We are peculiar us Scots; only because we are so varied as a nation. The people of Glasgow, with an industrial working class tradition, are culturally different from the deeply Christian Western Isles; the Borders and Lothians share little with Orkney and Shetland. We are extremely conscious of our differences; Glaswegians stare at the “teuchtars” of Fife with all the absurd bemusement usually reserved for an alien landing; Edinburghers are viewed with headscratching suspicion. Diversity is not a weakness but strength, it has always coloured our interactions with humour and lighthearted revelry. The current political map of Scotland does not reflect our true diversity or our inherent strengths; it is a monolithic acrid yellow and, to be fair, all rather boring, and all rather un-Scottish.
Difference is the oxygen of a rich national experience, but the ruin of political parties. Variances within a party can lead to factions, dysfunction, and eventually, split. In political terms, these fault lines are omnipresent; Bennites, Eurosceptics, and Tea Partiers. They all represented a radical divergence from the norm. In pacific times, the centre holds, but when a country is faced with an unprecedented issue that significantly affects the trajectory of the country, the voter alters their electoral calculus, and the tectonic plates begin to shift. Party foundations begin to weaken, and these radical elements, emboldened by disarray, sprout sinister shoots and, ever so slowly, begin to corrode parties.
For example, as the American crisis unravelled in the 1760s, Westminster split into party factions, the Whigs separated into the Rockinghamites, Bedfordites, and the Grenvillites. In the 19th century, the Corn Laws and the issue of Free Trade separated the Tories and Whigs, – the Whigs became the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party was then ripped asunder by the Irish Question and Home Rule. Great issues cause political realignments; they are the graveyard of political parties.
In 2015, Scotland experienced such a political re-alignment. The Scottish vote on separation in 2014 was an unforeseen catastrophe; it was the centre point on which nationalism revolved, accreted, and amassed huge pulling power. Today, nationalism sits at the centre of the Scottish political solar system with every conceivable project of government orbiting around that undying nationalist demand: “We want another referendum!!”. As soon as the comet of nationalism hit the soft soil of Scotland a catastrophic process was underway, the mass extinction of Scottish Labour. Nationalism looks on internationalism with such a domineering and unforgiving eye. But is Labour dead and are the SNP impenetrable?
Nationalism Will Corrode the SNP
History does not stop at the Labour Party being flung headlong from power, however; there remains this modest problem of nationalism. One of the great lies of Scottish politics is that this is ‘civic nationalism’. Let’s be clear, you cannot control nationalism; once unleashed it can, and often does, mutate into an unrecognisable, destructive force. Once that genie is out the bottle it cannot be put back in and as much as the nationalists pretend Scottish nationalism is civic, and is outwardly so; there are darker elements in the mix. The ethnic nationalists are pushing hard for another referendum; separation at all costs is acceptable because they fundamentally believe that Scottish culture is unique. More to the point, Scottish culture has been suppressed by England, our Celtic heritage eradicated, and for the sake of those that have come before and for those to come, for posterity and history, finally rendezvous with our cultural destiny. FREEEEDDDOOOMMMM!!
Restless by nature, they are becoming swiftly disillusioned with the SNP’s political reluctance to call a referendum – -to be fair, I’m beginning to think Nicola Sturgeon is the world’s largest invertebrate myself: are you calling a referendum or not? In 2014, in the warm glow of possibility, their ambitions were satisfied, their lustful appetite for ethnic separation satiated because the SNP looked like a probable means to their end, but as the warm glow of immediate resolution is replaced with the cold blast of democratic disappointment they are, with carnivorous malice, turning on the SNP leaders. Nationalists are not known for their Christian temperance and gradualist approach to change but captured by profound ideas of national rebirth and immediate emancipation from an imagined, biblical tyranny.
This fissure was made manifest in Britain’s exit from the EU. Although the SNP supported the Remain campaign, a significant part – 30% – of leave voters were SNP supporters. While the prospect of separation from the Union attracted voters to the SNP, selling that sovereignty off to an expanding European superstate is an unattractive proposition. This faction is the SNP’s UKIP, Front Nationale, “America First” element, a powerful ideological difference insidiously and consistently corroding at the SNP.
The Party is Worried
Leadership will also play a role. There was something deeply unsettling about Sturgeon’s reaction to the local council election results. When pressed on the Conservative surge, the First Minister said without a hint of irony, and with ashen-faced seriousness, that “ The Tories had irresponsibly used the prospect of a referendum in the local elections.” There were two reactions to this preposterous claim; first, bemusement; and then, once I computed the full audaciousness and improbability of such a statement, laughter. How could she possibly accuse someone of political malpractice under such circumstances? She has set Scottish politics on fire and preached endlessly, with all the consistent fury and annoyance of a psychotic jack-hammer, about another referendum. But such ludicrous statement tell of something deeper: worry and fear.
Should you hear a nationalist talk, it’s always in such absolutes. Writing in the Sunday Times, the former strategic communications director for the SNP , Kevin Pringle, said independence is certain now because the vote for separation is between the SNP and Tories. Scotland would never vote Tory. Upso facto, Scotland will never vote to stay in the Union. What incredibly desperate reasoning. Hold the bus, we were told in 2014 that we should separate from the UK because the Conservatives only had one seat up north. Now we are being told that we should separate because the Conservatives are now the official opposition at Holyrood, and could possibly win a dozen seats at the next General Election. This complex political strategy is commonly understood as “making it up as you go along”.
Closely linked to magical thinking is the concept of historical determinism. You hear such vapid sweet nothings such as “it’s inevitable” and “we are on the right side of history.” Indeed, but that leads to an interesting question. If it was so inevitable, why didn’t it happen? Why did Scotland so resoundingly support the Union in 2014? And why do we still support the Union despite the current political upheavals? They only use these empathic statements to assuage their own doubt and from a sense of weakness and inability to control the opinions of others. Make no mistake; the SNP is worried by the Conservative surge.
On the Defensive
After the local election result, the First Minister claimed victory by proclaiming that the Tory vote was syphoned from Labour not the SNP – hurrah! Nothing to be concerned about, eh? Yet, if the entire Labour vote moved over to the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson would be First Minister and you would see another paradigm shift in Scottish politics. Funny how the SNP says that Labour are dead in Scotland yet the SNP are wooing the Labour support base with all the unashamed determinism of Henry VIII. As soon as the local election results were known, the SNP PR machine set its gun sights on the General Election in June. “Labour” they declared “is dead!” It is either a vote for the SNP or the Conservatives. There are no other options, people! For people that lambast the mischievous chicanery of “Project Fear” the SNP are quick to frame the General Election in stark apocalyptic terms. Well, thank you for turning our pluralist democracy into a bum fight. In these absurd times, my advice may appear off the wall and the sanctimonious rhetoric of a deranged oddball, but here it is : “Vote for whomever you like!” This is Britain, not a prostrate one party state that easily bullies its citizens into convenient voting blocks for its own political wiles.
There is also the shoddy attempt to characterise any non-SNP supporter as a devout loyalist and Orangemen. This political strategy can be called “scraping the barrel” or “dog whistle tactics”. With a projected 30% share of the vote for the Tories in June, that is a hell of a lot of Orangemen. That would mean there are more Orangemen in Scotland than NHS workers in the entire United Kingdom; that’s four times the size of the U.S. Army. These positions have a whiff of desperation and can be easily characterised as a “siege mentality”. They are on the defensive. We should hit them hard and mercilessly. Drive home our momentum. The Union is rising with all the heat of an equatorial sun, and we should push it to its fullest potential.
Trouble at the Top
According to people close to those at the top, there is a noticeable change in tone and disharmony. The constitutional question and the mismanagement of public services is causing friction in the body of the Kirk. There is an impatience with some and the emergence of quiet but noticeable discord. This is also represented in the rank and file. One may wonder why Mhairi Black, set on a course for the stars, wants to jettison the SNP project. Perhaps, playing the role of a permanent political contrarian at Westminster is unattractive, a meaningless role for a meaningful girl that holds little hope of meaningful change. The wheels of Westminster work on the slick oil of compromise and negotiation, not the mercenarism of nationalism. By Jove, she may even have come to the realisation that separating the Union will not be an elixir to poverty and that the world is not so black and white, but full of infinite complexity and variance, beyond the understanding of the highest minds in the land. That is probably too far. Yes, definitely too far. But there is undeniable disquiet.
The High Water Mark: 2015
Historians will look back on 2015 as the high water mark of the SNP. As the results from the General Election rolled in, Labour seats were falling like dominoes into the hands of the SNP, a truly historic moment, a paradigm shift. But, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, they will describe how that wave rolled back and either settled or crashed, never to reach the heights of 2015 again. The reasons for this seem clear: The party has become a broad umbrella of different moving parts. We are not quite at the factions stage but, with the huge political issues of Brexit and the dissolution of the Union, it will come with time. The country is too disparate in its make-up and the party vulnerable at too many points. Just how long before the SNP fall from grace? Who knows, but one thing is for certain, the process of disintegration has already begun.