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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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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