Nationalism,  Your View

The Incredible Lightness of Political Scotland

This is a guest post by Tom Gallagher, Professor of Ethnic Conflict and Peace at the University of Bradford

Tom Harris has taken the SNP to task for championing a group operating in finance, education, and politics with the aim of making Islam an instrument of politics. He has partly salvaged the honour of the Labour Party and it is all the more to his credit that he is an active Christian. For I presume his religious instincts, in a land where the religious illiteracy of influential public figures on both sides of the border, has placed this island in some danger enables him to see just what’s at stake. He must be aware that when the SNP elevates figures who wish to establish religious separation in Scotland long before political separation is ever likely, the country is staring again at old demons which haunted it for centuries.

I hope Tom Harris won’t be too offended if I dub him a broad nationalist, that is a Scot able to identify national priorities that transcend party or faction. As a Christian brought up in Ayrshire, he will know the tumult and tragedy that ensued when political forces in Scotland and its cultural cousin Ulster released sectarian furies in order to march to power.

By contrast, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon who have driven forward the strategy to empower religious entrepreneurs are narrow insincere Nationalists using an appealing concept to promote policies that are likely to place Scotland in harm’s way. I for one am content to see myself as a broad nationalist, someone who is convinced that Scotland is best able to thrive as a distinctive community in partnership with the other nations and communities of these islands. This inclusive sense of nationalism is only a small part of my political credo. But I do think it essential that other political forces devote time and energy to exposing the very threadbare nationalist credentials of the SNP.

How can any movement supposedly animated by love of country wish to deliver a community like Scotland’s Muslims into the hands of a narrow family group which works in tandem with the most regressive sections of the Scottish far-Left and academics who wish to retard modern freedoms and usher in an essentially tribal society that will be a recipe for permanent dispute?

The Irish in Scotland were an enclave community for over a century at variance with a Presbyterian dominated national culture. Now once neurotic majorities have to cede their power to assertive minorities which are encouraged to assert differences many of their members never even knew they had. Perhaps the Muslims will prove to be the first victims of a cynical strategy by politicians whose dedication to the nation is arguably as bogus as New Labour’s commitment to a progressive vision for Britain. The SNP’s nationalist deficit is shown by its espousal of multi-cultural policies now seen as bankrupt in England because they put fragile communities in conflict with each other. Then there is the party’s enthusiasm for the European Union, an entity which despises nationalism in all its forms. Finally, Salmond’s government has cosied up to some of the most reactionary regimes in the Middle East.

Alex Salmond projects himself as the interpreter of the national will and it is undeniable that his style as the cheeky and subversive leader of a protest movement that finds itself in government delights at least one million Scots. They are fired up by his rhetoric and delight in the way he challenges arrangements and institutions, previously thought to be sacrosanct, something that plenty would perhaps love to do in their own lives but can’t.

Scots occasionally need to burst out of their emotional straitjackets and embrace a figure like Salmond. Not unnaturally, he is a devoted enthusiast of the cult of Robert Burns. It’s the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth and oodles of public money is being used to remind the world of the fact.

A.S. Neill, the Forfar-born educationalist who founded the radical private school, Summerhill, summed up the impact of Burns on many Scots in the 1930s and arguably little has subsequently changed:

‘The Scots do not admire Burns because he wrote lovely lyrics; few of them are able to distinguish between a Burns song and a song by Harry Lauder. They admire Burns because he said and did all the things they have wanted to do themselves. Robert Burns is the national unconscious, the creativity that Calvinism dammed up at birth’.1

Of course, Salmond has no desire to make Scotland a freer, less deferential and more participatory place. Instead, he wants to be the chief entertainer, the chief sports fan, and the paramount ambassador for the country abroad etc. His desire is for Scotland to embrace his kind of manipulative populism while the nation remains a land of tele-tubbies. The population will watch the Braveheart spectacle and assemble in the public square when called upon to do so.

The SNP is heaving with solicitors as well as former public sector managers and figures from the media, and marketing. These types of political creatures are never happier when managing others and manipulating the political space. So it is not a renaissance of Scottish politics that is on the cards but an era of tightening political restrictions.

In truth, since the era of mass democracy got underway, Scottish politics has never been an outlet for local talent or an arena where there has been much preoccupation with ideas. The Liberals, who dominated Scottish politics down to 1918 were represented by professional men from London, many practising at the Bar and whose appearances in their constituencies were rare. The landed aristocracy had their time of glory during the long Tory ascendancy which lasted well into the 1950s. Talented middle-class figures existed who represented different local and wider interests. But the caste-like Tories did not select them for winnable seats. To answer the patient Larker (see recent blogs), the main reason why the Tories fell from the pinnacle in the last fifty years was because they neglected the politics of national identity. It is usually courting disaster for a right-wing party to do this. Margaret Thatcher’s South-East-of England nationalism was disliked in the North of England, so it was hardly likely to find converts further north. Former Tories now rub shoulders inside the SNP with people far to the left of them because Salmond has the skills to project it as a kind of national family above everyday divisions.

In the twilight months of a truly inept and irresponsible Labour Premiership, it is easy to trash the Labour party and say that it has always been this way especially in Scotland which has supplied the undertaker burying its hopes. Labour went from a party of idealists in 1918 to one that by 1945 was dominated by cautious municipal and trade-union organizers suspicious of most things radical. But the party also saw the need to limit the destructive impact of sectarian rivalries along Protestant-Catholic lines. It achieved a lot in this respect both before and after the arrival of devolution in the 1990s. What a pity that it did not draw on its experience to warn English colleagues about promoting multicultural policies that created clashing identities in inner-cities where few had previously existed.

Shuggy from Shuggy’s Blog, in a recent contribution here, said that Labour could hardly claim the moral high ground because it supported state-funded education along Catholic lines which the SNP wants for Muslims. Catholic schools have been the subject of vigorous debate since they were introduced by a Liberal Secretary of state in 1918. This debate has been heard in the Labour party where Tom Harris’s predecessor in his seat, John Maxton, never hid his opposition to them. The issue will probably attract comments in this blog. But many of those who managed and taught in Catholic schools were committed to the maintenance of British institutions which they hoped that growing numbers of their pupils might gravitate to. These schools produced many pupils who distinguished themselves in military service in world War II and Korea. It is hard to see the types of Islamic schools that Osama Saeed believes Scotland now needs performing the same integrative role.

Nor should it be forgotten that in more recent times Scottish Labour was prepared to give ground to its opponents by supporting proportional representation first for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood and then for local elections. It has lost out particularly in municipal politics where its chief power-bases always lay but it still went ahead even though this outcome was predicted.

Labour’s cardinal error was a failure to behave as if devolution was an essential and welcome part of it ideology and practice. Rather than attempting to legitimize a broad nationalism within a unionist framework, Labour ceded nearly all of the nationalist space to the SNP—which in Salmond had a leader who knew well how to use the advantage thus handed to him.

Of course, Labour can only be defended up to a point. It is an ideas-free zone where supporters are treated like sheep by machine politicians and the technologists of power who’ve crossed over from the media industries. But this didn’t happen overnight and the party has always had sturdy independent-minded figures like John Mackintosh in the 1970s and Tom Harris today who emphasise a democratic progressive message.

But the SNP is emerging as a remarkably similar party to New Labour. The difference is that it is slicker in its authoritarian methods, more convincing in its deception, and able to use Nationalist bells and whistles to prevent a lot of people realising just how cynical and contrived the whole operation is. Until Alex Salmond came along, Scotland had not known a Peronist-style figure able to rhetorically wind up a trans-class selection of people frustrated with current arrangements It remains to be seen if his chief ally, health minister Nicola Sturgeon will prove to be his Eva Peron. After suitable grooming by her media handlers anything is possible. She has grabbed the headlines across the United Kingdom thanks to projecting a decisive response to the swine flu epidemic. It will indeed be something to savour if the politics of dead pigs moves Scotland a giant step nearer to independence.

The high Scottish mortality rate partly stems from this being a land of spectators; a television-addicted public stubbornly attached to unhealthy eating habits is natural fodder for populists who make them feel as if they are part of a lithe risen nation finally on the march again.

A large part of the SNP party base reflects this segment of the population. It is increasingly composed of people who are very comfortable with the moral and political certainty that nationalism provides. They prefer the ‘feel good factor’ and the sense of moral superiority embedded in a doctrine which is quasi-religious in its appeal. Indeed, there is even a case for saying that unfulfilled restless Scots turn to Salmondism for rather similar reasons that young British Muslims are drawn to political Islam. It makes them feel good and allows other people to do the thinking for them.

In some ways Osama Saeed and his confederates are more political than the SNP. They are busy expanding the influence of the Scottish Islamic Foundation in many different policy spheres. They have a Gramscian approach to conquering power by marching through the institutions. By contrast, it is the SNP which looks more like the dreamy cult. It has usually been out of its depth in places like inner-city Glasgow so it is content to franchise out a seat like Glasgow Central to Islamists whose formula for winning power might even have caused old John Knox to raise an eyebrow.

It might be reasonable to expect that the media in Scotland is having a field-day as a result of politics being red in tooth and claw. But the press is deeply uncurious about the power struggles going on beneath the surface. Only the Scottish blogosphere provides an occasional insight. So the print and electronic media all too often reflect the passivity of the wider population. There is no interest in reporting politics beyond celebrity and conventional socio-economic issues. Even regarding the banking crisis, there were plenty of ‘No Go’ areas with no real attempt to explain why Alex Salmond was so infatuated with Scottish ‘masters of the universe’ running RBS. Nor did the media kick up a racket when there appeared to be an all-party consensus at Holyrood not to discuss the economic crisis.

Jobs are vanishing in the print media. ITV’s Scottish branch, STV will soon no longer cover politics which is a shame since its team are often more incisive than those at the BBC. Instead it is the parties and state agencies which have public relations and research openings for ex-scribes. The SNP, awash with money, and whose main donor Sean Connery, is sitting on a £85 million fortune, can influence media coverage because it is in government and is an employer of journalists.

I first noticed the consequences of the SNP running its own media show on one of my sporadic attempts to interest a broadsheet paper in Scotland with my thoughts on the party’s performance. I had been disturbed when the SNP’s female Parliamentarians stayed silent after Osama Saeed issued a disparaging statement in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination at the end of 2007. No mention was made of the slain Prime Minister of Pakistan’s commitment to the causes of democracy and human rights. Instead, she was described by Saeed as a ‘prime minister with a less than impressive record. At US prompting, she returned to Pakistan despite warnings that there would be bloodshed. Despite this, she put not just her own live at risk but her followers too’. Alex salmond’s own statement about the event , though less churlish, managed to ignore her completely and expressed concern for the hurt feelings of Muslims in Scotland.

I was told by the paper that my article would appear, only to be told by the political desk that it had been vetoed from higher up. Several months later the editor whom I presumed had spiked the article departed, issuing a statement that the time had come for him to diversify his media career by pursuing fresh challenges. Such deeply conformist figures will never lack gainful employment as long as Scotland is run by tight-knit elites whose potency partly stems from closing down discussion of inconvenient political issues.

Someone who relishes exposing all the SNP’s dirty linen in public and is far less charitable to the party than I have been here (or in previous blogs) is George Foulkes, who sits for Labour both in the House of Lords and also at Holyrood. Such thorns in the side of establishments are usually seen as good news in England. But Foulkes is treated with extreme reserve by much of the Scottish media. Indeed, there is evidence that in order to remain in favour with the SNP’s media managers, the press will follow up a Foulkes disclosure with a disparaging story about the whistle-blower.

At the time of the Glasgow East by-election, John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday , perhaps only half-jokingly, described Scotland as ‘a small closed society, a bit like North Korea only less democratic’. Certainly, it is a country where there are numerous ways to check individualism and where elites from the religious, mercantile, public sector and multi-cultural spheres have done so with single-minded consistency for several centuries. Perhaps it is by looking to history that some of the roots can be found.

The American historian Wallace Notestein whose book The Scot in History is still worth perusing 80 years after publication, described the hold on pre-industrial Scotland of the Church of Scotland and its permanent committee of lay elders known as the Kirk session:

‘Elders constituted themselves committees to walk round the village, peer into windows, open doors, and even go through houses to see the Sabbath was being kept in the strictest degree…

How the Scots stood for such observation is hard to understand. An Englishman knew that his house was his castle, but a Scotsman’s house was no such thing…Indoors and out he was subject to the discipline of the Kirk and he could do nothing about it. The verdicts of the elders were backed up by local authorities, and failure to conform was punished by fines and humiliation.. The pious Scot had allowed himself to become a slave of the Kirk’.

There are of course different more uplifting sides to Scotland and the contribution of the Presbyterian Church to national life had undeniably progressive aspects. But the country appears poised to enter a new era of conformity and from where I’m standing, I’d be happier to take my chances with the 18th century Kirk than with a Scottish National Party ready to place theocratically-minded people at the centre of power.