There is an acute tension in Scottish politics. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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Scotland and the clash of two nationalisms

The election debate is being defined by the claim and counter-claim of two nationalisms – one Scottish and out, and one British and in denial.

Scotland has always had a reputation for tempestuous disagreements – for fighting and flyting. Power, passion, tribalism and men staying in pubs for long hours drinking and insulting each other are long-standing notions.

Last Saturday I went to Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre to see David Hare’s The Absence of War set in the run-up to Neil Kinnock’s ill-fated campaign in the 1992 general election.

Watching it in the turmoil of the current election campaign, and on the day of the Daily Telegraph story that claimed “Sturgeon’s secret backing for Cameron”, it made for the older centre-left audience a lot of contemporary sense.

In the period since the early 1990s, mainstream UK politics have become even more stage-managed and choreographed. Two decades ago Kinnock’s Labour Party’s obsession with its opponents, the Tories and Tory-supporting press, ended up giving their enemies strength that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fast forward to today – and Labour’s attitude to the SNP. Take the so-called Sturgeon memo in which Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon allegedly “confessed that she’d rather see David Cameron remain as PM” – the opposite of all SNP public pronouncements.

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy and British Labour leader Ed Miliband couldn’t believe their luck. This played totally into their stereotype and age-old trope of the Nats as “tartan Tories”. Miliband described the story as “damning revelations” and was still doing so 24 hours after it broke, trying to squeeze political capital from it. By then, it had been categorically denied by Sturgeon, and by the French consul at the meeting where the comment was initially claimed to have happened.

“Nickileaks” – or “FrenchGate” – as it quickly became known, highlights the degree to which some people try to deny, delegitimise and stigmatise their political opponents. And how doing so destabilises their own judgement.

Part of Scottish nationalism believes in a black and white account of history and politics. There is a world of heroes (Alex Salmond) and villains; chief of which are the Labour Party and BBC, the latter an agency of state disinformation and propaganda. All unionists are perfidious and planning to do Scotland down. There is in this anger and indignation a huge element of seeing Scotland as a powerless victim of others, either external forces or domestic enemies.

Yet a fundamental problem in this is that British nationalism does not see itself in such terms. For example, unionists dispute that their credo is another name for what many see as British state nationalism.

Following the above episode, Fraser Nelson described what he termed “the uglier side of Scottish nationalism” and went further, arguing that “the problem with nationalisms as a creed is that it attracts, as its followers, an angry mob”.

Nelson was talking exclusively about Scottish nationalism and ignoring the problems and limitations of British nationalism: its racist, xenophobic and reactionary side, its arrogance even in its progressive version, and its bad history and politics.

As important is the lack of understanding of British nationalism as a nationalism and where it takes us. It does this by seeing any UK-wide nationalism in pantomime colours – of Daily Mail sensibilities and Glasgow Rangers football supporters – not related to moderate unionism. Moreover, majority nationalisms the world over (of which British is one) refuse to see themselves in such terms, while problematising minority nationalisms (Scots, Welsh).

This reduces this debate to one defined by the claim and counter-claim of two nationalisms – one Scottish and out, and one British and in denial. This diminishes political debate and reduces the possibilities for different voices talking. How can a social democracy of the union or independence or something in-between get a look in? And what of green or feminist voices which came to the fore in the independence referendum?

Limitations of the emerging politics of the indyref and after are illustrated by recent examples. At a “Changin Scotland” weekend in Ullapool a couple of weeks ago, there was limited comprehension by a prominent commentator of the term “indyref echo chamber” with them asking me, “what does this mean and where is it being used?” When I explained it was about people hearing what they wanted to and telling others what they wanted to hear, they got it.

At another event a respected journalist commented that they didn’t find the high profile pro-independence website “Wings over Scotland” problematic or, in any way as some detractors did, “sexist”. They asserted that “people just said that sort of thing”, ignoring the combative way that “men from the games industry talk”.

These comments illustrate a certain attitude in soft pro-independence opinion that can be seen amongst some of Scotland’s well-kept political commentators such as Iain Macwhirter, Joyce McMillan, Kevin McKenna and Ruth Wishart. It is a partial view of the world – centred on their generational disappointment with Labour and a new-found embrace of independence.

This position feels that Labour has betrayed its principles and lost its soul, and then takes at face value SNP claims about progressive credentials and a commitment to social justice. The first is explored in-depth; the second hardly ever, and instead taken in good faith.

Part of the pro-independence commentary is happy to buy into SNP rhetoric. Seldom if ever are the regressive redistributive consequences of no tuition fees, free care for the elderly and the council tax freeze investigated. Or that in 16 years of the Scottish Parliament – under Labour and the Lib Dems, then the SNP – no serious redistribution of income and wealth to those most disadvantaged has taken place. Why bother with such detail when you can embrace a comforting story about fairness and Scotland’s centre-left consensus?

This is an acute tension in Scottish politics. The Labour Party were the political establishment of the country for two generations. The SNP are fast becoming the new political establishment. And yet a large part of pro-independence opinion does not want to explore this or hold to account the SNP’s progressive aspirations. Far easier to trot out the old story of lambasting Labour and how they have let down working people.

This mindset taps into Scottish historic traditions of believing in one dominant political and cultural story: from the Kirk to nineteenth-century Liberals, late twentieth-century Labour and now twenty-first century Scottish Nationalists. It is part of an elite independence of the mind that reinforces part of a popular mood. It isn’t an accident that one of the most resonant “Yes Scotland” posters was the one which promised “to end Tory rule forever”. 

There are similar problems in strands of Britain’s political elites and in particular the centre-left Guardian-Labour version of Britain. It isn’t surprising that it has found it difficult to adjust to the rise of the SNP and Scottish nationalism and emergence of a fractured, fragmented UK politics.

As modern societies become more complex, diverse and divided and the old ideologies fade and fail to adapt, part of political discourse clings to new found assertions of certainty and in places zealotry. This can be seen in the rise of Ukip, anti-immigration, anti-welfare and Islamophobic sentiment. The SNP present a very different, more grown-up politics than Ukip, but part of Scottish nationalism has a similar simplistic rejection of parts of the modern world.

The Scottish debate of recent years – of a growing self-government, political autonomy and cultural confidence has been refreshing, progressive and a positive contribution to life north of the border and these isles. That makes it more important that the limits of a debate dominated by the mutual claims of two nationalisms, Scottish and British, is seen and challenged.

Both Scottish independence, as an end in itself, and the defence of the union –irrespective of the values and record of that entity – are political cul-de-sacs for radicals and progressives. The Scottish debate needs to mature, and develop an even more distinctive third space that is unashamedly centre-left, social democratic – and outward-looking first and foremost.

This would entail people in the SNP, Labour, Greens and Lib Dems, and those of no party, challenging not just the old orthodoxies of Labour Scotland, but the new ones of the SNP era.

Scottish politics for all the hope, energy and optimism of the indyref has for too long been shaped by mantras of Thatcher, Blair, the poll tax and Iraq. These mattered in the past but now it is more urgent than ever to throw off the shackles of what in a different context Jarvis Cocker called (talking about the continued obsession with the 1960s) “the children of the echo”. Scotland’s children of the echo have for too long told us that everything will be all right if we just don’t vote Tory and believe in our comforting myths. This is a moment to begin a more open and challenging conversation.

Gerry Hassan is author of “Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland” and the recently published “Independence of the Scottish Mind”.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.