum process has punctured what seems like a universal seal of approval for the current system.”

Where else could such an outlet be found? The major defeats experienced by the workers movement were a prerequisite for neoliberalism to triumph, and with that came the fragmentation of associational life as a whole. Scotland shared in those defeats.

The largest expression of working-class agency in Scotland in recent decades, as a result, has not come through mass strike action, but through a national political confrontation based on the possibilities of Scottish independence.

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Ironically, the SNP played a key role in disciplining this new movement. Conferences were transformed into entirely stage-managed events and captured by the corporate lobby.

As one SNP special adviser told the Financial Times during the 2015 October conference, “we don’t really do policy,” noting that the biggest announcement in John Swinney’s speech was a “copy” of George Osborne’s conference pledge on business rates.

All of this raises a series of strategic dilemmas. Without a referendum on the horizon, and with the “movement” a shadow of its former self, there is a deep sense of demoralisation. But that does not mean that the central issues – democratic, economic, political, social – which drove the independence cause at its height have disappeared. Far from it.

Opening a broad discussion and debate on these matters, returning class to the centre, can help to inject some much-needed intellectual depth into the Scottish political scene.

A scene which – whether SNP or Labour – is far too cosy and much too incubated from the kind of movement which shook Scottish politics in 2014.