Professor Matt Qvortrup is a world expert on how countries achieve independence. He says Scotland would easily become a successful independent nation, but the SNP lacks the charisma and passion to pull off a win. He talks to our Writer at Large


Matt Qvortrup.

Matt Qvortrup.


ONE of the world’s foremost authorities on constitutional politics, independence movements and referendums has compiled a vision of how the SNP can win a Yes vote and build a new country – but he has also warned Nicola Sturgeon her current tactics are doomed to failure.

Professor Matt Qvortrup has advised governments around the world on the creation of new countries and worked as an observer on independence movements in Ghana, Ukraine, Trinidad and Tobago, Cyprus, Papua New Guinea, the Caucasus, Northern Ireland, South Sudan and Western Sahara. He is internationally renowned for predicting referendums with pinpoint accuracy.

Qvortrup’s new book, I Want to Break Free: A Practical Guide to Making a New Country, comes out next week. He sat down for an exclusive interview with The Herald on Sunday ahead of publication.

An English academic, he is former chair of politics at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, so knows Scotland well. He is currently professor of political science and international relations at Coventry University, and editor-in-chief of the journal European Political Science Review. He also sat on The Constitution Society’s working party on Scottish independence.

Qvortrup’s book subjects the SNP’s independence plans to ruthless analysis. There is good and bad news for Nicola Sturgeon.

He says international law would permit a post-independence Scotland to avoid all legacy responsibilities for UK debt – though the trade-off for that could be the loss of pensions. Scotland would be welcomed into the European Union, Qvortrup says, and contrary to recent claims wouldn’t be obliged to adopt the euro. International law would even technically give Scotland the right to take possession of Britain’s nuclear deterrent if Trident remained within Scottish territory after independence.

However, the SNP is doomed to fail unless it changes tactics. The Yes movement will lose any future referendum – should one be granted – unless it injects more passion into the debate. A more populist, “patriotic” approach is needed. Issuing economic papers wins nobody over – appealing to hearts and emotions does.

Qvortrup makes clear he is not a populist – he is an academic – and doesn’t like populist tactics. However, countries which achieve independence do so by appealing to passions, not reason and logic.

The movement

“IF you want to start the movement for free independent Cumbria, first you must create the Cumbrians,” he says. That is what happened during the Risorgimento, where a whole series of small states became independent and united together as one: Italy. There was a saying at the time: “To create Italy, we must create Italians.” Key to that, is the creation of ideas and symbols for people to “rally around”. Culture, art, sport and food lie at the heart of national identity. Qvortrup notes that the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said there would be “no Spain without bullfighting”.

Clearly, Scotland has a strong national identity, but culturally there is little connection between art, sport and the politics of independence. The composer Verdi became a symbol of the Risorgimento; Wagner did the same for the unification of German states. The playwright Henrik Ibsen and composer Grieg were symbols for Norway’s independence movement. The composer Sibelius had the same effect in Finland. “The whole survey of 19th-century high culture sees famous artists as hired guns convinced they needed to create their own countries,” Qvortrup adds.

In terms of independence-supporting artists with global reach, there is The Proclaimers and, after the death of Sean Connery, the actor Brian Cox. Scotland needs to do much better here. Qvortrup says: “The movie Braveheart did more for Scottish independence than anything else, frankly.”

The story

SPORT and culture help build a sense that independence “is your destiny”. They create a “story” – and no independence movement has won without telling a strong story. Braveheart, he notes, told a story often used by nationalist movements: one of “grievance and how you were hard done by in the past”.

Qvortrup adds: “Independence is an emotional thing.” It requires both heroes and villains. He references the Scottish philosopher David Hume’s famous maxim that “reason is the slave of passion” – in other words, emotion always beats logic. “The SNP are failing because they’re turning Hume upside down – focusing on reason rather than passion.”

The SNP needs to go for slogans, not white papers, ramping up emotion rather than expert debate. “I’m afraid it’s the only way forward,” Qvortrup says. Just look at Brexit, he notes, where expert opinion became meaningless. Rational debate might be the way politics should operate, but it won’t win referendums. “Winning independence isn’t about trade deals. You campaign in poetry and govern in prose. The SNP is campaigning for independence in prose.”

Sturgeon is a charismatic politician, he believes, but doesn’t have the populist touch an independence campaign needs. Independence requires someone almost “messianic. Someone who talks about the ‘Promised Land’ effectively”. It also requires someone to shamelessly play up the notion of romantic Scotland and patriotism.

Qvortrup cites Norway which “went all out” on the appeal to patriotism during the campaign for independence from Sweden. It wasn’t about facts and figures but “pure passion”. Norway’s independence movement focused on culture, not economics. “It was all Peer Gynt and those types of things,” Qvortrup adds. “Shameless patriotism, but not negatively – it was about unashamed national pride. The Scottish campaign needs that.”

The SNP should talk endlessly about Scottish achievements in the arts and sciences throughout history to create a “national awakening”. Previous leaders of successful independence campaigns around the world “didn’t think about practicalities, they left that to backroom boys”.

In terms of turning the Yes campaign into a populist movement, Qvortrup says he “hates to cite bad guys” like Donald Trump, but adds: “Sometimes you need to learn from the b*****ds. Play nice, you’ll lose.”

When it comes to the passion needed to get and win a referendum, the SNP “gets a D or E”. Sturgeon needs to adopt an “over my dead body” attitude to any denial of another referendum, says Qvortrup. “Not in a die-hard, kamikaze way, but in a positive way that says ‘Scotland is the best thing since sliced bread’. That it’s the country’s destiny. That the world wouldn’t have TV or telephones if it wasn’t for Scots. If you don’t have that passion, kiss it all goodbye.”

The Quebec independence movement lost its first referendum because “they tried to be too rational”. Instead, it was the Canadian government which played up emotion. In the second referendum, Quebec’s independence movement ramped up the passion and almost won. Independence supporters focused on a difference in “ideals”, saying Quebec was European and social democratic whereas Canada was American and “Reaganite”. Although the Quebec side lost, Qvortrup says they had taken the initiative and would have won if the election came a week later.

Sturgeon should do the same, Qvortrup says, focusing on Scotland’s social democratic traditions and painting the nation as more “Scandinavian” than British. He suggests the SNP focuses on “popular social democracy”.

“Storytelling is what it’s all about,” he adds. “It’s what captures you. To win you need a story.” Qvortrup scoffs at the idea of Scotland’s constitutional debate already being “too passionate”. Quite the reverse. “Ramp it up, if you want to win.” He believes unionists complain about the debate being too “passionate” as they fear losing. “They know in their hearts that passion will win.”

“Romantic” notions of Scotland, nostalgia and historic grievance also work.

“The more Scots can be made to see themselves as victims of English imperial nationalism the better. The SNP should say ‘we’ve always been treated like a fiefdom’, but we’ve social democratic values like Scandinavia. A ‘please release me’ type of thing.”

Qvortrup notes how Eamon de Valera’s evocation of “romantic Ireland” was central to Irish independence. “He projected ‘greenness’,” says Qvortrup. The Yes movement shouldn’t feel embarrassed about projecting “tartanness”. That tells an emotional story. “You need the narrative of patriotism.”


A REFERENDUM isn’t “technically needed” to become independent but it’s “the norm”. International law accepts the right of former colonies to hold independence referendums, but that wouldn’t work for the SNP given Scotland was England’s partner in the British Empire. International case law also permits referendums if another nation is controlled by an “undemocratic state” – such as Kurdistan within Iraq. Again, that’s no route for Scotland.

Other nations use articles in their constitutions, conferring the right to hold referendums, like Montenegro, Iceland and Eritrea. Some cases see “negotiated referendums” like that of Western Australia which successfully voted for independence in the 1930s, although the project was derailed by the Second World War and secession never took place.

When negotiating for a referendum, “if there’s a sufficient push for a long enough period, a referendum will happen”, Qvortrup says. Quebec got its “Indyref2” in 1995, 15 years after its first vote. He notes that although there has already been a Scottish referendum, international law does, in principle, allow for “material change”. So Brexit means “you could construct an argument which says Scotland has a moral right to a referendum, legally it would be hard to force upon the English Government, though – and I’m saying English not British deliberately, as that’s what the current government is”.

To get and win a referendum, says Qvortrup, the SNP must be “more Machiavellian” – and key to being more Machiavellian is defusing the threat of “Project Fear”.

“The danger in any referendum is trying to educate people – to print big white papers about economic plans. That can always be destroyed. I make reference to Freddie Mercury in the title of my book – ‘I want to break free’ – but the SNP is following the Britney Spears approach: ‘Oops, I did it again’. They’re trying to educate the Scottish people and repeating the mistakes of the past by saying ‘this is how we can make it work’. Winning a referendum is about hearts, not minds. You don’t need to go into details. It needs to be more sloganistic.”

Winning independence requires a real sense of theatricality, not fine political detail. “It’s like jazz or rock and roll,” says Qvortrup. “You need to be charismatic, know when to improvise, how to riff – be a bit Miles Davis or Freddie Mercury, know when to jump on a tune and play your solo. That’s why rationality doesn’t come into it.”

The law

KEEPING to his musical theme, Qvortrup says another stage of achieving independence could be called “What’s Law Got to Do with It” – a nod to Tina Turner. There’s a set of principles in international law called the Montevideo Convention, or the Estrada Doctrine, which set out when a country should be recognised as independent. There is no point in winning a referendum and declaring independence if you cannot operate as a state or aren’t recognised as a state.

In effect, these principles require any new state to have “a defined territory, defined population and to be in control of that territory” – in other words, any new nation must have bodies like courts, tax-collecting agencies and police. Scotland, clearly, would tick all those boxes if it achieved independence. Not every new country, however, is recognised by all the world’s nations as a state. Israel is evidently a state but many UN members – mostly Arab nations – don’t recognise it. Other states are only recognised by one or a few nations. Russia, for instance, recognises South Ossetia and Transnistria as states; only Japan recognised its puppet state Manchuria during the Second World War.

Qvortrup, who is currently working with Western Sahara on its independence claims, will shortly be travelling to Bougainville in Papua New Guinea to observe its push for nationhood. Bougainville wants to create a constitution as that would act as a “birth certificate” for the new country. Legally, a constitution isn’t necessary for a new nation, but it’s nice “window dressing”. Although the SNP hasn’t yet drafted a constitution, Qvortrup thinks to do so would be “too premature”. The SNP must win a referendum first, and there’s a long way to go on that, he says.

In terms of having the capabilities to become a functioning state post-independence, “Scotland is ready to go

– just like Norway or Finland were 100 or so years ago”. Successful nations like Norway “haven’t been around forever”, he makes clear. “Scotland would just become another new European nation. It ticks all the boxes.” As he points out, plenty of new European nations have also recently emerged: Montenegro, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and North Macedonia.

Montenegro had a lot of goodwill in Europe as it split from Serbia – “an oddball pariah”. Scotland needs to remember “it has a lot of goodwill. Whereas England has lost a lot of goodwill by being nasty, petty to pretty much everybody, and a bit bullyboyish”. He adds: “So, Scotland has a window of opportunity. You just need to get the effing passion or you can forget about it.”

Scotland also has cachet on the world’s stage. Leaders in Canada, Australia, America and New Zealand often play up their Scots or Irish roots, Qvortrup points out, but seldom their “British” roots. “Scotland has that tartan charm so capitalise on it. Scotland has a claim to national identity that it needs to exploit internally and externally.”


THE big question Qvortrup heard repeatedly while writing his new book was “can Scotland afford it? As the country will be left with this massive debt because of successive Tory governments”. However, there is “established practice” in international law “that once you’re independent you no longer have to pay your share of the debt. So when you split – like a divorce

– you basically leave the house and car, but you don’t take any share of the debt either”. He adds, mischievously: “You get to walk away Scot-free, as it were. And if any assets are within your country when you become independent then they’re yours too.”

He explains that on the night of the second Quebec referendum, Canada flew all its military aircraft out of the region “to be on the safe side”. So does that mean if Trident remained here after a Yes vote it would belong to Edinburgh? “Yes, technically. Scotland could immediately become a nuclear power.”

But Scots would lose their right to British state pensions? “Yes, again technically you won’t get your pensions. Kiss them goodbye. But the pensions are a relatively small amount compared to the debt you’d be saddled with.”

However, it’s clear these huge anomalies around Trident and pensions would – or at least could – be worked out in negotiations. Qvortrup doesn’t accept the idea that “Scotland can’t afford it”, adding: “At the moment what Scotland pays into British coffers is roughly what it gets back. You’d save that money, and you wouldn’t have the debt burden.”

He says: “And there’s nothing the British can do to prevent you keeping the pound. Luxembourg kept the franc for a long time. The French could jump up and down and say you can’t do it. But Luxembourg could say ‘sod it, there’s nothing you can do to stop us’.”

However, using another nation’s currency means you have no control over monetary policy like interests rates. That’s not uncommon, though. Smaller countries often have their currency pegged to the currencies of larger nations. So, in the past, Scandinavian nations often followed the Deutsch mark. Austria would change its interests rates within minutes of German fluctuations, prior to the euro.

“If Scotland had its own currency it would probably be pegged to the pound anyway,” Qvortrup adds. Although Britain has its own currency, recent events proved it can’t act with complete independence economically either. All in all, the economic argument for independence is “pretty good” but the SNP should talk less about it so opponents can’t pick holes.

When it comes to joining the EU, the worst Scotland can expect is a few grumbles from minor Spanish politicians due to Catalonia. Even then “a phone call from Berlin or Paris and they’ll shut up”. Edinburgh would be welcomed back by Brussels.

Qvortrup says recent claims about Scotland being compelled to join the euro are nonsense. “Europe won’t make joining the euro a red line, and Scotland would undoubtedly be allowed to join without having to adopt the single currency. Spain might drag their feet but they’ll be happy joining other EU members in making life difficult for London.” He points out that EU nations like Sweden, Croatia and Bulgaria don’t use the euro.

Neil Mackay will be hosting the Scottish launch of Matt Qvortrup’s new book at Glasgow University Union on Wednesdsay, November 9 at 7pm.

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Leading global academic on independence says SNP can easily win indyref2 – if it embraces populism

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