Periodic guest poster, Dr Phil Larkin, has contributed a penetrating overview of the SNP, which I've taken the liberty of splitting into three separate posts. This is a detailed dissection of the nationalist vision for Scotland and why it isn't tenable. Today, why the 'commentariat' has lost its mind over Scottish nationalism and why electors in Scotland voted for the SNP.
By Dr Phil Larkin
Every few years, elements of the media and political commentariat seem to lose their power of reason over a particular issue. At present, this issue is the SNP’s victorious 2015 General Election. If some sources are to be believed, the end of the UK is nigh, and the SNP are set to continue from glory to glory until this wondrous event takes place. They are deemed by some commentators to possess a masterful political vision, and have a crystal clear strategy mapped out to achieve this. They are ready, willing, and able both to end the austerity policy and to turn Scotland into a sort of northern Dubai minus the great weather, where all citizens enjoy social and economic equality: a veritable Celtic paradise.
It is my view that if there is a speck of truth in all of this, it is about the height of it. While it is true that the SNP did score a great victory in May’s election, and probably has sufficient momentum behind it to perform well in next year’s Scottish Parliamentary election, it is the case that the Party is fast approaching the crest of a political hill, and once this is reached, it will be downhill over the course of next five to ten years. In fact, that the Party won so many seats back in May could do it, and the cause of Scottish independence, more long term damage than good. These assertions will be developed in this article. It will also be argued that Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour Party leader does not bode well for the SNP for the short to medium term. In reality, as will be set out below, much of the SNP’s success is based, quite simply, upon the politics of illusion. Nationalism itself is an extremely emotive subject, against which logic and reason often finds it difficult to prevail. Nevertheless, in this article I will attempt to shine a light on this topic.
Why did Scottish Electors vote SNP?
“A farmer went out to sow his seed…Some fell on rocky places, where
it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was
shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they
withered because they had no root.” Mathew Chapt 13. The Parable of the Sower.
The build-up to the Scottish Independence referendum on 18 September 2014 was a long one, announced in March 2013, and ample time for both pro- and anti- camps to set out their case. The pro-independence campaign was stretched out over a long period, whereas the “No” campaign was characterised by a sharp burst of activity in the run-up to the referendum. There was some merit in the approach of the “No” camp. The order given to the American troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill was “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, in other words, don’t act until the opposition has burned itself out and their arguments have become exhausted. In the end, this approach prevailed, with a convincing 55 per cent of the population voting “No” to independence (although they did not reach the 60 per cent that some had hoped for). The result demonstrated clearly that there was no overwhelming desire to break up the United Kingdom among the Scottish electorate, although it was a great political achievement for the SNP to have convinced 45 per cent of voters to opt for independence.
The drawback to the “No” camp’s low-key tactics to winning the referendum was that it provided the “Yes” campaign, spearheaded by the SNP, with enormous publicity, allowing them to become household names north of the border. This was to have a devastating effect on the Labour Party in the 2015 Election, permitting the SNP to capitalise on the anti-Westminster establishment feeling, and the weariness with austerity politics prevalent in various parts of the UK, and from which UKIP and the Green Party also benefitted. For many years, Scotland has lacked a Labour leader of the stature of Donald Dewar, and the Party’s image was damaged by instances of governmental incompetency, such as the debacle over schools’ examination marking which happened when Henry McLeish was First Minister. The SNP therefore took control of the Scottish Executive in 2007 (although to listen to them sometimes one would not know that they had ever been in government). Furthermore, between 2010 and 2015 the Labour Party in Scotland haemorrhaged members (partly a by-product of Labour’s complacency in Scotland over a period of years), which meant that when the time came for election canvassing there was a chronic shortage of willing volunteers. This author’s brother, who lives in a suburb of Glasgow, said that prior to the 2015 election the only political party representative who actually came to his door was the SNP representative. The momentum behind the SNP thus took on the force of a bandwagon, and many people who would otherwise naturally have voted Labour got caught up in the emotion and clamour of the Nationalists’ campaign. Ed Miliband’s ineffectual leadership of Labour, and the fact that he appeared unconvincing and lacklustre to the Scottish electorate compounded a disastrous campaign for the Party. Yet, I am not entirely convinced that many Scots who eventually voted SNP knew exactly what policies they were voting for, beyond a sort of vague, populist, anti-Westminster-ism. This was demonstrated in a Guardian video made in the run-up to the 2015 Election, when a journalist interviewed a group of young Scots in their late teens/early twenties about their voting intentions. One replied that she was going to vote SNP, stating that their policies were “definitely best for Scotland.” The journalist then casually asked her “which SNP policy in particular do you favour?” She could not answer, and giggled in embarrassment.
In addition to the populist, anti-austerity element of SNP politics, there is also a strain of another form of nationalism that can be observed. Due to rapid industrialisation during the nineteenth century, Scotland absorbed an enormous number of Irish (mainly Catholic) immigrants, who tended to form separate communities in the larger cities of Scotland, with tensions often existing between the host and immigrant communities. While many of these eventually came to vote Labour (indeed, they formed the backbone of the Labour Party in cities like Glasgow) there were at least some attempts during the referendum campaign to link residual, subconscious feelings of Irish nationalism with Scottish nationalism and the “Yes” campaign. On one BBC news story, an SNP activist from the Republic of Ireland was interviewed. He talked about the struggle which his grandfather had waged for Irish Independence, and hoped to be able to regale his grandchildren with his efforts on behalf of Scottish independence. The historian Tom Devine also comes from this school of thought. Yet to conflate Scottish nationalism with Irish nationalism in this way is mistaken: Scottish nationalism is a very different animal than its Irish counterpart. There is no history of large scale agrarian disorder and violence, or secret societies in Scotland’s history, and neither is Scottish nationalism fuelled by any form of Gaelic or cultural revival. Struggles in Scotland historically have tended to be linked into those prevalent in Britain as a whole, such as Chartism and the trade union movement. A number of times in the past people from an Irish nationalist background (from both north and south) have said to me that they could not understand why Scots did not “fight for their freedom” as the Irish did. Such sentiments do not go much beyond the emotional “Braveheart” school of nationalism, crumble under any sort of close forensic analysis, and those who espouse such views grossly misunderstand the relationship between Scotland and England, and Scotland’s historical place within the United Kingdom.
The Conservatives have long struggled to find their electoral feet in Scotland, tainted by historical memories of the de-industrialisation policy pursued by the Thatcher Governments during the 1980s, and the decision to use Scotland as a testing ground for the Community Charge (Poll Tax). Scottish Conservatives really do have an uphill struggle on their hands, but, strangely, I do not believe that their task is impossible. More will be said about this below.
The next part of this series will follow tomorrow.