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You're Not Scottish
I shouldn't be telling them this, but one of the most common SNP attack lines fatally undermines their own chances of success.
Normally I wrote these notes with advice for those of us who are comfortable with sharing sovereignty and having a pluralistic national identity. This one is written for those who struggle with those ideas. It’s written for the SNP.
Waiting on a delayed flight this week I was listening to Timothy Snyder’s excellent talks on Ukraine. In one of the lectures, he talks about how the foundation of a nation is the inclusivity of identity:
“A nation involves a certain notion of equality. We may not be equal in other ways, but I’m not more American than you are. At least notionally we are equal as members of a nation.”
If a nation can only be built on a sense of equality of identity, and your entire politics is defined by the creation of such a nation as it is for the SNP, then you should care deeply about this. Everyone living in the part of the world that you have chosen to circle on the map should be made to feel an equal sense of belonging to the project you are seeking to build. Of course, that’s not how things are.
Snyder also separates the idea of patriotism from nationalism by suggesting the former is based on universal values while the latter is based on the resentment we feel towards another group. In the case of Scottish nationalism, their central argument that Scotland is morally superior to a corrupted and corrupting England certainly sits in that tradition.
One of the weird features of nationalism in Scotland is that even greater resentment is directed at other members of their own national group. Their sense of national identity isn’t just exclusive of members from the outsider group (Scots versus English) it excludes those who are not members of their political insider group (true Scots versus untrue Scots).
We should be careful not to read too much into the rantings of people on social media, but anyone who has ever challenged the SNP online will be used to having their national identity denied because of the political choices they make.
Those telling us we aren’t really Scottish, that we hate our country, and that we work for another nation aren’t on a marginal fringe - they are following the cues given by leaders of the SNP for decades.
We can think of Jim Sillars famously dissing the patriotism of his fellow Scots: "Scotland has too many ninety-minute patriots whose nationalist outpourings are expressed only at major sporting events."
That was said in the disappointment of defeat, but even at the high point of SNP success Salmond declared in his victory speech after the 2011 election that “team Scotland has won this election.”
A framing he tried to repeat at the 2014 referendum, saying it was “Team Scotland versus Team Westminster”, only to find himself facing the ire of various athletes who had represented the country and were voting No.
Or we can think of when Stewart Hosie demanded opponents “join team Scotland” only to face the wrath of a TV audience for his arrogance.
Or when Salmond said his opponents were “articulating the case against Scotland."
Or when Deputy First Minister John Swinney claimed his Labour opponents were not “on Scotland’s side.”
Or when another Minister criticized an opponent for celebrating Burns Night saying “Rabbie Burns was a proud Scot every day of the year, not just once a year.”
Of course, the nationalist list of enemies suspected of un-Scottish activities doesn’t end with political parties. Clootie dumplings, shortbread, whisky, Tunnocks Tea Cakes, and Highland Spring water, have all been deemed un-Scottish. That should make them stop and think, but seemingly it doesn’t.
Divisive rhetoric is powerful but its strategic weakness is that it seeks enemies rather than allies. It can motivate a minority to win you an election but it can’t win you a nation. You don’t convert people by constantly telling the majority who are not convinced of the political project of statehood that they are not worthy of the same national identity as you. You don’t include people by excluding them.
Never interrupt your opponents when they are making a mistake and all that, I know. So why flag this up?
The SNP’s leadership now acknowledges that we aren’t going to be leaving the UK any time soon. That might mean that they engage in a period of introspection about why their nationalist rhetoric has failed to achieve what they thought was so close at hand. Whether you think the SNP are still on what they imagine is an inevitable path to victory, or whether you think they are now in decline, it is in nobody’s interest for our political debate to be this divisive.
Perhaps the SNP fear where accepting this takes them. If you no longer view national identity as binary, does that lead you to accept that political choices on the constitution don’t need to be binary either? That devolution rather than separation is the better, more logical outcome for our nation? Some SNP folk are beginning to have this conversation, but it’s at such an early stage. There’s still such reluctance to strip away the magical thinking and instead see the idea of leaving the UK for what it is: a policy like any other.
The things that make Scotland such a great place are so much larger and more beautiful. Why reduce it to this? To make where you stand on a technocratic policy choice the test of whether you belong is so small and self-defeating.
We can still disagree with each other. I can still say that the SNP are obsessed with the constitution at the expense of public services or that the Tories care too much about those at the top and not enough about those at the bottom. The Tories can say that Labour thinks too much about spending money than generating it. The Lib Dems can say we’re all too heavy-handed in our use of state power. We can all say that the Lib Dems are wishy-washy.
By all means, say that your opponents are wrong, but saying they aren’t Scottish? Really? That’s just dumb, divisive and dangerous.
But keep doing it if you want to lose.
Culture Corner: Patriotism and Nationalism
Jenny Joseph’s expressed the idea I’m trying to get across above far better than my clumsy words. Her ‘Patriotic poem against nationalism’ wishes that we would lose the “bitter ghosts of history” and “change nations into geography”:
I hope that you will love whatever place you live in
Because you love it, not because commanded
By joyless people gritting their teeth for power;
Welcomed everywhere, and safe enough
To welcome others and like them for their strangeness.
You can watch her recite the whole work from about 3 minutes in below: