Twenty-five years ago this month, Britain held its second 1974 general election. While Harold Wilson’s Labour government squeaked back into office, the Scottish Nationalist lion roared. Eleven SNP members were returned to the House of Commons, the party’s largest ever representation in that chamber. What can a look back to that victory tell us about the present Scottish political landscape?
The most perceptive commentator on those events at the time was John P Mackintosh, the academic, devolutionist and Scottish Labour MP. In a seminal New Statesman essay on “The New Appeal of Nationalism” (27 September 1974), Mackintosh analysed the reasons for rising nationalist support in Scotland. In doing so, he introduced key terms into the debate about Scottish nationalism that remain influential today.
Mackintosh began his essay with a simple observation. One fact struck all those covering the election campaign in Scotland. Unlike Labour and the Conservatives, the Scottish National Party was brimming with energy and hopeful of significant electoral advance. Mackintosh found this a remarkable turn of events. Only a decade before, the SNP had been a marginal force in Scottish politics. Why the new appeal of nationalism, when most of his fellow Scots had for so long found it either a laughable or an offensive political doctrine?
The essay offered two explanations for the relatively late and yet strong appeal of nationalism in Scotland. In part, the answer lay in the dual nature of nationalism itself. Mackintosh recognised what Tom Nairn has famously called “the Janus god of nationalism”, with its two contrary faces. The term could refer to progressive movements for national liberation or colonial independence. The willing Scottish partners in imperial Britain could hardly claim to be in that oppressed category. Instead, they shared a general British distaste for the other, 20th-century authoritarian and xenophobic face of nationalism. So, until the late 1960s, neither of nationalism’s two faces caught the Scottish electoral eye.
However, a sense of Scottish national identity survived the Act of Union in 1707 because Scotland jealously retained its national civic institutions after the loss of its parliament. Mackintosh concluded that while two-faced nationalism had found no grounds for appeal in post-Union Scotland, the Scots had maintained what today political scientists would call a civic, rather than an ethnic, sense of nationhood. This civic sense of Scottish identity would take on a new political significance in the early 1970s but for other, British reasons.
Mackintosh’s second explanation for the rise of Scottish nationalism in the autumn of 1974 was the relative decline of Scottish pride in being British. Alongside a continuing civic sense of Scottishness after 1707, Mackintosh argued that the Scots had felt a pride in their British identity. Through sharing in the economic, political and military successes of imperial Britain, the Scots experienced a dual nationality, in which a complementary sense of being both Scottish and British could co-exist.
Mackintosh’s key insight was to recognise that this sense of dual nationality was a variable relationship: “The two sides of this dual nationality co-existed with the emphasis changing, from time to time, from one aspect to another.” While the Scots’ sense of being British had been in the ascendant for two centuries, this no longer held by 1974. In the context of Britain’s postwar failure to achieve lasting economic success and a new political purpose after empire, the appeal of being British had evaporated. Neither Conservative nor Labour governments had succeeded in addressing these structural problems. For Mackintosh, the Scots’ historic sense of dual nationality gave them a ready solution: “just be Scottish”.
Anticipating Benedict Anderson’s later definition of a nation as an “imagined community”, Mackintosh saw the rise in support for the SNP as the Scots turning to the other pole of their dual nationality. The new SNP voters could imagine an attractive alternative Scottish political future. Mackintosh did not envisage a Scottish assembly with limited powers altering this situation. He concluded that only a spell of successful London government would restore to the Scots the feeling that Britain is “a successful, worthwhile country” and neutralise the new appeal of nationalism.
How does Mackintosh’s analysis of Scottish nationalism’s appeal hold up today? His 1974 conclusion was to prove prophetic. The rhetoric of Thatcherism was all about restoring “the feeling that Britain is a successful, worthwhile country”, after the failed Wilson and Heath years. It proved counterproductive in Scotland. However, the SNP was not the major electoral beneficiary of anti-Thatcherism and a growing sense of alienation from Westminster rule in the 1980s. That decade saw the rise of another political phenomenon in Scotland, the cross-party and non-party civic movement for constitutional change.
After Labour’s failure to win the 1987 general election, and again after Major’s surprise win in 1992, it was the civic groups that created the Scottish Constitutional Convention and the campaigning Coalition for Scottish Democracy. At a time when all the home rule and nationalist parties failed to win British elections, it was this civic democratic initiative that kept the race to Scottish self-government on the road to eventual victory in 1997.
Despite his clear identification of the civic nature of Scottish identity, Mackintosh could not anticipate this development, focused as his 1974 analysis was on party politics and the emerging role of the SNP. But his prescription for countering Scottish nationalism has proved its enduring appeal for successive London governments. In a strange continuity, Blair’s government has employed the same Thatcherite rhetoric of reinventing Britain as a successful, worthwhile country, even as it implemented Scottish devolution. Will a successful Blair government succeed, where Thatcherism failed, in removing the appeal of civic nationalism in Scotland, as Mackintosh suggested? I think not, for the reason that the key terms of Mackintosh’s analysis of Scottish identity have also changed in the intervening years.
While the Scottish-British dual identity debate continues in 1999, not least in the recent provocative speech by the SNP MSP Andrew Wilson, the parameters of the Scottish sense of identity have changed fundamentally since 1974. It was the nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid who said that Scotland was a polyhedron, a many-sided identity (and not, in Mackintosh’s terms, a simple two-sided one). That is certainly the case in turn-of-the-millennium Scotland. As the sociologist David McCrone and others have argued, the Scots’ postmodern sense of identity today is far more culturally pluralist and politically complex than it appeared to a secular presbyterian Scot like Mackintosh in the early 1970s.
Under the impact of a post-industrial and globalised economy, new social movements such as feminism and environmentalism and the achievement of Scottish political autonomy in Europe, younger Scots are constructing their multiple identities out of a far larger and faster-shifting set of variables than just being Scottish or British. A successful dose of Blair’s Britain cannot change this new social reality. The key duality now is the polarity of citizen or subject, in personal as well as in national life. Against that new appeal of civic nationalism, even a highly successful London government may be powerless in the 21st century.
William Storrar is a theologian at Glasgow University and convener of Common Cause, a Scottish international forum on citizenship