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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".

Far from obsessing over kilts, ceilidhs and pipers, nationalists today are pragmatic.
Far from obsessing over kilts, ceilidhs and pipers, nationalists today are pragmatic. Photo: Getty

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.