The mirage of Scottish liberation

The author of The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism traces the rise and rise of the SNP.

Tom Gallagher

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Topics Politics UK

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is not a young party. Founded 76 years ago, it was in the wilderness due to the domination of class-based politics in Scotland until the closing years of the twentieth century. In 2007, a one-seat lead over the lacklustre Labour Party enabled it to form a minority administration exercising the devolved powers restored to Scotland in 1999. Its pro-Union rivals were unnerved by the clever way in which what had once been an angry protest movement was led to the heart of power by a capable leader, Alex Salmond.

Last Thursday, the SNP won a sensational victory, capturing 69 of the 129 seats in Edinburgh’s Holyrood parliament. The party’s manifesto made no mention of its central objective, independence. Instead it presented itself as the national defender, championing Scottish interests against a London power structure ready, it seemed, to trample the junior partner in the 304-year Anglo-Scottish union underfoot. On the ballot paper, what caught the eye was not ‘Vote SNP’ but the bit that followed: ‘Re-Elect Alex Salmond as First Minister.’

However significant this northern earthquake turns out to be, it has features that challenge what has been the direction of travel in West European politics for several decades. Nearly everywhere, leaders like Salmond, who portrays himself as ‘the people’s friend’, have been replaced by colourless machine politicians with limited experience of real life and who often do not speak the same language as the voters they are trying to attract. Salmond has the same easy manner and air of authority that Ronald Reagan had on a good day. In a global economic depression, which hit Scotland directly in 2008 with the collapse of its two main banks, he persuaded voters from all social backgrounds to abandon ‘Safety First’ and take a big gamble on the SNP. This is no mean achievement in a country famed for its Presbyterian caution.

Salmond caused fireworks by regularly confronting London during his first term, and as soon as his majority was assured he indicated that he would be demanding more powers, such as the right to raise huge international loans, which would bring Scotland close to fiscal independence.

One question that is only too rarely posed by a media and academic community beginning to be pulled into the SNP’s gravitational sphere is whether it is really an independence-minded party. Does Salmond plan to build a set of political institutions that make popular sovereignty a reality? Will a new constitution encourage popular participation in order to dispel the sense of disempowerment that has characterised Scotland whether under Tory grandees or Labour machine politicians? Or will changes be confined to rhetoric and symbolism so that the convention survives that to govern Scotland well it is best to involve as few people as possible?

The signs are not abundant that the SNP is a change-minded party relaxed with an electorate of a questioning disposition. Astonishingly, the SNP has been a devotee of the European Union for the past 25 years. At its 2008 annual conference, the SNP adopted a motion clearly indicating that after independence, the EU would be asked to admit Scotland as a full member without the Scottish people being consulted via a referendum. The SNP was also recently opposed to a referendum on what became the Lisbon treaty.

Its infatuation with a centralised entity founded on the premise that nationalism is a threatening anachronism is a paradox. With the centralisation of budgetary and tax-raising powers being drawn up in Brussels, an independent Scotland would soon find itself with less practical autonomy inside the EU than it currently enjoys within the United Kingdom. But as with Ireland’s ill-considered adoption of the Euro, direction from Europe is attractive because it is thought to quicken the eclipse of British influence. Not for many years have the implications of being one of the more picturesque outposts of a European super-state been seriously debated inside the party.

Corporatism has long been a major force in Scottish life, with mobilised religious, mercantile and professional interest often holding sway over the state and, in centuries past, even the justice system. The SNP has accelerated the process which began under Labour of radical elites organising society around different social, lifestyle and ethnic groups rather than on the basis of individual citizenship. Alex Salmond has made overt appeals to Scottish Catholics of Irish descent as well as Muslims from south Asia, groups previously strongly wedded to Labour, on the basis that they have a shared sense of victimhood with mainstream Scots locked in an unequal political union.

Group identities with a loose association to a kitsch form of Scottishness are now all the rage. But even though the SNP insists that it is animated by civic nationalism, it is usually silent about the public values needed to strengthen citizenship. This is a telling omission in a country which has not yet overcome inter-cultural rivalries loosely associated with Protestant and Catholic feuding and which is also plagued by high levels of violent crime.

It is not unfair to describe the SNP as ‘an ideas-free zone’, where the party conference is a rally celebrating the national cause and the performance of leaders who have brought it belated success rather than a forum for debate on the shape of an independent Scotland. The same is true of each of its rivals, but their ambitions are not as vaulting as the SNP’s, which has a very real chance of now taking charge of a new state. A close look at the SNP’s parliamentary benches reveal that they are dominated by solicitors, and management, media and marketing figures as well as ex-councillors and full-time activists. As New Labour has proven, these are not the types of politicians who are natural pluralists ready to reinforce democratic citizenship and place the state on firmer participatory and pluralist lines.

The SNP has devoted as much care to public relations and news management as was evident during the heyday of Tony Blair. It has paid dividends. The Scottish edition of the mass circulation Sun was far more extravagant in support of Salmond, whom it packaged as a Scottish president, than it was in England towards Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. It is hard to recall any other modern figure in British politics who enjoys the same degree of ascendancy as the SNP leader. One SNP member openly admitted on television last Friday that if Salmond had ordered his party associates to appear in public dressed in their night clothes, they would not think twice about doing so.

Under its approachable but patriarchal leader, the SNP projects itself as a surrogate family. Community life has decayed as Scots have become detached from institutions that may once have been important reference points, such as a religious body, a trade union or professional group, or a youth or sporting association. The SNP has learnt how to exploit a growing sense of rootlessness among Scots locked in a mainly private rather than communal existence shaped around consumerism. Salmond cleverly exploits the appetite for a kind of populist politics that bypasses institutions and procedures and makes a direct appeal to raw emotions.

He shows little inclination to construct a modern national identity equipped for statehood. Anti-English complexes still resonate at the level of popular culture and some SNP proposals, like the one to lavish public money on a year of celebrations around the anniversary of the iconic victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314, suggest that the party has still to break free from an introspective mindset. Salmond is the tribal chief combining the warrior ethos with a popular egalitarian one, traits that have loomed large in the Scottish Highland culture, one that has been displacing the lower-key and unadventurous Lowland mindset even before the rise of the SNP. He rallied an amazingly varied collection of personalities to his cause in the last month, ranging from hard-faced businessmen to radical artists and intellectuals. But the campaign was devoid of any trace of debate about Scotland’s future.

Perhaps this is not surprising since the SNP will find it impossible to continue postponing major cuts due to the reduction in the block grant it receives from Westminster. It makes sense to divert attention from the economic pain by picking strategic quarrels with Westminster and blaming insensitive overlords for cuts in services. A referendum on independence looks a certainty before 2015. Many remain convinced that Scots, mindful of the £70 billion that was needed to recapitalise the Scottish banks in 2008, will overwhelmingly reject such an adventure. But the mood of the country has changed. Pro-union forces are in complete disarray. In England, there are perhaps even more people keen to see the end of the union for a variety of reasons than there are in Scotland itself.

But as long as the SNP insists that true freedom consists of freedom from ‘foreign control’ and that what comes next is of secondary importance, real change and true freedom are likely to prove elusive.

Tom Gallagher is emeritus professor of politics at Bradford University and author of The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism was published by Hurst and Co in 2009. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) An expanded North American edition is due to be published this month by Columbia University Press.

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Topics Politics UK

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