Union supporters have yet to earn their regained lead in the polls. More likely it's the SNP's more strident nationalism that has lost supporters.
Just three weeks ago Scotland was covered in snow. As I write this, the ground is thawed and crocuses and are cheerfully peaking up through the soil. It’s not spring, but it’s certainly not deep winter anymore.
It’s amazing how quickly things change even when you’re expecting it. Last week I posed the question:
“What if the nationalists who claim that opinion polls carry such democratic weight that they justify overturning a vote by millions of Scots suddenly find themselves on the wrong end of that same opinion polling?”
Over the course of the last few days, we have had three opinion polls showing those of us wanting to remain in the UK outweighing those who want to leave. They’ve suggested that the SNP may be close to losing the majority they have been arrogantly taking for granted.
I’ve bemoaned how the SNP didn’t deserve their lead because they have done nothing to earn it. There has been no renewal of the outdated case for leaving the UK. There’s no plan for losing the pound, or for how we would fund the NHS now that oil revenues have evaporated, or for how the new border with England would work after Scexit. As those that want to leave the UK lose their lead, it’s important to realise that the remain side hasn’t earned being ahead either. The Downing Street Union operation has become a pantomime. Scottish Labour has new leadership with a more convincing message, but its too soon for that to have had a significant impact.
So why has the nationalist lead been melting like snaw aff a dyke? I think it is because nationalism has become more nationalist.
To understand this, it helps to think of nationalism as being like someone’s nether regions. For reasons of biology, at first sight, our initial reaction might one of attraction, but once the animalistic urge has passed and we take a more objective look, we realise that it’s actually pretty ugly.
The SNP’s success has been build on pretending not to be nationalist. At elections, they tell voters that a vote for the SNP isn’t a vote for independence. Even in the 2014 referendum itself, a huge part of their message was to tell voters we weren’t really leaving the UK: we could keep the pound, we’ll still be British, we’ll even still be in a ‘union’ with each other. In front of an audience of the intelligentsia, the First Minister agonises about how uncomfortable she is with the word that has defined her life. This is about more than just soundbites. In what is still the only speech of any length where Nicola Sturgeon has tried to set out a personal political philosophy, she recycled Neil McCormick’s distinction between existential and utilitarian nationalisms:
“for me the fact of nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motive force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desirable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity. And I don’t agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence. My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice.”
Today the pretence of utilitarian nationalism is gone. In part, this is because the SNP leader is struggling to maintain control of her party membership and needs to throw red meat to the mob. But in truth, the SNP civil war has only accelerated a shift that the FM herself has led since Brexit. Shortly after that referendum, and with the drop in oil revenues undermining the utilitarian argument for independence as a route to higher public spending, Nicola Sturgeon wrote:
“That case for full self-government ultimately transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends.”
The economic prospectus has gone from Scandinavian social democracy to a decade of austerity as a price worth paying for building a new nation. The promises of social unions and pledges of Britishness have been replaced with a narrative about banning flags and talking about an irreconcilable values gap between us and them. The victory of one form of irresponsible nationalism in 2016 made the SNP feel that this is a time when populist nationalism is in the ascendency, giving them permission to indulge themselves.
This trend towards nationalism for its own sake doesn’t matter when the question of leaving the UK is a hypothetical one. However, the more the SNP make an election that should be about the NHS, jobs, or catching up our kids on the education they missed into a referendum on a referendum, the less voters like it. It could be that the SNP are now discovering that in a health and economic crisis, voters simply don’t think another referendum is an “essential priority” like Deputy First Minister John Swinney does, or that a vote to leave the UK should take place as quickly as possible, even later this year as Westminster Leader Ian Blackford said this week.
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
A look around devolved government shows, by comparison, everything that is wrong with Scottish politics. It gives us a glimpse of what our national debate could be like if only we could loosen the suffocating grip of nationalism.
In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham talked about the pandemic, climate change, transport and homelessness.
In Wales the Labour incumbents focussed on the pandemic, building houses, and protecting the natural environment.
And in London Sadiq Khan prioritised the pandemic and jobs.
Meanwhile for viewers in Scotland…
While other devolved leaders use their campaigns to talk about governing, in Scotland our government talks only about campaigning. Instead of uniting the country and moving forward, their vision is narrowed down to a divisive issue.
As the SNP civil war rumbles on and the SNP is even more one-note than usual, it might be easy to think that the best messengers for the union are the SNP themselves. That would be a mistake. It isn’t enough for supporters of the Union to simply to amplify the wrong priority of the SNP, all that does is perpetuate Scottish politics as a single-issue contest. Yes, talk about how the SNP have the wrong policy priority, but also talk about why the process of leaving the UK is wrong at this time.
Independence is bad for Scots because it means cuts, currency chaos and chaos at a new border with England. More importantly than all that, fighting another referendum that the opinion polls say would have the same result, stops us talking about fixing our NHS after the pandemic, catching our kids up on the schooling they missed, or creating jobs to replace those we lost when we were shut down.
We have been apart from each other for so long, now that we have the chance to come back together again, is the first thing we do really going to be to separate from each other and divide ourselves back into old arguments?
This is a message about issues, but it is also about values. Spring is always a time that feels like a fresh start after a cold winter. As we get our vaccines and emerge from lockdown and see our loved ones again, that feeling will be stronger than ever. Those of us whose politics are about togetherness should own that value more, and in doing so we can remind people of how unattractive it is to be divided from each other.
A Few Things You Might Have Missed
Jess Phillips wrote an excoriating piece that gets to the heart of the issue that risks being obscured by all the noise around the Salmond inquiry. Nicola Sturgeon and the entire SNP hierarchy let women down:
“I have yet to hear about plans to overhaul procedures to make sure this terrible litany of failures never happens again. I have seen nothing that is trying to send the message that people should feel able to speak up if they are scared or abused. I have seen nothing that makes me think that the rights of women to be safe at work are more pressing to the Scottish government than who wins this row.”
SNP candidates are promising to double pensions – a spending commitment that would add £8 billion to the £15 billion deficit. In a normal political system, this would be a thing. We should be careful about allowing the Camel’s nose into the tent on this one. It should be laughed out of court before it becomes accepted.
John Ferry highlighted an important power that isn’t used by the SNP Government, the power to issue their own bonds, as other devolved governments around Europe do.
And finally, because we should be internationalist and not just anti-nationalist, and because it’s International Women’s Day, please watch and share this video about the plight of Uyghur women.