A Country in Transition – transgender lives, resource ownership and Scottish independence

Thinking about transitions in tandem can help us to see autonomy and change in different ways, writes Niamh McNulty.

When Westminster utilised Section 35 to overrule Holyrood on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, I went down to Holyrood as a queer person and anarchist to hear how people had reacted. I was surprised that a member of the Alba party, which is campaigning to axe the Bill, took and used the opportunity of a protest about gender to speak about oil ownership and wealth. It demonstrated how trans people are being used as political fodder in Scottish sovereignty debates, and displayed a total lack of regard for how devastating this can be. Why would someone at a protest about gender rights raise a demand that Scotland should reap the benefits of its oil? What links were being made between Scottish independence, transgender lives, and resource ownership? That moment revealed something about a Scotland grappling with transformation, autonomy, meaning-making, and living well together. Independence will not guarantee one particular future: we must dream, negotiate and fight for it. In this kind of atmosphere, how could a queer framing help us imagine an independence movement rooted beyond ethnic or civic nationalism? 

I think the trans debate has become all-encompassing in a Scotland confronting climate collapse – where oil has been such a pivotal argument for independence – because both issues are about change. Both issues are about saying this is my decision; this is something new that I couldn’t have imagined before, and I’m scared; this is me taking my life in my own hands, creating beauty, fun, and throwing the rules away. They are about who gets to decide what change to make, what road we take to get there, and what breaking free of binaries and traditions could offer us. This last part is what queer politics is about. While for many ‘queerness’ can simply mean being gay or trans, a queer politics involves a liberatory way of viewing and making ourselves and the world through contesting institutionalised hierarchical binaries. Whilst this generally refers to dismantling the privileging of heterosexuality over homosexuality in institutions like marriage, thinking with queer politics can offer us insight when applied to a range of topics. 

Oil and gas are territorially bound, holding a privileged relationship to romantic notions of blood and soil characterised in ethnic nationalism. The energy context of the 1970s enabled certain ethnic nationalisms to construct grievances over the unequal distribution of oil wealth and ownership. As successive Conservative governments have melded the worst of neoliberalism with evermore inhumane policies rooted in nostalgic yearning for when Brittania ruled the waves, Scottish nationalism has evolved to be civic in nature by marking out civic values as an ethnic boundary marker to differentiate an independent Scotland from the British state. The merging of these seemingly contradictory nationalisms, tied through foundation myths of freedom-loving people (and fostered by learning about William Wallace in school), sees ‘progressive’ civic values as inherent to Scottish people. This falsely constructs Scots as social democratic, universalist, and tolerant by nature in opposition to the closed ethnic character of English/British nationalists. This is despite how divergent many Scots’ opinions are, as our recent First Minister leadership debate demonstrated. Imagining independence through queer politics could allow us to transcend nationalist framings. 

But first, how does the impending energy transition play into all this? If British nationalism is archaic, and so is the use of oil and gas, then to renewables we turn. Renewable energy sources are transnational, in that no one nation or people can claim ownership over the wind, waves or sun. For mainstream independence thinkers, this could lend itself to an abstract national identity tied to universal civic values, offering the chance to be the ‘friendly neighbour’ rather than ‘the embittered wife’ in relation to an ‘ageing and out of touch’ England. The energy transition itself could be an extended metaphor for an imagined divide between Scottish and English people. However, for this to happen Scotland’s role in Empire and fossil fuel exploration must be omitted to present Scotland as a viable and relevant independent country in a world defined by abstract issues like climate crisis. 

I began thinking about this in 2019, whilst immersed in that year’s environmental protests. During this time I heard environmentally minded Scottish nationalists engage in gross historical revisionism, characterising Scots as Indigenous and England as the sole source of the Empire and the Industrial Revolution. The SNP prided itself on Scotland being first to announce a climate emergency, and positioned itself as a climate leader during COP26. All the while, ministers have held meetings with oil and gas lobbyists over 200 times in the last four years. Here is one nation pulling in two directions, both linked to creating a case for independence. Deluding ourselves by saying this oil is ‘ours’, but so is a climate-safe future. Yet, the polluting effects of our domestic fossil fuel use are not ours alone. We share them with the rest of people and planet. The ethno-civic nationalism of today’s independence movement ultimately fails to provide the framework needed for transformation. It sees us as a bordered nation with no relation or responsibility to others. A queer politics could help us overcome this. 

The trans debate, resource use, and independence all have their own stories at play, but thinking about them together allows us to see pertinent questions about autonomy and change. Life as a queer person inevitably entails transgressing boundaries and binaries, so I know it is possible to apply these lessons to imagining Scottish secession. Independence beyond nationalism means taking control of our resource use not because we ‘own’ anything but because we are inseparable from the earth and this happens to be the bit we live and love and die upon. It means choosing to see our community in its rich ecological and social diversity, not as imagined ties of blood and thought. It means accountable, engaged, practice-based governance, instead of hierarchy, dispossession and dominance. Scottish independence could mean living in tandem with wind and waves, embracing the fluidity of nature, not because we are better than our neighbours, but because we are always, always in an embrace of living and dying with all others on planet Earth.

Niamh McNulty is a retail jeweller, spending their free hours writing, thinking and acting on climate and environmental justice.