Finding your inner union

The SNP's conception of the UK is a heady blend of pragmatism, romanticism and pure political expediency.

In an eloquent speech at Strathclyde University last year, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, drew a distinction between what the legal philosopher Neil MacCormick called “existential” and “utilitarian” nationalists, the former desiring independence for its own sake, the latter in order to achieve a better society.

“Today, most SNP members are an amalgam of these two strands,” said Sturgeon, her own belief in independence stemming from principles, “not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice”. She added that she joined the SNP because “you cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the delivery”.

Sturgeon later said there was perhaps more heart than head involved in her decision to join the SNP as a teenager, and a comprehensive survey of party members found that 70 per cent believed “independence” ought to take precedence over policy goals. Nevertheless, this utilitarian pitch is at the heart of the modern case for Scottish nationhood.

This is why the Scottish government’s 670-page white paper (in reality more of a manifesto), unveiled on 26 November, primarily focused on the why of independence rather than the more prosaic how. “Scotland is an ancient nation,” First Minister Alex Salmond wrote in a preface, but beyond that sentiment was shelved in favour of hard facts and figures – or rather, not-so- hard facts and often completely uncosted policy commitments.

A document the SNP hoped would draw a line under many ongoing rows about its proposal for a currency union, UK-wide energy market and what Nicola Sturgeon called “seamless” membership of the European Union, actually added little to the sum of referendum knowledge.

In fact, in the relatively recent process of setting out the practical case for independence, senior nationalists have ended up discovering their inner unionists, acknowledging benefits from being part of the UK they had hitherto denied. “The pound is Scotland’s currency just as much as it is the rest of the UK’s,” Sturgeon said, a logic she curiously – and conveniently – does not apply to Trident or North Sea oil.

Although it is a simple reflection of modern constitutional reality, this à la carte nationalism often straddles a fine line between pragmatism and pure political expediency. The white paper, for example, is stridently critical of the “Westminster system” for having “created” a volatile economic model and high inequality, while also arguing that in several areas – currency, monarchy, energy and so on – Scotland and the UK are, as their unionist opponents might put it, “better together”.

If it sounds very much like trying to have one’s cake and eat it, that’s probably because it is. Given that Scots appear stubbornly attached to certain perks of UK membership, the talented Mr Salmond sees little reason to pick a fight with undecided voters. But it also stretches the credibility – and indeed desirability – of his independence vision: if, for example, the UK economic model is so terrible, then why does he want to retain its monetary policy?

There was also the unmistakable sound of a policy barrel being scraped. Childcare featured prominently and, while eminently worthy of political attention, it jarred on two levels. First, the devolved Scottish government already possesses many of the powers necessary to improve provision and second, is better childcare really the most compelling case for restored sovereignty?

Such proposals are fine for an election but underwhelming for a paper Salmond predicted would “resonate down through the ages”. Then again this takes us to the heart of the tension between the principled case for independence and the practical one.

The former is actually reasonably strong. If one asserts that Scotland ought to be independent like any other “normal” country, then it’s very difficult to articulate a unionist response. Similarly, one of the SNP’s strongest lines is that an independent Scotland would never again experience a government it had not elected, which is demonstrably true.

Yet the modern SNP seems uncomfortable relying on that case alone, understandable given the “no” campaign’s tactics. Unionists generally have the opposite problem: a strong practical case for maintaining the constitutional status quo, but a relatively weak spiritual one. It’s rare to hear anyone, even Alistair Darling, getting particularly worked up about the UK.

In truth, the decision many Scots make next September will involve what David Cameron called both “heart and head” issues, a combination of existential and utilitarian concerns, and polls consistently show the odds are against a “yes” vote. It’ll take more than a white paper to alter that.

David Torrance is a biographer of Alex Salmond and author of “The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum” (Biteback, £14.99)

Indie band: supporters of the "Yes" vote on Scottish independence at a rally in Edinburgh in September.

This article appears in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North