As I'm sick of, and sickened by, Scottish nationalism Tom Gallagher's Scotland Now: A Warning to the World, wasn't the jolliest holiday reading. I relived the independence referendum which was the worst political time of my life – the flags, the bad history, the bad economics, the endless flattery of the Scots, forming a wave that half drowned the spluttering Unionist campaign. As his account of that time chimes in with my own dark memories, I trust his version of the history of the SNP and his description of the broader political setting. I also found it useful to get what was a heap of fragments in my own head pulled together into a coherent whole. So I'll be using this book for reference in the future.
It should have come with a trigger warning for the alliterative b Salmond - bombastic, belligerent, braggart, blustering, blowhard. It's painful to recall Salmond's destructive boasting about “writing Labour's budget” during the general election and the Yessers weeping at his resigning from leader of the SNP as the loss of a true statesman. Also cringe-making were his attempts to pull foreign governments on-side for Scottish independence which even China views with dismay.
Alex Salmond .. a bumptious squire forever dragging his rather plain daughter around the royal courts of Europe in search of a husband who would transform the family status: For 18th-centruy Vienna, Hanover or Naples substitute Qatar, Beijing and any Scandinavian capital you care to name: Alex is banging at the door proclaiming that no more in fair Scotland to be viewed as a mere province but as a proud nation about to enter into its inheritance.
Tom Gallagher (I know him so I'm not going to call him “Gallagher) has various explanations for this earthquake of nationalism in an island state known for its political stability.
The SNP has surged thanks to an upsurge in anti-elitism at grassroots level in Scotland even though it has been in charge of most aspects of Scottish policy-making for eight years. Many Scots yearn for an opposition to lead them against a British state which they believe is colluding against their best interest in numerous ways. It has become a bogeyman like the Pope of Rome used to be for militant Ulster Protestants...
He sees it in the context of a breakdown of traditional class interest parties generally and the rise of identity politics:-
Far from being an anachronism in a globalising age, the SNP is a very contemporary political force. Parties which represent the class, occupational, religious or secular interest and outlooks of their voting base are on the defensive and increasingly in retreat. Society has become more fragmented and fluid. It is identity politics which increasingly motivate voters in an age of anxiety over immigration, corporate global power or other forms of remote control felt to marginalise and dis-empower citizens. Parties able to offer seemingly fresh narratives based around mobilising identity are very much in vogue. ….
Also the Me Performing on Social Media decade:-
Privatised existences, exemplified by addiction to online technology, have made people increasingly self-absorbed. Their own feelings often count for more than group loyalties stemming from locality, family, workplace or faith community. The genius of the SNP.. is to give such passive and unfulfilled individualism a collective outlet. The SNP has successfully emerged as a surrogate family at the national level.
Nicola Sturgeon is now the “mother of the nation” and SNP members take criticism of their party as a personal insult.
But its message is not one of solidarity, restraint, and long-term co-operation to build a better Scotland. Very often it is rather bellicose, emphasising partisanship, sometimes along territorial lines. In Glasgow, social conflict in some poorer areas once involved gangs feuding over territory. The SNP has shown particular flair in harnessing social tensions in this unruly city which used to play out in religious strife and neighbourhood factionalism, channelling them instead into politics.
So the SNP is currently in a position much-coveted by populist parties. It has become a conduit for emotions that are often negative ones but which place few demands on the leadership to work hard to deliver effective policies. ….Nationalists can be more self-indulgent and wayward than other politicians because nationalism so often manages to persuade lots of voters to suspend their critical faculties…
Also to mass individualism, reinforced by social networking, which played a large part in galvinising the Yes vote:-
Much of society has become more hedonistic and excitable as absorption in civic and community endeavours faded. The rise of the dissatisfied and egotistical citizen ready to endorse a political party whose leaders also have a self-absorbed and basically populist profile has been predicted by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in the 1920s. In The Revolt of the Masses published in 1929, he warned that society's vital energies would be sapped thanks to dumbed down citizens surrendering their fate to an interventionist state where populists held sway.
That is not really fair on many pro Yes activists from the Green and the Left who do ardently believe that an indy Scotland will be greener/more socialist. They are mistaken – the SNP would be in charge for decades and is neither - but many of them worked very hard for ends that were altruistic, as well as highly statist.
However Scotland is now stuck with politics being nationalist vs unionist for a long time to come. Criticism of the Scottish government's policies on eg transport are met with the jeer #SNPbad (including from MSPs and MPs – along with other grimnesses of Scottish political life are the name-calling twitter threads of some serving politicians).
These politics are here for a decade or two or three. Tom Gallagher compares the situation with Quebec:-
Quebec had become stuck with a nationalism possessing no positive vision for society. Instead there is a readiness to generate low-level conflict to enable the political machine to benefit materially from office. Scotland doesn't have a language question but the SNP's direction of travel is much the same – towards a constant absorption with constitutional arrangements and identity politics and where contrasts with the rest of the United Kingdom are deliberately underscored and celebrated.
Tom Gallagher has had twelve books published by the academic press. This one has been self-published. The layout could do with some cleaning up and the text needs some editing for repetitions. Also“disinterested” does not mean “uninterested” (though it's probably too late to save). It's very readable and there's plenty of food for thought in it and I would like to see a sober Nationalist* giving it an intelligent review.+