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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.