Over the course of the last few months, a number of high profile figures in Scottish and British public life have accused the SNP of ethnic chauvinism. First of all, in January, composer James MacMillan claimed the party drew on a “reservoir of anti-Englishness to power (its) secessionist agenda”. Then, a few weeks later in an interview with the New Statesman, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont suggested Alex Salmond had a “problem” with David Cameron because he was English. And finally, the Sunday before last veteran Tory Eurosceptic John Redwood said he viewed nationalism in Scotland as an “anti-English movement (rather) than an independence movement”.
The suspicion that Scottish nationalism harbours an ethnocentric tendency – or is in some sense fuelled by resentment of the English – has been a feature of mainstream British politics for a long time. This is largely due to the efforts of the Labour Party, which for years has enthusiastically promoted the idea that separatism is a form of extremism. For instance, in the mid-1990s, against a backdrop of ethnic conflict in the Balkans, George Robertson charged the SNP leadership with fomenting a “dangerous, crazy nationalist fringe” and warned against “the dark side of nationalism”. More recently, following the election of the first nationalist government at Holyrood, a slew of senior Scottish Labour! politicians, including Ian Davidson, Jim McGovern and Anne Moffat, have tried to link the SNP, directly and indirectly, to “neo-fascism”, anti-English “hatred” and Nazism.
However, according to Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University, these attacks are odds with the reality of contemporary nationalism. In his recent study, The Scottish National Party: Transition to Power, Mitchell argues that the party’s understanding of national identity is perfectly consistent with the standards of 21st Century liberalism. He writes,the SNP is civic in the sense that its policies are among the most liberal of any party in the United Kingdom on citizenship, emigration and multiculturalism. Additionally, very few of its members would define Scottishness in exclusive ethnic terms. The SNP membership accep! ts a plurality of ways (being Scottish).” In other words, for the majority of SNP members, Scottishness is something an individual chooses, rather than something he or she has foisted on them by birth or through the bloodline.
So why do so many unionists persist in trying to tie the SNP to chauvinism? One explanation is that the concentration of the UK’s media in the south-east of England means that many political journalists assume that any rejection of London is, as a matter of course, an expression of parochialism and insularity. This attitude is particularly prevalent among commentators associated with the Labour Party (see David Aaronovitch of the Times and John Lloyd of the Financial Times). But what they fail to grasp is that ‘Celtic fringe’ nationalism is not a rejection of London as such, but rather a rejection of a constitutional system which, until the advent of devolution, was far too heavily centralised. Indeed, viewed from this angle, the SNP, in its opposition to an unelected upper chamber and advocacy of popular conceptions of sovereignty, is among the most aggressively modern of all the UK’s political parties.
Another explanation relates to the ferociously tribal nature of Scottish Labour. Almost as soon as the SNP emerged as a significant force in Scottish politics in the late 1960s and early 70s, Labour understood that its electoral dominance, which in the immediate post-war period had seemed insurmountable, faced a serious challenge. In particular, party chiefs recognised the potential appeal of the nationalists – who campaigned at the time on a platform of bringing the oil industry partly into public ownership, defending the upper Clyde ship yards and promoting workers cooperatives – to its working class base. This terrified them and, in an attempt to drive left leaning voters away from independence, they began to issue apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of separatism. These warnings grew increasingly stark in line with the collapse of Scottish conservatism, a pivotal event in Scottish political history which saw Labour transfer its traditional class lo! athing of the Tories to its new power rivals, the SNP.
Of course, the truly depressing thing about all this, not just for nationalists but for the Scottish people at large, is that now, with the SNP well into its second term of government and an independence referendum less than three years away, the chances of Scottish public debate becoming more civilised in the near future are pretty slim.