Anti-Englishness and the SNP

The nationalists have strong civic credentials. Why do unionists continue to accuse them of ethnic c

Over the course of the last few months, a number of high profile figures in Scottish and British public life have accused the SNP of ethnic chauvinism. First of all, in January, composer James MacMillan claimed the party drew on a "reservoir of anti-Englishness to power (its) secessionist agenda". Then, a few weeks later in an interview with the New Statesman, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont suggested Alex Salmond had a "problem" with David Cameron because he was English. And finally, the Sunday before last veteran Tory Eurosceptic John Redwood said he viewed nationalism in Scotland as an "anti-English movement (rather) than an independence movement".

The suspicion that Scottish nationalism harbours an ethnocentric tendency - or is in some sense fuelled by resentment of the English - has been a feature of mainstream British politics for a long time. This is largely due to the efforts of the Labour Party, which for years has enthusiastically promoted the idea that separatism is a form of extremism. For instance, in the mid-1990s, against a backdrop of ethnic conflict in the Balkans, George Robertson charged the SNP leadership with fomenting a "dangerous, crazy nationalist fringe" and warned against "the dark side of nationalism". More recently, following the election of the first nationalist government at Holyrood, a slew of senior Scottish Labour! politicians, including Ian Davidson, Jim McGovern and Anne Moffat, have tried to link the SNP, directly and indirectly, to "neo-fascism", anti-English "hatred" and Nazism.

However, according to Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University, these attacks are odds with the reality of contemporary nationalism. In his recent study, The Scottish National Party: Transition to Power, Mitchell argues that the party's understanding of national identity is perfectly consistent with the standards of 21st Century liberalism. He writes,the SNP is civic in the sense that its policies are among the most liberal of any party in the United Kingdom on citizenship, emigration and multiculturalism. Additionally, very few of its members would define Scottishness in exclusive ethnic terms. The SNP membership accep! ts a plurality of ways (being Scottish)." In other words, for the majority of SNP members, Scottishness is something an individual chooses, rather than something he or she has foisted on them by birth or through the bloodline.

So why do so many unionists persist in trying to tie the SNP to chauvinism? One explanation is that the concentration of the UK's media in the south-east of England means that many political journalists assume that any rejection of London is, as a matter of course, an expression of parochialism and insularity. This attitude is particularly prevalent among commentators associated with the Labour Party (see David Aaronovitch of the Times and John Lloyd of the Financial Times). But what they fail to grasp is that 'Celtic fringe' nationalism is not a rejection of London as such, but rather a rejection of a constitutional system which, until the advent of devolution, was far too heavily centralised. Indeed, viewed from this angle, the SNP, in its opposition to an unelected upper chamber and advocacy of popular conceptions of sovereignty, is among the most aggressively modern of all the UK's political parties.

Another explanation relates to the ferociously tribal nature of Scottish Labour. Almost as soon as the SNP emerged as a significant force in Scottish politics in the late 1960s and early 70s, Labour understood that its electoral dominance, which in the immediate post-war period had seemed insurmountable, faced a serious challenge. In particular, party chiefs recognised the potential appeal of the nationalists - who campaigned at the time on a platform of bringing the oil industry partly into public ownership, defending the upper Clyde ship yards and promoting workers cooperatives - to its working class base. This terrified them and, in an attempt to drive left leaning voters away from independence, they began to issue apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of separatism. These warnings grew increasingly stark in line with the collapse of Scottish conservatism, a pivotal event in Scottish political history which saw Labour transfer its traditional class lo! athing of the Tories to its new power rivals, the SNP.

Of course, the truly depressing thing about all this, not just for nationalists but for the Scottish people at large, is that now, with the SNP well into its second term of government and an independence referendum less than three years away, the chances of Scottish public debate becoming more civilised in the near future are pretty slim.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser