The rise of the SNP has not led to a renaissance of Scotland's political cultureby Tom Gallagher / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
After snatching Glasgow East in a late July by-election, the third safest Scottish Labour seat, the SNP raced into a 19 per cent opinion poll lead over Labour in August. Gleeful nationalists predicted that the three colourless candidates for the vacant Scottish Labour party leadership would lose their seats at the next Holyrood election. London commentators predicted that Scotland would exit the union and concluded that devolution was a giant miscalculation by Labour.
But what is really remarkable is that the humdrum Labour party maintained such a tight hold on Scottish loyalties for as long as 50 years, a period during which it suffered several catastrophic defeats elsewhere in Britain. It was probably inevitable that the SNP would eventually seize a time when Labour was in trouble, and project itself as a dynamic force to remake Scotland.
So it is striking to note what a New Labour template the SNP is following. A wilful leader, more wrapped up in the presentation of policy than its substance, has centralised policy and suborned the civil service, relying on a compliant media and influence over strategic voting blocs to strengthen his ascendancy. Courtiers play up to an Alex Salmond cult of personality much in the way they once did to Tony Blair.
In the past, Scottish voters have displayed a healthy scepticism towards celebrity politics. But in July, when Salmond turned up at bingo halls and supermarkets in Glasgow East, he was treated as a star. Perhaps the cautious lowland mentality is being supplanted by an older Celtic set of values, based around the tribal chieftain.
But is the SNP really proving a dynamic and transformative force? If Scotland is edging towards independence, it appears to be doing so without any great excitement. Election turnouts are no higher than the British norm. Participation in politics is as low as most other countries in the democratic west. In March the SNP had just over 14,000 members—hardly an impressive base in a nation of over 5m.
Simon Jenkins, writing after the Glasgow East triumph, detected a heady cultural atmosphere in Scotland that was fuelling separatism. But there is no Scottish Left Bank; no political reviews, summer schools and ongoing debates among intellectuals. Universities are conformist. The print media is in crisis, even as cost-cutting foreign owners permit it to lean towards nationalism. And the Christian faiths have declining influence. In other words, the SNP is operating on a largely empty stage.
Because of this, the expectations of many in Scotland have diminished, making them more vulnerable to the charms of a party with a romantic message and an entertaining, outspoken leader. Salmond is like a game-show host who can make normally staid folk act in risqué ways. Under him, Scotland has become both a more volatile and insubstantial place.
The SNP remains a protest party, lacking a dynamic inner life or a serious interest in strategies to overcome long-term socioeconomic problems. Even in the 1970s, when it enjoyed unprecedented backing, it failed to devise a programme that could be a springboard for independence. During the unpopular Thatcher era, it was absorbed in factional disputes. In its 75-year history it has yet to produce any body of thought on what the political principles of an independent Scotland should be. Instead, it says naively that change itself is bound to be liberating.
Nationalists scorn attachment to anything achieved under the union; instead, history begins with them—a reckless millenarianism. Indeed, the SNP’s determination to make a bonfire of old arrangements might ultimately lead many Scots to turn against it.
The party used to be attached to civic nationalism and democratic self-rule. But after a year in office, it is retreating from the universalist language of reason, freedom and truth; instead flirting with multiculturalism and the EU’s corporate forms of governance. Salmond is throwing his weight behind the creation of state-funded schools with an overt Islamic ethos, and was notably silent about Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon treaty.
It would not be hard for the SNP’s opponents to depict the party as “foreign,” with obsessions that serve Scotland ill. It is eager to boost the power of the EU, whose mission is to smother all nationalism. And the party has failed to relate to ordinary life in Scotland, paying little attention to the violence which disfigures much of urban Scotland. So it is surprising that none of the SNP’s rivals will go on the offensive and stand up for a decentralised union. Instead, Scottish Labour is trying to distance itself from the rest of UK Labour, while insisting to Scots that separation is not for them. The Lib Dems are leaderless, while a complacent Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, provides Salmond with fodder for his comic acts in Holyrood. Nobody is stating the obvious: that patriotism is not a monopoly of the SNP. A strong national identity can flourish in partnership with the rest of the island, and will be damaged in a hastily achieved independence.