Edinburgh Castle: “Social justice is not just for Scotland but is a universal ideal”
In her speech in December, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister and deputy leader of the Scottish National Party said this: “My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles not of identity or nationality but of democracy and social justice.” And contained within that short statement is a chasm of error and a misunderstanding of both the past and the present.
It misunderstands the past because the great advances such as the welfare state, trade union rights, the NHS—even the Scottish parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies—were secured by the votes of people all across Britain.
Social justice is not just for Scotland, but is a universal ideal: a statement of solidarity and connectedness with neighbours. So when Labour opposed Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, we didn’t do so because her policies injured Scottish sentiment, but because we believed they offended basic values about how people should live together.
The Scottish Trade Union movement saw its role over the past two centuries as not simply building better conditions in Scotland, but building better conditions in Britain. As Gordon Brown pointed out in his Campbell Christie Lecture last year, the organiser of the first trade union in the 1790s, the London Corresponding Society, was a Scot. And, of course, the first leader in parliament of the British Labour party after it was formed in the early 1900s was a Scot, James Keir Hardie.
The SNP’s claim to social justice also misunderstands the present. And it does so deliberately and out of necessity, in the absence of an alternative argument.
Today we have a Conservative-led government—the nationalists’ claim relies on the spurious assertion that our friends, family and colleagues across the rest of the UK are not committed to social justice. That explains my difficulty with recent SNP rhetoric of Scotland as “a progressive beacon.”
I reject a cultural conceit that relies upon a single stereotype of voters in the rest of the UK as somehow irredeemably different from Scottish voters. The problem, as with any stereotype, is not just that it is untrue but that it is incomplete. The SNP’s characterisation of the rest of the UK reflects what the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”
Adichie points out that our lives and cultures are composed of many overlapping stories. If we only hear a single story about another person—or nation—we risk a critical misunderstanding.
The nationalists present one story of the UK, in which there is no possibility of Scots being truly similar in outlook to other people across the UK, and no possibility of feelings more complex than incomprehension. It must be disorientating, indeed painful for the Scottish nationalists to be confronted daily with the accumulating evidence that the change Scotland wants is different from the change they promise.
The inconvenient truth for the nationalists is that their disagreement is not with their political opponent—it is with the overwhelming opinion of people in Scotland. This is not a party political fight. It is a conflict between the sovereign will of the Scottish people and the settled will of the SNP. Opinion polls confirm that the SNP’s independence plan is viewed as an analogue offering in a digital world.
On a personal note, if I try and make sense of my life primarily through a lens of national identity, then the effect is to flatten my experience, and overlook the many other stories and experiences that make me who I am. I feel proudly and passionately Scottish. But, parenthood, if I’m honest, matters much more to me than nationhood.