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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Despite its Brexit victory, the hate-addicted right rages on – but the left is silent

The Brexit victors aren’t addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

The weirdest thing about Brexit is how angry the victors are. You would expect the losers to be sore – but open any British newspaper and it’s as if getting what they wanted has rendered the winners yet more snappish. At any time, you can guarantee that the medium least likely to offer principled opposition to any assault on democracy is the British press. Even so, it’s astonishing to open a copy of the Daily Telegraph and find that a byline has become a mere technicality, a breakwater for the eye. Page after page, countless squads of identical bald clones drone on – all chorus, no counterpoint – ranting about the evils of a Europe, which, in theory, they are supposed to have vanquished.

What is the point of having so many writers when they all write the same article? It turns out that it wasn’t Europe they wanted to leave. It was contemporary Britain. They’re not addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

In the United States, television and newspaper reporters have understood that their president is out to get them. So they are fighting back, challenging him on his lies in a way that the BBC does not dare. Women, African Americans and Latinos have all staged impressive demonstrations to disrupt the idea that the current state of affairs in the US is either necessary or, more important, normal. Republican senators aiming to take away their voters’ rights to health care have been facing impassioned town-hall meetings. There is exhilarating satire on television.

But over here, the 48 per cent of people who feared a loveless future of cringing isolation, austerity and social backwardness have been largely content to take defeat on the chin, as though cowed by the fact that so many of the poorest among us don’t agree.

In Britain, the silence is eerie. We know from experience that it takes time for artists and film-makers to respond to sudden changes of temperature.

Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1982 that we were enlightened by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff; My Beautiful Laundrette didn’t ­arrive until 1985; and it was 1987 before Caryl Churchill gave us Serious Money – a full eight years after Thatcher’s election.

All three works may enjoy an enduring power and authority denied to the collected speeches of Norman Tebbit. They define the era. But they all came too late to do anything more than raise morale. The damage had been done. You may feel that the musical of Billy Elliot nailed Thatcher’s government definitively, but it began to offer its insights 15 years after her resignation.

Politics in the West is in a mess because no one can answer the question of why Western labour should continue to enjoy its relative privileges when labour in the rest of the world can offer to do our work so much more cheaply. The standard answers from left and right are equally unconvincing and polluted by residual imperialist attitudes to race. Conservatives swing wildly. On some days, they behave as if they can continue to enjoy the free movement of capital while planning to forbid the free movement of labour. On others, they pretend that they still believe in the same market that failed so spectacularly ten years ago.

Neither position is coherent, and the mix of the two is crazy. But the left has done little better to explain how social justice can be advanced in the face of an international buffeting that has no care for workers’ rights.

In 2015, Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Labour Party, went into the general election without having decided whether he was or wasn’t going to defend the Keynesian public spending that had saved Britain from the corruption of the banks. The present leader of the Conservative Party, always marching fearlessly behind a thick cladding of popular prejudice, is implementing a European divorce against which she campaigned only a year ago. Small wonder that people have so little hope of Westminster.

Historically, we have always been taught that change comes from below. When people suffer intolerably, they overturn the cause of their suffering. Yet they still need representatives who can articulate their needs. Revulsion has to bubble up soon, but so do policies.

In our daily lives, we all meet people who are thoughtful, kind-hearted, efficient and serious. We encounter such people in medicine, in education, in law enforcement and in social care, and it is their generosity and foresight that make life worth living. Yet Theresa May is content to hug close individuals who would be thrown out of any job but politics. Her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was sacked by the Times for lying. Her Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was accused of trying to interfere with a prison inspection report while he was justice secretary, and he banned sending books to prisoners.

Most inexplicable of all was the elevation of Liam Fox, her International Trade Secretary, who is in permanent disgrace because he has refused fully to admit wrongdoing for overclaiming expenses and using public money to pay a close friend who attended 57 per cent of his Ministry of Defence engagements without security clearance.

Why on earth are such people promoted by a vicar’s daughter who boasts of her moral values? It is in that disparity between who we are and how we are represented that the best hope of opposition lies.

Disbelief will shade into outrage, even if Labour continues to be led by a man blithely indifferent to the practicalities of getting ­anything done. Confronted with the ascen­dancy of scoundrels such as Fox, Grayling and Johnson, anyone, from any part of the UK, will agree with Karl Marx: shame is the only revolutionary emotion.

David Hare is a playwright

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition