What is at stake in the Scottish National Party’s request for a second referendum

The Kenmure Street protest in Glasgow raises crucial issues concerning political obligation in Scotland, writes Ruairidh Brown. This should serve as a warning to Westminster about the potential dangers of denying a second independence referendum

On the morning of 13 May 2021, the UK Border Agency detained two Indian nationals on Kenmure Street, Glasgow, for alleged immigration violations. Furious residents and activists quickly blockaded the Border Agency van, refusing to let it leave with their neighbours inside.

After a nearly eight-hour standoff, the protestors triumphed as Police Scotland requested their release.

The event sparked a debate. Were the protests unacceptable ‘mob’ behaviour, as the Home Office labelled it, or a heroic act of resistance?

Political obligation

Such a debate is central to what political philosophers call political obligation: the question of when we have a moral obligation to obey political authority, and when resistance is justified.

Typically, philosophers have given two answers to this question.

The first is that obligation is due if State actions accord with reason.

The clearest example of this answer is articulated by the Social Contract Theory pioneered by Thomas Hobbes. This theory held that the limits of obligation were what a hypothetical unencumbered rational actor might logically consent to.

Scholars normally hypothesised that this rational actor would agree to obey political authority so long as this authority provided protection. This has since become known as the protection-obedience principle.

political obligation is the question of when we have a moral obligation to obey political authority, and when resistance is justified

The second answer is that obligation is due so long as political authority acts in accordance with local tradition.

Scepticism concerning human reason motivated proponents of this answer, including David Hume. They believed that people rarely thought rationally about whether to obey or disobey political authority, but rather acted out of force of habit.

Our habits were understood to be shaped by the traditions of the community in which we were brought up.

Often these traditions cultivated respect for authority that encouraged obedience. Nevertheless, it also meant that if political authorities acted in a way contrary to local traditions, any sense of obligation to them would be eroded.

Beyond political obligation

More recent scholarship has suggested that it is not the job of the philosopher to give answers to such questions. Philosophers should rather interpret why citizens in particular political communities may feel morally obliged to obey, or disobey, political authority.

Contributing to this shift, my own work (available here and here) has argued that we must perceive political obligation not as a ‘question in need of an answer’ but a ‘situation’ to be understood and interpreted.

Rather than ‘answers’, I pose ideas like ‘rationality’ and ‘tradition’ as frameworks through which these situations may be interpreted.

The Kenmure situation

The Kenmure protest is one such ‘situation’ through which we might better understand how people respond to the demands of political authority.

When preventing the van from leaving, residents notably chanted Leave our neighbours, let them go! Such language framed the protests as protecting members of the local community against the actions of the State.

Such views were furthered by those who supported the protestors. On Twitter, Glasgow MSP Patrick Harvie asserted:

it's horrific that people are forced to take such action to defend their most vulnerable neighbours from the brutality of the UK Home Office

Patrick Harvie, Glasgow MSP, 13 May 2021

Such framing flips the protection-obedience principle on its head.

The State is no longer the protective force, but rather the force from which people need protection. The moral obligation switches from obeying the State to protecting the vulnerable from State aggression.

In the Kenmure situation, the State also appears to be acting contrary to the spirit of local traditions.

Scotland generally has a much more positive attitude to immigration than the rest of the United Kingdom.

Glasgow in particular boasts of a tradition of being welcoming to refugees.

At Kenmure, the State appears to be attacking rather than protecting individuals while simultaneously acting against local traditions.

It thus appears to be breaking both the rational protection-obedience and tradition-based frameworks of political obligation.

In such a situation, it is unsurprising that Glasgow residents felt morally obliged not to obey but to resist political authority.

A second independence referendum

The events at Kenmure Street also have much wider significance for the possibility of a second independence referendum.

Scottish commentators have argued that the incident demonstrates the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Differences on immigration, for example, offer further evidence of the importance of achieving independence.

More radical, pro-independence voices also see Kenmure Street as a template for how Scots can empower themselves and strike at the British State.

The 2021 Holyrood Elections returned a pro-independence majority. Despite this, the Conservative party has staunchly rejected the possibility of granting a second independence referendum.

Debate over the legality of holding a second referendum will undoubtedly dominate future political debate. Yet events at Kenmure Street remind us that legal authority only holds if people feel morally obliged to obey it. As Hobbes observed:

The power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people

Thomas Hobbes, The English Works, vol. VI 

This is the key lesson from Kenmure Street that Westminster must bear in mind when considering whether to grant a second independence referendum.

The UK government may have the legal right to deny a second referendum, but the Scottish people, ultimately, will decide whether it has a moral right to do so. These are the very same people whose sense of moral obligation towards political authority is essential if the British State is successfully to exercise power north of the border.

The more this sense of moral obligation is eroded, the more likely and more frequent acts of resistance will become.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Ruairidh Brown
Ruairidh Brown
Head of Politics and International Relations, Forward College, Lisbon

Ruairidh currently teaches International Political Theory and International Relations at Forward’s Lisbon Campus.

Before teaching at Forward, Ruairidh taught International Studies in mainland China, where he received the University of Nottingham’s Lord Dearing Award for outstanding contributions to teaching and learning in 2019.

He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2017.

Ruairidh has researched and published on such topics as hermeneutics, political obligation, and the philosophy of friendship.

Political Encounters: A Hermeneutic Inquiry Into the Situation of Political Obligation
Springer, 2019

Covid-19 and International Political Theory by Ruairidh Brown

COVID-19 and International Political Theory: Assessing the Potential for Normative Shift
Springer, 2022

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