The SNP: A whole new mentality

The Scottish debate is a way of asking what kind of country people want to live in.

The former US president Bill Clinton has entered the independence debate, calling for “respect” from all sides. “How honestly you try to listen to other people and then come to the practical conclusion,” he said, “is sometimes as important as the decision that’s made.”

This is something many Scots have noted, given the litany of scare stories in the press – and from pro-Union sources – about the consequences of independence. But there is little awareness on all sides that the debate is changing Scotland in the process and altering some fundamental perceptions that the UK has about itself.

As things stand, Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party and pro-independence forces look likely to lose the referendum on 18 September 2014. But they and Scotland will be changed utterly. Until May 2011 and the SNP’s landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament elections, independence was thought of by many in Scotland outside the SNP as marginal, or even irrelevant. This is still true when it comes to Westminster politics.

Yet whatever the limits of the SNP’s vision, independence is being normalised by being debated, discussed and challenged, and that, in turn, is having all sorts of consequences. On one side, we are witnessing a crisis of confidence of pro-Union opinion. Once progressive, proud and sure it was creating a shared future, it now seems reduced to a set of grumpy old men warning of the dangers of separatism on every aspect of life, from the lights going out to Scotland being an easy target for terrorism.

By contrast, the SNP’s argument has become much less risky. Salmond is able to present it as a politics of continuity by attempting to reinvent the honourable Scots tradition of “unionism-nationalism”. At the centre of the First Minister’s version of independence is a commitment to the pillars of the British state: Crown, currency, Treasury, Bank of England, even the British welfare state.

What is being offered at the moment by mainstream politicians is two versions of home rule: one side (the SNP) doing so tactically, the other (the unionist parties) in retreat and making concessions. But both sides are acknowledging that beneath the binary nature of much of the debate, there is some shared understanding, and recognition of the complex modern world.

Scotland’s public life increasingly resembles that of an embryonic state rather than the “stateless nation” of old. North of the border, debate now centres on the extent to which that state becomes formally self-governing and how it cooperates with the rest of the UK.

The Scottish debate is a way of asking what kind of country people want to live in. This is influenced by revulsion at the direction of British politics – not just under the coalition but also under Blair and Thatcher before them. It is a reaction to the UK being the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, with power concentrated in London, a redoubt of the global elite.

To talk about Scottish independence is a way of expressing optimism for a different kind of politics, not only for a different country. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, that change in mentality is likely to stay with us. It is history in the making for Scotland and the UK.

Gerry Hassan is the co-editor with James Mitchell of “After Independence: the State of the Scottish Nation Debate”, to be published by Birlinn in August

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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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