Far from obsessing over kilts, ceilidhs and pipers, nationalists today are pragmatic. Photo: Getty
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It is unionists, not nationalists, who are obsessed with identity

The mainstream nationalists' arguments for independence are broadly civic and pragmatic, it is the unionists who obsess about the threat an independent Scotland presents to "Britishness".

It’s a not a phrase you hear very often anymore, but in decades past the SNP was sometimes referred to, pejoratively, as the “White Heather Club wing” of Scottish politics. As Ian Jack explained in the Guardian on Saturday, the White Heather Club was an excruciatingly kitsch 1960s TV show featuring sporrans, kilts and ceilidh dancing – the imagery, in other words, of the Scottish cultural kailyard. 

For much of the SNP’s 80 year history, this insult carried some traction. Many nationalists – including senior party members – attended rallies at Bannockburn commemorating the anniversary of the ancient battle, fretted over royal designations on Scottish post-boxes and engaged in bouts of outrageous Anglophobia. The parochialism of the SNP in the immediate post-war period reflected the rural and conservative prejudices of its leadership, which was mostly drawn from the professions and small business.

But things changed in the 1970s and '80s with the emergence of a new generation of nationalists led by individuals such as Margo Macdonald and, subsequently, Alex Salmond. These (predominantly central-belt) nationalists were younger and more explicitly “political” than their predecessors. They believed the case for independence should be made unsentimentally, with an appeal to the social and economic interests of middle and lower-income Scots, rather than to some generic or “long-suppressed” sense of Scottish national identity. “The role of the SNP”, Salmond said in 1990, when he first stood for the position of party leader, “is to replace Labour as the dominant force in Scottish politics. Our strategic role is to open up the divide between the Labour Party’s supporters and its leadership”.

The ideological development of the SNP – and the divide between “traditionalist” nationalism and “modernising” nationalism (otherwise known, somewhat misleadingly, as “fundamentalist” and “gradualist” nationalism) – doesn’t really feature in press coverage of the independence debate. Large chunks of the London media seem oblivious to the (sometimes explosive) disagreements that have erupted within the party over the last three or four decades – as well as to the way in which Scottish nationalism has changed and, I would argue, matured since the 1960s and ‘70s. But you can’t really understand the nature of the current Yes campaign without first grasping this aspect of SNP history.

No nationalism is entirely devoid of cultural or “ethnic” components. There are Yes activists whose support for independence is motivated by resentment of the English and a desire to cut Scotland off from English influence. But there aren’t very many of them, and their isolationism doesn’t sit well with the SNP’s plan to maintain the monetary and social ties that currently bind Scotland to the rest of the UK. In reality, the arguments deployed by mainstream nationalists have been broadly civic and pragmatic. The White Paper is admirably free of blood-and-soil rhetoric, while the SNP – which is in some respects the most conservative wing of the Yes campaign – has adopted a much more liberal stance on citizenship and immigration than either of the two main Westminster parties.

Mainstream unionism, on the other hand, obsesses over the question of identity and the apparent “threat” independence poses to Britishness. Take the speech David Cameron gave in February – the one delivered from an empty velodrome in east London, in front of an overwhelmingly sympathetic London press pack. Having dispensed with the obligatory unionist references to Team GB and the spirit of 2012, the prime minister went on to talk about his own clan heritage and the “fusion” of Anglo-Scottish “bloodlines”. This shared Britishness, Cameron claimed, was “eased and strengthened by the institutional framework of the UK”.

Writing in this magazine recently, Tom Holland expressed a similar view, albeit in less atavistic terms. Like Cameron, Holland cast the SNP as would-be wreckers of Britain’s great multi-national experiment, arguing that “invented Britishness … more recent in origin than either Englishness or Scottishness [and therefore] less ethnically centred than either … provides the United Kingdom with something incalculably precious: a national identity as well suited as any in Europe to the welcoming and integration of newcomers. Britishness may have lost an empire; but perhaps it has found a role.”

Putting to one side the fact that it’s very difficult to pinpoint the origins of a coherent Scottish identity – and that many historians deny any such identity existed pre-1707 – Holland’s argument, while well-intentioned, lands wide of the mark. Just like the failed attempts of the SNP, during its White Heather Club days, to achieve independence by making Scots feel more Scottish, unionism’s relentless focus on identity is a political dead-end. A reinvigorated Britishness of the sort some unionists believe will emerge after a No vote on September 18 won’t “fix” the United Kingdom. This isn’t because Britishness itself has run out of steam. Judging by the large numbers of people across the UK who still describe themselves as British, it clearly hasn’t. It is because identity isn’t the primary motor of Scottish separatism. Indeed, on the one recent (relatively speaking) occasion support for independence just about breached the 50 per cent mark, in the late 1990s, Scotland was more closely integrated into the UK, politically and culturally, than it is now.

Even Gordon Brown seems to have conceded that structural factors, in particular the long-term decline of the UK economy, drive nationalism north of the border.  Ironically, it was Brown who, first as chancellor and then as prime minster, kick-started efforts to promote a new kind of civic Britishness as an antidote to the weakening authority of UK institutions. Like Cameron and Holland, Brown wrapped his narrative up in the cosy myths of Britain’s inherent liberalism and inclusivity – myths every bit as twee and implausible as those advanced by SNP traditionalists, when the SNP still couldn’t bring itself to look beyond the kailyard. 

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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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