Scotland's Empty Nationalism

Updated: Feb 12

And dinna trachle us sairly.

In a hard-hitting essay, Liam Cruivie criticises the 'empty' nationalism of the SNP. Instead of reliance on political tropes and blind faith in the SNP, he argues that the case for independence should be made on Scotland's merits.

Yes Campaign stickers on a lamp post after the 2014 Independence Referendum

Margaret Thatcher – a figure more important to Scottish nationalism as it has come down to us than Wallace or Bruce – called it right when she denounced Scottish devolution as mere stopgap ahead of independence. She was no seeress: So much was obvious in 1979, when it nearly happened, and 1997, when, thanks in no small way to her fiscal and domestic policies as Prime Minister, it actually did.

A decade on from devolution and the then-called Scottish Executive, acting entirely on its own initiative, renamed itself the Scottish Government, dispensing with a name evocative of bureaucratic administration for one identical to what would be used in a fully independent country. Less than a decade on from this milestone, and we have our first independence referendum, when the United Kingdom was nearly sundered, we might say, by a general resentment towards a politics of stagnation, of impotent leftism and neoliberal consensus, of Cameron under the shadow of Blair. It was not nearly sundered, you will remember, by any remotely robust nationalist sentiment. “Tell Westminster Tories that Scotland’s no longer yer slave!” sang one Gerry Cinnamon, a tenth-rate acoustic guitar botherer. Such sentiments of transient political expediency and vague class resentment were the real coal in the SNP’s fire.

It can’t be overstated how obvious this is, but at any rate it was proved by what will soon be dimly remembered as Corbynmania. Back in early 2017, I wrote the following:

[…] ruinously for the SNP, the zeal for Scottish independence has proven fleeting. A large part of this is down to Jeremy Corbyn — in 2014, the YES campaign had something of a monopoly on youthful, left-wing idealism; three years later, a vote for Labour seemed much more in that vein. The SNP, who had been more than happy to exploit this type of sentiment then, found it cruelly stripped away from them by the Glastonbury star (whom, I hope not too soon, will likewise have it stripped from him). That this could happen proves that the reasons put for Scottish independence were attractive at the time, but tarnished; in other words, the campaign relied too much on the ephemeral, and less on the strong historical precedents for independence which, I believe, do not evaporate once Corbyn becomes the new way to escape the Tories.

I’ll get on to those strong historical precedents soon, but so it was in 2017. Recall those thousands at the Glastonbury music festival, by various degrees drunk and high, chanting “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” to that White Stripes riff into which it didn’t really scan – and there’s your displaced Scottish nationalism.

Of course, Corbyn is now a wretched exile (even more so than he was before becoming Labour leader) and, as it turned out, Corbynmania was not nearly manic enough to prevent the electoral kick in the teeth Labour so richly deserved. Furthermore, the tripartite assault of Trump, Brexit and the rise of European populism on the political mood has rudely forced the (British) national sentiment away from the weary apathy that was ubiquitous until only half a decade ago. Anger, division and chaos are now, as everybody knows, the order of the day. Coronavirus chose its moment well.

More relevant than even this, however, is what this extended chaos has done to the UK as a whole. The UK has been dying for a long time, but in much the same way as the dying often go “rapidly downhill” towards the end, its ultimate demise (and that is what Scottish independence is before it is any “liberation”) sped up from there. Polarisation and bitter anger muscled in on apathy and so things were set for a United Kingdom to rush towards its fate with an efficiency that, however dismally predictable this little narrative has been, genuinely manages to shock.

Let there be no love lost on the European Union, a bully superstate that corals a weighty mass of civil law jurisdictions, hardly compatible with the British constitution, and serves to erode not only national sovereignty, but national character and identity too. Yet let there be no doubt that the Brexit Referendum was a constitutional travesty, thoroughly un-British and a cynical gamble that hardened into tempered iron the bitter divisions running through British society (and hastened Scottish independence). How Brexit should have happened, as has been endlessly pointed out, is a committed Eurosceptic party or faction, running on a considered platform, should have been elected to power and acted in the manner of our representative democracy, however dilapidated it may be at this late stage. Instead we suffered the “voice of the people”, every supposed patriot forgetting that Britain is, or should be, governed by Parliament and emphatically not “the people”.

We all know what did happen of course, and the government U turns, the change of Prime Minister, the betrayals, the white-hot resentment that now permeates and the assassination of Jo Cox MP could all have been predicted and avoided. For this reason, Dominic Cummings, a wild idealist who seems to feed on such chaos (which is undoubtedly fertile), was for me somewhat heroic. Of course, he’s gone now too.

All of this is precisely what the UK, or any country, cannot bear. It follows then that, in combination with a headstrong Scottish nationalism (which is empty and so could always mutate to exploit any given British woe) and a global pandemic, the United Kingdom is finished.

And that is now where we are. The SNP made good use of Brexit and they made good use of the Coronavirus. The first is to be expected – the EU being anti-nation and the SNP’s nationalism being anything but national – but the second is somewhat curious. Alex Massie, the unionist Scotland editor at The Spectator, contributed an article[1] recently seeking to explain the paradox of Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity relative to her performance as First Minister:

The virus changed everything. Now she is arguably Britain’s most popular politician — more popular in England than Boris Johnson, according to one poll — and her stock in Scotland has never been higher. Opinion polls suggest the next Holyrood parliament will be cursed with a pro-independence majority. The future of the United Kingdom once again hangs in the balance. To save it, Unionists need to work out why.

If unionists are at a loss as to the cause of this phenomenon, I can help out. As Massie diligently records, the SNP have crashed yet not burned when it comes to, for one thing, education, something Sturgeon affirmed was her “top priority” over independence. School pupils return their worst exam results ever and the Scottish poor, with their free tuition fees, are no more likely to attend university than the English. 7% of Scots think the NHS (a devolved responsibility) has improved in all the time the SNP have been in government and neither at tackling the virus has Sturgeon been any type of runaway success. Here is Massie again:

Although the prevalence of the virus is currently lower in Scotland than England, second-wave death rates are actually 25 per cent higher. Many of the mistakes made in England were also made in Scotland, not least discharging patients from hospitals into care homes without first checking they were not bringing the virus with them. By any reasonable estimation, Scotland’s performance has been mediocre at best.

Whence then, comes Sturgeon’s soaring popularity? Massie makes many fine points, difficult to argue with, in what is something of a timely expose of the SNP, but he is hopelessly naïve to believe it will go any way to shoring up an intellectual defence of the union. In fact, defenders of the union always seem to have the best arguments; the concept of an oppressed Scotland is, as we all really know, utterly scoffable. The SNP deal with this by ignoring those arguments.

The reason Sturgeon’s popularity is immune to such criticism, is that the SNP have successfully sold themselves as exactly what they are - the party of independence and of independence alone. What I mean by this is that any overtures to those concerned about education, health and Covid are entirely disingenuous, little short of bare-faced lies. Any overtures to everything the union has done for Scotland – not least the world unique and towering achievement of British parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy – are simply not made at all. And things like education and health would only be given more genuine emphasis if it could be demonstrated that they were Scottish successes (as it stands, they are clearly not).

Covid is somewhat different: This was not much a Scottish success either, yet we must remember that in March 2020, the Covid response was not a devolved responsibility. And at that time, our Prime Minister could not have made more of a dog’s dinner of the response. All one needs to recall is Johnson cheerily shaking the hands of everyone he met, placing empty hopes in “herd immunity” and recommending a relaxed attitude at the same time as Europeans were already masked up and locked down. Shortly afterwards, new health bills were rushed through parliament and onto Her Majesty’s desk, devolving responsibility for the Covid response. Then came the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle affair. It was farce, it was cock-up, it was all over the news – nothing Scotland could do afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight, could look remotely as bad as what was initially the British response.

Make no mistake, this is where Scotland’s “chance” is coming from, and it brings up to date a nationalist movement that is at most around 50 years old. This is somewhat younger, you will note, than Scotland. We might back date it to Winnie Ewing, who, in 1967, inaugurated SNP electoral success as we recognise it today. Ewing was elected to parliament in that year in Hamilton, the ancestral seat, funnily enough, of that feckless duke who, in betrayal of the nationalist cause to which he was integral, absented himself from the vote of 1707 on account of toothache. Ewing was nicknamed Madame Ecosse when later a member of the European Parliament and contained within this fanciful epithet is the entire ethos of her party ever since – a sort of recalcitrant nationalism happily in the embrace of a Europe that cannot fail to smother it. She is Nicola Sturgeon’s primary political hero, a figure the First Minister would praise for helping to “define the Scottish independence movement as the outward-looking inclusive one that we are [my emphasis]”.

Quite so: Ewing made Scottish nationalism less national and in doing so emptied it of historical precedent. Not that she would have saw it like this – the Declaration of Arbroath and the Auld Alliance alike bear testament to an ancient tradition, common to all Celtic nationalisms, of finding on the continent a corrective to Englishness. Inaugurating the new nationalism but a product of the old, she likely saw herself as acting in such a spirit. And in embracing Europe, she even once pricked herself and noticed; the occasion was Britain’s entry into the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) –

Britain broke my heart with fishing, and broke the fishing industry into pieces, and gave it all to Spain for some reason.

On many like occasions would she fight very sincerely for Scottish interests in Europe, never once realising that this is where European integration always tends. Sturgeon, of course, wants us back in the CFP.

This unnational nationalism then is what makes it quite easy for the independence movement to orient itself around class resentment against Westminster neglect (70s), Tory economic brutality (the Thatcher years) and ultimately a perceived abandonment by a unionist and Blairite Labour party (the infamous SNP electoral landslides of the last decade). This handily explains why Corbynmania could swiftly commandeer the SNP’s momentum immediately after 2014 and why, in the face of extraordinary British constitutional chaos, it has returned to them now.

The problem with all of this is obvious: Sell independence to the electorate in the manner that it is currently sold – escape the Tories, re-join the EU, build a more “just and equal society” – and Scotland suddenly has no more right to nationhood than any other regional grouping of between five and six million people who are perceived to vote roughly the same way and against the Westminster grain. Extend that to its logical conclusion and you have the makings of an atomising national incoherence – why not South Wales, Cornwall, Tyneside? And similarly: Why not London?” – a regional entity of a likewise unified political will, a greater population and an infinitely greater economic importance. Such comparisons are facile in practice, but they follow from this principle. Are we asking too much in desiring a better principle?

And yet, this is undoubtedly the means by which independence will come about. The political capital gained from emptying Scottish nationalism of any ancient or even pre-war precedent has allowed to SNP to become the party of Europe against Brexit, Covid competence against incompetence, social justice against austerity and so on – nothing more than a foil to Westminster evil. And the plain reality is that this has worked (though of course, only because of a general British disintegration). We will get our independence in the wrong way just as we got Brexit in the wrong way. And just like Brexit, the real trouble will come afterwards.

But what exactly are these historical precedents for Scottish nationhood that Sturgeon and her Ewingist party have divested themselves of? Well, without skipping down a millennium of resilient Scottish nationhood, we might put it like this: if there were even an intimation that the SNP were the party of a nation that can be vitally distinguished from Wales by existing into the era of the modern nation state as an independent country with separate national institutions - legal, religious, educational, political – that have continued unto the present, we would not be faced with the total dead end that will meet us the morning after independence. On that day, we will be left with a nationalism that relied totally on an English bogeyman now vanquished. Scotland will be “outward looking” then alright – it will look outward to the euro-globalism ready to subsume a tiny and insignificant nation that based its nationhood on nothing truly national. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill[2] in December allowing Scotland to “keep pace with” (mimic) Brussels legislation. This is a betrayal not only of the British constitution, but our own Scots Law too. Such powers are currently checked by the union, but they make explicit the direction Scotland will go after independence. The SNP have made no case for why Scotland should not be ruled, only for why it should not be ruled by Westminster – and they haven’t made a particularly convincing case for that either.

The SNP are in fact now the refined product of perhaps a century of socialist-orientated resentment against the union. Episodes from Red Clydeside, colliery closures and even Tory austerity might well be evidence of real mistreatment of Scotland, but they do nothing to make a case for Scotland as a separate nation from England. To see this is so we need only think of similar mistreatments in, say, Northern England or South Wales. To claim Scotland should rule herself, you rather need to talk a bit about history, of the Johns Calvin and Knox, the Union of crowns, the wretched 17th century, Scots Law, our ancient universities, the Bishops War, Jacobitism, the complicated morass of 1707, the Scottish enlightenment, Burns, Scott, Romantic Scotland, the entrenched sectarianism of Ayrshire and the small towns of the central belt (that makes a mockery of the modern reputation of Scots as more progressive and open than the English) and all the other chapters of our history where a deep Scottish identity stood in contrast to an English one. Such an identity defeated all manner of English impositions, which in turn informed the negotiating of the union and ensured a national resilience, after it was passed, in such matters as law, religion and the education system which springs from them. That Scottish education system was arguably foremost in the world by the late nineteenth century. Nowadays, it is… well, see above.

The SNP care not a jot for any of this. The last measly lip service was paid to it in the Salmond era with booming jingoistic nonsense about “the country of Adam Smith” and the roar of the “Scottish lion”. Scots Wha Hae ceased to be sang at SNP annual conferences. The Scottish mind has been emptied of anything Scottish. To be Scottish is to whine about the Tories and Brexit and make vague overtures to openness and progressiveness. There is nothing inherently Scottish about that. An Englishman can do that just as well and we therefore have a real crisis of Scottish identity on our hands.

It might do to conclude with a word on romantic nationhood; that is, the creation of nationhood beyond the bare bones of historical detail. The English historian David Starkey has long walked the rhetorical line between quite nasty and bitter invective and that delightfully catty wit of an older homosexual subculture. Probably right down the middle of these poles were his remarks about Scotland some ten years ago. Slighting Scotland as a “feeble little country” to the boos of the eternally dim-witted Question Time audience, he would go on to miss the mark entirely when slighting it also as a “a typical small nation with a romantic 19th century style nationalism.”. Scotland may be small, but it is neither typical nor (these days) romantic.

This is despite the fact that Scotland in fact seems the best placed of any country to draw on that 19th century wind that changed Europe forever and for the better. Supporters of Scottish nationalism seem predisposed to exploit imagery, culture and sentiments that are romantically constructed, by which I mean the stuff of nationalist sentiments which are born, or more often transmuted, in the minds of poets. It is a dull historical fact, for example, that clan tartans date no earlier than the 19th century, an item of Gaelic culture romanticised in the novels of Walter Scott. Yet what is tartan now in Scottish culture? I need only pick up the photograph of my parents on their wedding day to see it as something integral and emblematic of Scottishness, invoked to mark a sacrament, a rite of passage in the ritual calendar of human lives. It becomes rather significant, in other words; it takes on the romantic reality that in modern times has long transcended the grey truth of its actual origins. It is heavily disputed also, that Robert de Bruce really stabbed John Comyn to death on the altar of Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries – “You doubt, I mak siccar! Let the deed shaw!” – but I am taken to thinking about Scotland and I find I cannot do so without this romantic reality either. All of these things engender what the Germans call Heimatgefühl.

We have the English, who are in a similar fashion deluded about their success in two whole world wars, to thank for this. When Edward I and his Queen Consort Eleanor of Castile led a glorious and unprecedented ceremony to reinter the bones of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in a grand marble tomb in Glastonbury abbey, he invented English nationalism. And while moderns can’t but scoff at this charade, it was irresolvably enmeshed with his affirmation of the pre-Norman English laws, Magna Carta and the parliament of de Montfort. Edward’s romantic “myth-making” therefore went a long way to establishing the English constitutional fundamentals that are only now coming undone. The idea soon caught on in Scotland, created by Edward’s example and invigorated by his aggression. The hammer of the Scots became the nationaliser of the Scots – and Wallace was the result.

Centuries hence, and with modernity, with some justice, demanding we do not invest too wholeheartedly in myth, an ultimate effect, accelerated in the post-war years, has been to erase a substantial idea of Scotland entirely. The price of a barrel of North Sea oil has lang syne defined the economic argument, and a positively cosy Europhile Anglophobia the patriotic one. England (in caricature) is integral to this programme yet Scotland has no place in it. She stands outside, in the dreich rain of her own climate, without so much as a warm woollen bunnet or a cigarette to suck.

Liam Cruivie

[1] [2][2]

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