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Scottish nationalism isn’t about how bad Westminster is; it’s about how good Holyrood is

The rest of the UK's reaction to Scottish nationalism is one that shows the independence debate is more tied to Holyrood's success than to how bad Westminster is.

By Gary Hayes

There is a broad range of reactions to Scottish nationalism in the rest of the UK. A lot expressing negativity, shock or indignation. There is also a surprising lack of familiarity with the history and reasons for it.

The predominant reactions in England seem to be “what have we done?”, “what don’t they like about us?” and “please stay with us, we really like you”. As touching and maternalistic as it seems, the reaction in Scotland to this is often “why do they always think it is about them?” In some ways it is, but not in the way most English think. In most cases it has nothing to do with England or English people (or Welsh or Northern Irish).

The current rise (there have been many over many centuries) of Scottish nationalism, and in particular the Scottish National Party (SNP), has arisen out of the success of the relatively new Scottish Parliament – out of sight of the English press and often to the disgruntlement of Westminster, which doesn’t always understand and rarely trusts the increasing demand for more powers and greater autonomy.

The main detractors of devolution, the Tories, prophesied in the Nineties that a Scottish Parliament would not discourage calls for independence. They were right, not only did it encourage independence, it validated it.

While the “void” of a weakening Labour party has played its part, the SNP’s success is tied to Holyrood’s success. As Scotland found its voice through governing itself, it lost its taste for and patience with the Westminster rhetoric, creating an increasingly able parliament and a sophisticated electorate more than capable of asking existential and practical questions about itself, while being able to vote different ways across the four different electoral platforms (Local, Europe, Westminster and Holyrood).

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There are other less obvious reasons. For one, the SNP carries more weight than the other parties in Scotland. Westminster has a tendency to poach all the best talent from the three other major parties, often leaving second-best MSPs at Holyrood. The leaders of the opposition parties in Scotland are conspicuously absent from the media’s coverage of the debate and the leader of the Better Together campaign, Alastair Darling, is a Scottish Westminster crony having never sat at Holyrood.

The SNP however doesn’t suffer from this. Their top guns see the big fight in Scotland and their ultimate ambition is at Holyrood, not Westminster. Their best candidates are at home in Holyrood fighting the causes they aspire to and often lead on.

The speed and ability with which the SNP took to power after the election in 2007, when it won 46 seats, is well-documented. This was rewarded by a seemingly impossible overall majority in its second term when it won 69 seats in 2011. The scene was set then and there for change, or at least the calls for it.

What is going on now is not a debate about internal Scottish politics, this scene is already set, nor is it about England, but the shape and scope of the politics there – the very dimensions of Scotland and its make-up. People should not be surprised that this has happened. This is a natural cycle of anything with the ability to question itself and shape its own destiny.

The arguments for and against independence, while about the role of Westminster, are not about what England has done to Scotland. They are about the future of Scotland and the role of the Scottish people and the shape of the state in running it. While the usual issues about tax, currency and oil play their part, the key issue is whether Scotland does what it does as a stand-alone country or does it within a Union – without the traditional powers associated with a national parliament. The fact that many Scottish people are questioning why their parliament should not have these powers should not come as a surprise to people in England, the UK or any other country for that matter.

This lack of connection may be because nationalism is a dirty word in England and parts of Wales and Northern Ireland. Governed by itself and paternally looming over other states and nations, England has rarely had to question or fight for its sense of identity or its nationality, especially in modern times (though the Dunkirk spirit does have some bizarre hold over much of England – that and the monarchy). Put crudely, national identity, like money, is only an issue when it is threatened or taken away.

Nationalism also has very bad political connotations in England. It is associated with the far right and xenophobia. It has no place on the mainstream political agenda and elicits suspicion in the least and anger/panic in the extreme. No wonder therefore Scottish nationalism raises the hackles of many globally-minded and liberal English (though how England sees itself globally compared to how it is seen is up for debate – especially in Europe). While English tolerance is legendary, its mistrust of regional and national unrest is equally so.

England’s engagement therefore with the movement in Scotland was always going to be a tricky one – and one fraught with danger. Already the backlash is being felt with increasing anti-Scottish sentiment in the press, English defence nonsense and Ukip.

England is now in danger of looking backwardly in – without the ambition and promise being felt in the similar debate in Scotland – and it is doing so without a parliament that is willing and central to re-shaping and rethinking its make-up and role. In Scotland there is some kind of vision. In England, so it seems, only confusion and resentment.

While the role of Westminster is part of that debate, it is not, as many English writers such as Owen Jones of The Independent say, because of how bad Westminster is. It is because of how well Holyrood is doing – and the perceived paradox of having a parliament with restricted scope and powers.

The same paradox can be felt in the tensions between Westminster and the perceived interference of the EU on for example human rights issues. Maybe it is no surprise that similar discussions in England have racial, right-wing and xenophobic overtones – or at least the accusations of such things.

No campaigners on the other hand, talk of the risk, the isolation, the lack of back-up and the need to find a common solution to issues such as globalisation, raw capitalism and the environment. Some of this rings true, we do need answers to global pressures. While writers like Jones hope for an “alliance of movements based in economic interests”, which are not bound by nationality (there’s that mistrust of nationhood again), there aren’t any with sufficient teeth. Certainly none that actually sit in power and run a country. And this is where the UK needs to sit up and take more notice – and possibly work on a brothers-in-arms approach to better politics and governance in the British Isles. But Westminster and England’s record in international brotherhood is a patchy one.

To say Scotland will become more isolated by having its own seat at the international table holds little sway in Scotland. To threaten that a seat at the table will be refused or taken away serves only to strengthen Scottish resolve and breeds mistrust for any messages such protagonists want to convey. The same sentiment it seems is felt on the issue of the currency – with many Scots showing in polls they think the Westminster pact on a big NO to currency union is a big bluff.

Such a stoical stance has its problems however. Problems its seems for England and Westminster. The poor old Westminster cronies, David Cameron in particular, are doomed if they do and condemned if they don’t.

Such is the tension between Holyrood and Westminster that any kind of interaction is jumped on or avoided. On the one hand the Scots are saying “come up here and discuss the issue, you scaredy-cats” and on the other are just as quick to snap back “who do you think you are coming up here and telling us what to do?”

Who knows what the future is for grassroots political movements in Scotland and the rest of the UK. This will be defined by the platform for power-management and change. Power is unfortunately in the hands of big business and it must be managed well by governments. There are currently alas no “alliances”, no significant political and global movements to spearhead the changes we know are needed for today’s global problems. The Scandinavian model is often cited as a guiding light of enlightened social policies, sustainable growth and justice. Scotland aspires to this and hopes to be as good.

Distanced from the mindlessness of the City of London, the inertia of Westminster and the class-obsession of England, Scotland can do well. With policies financed by good resources within a small, well-run country with strong ideas of community, with a less class-driven, less capital-driven society the future bodes well for Scotland. Who knows, it might just create a Scottish model others will want to copy.

It’s not all negative towards Scotland. The English writer, political activist and singer, Billy Bragg’s recent article in The Herald writes about the relevance of Scottish independence to England. In a rare, positive article by a relatively mainstream writer, Bragg identified his ambitions with and hopes of independence and the political reform it promises, or at least the debate in Scotland discusses, and hopes it might brush off on England.

However, he is in the minority. The cause and effect of independence is yet to be understood in much of the rest of the UK and especially England. This is at their own peril.

Many English, Welsh and Northern Irish are naturally asking why they are not involved or have a say in such big an issue. This may be where the rest of the UK, and more importantly, Westminster does come into the equation. Billy Bragg is right in saying that any reaction to a system that refuses to change will force people away. In 2011 the UK electorate (not just English votes) chose to turn down the biggest major change proposed for Westminster in decades – to change from the antiquated first-past-the-post system to the Alternative Vote system – a similar system currently in use in the Scottish parliament (and across Europe).

The electorate (surprisingly including the Scots) chose instead to keep the status quo at Westminster and so abandoning any chance of political reform for the UK as a whole. By refusing to change itself, the UK is left with no option but to have the change come to it. And now that possibility is looming, via Scotland, the rest of the UK is looking increasingly shaky and ill-prepared.

Who knows what the referendum will bring, current polls show a narrowing No vote. Many believe the rise in SNP support is not backed by an increased desire for independence. Only the referendum will tell.

In the meantime, the ball is rolling. Scotland is changing, the electorate are moving. The rest of the UK needs to wake up and understand the changes and possibly how it is to react to a new kingdom, without Scotland.

If this happens they will have a similar debate and calls for change. They will need to decide not only their own shape but how they build an alliance with Scotland under new terms. They must find a way to reshape their future in a positive and creative way and keep Scotland close. They will also need to learn from past mistakes and be able to debate constructively with other parts of the rest of the UK when they find a voice and appetite for separation.

The same old will no longer feel right and so will not do. Though how Westminster can be persuaded to do such things well, constructively and relinquish central power is a right-royal biggie.

Gary Hayes has worked as a writer, editor, researcher and campaigner for social issues, such as drug law reform in London, and is a Scot who now lives and runs a successful business in Scotland

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