The 'forward march' of Scottish nationalism.

AuthorHassan, Gerry

Scotland has been changed dramatically and fundamentally. The SNP landslide victory has resulted in a completely different political map of Scotland.

This is a wider set of changes than just a northern, near-foreign politics of little real interest to the Westminster village. For a start there is the demise of the Labour hegemony north of the border. This is part of a deeper crisis of the British political class and state, British identity and the demise of a popular British story that connected people and power. This is a major loss of faith and confidence in left and right, which is only just beginning to unfurl, awakening the possibilities of addressing the English question and nature of the UK.

The changing face of Scottish politics

The SNP's election victory is a historic watershed in Scottish and British politics. The SNP won 45.4 per cent of the constituency vote to Labour's 31.7 per cent, a lead of 13.7 per cent, and 44.0 per cent of the regional list to Labour's 26.3 per cent, a lead of 17.7 per cent. This is after four years of Alex Salmond leading a minority SNP Government of 47 seats to Labour's 46 in the 2007 Scottish Nationalist narrow victory over Labour: the first ever national triumph of the SNP. The 2011 elections resulted in an SNP majority with 69 seats to Labour's 37 in the 129 member Parliament; the First Past The Post map of Scotland is now emphatically SNP with 53 members to Labour's mere 15, with the result only made more respectable by the regional list.

Devolution was meant to be about legitimising the existing Labour state, its one-party apparatus, nomenklatura class and extension into every aspect of Scottish public life. This became, under eight years of Labour-Lib Dem Executive administration, a rather insipid, uninspiring world. Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell provided Labour's three First Ministers who despite their various skills could or would not change. Instead, Labour rule became associated with a minimalist, dismal form of politics centred on authoritarianism, telling people off, and inspiring no one.

It wasn't meant to be this way. Devolution 'was meant to kill nationalism stone dead' claimed George Robertson in the distant past. The Scottish Parliament electoral system was devised with the intention of preventing one party ever having a parliamentary majority. The Scottish Nationalists were seen by Labour unionists as a party out of touch with the modern world; one which would be exposed by the pressures of devolution. And the idea of Scottish independence was an eccentric, maverick demand which didn't deal with reality.

Instead, Scottish voters have chosen to elect what they see as a Scottish Government, a body that speaks and aspires to lead the Scottish nation. The SNP represent and reflect Scottish identity in a manner that Scottish Labour has shown itself unable too. Then there is the leadership of Alex Salmond as First Minister, who has transformed how the Scottish Nationalists are seen, and shown a form of national leadership none of his Labour predecessors had or were given the opportunity to show.

Then there is the message and psyche of the SNP: one representing the potential of a mature, evolving, self-governing Scotland. This has in the last few years shifted from the politics of gripe and grievance about what is wrong to one of emphasising positivity. This was a change in the Nationalists which disorientated Labour in 2007, but did so again in 2011 because Labour has such a powerful, entrenched sense of caricaturing and stereotyping the SNP.

Life in a northern country: a different Scottish political environment

All of this has contributed to a dramatically changed Scottish politics. Scotland has for the first time a majority administration. The Nationalists have established an impressive hegemony in the Scottish Parliament which looks to be long-term and a permanent re-alignment of Scottish politics. Scottish Labour now looks bereft, having lost nearly two dozen of its parliamentary constituencies, all of its heartlands, and much of its talent. It has the fall-back of still looking dominant for the foreseeable future at Westminster.

We have a government committed to Scottish independence and holding a vote in its five year term on this. In the meantime it wants to address the issue of more powers and the inadequacies of the current Scotland Bill going through Parliament, which is the result of the unionist cross-party initiative the Calman Commission (Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2009).

This is the high point of the Scottish Nationalists, a party which has come a long way from its first electoral victory at Motherwell in 1945 just before Labour's landslide victory and Winnie Ewing's breakthrough in 1967. British commentators tend to view the SNP and wider Scottish nationalism as an episodic, wave-like phenomenon; as one which blows hot and cold through various upturns and downturns: 1967-68, 1973-74, 1988-89, 1992 and 1998-99. This suits a British media uninterested in Scotland or life beyond Westminster, but also misunderstands the nature of today's SNP. The party's appeal pre-devolution was profoundly episodic, seen by voters as a protest party, or a means to send a shockwave to the Scottish and British political establishment. Now with a Scottish Parliament, its character and nature is very different: a permanent feature on the landscape which the British media have not adapted to.

This changed Scottish political landscape has consequences not just north of the border, but for all British politics, the state of Britain, and even more for the continuation of Britain itself. In many senses, we are witnessing a profound crisis of Britain and the end of Britain as we have come to know it (Gardiner, 2004).

This is an existential crisis of unionism in Scotland and across the UK. A majority of Scots may still be committed to the union and anti-independence, but the unionist side have been in serious decline and trouble since Thatcher was elected Prime Minister and her aggressive unionism went down poorly in Scotland (although its problems are so long-term and deep seated that they long pre-dated Thatcherism). In the last decade or more, the unionist case in Scotland has come to rely on a series of negative scare stories about independence: Scotland is too small, poor, oil-dependent, divided or connected to England to stand on its own two feet and make it as an independent nation.

One of the dominant arguments has been that Scotland is subsidised by the rest of the UK through the Barnett Formula, and that Scotland has a structural deficit with the rest of the UK. What has been missing in these arguments has been a positive argument for the union, one which emphasises shared histories, values and connection. And when this has been attempted by Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander, it has sounded forced and threadbare (Brown and Alexander, 1999; see Hassan, 2008).

Maybe even more fundamentally at the heart of the British political class, unionism is in deep crisis. There used to be a potent, popular story of Britain which had a Tory version, a Labour version, and more importantly, a general people's story, all of which have been diluted to the point of no longer really existing. This has had consequences for a sense of unionism, which no doubt the Westminster political classes are still believers in, but which is not matched by any sense of feel and emotion on their part, or wider, by any gut, primordial unionism on the part of the public.

Look at the response of the Westminster village in the aftermath of the SNP victory. David Cameron talks the language of a conciliatory, responsive unionism, which is probably tactically correct. But neither he nor Ed Miliband makes one significant speech or contribution in the weeks after the SNP's landmark triumph. This is noteworthy, because this is not just a Scottish moment and change, but an altering of the state of Britain, and neither of the two mainstream parties feels it worthy to comment at their most senior level.

Scottish politics and society has moved beyond such considerations. It has in many respects begun to transcend the simple unionist vs. nationalism binary mentality. In Scotland, despite much of the rhetoric, unionism and nationalism don't sit as two antagonistic, separate tribes at war with each other as in Northern Ireland. Instead, they cross-cut and crossfertilise each other; it has long been possible to be a unionist and a nationalist: think of Donald Dewar or Tom Johnston before him; now it is possible to be a nationalist and a unionist. Just as we now talk of a 'banal nationalism' (Billig, 1995), so we should now equally be able to talk of 'banal unionism' (Kidd, 2008), such is the degree to which both nationalism and unionism have shaped and defined each other and Scottish society.

Scottish nationalism's greatest triumph and unionism's biggest challenge for a long time, could paradoxically become an opportunity for unionism. This is because the direction of travel of the SNP and Scottish nationalism is not towards some ludicrous 'separatism' of Gordon Brown's worst fantasies, but towards a post-nationalist politics which acknowledges the multi-faceted identities of Scotland and these isles, and entails some kind of union, or multiple unions. Therefore, a politics of unionism has its place in whatever emerges as Scotland's constitutional status: a partnership with England, 'the social union' which will remain, and institutional and political arrangements across these isles. The SNP have long been thinking along these lines, and vacated the simple, binary politics beloved of opponents. It is unionism which has failed to develop and evolve, and at a Scottish level to understand the SNP, or at Westminster to adapt to the realities of the modern world...

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