Scotland Discovers the Limits of Nationalism

May 7, 2017

Nearly one-quarter of Conservative Party gains in last Thursday’s local elections were in Scotland which has just 8 per cent of the UK population. The result will have surprised many elsewhere who have been following  what has often appeared to be Scotland’s inexorable drift towards the exit door of the 307-year Union of Scotland and England. A lot of people who admired the Scots for their good sense, energy  and pragmatism during the  centuries of Union  have been dismayed by the rise of a sour, emotional and impractical form of nationalism in the early 21st century. This trend, culminating in the Scottish National Party (SNP) winning all but three of Scotland’s seats at Westminster in 2015, appeared to indicate a new-found desire for risk and experimentation after centuries as an anchor of stability in the British world.

Even though the Scots rejected independence in the referendum of 2014 Scottish events appeared to confirm that there were few places immune from the shallow and disruptive populism that has buffeted different parts of the West in recent times. There are many who argue that it was a catastrophic error for Scotland to have been given autonomy in 1999. The architect of devolution, the Labour Party failed to develop a discourse that would contain the nationalists  and it fell victim to the unpopularity of Tony Blair’s last years in office. But it is just conceivable that last week’s results and possibly the more important ones that will be declared after the 8 June general election will show that the SNP has also been a casualty of devolution.

The SNP has played up some advances, such as the likelihood of becoming for the first time, the ruling  party in Glasgow but its vote has slumped from the high to the very low forties. It is now in retreat in its heartland, Scotland’s North-East and there is the danger that it will end up a West of Scotland regional party as it piles up votes in Glasgow and its environs. Other Scots have long been suspicious of this region’s grip on politics and the SNP already displays the liking for autocratic and un-transparent rule that made others weary of Glasgow’s grip on the body politic. Scotland’s 1st minister since 2015, Sturgeon has quickly acquired regal graces. On a trip to the USA in April  to take part in ‘a Woman in the World ‘summit organized by the publicist Tina, Brown’ she was greeted in a New York hall over a large electronic banner proclaiming her as ‘Queen of Scots’. Her approval rating has plunged since she led the SNP to its 2015 electoral triumph.

Overall, the Unionist parties won 605 seats (272 going to the Conservatives) against 450 for the SNP and its close ally, the Scottish Greens. This split of 57 to 43 puts a damper on the surge behind  holding a second referendum on Independence which the Nationalists were clearly hoping for.  The SNP is now in trouble,  fearing the loss of up to twenty seats if major after shocks from the 4 May quake persist  until 8 June. Big beasts like Angus Robertson, the deputy leader and Alex Salmond are now struggling to stay on at Westminster where they have settled down to cosy careers despite protesting their commitment to Britain’s break-up.

Like Salmond in his heyday, Ruth Davidson has shown the common touch and a determination to achieve her goal which, right now, is to preserve Scotland’s place in Britain at a time of major upheaval.  Under Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives  have become a meeting ground for those committed to the Union. The same poll revealed that around 45% of those who had backed the Union in the 2014 referendum now supported the party. There is weariness over the autonomous government’s obsession for campaigning for separation and anger that everyday governance is being neglected in the process. In 2016 the government received extra powers in the welfare field and other areas. It can now determine what rate of tax Scots pay. But it has been disinclined to use these new powers, complaining instead about ones it doesn’t have. Polling now shows that voters primarily blame not Westminster but the Scottish administration for failings in education, health, policing and other areas of public policy.

It was Labour which unwisely sought to demonise the Scottish Conservatives as an alien, unpatriotic, and oppressive force which only it could save low-income Scots from.  Salmond was able to play this card far more ruthlessly, claiming that it was insensitive for the UK leader of an ‘intruder’ party to visit Scotland even when Prime Minister.  Like other contemporary populists the SNP’s leaders have sought to amass electoral support by taking the most negative emotions in society and then amplifying them through provocative actions. Unfortunately, a shallow brand of identity politics still remains popular among the young and the SNP has ensured that 16-18 year-olds can vote in every election exception UK parliamentary ones.

The party has targeted not only the young but people who have limited  experience of life and a stunted  perspective on what the world is like, through school visits and especially online messaging which it is very adept at.  There is a determination to portray any  sense of ‘us-ness’  with the rest of Britain as obsolete and illegitimate. The party has used its powers of patronage assiduously to promote a free-standing Scottish identity through the educational curriculum and state-sponsored cultural events.  It seems likely that it will seek to avoid an even bigger setback on 8 June by ramping up the anti-Tory message.  Yet it is clear that  memories are now fading fast of the 1979-97 period of Conservative rule which its foes have always  associated with the poll tax, privatisation and the eclipse of manufacturing industry in Scotland. Last Thursday, there was incredulity among journalists (especially those reliant on SNP spin) when the  party picked up seats in Ferguslie Park, Shettleston and Ravenscraig, post-industrial areas which the party’s left-wing foes depicted as monuments to its ‘vindictiveness’.

Clearly the biggest error committed by the Nationalists has been linking Independence with Brexit. Even before it became obvious that the vote to leave the EU was not going to rain down disaster on the UK, it would have been smart politics for Sturgeon to say that she wished to work closely  with Theresa May’s government  to  make it a success and ensure Scotland would derive benefits not least through repatriating powers from Brussels. Such a move would have reassured the large number of SNP voters who comprised around 30% of the nearly one million Scots who backed Leave on 23 June.

Instead, she pushed for Scotland to retain the single market even though only 15% of its exports go to the EU. In order to boost her pro-globalist credentials she also demanded that free movement of people with the other 27 EU states must continue even though it was hardly more popular in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

Her  vociferous  demand for a customised  strategy involving close links with the EU was looked upon with benevolence by EU grandees but Scotland (unlike Northern Ireland) is not  a negotiating priority for Brussels. By the autumn of 2016 it was clear that no groundswell of support for Sturgeon’s plans existed at home. Her demand for another Indyref2 before the shape of the settlement with the EU was even clear, was treated with scepticism even by plenty of SNP voters. Her claim that Scotland was an equal partner in the post-1707 Union and therefore  deserved to have a veto over the terms of quitting the EU also fell flat.

Sturgeon had not looked for, nor obtained a mandate for Indyref2 at the 2016 elections which returned the SNP without an overall majority.  Yet she published a consultation document on the subject  in the autumn of 2016 and between then and this spring, most debates at Holyrood focused on Brexit and Scotland. No new laws were even debated in that time, and the ailing education system which Sturgeon had claimed was her main priority, faced continuing neglect.

On 16 March, Theresa May rejected the call for IndyRef2 by 2019 which Sturgeon had made three days earlier, saying ‘now is not the time’.  The SNP responded by claiming that ‘the UK is now a sinking ship’ and Sturgeon threatened policy of active non-co-operation with Westminster. During a week mainly devoted to more Brexit debating at the Holyrood parliament, a terrorist attack occurred at Westminster on 22 March. Initially, the SNP deputy speaker rejected a call to suspend proceedings. After this finally happened, Roseanna Cunningham, an SNP minister was seen shouting at the Conservatives  for their role in securing the change of mind.

The SNP’s hardline reflects the mood of many in the party’s 120,000 strong membership. But it is out of kilter with the bulk of Scottish public opinion. Surveys and voting behaviour show many Scots want to retain the pound, avoid a hard border with England, continue to  receive a £10 billion subsidy so as to meet spending costs, and  have the destination for over 60% of Scots markets as a domestic and not a foreign one. In light of the policy failings encountered by the EU so far this century, only a small minority  consider it should supersede the UK in terms of power and authority.

Ruth Davidson had been an active supporter of remaining in the EU. But she has played her weaker hand more effectively than Nicola Sturgeon in mobilising Scots beyond her own party who dislike the thought of Scotland crashing out of the UK at a time of such uncertainty. The SNP has a formidable electoral machine and no doubt there will be surprises in the  month of campaigning before Britain votes on 8 June. But in neglecting ‘the day job’ of governing Scotland and linking the cause of Independence with stopping Brexit, it is hard to see things working out particularly well for the nationalists.

Author

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher
Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford Read Full Bio

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