Paradoxes of Nationalism: The SNP and Scottish exhibitionism

Paradoxes of Nationalism: The SNP and Scottish exhibitionism

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 14, May, 2018

ON BROAD and narrow issues it is normal for the Scottish National Party to be evasive and inexact.

On currency, welfare provisions, fracking, defence goals, relations with the European landmass in and out of the EU, and devolution itself the party has acquired and ditched a range of positions. There may be nothing unusual in that. In quiet parts of the world, nationalist parties often prefer to emphasise intangible and emotive issues rather than firm policy positions. They are often bound up with territory, or the nation’s place in the world. How the advance of the cause will change the lives of the people is gone into with little precision (or, if truth be told, enthusiasm). 

Nevertheless, demanding that full statehood be acquired without needing to explain the practicalities or long-term viability appeals to enough Scots to enable the SNP to motor on. Its role as a collective preacher in charge of a cult seeking mass conversions gives the SNP momentum even in its 11th year of ruling over an autonomous Scotland. 

Thanks to being located on a large temperate island where restive Scots are treated with a certain indulgence by the British state and indeed the rest of British society, the SNP lacks real grievances. The absence of anything that could be construed as oppression or discrimination – certainly in other places where unjust ethnic hierarchies of power prevail – is awkward. Particularly for a party grappling with heavy responsibilities of government.

The SNP is a party of protest with little to protest about. It has nevertheless managed to remain in campaigning mode for over a decade by convincing a segment of voters that it often has to put aside its governing tasks in order to undertake a higher mission. It is not a strictly political one. In a secular age, it is more quasi-religious. It is certainly evangelical. 

The SNP has pulled off the feat of convincing a lot of people that it exists to promote Scotland as a distinctive national brand. The uniqueness of this brand and the fact that it has been kept concealed in a dingy corner of the world’s megastore of nations, provides it with a mission beyond daily housekeeping. It is to advance the status of the brand by endless selling campaigns. This is a mission that is justified whatever the season, or however pressing may be challenges in areas of policy central to the lives of most Scots.

The SNP has concluded that it will never win over those Scots who rate a government merely on the extent it tries to manage or solve their material problems. But it believes that it can remain at the centre of things by mobilising Scots, albeit a clear minority at the moment, who achieve psychological fulfilment by seeing their nation put on a pedestal. Whether there is much to see close-up doesn’t matter. It is the act of celebration that counts.

I merely offer two examples out of many that could have been drawn upon. The first occurred when the SNP had been less than a year in power. It was April 2008 and Alex Salmond was on his first major trip as First Minister. He had come to Washington DC to launch the Saltire Prize. £10 million pound would be awarded to the marine technology company that proved able to harness Scotland’s abundant tidal and wave power. It was meant to signal that Scotland was back as a global technological force. 

I happened to be working in the US capital and went along to hear Salmond launch the scheme. With his swagger and chutzpah he milked the audience of patrician Americans who had assembled at the headquarters of the National Geographical Society for the occasion. 

I asked an unhelpful question which was easily swatted away by the ebullient travelling Scot. But year after year the prize went unclaimed. Nevertheless, figures released this week show that nearly £400,000 has been spent on rebranding and on meeting the costs of a panel of experts tasked with overseeing the award.

Undaunted, the Scottish government is, according to the Scotsman, considering “options for reshaping the award so that it can finally be won”. It seems to believe credit can be achieved perhaps by scaling down the level of innovation needed for someone to walk away with the prize money.

£10 million is a significant sum even for a government that has been making swinging cuts in areas such as health. The prize saga appears to have been trundled out without close consultation with Scotland’s scientific community. Indeed relations between the ruling politicians and Scotland’s experts in a range of prestigious fields have been frosty.  

The key role as chief science adviser to the Scottish Government was vacant for 18 months after Professor Muffy Calder quit in December 2014. That attracted strong criticism from Scotland’s science community, with the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Scientific Alliance Scotland claiming that their views were being ignored. The government had come under firefor imposing a ban on GM crops without taking a range of scientific advice.

Tensions spilled into the open in October 2015 when Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a noted astrophysicist and president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, told a Holyrood committeethat proposals to extend state control over academic life risked “devastating” the international standing of Scotland’s universities. 

Autonomous spheres of influence tend to be obstacles for nationalists in a hurry. Perhaps wisely, Nicola Sturgeon abandoned plans to extend her sway over universities. Someone may have told her that making unnecessary enemies was foolish. Besides, the tenor of the times suited the nationalists. Being guided by instinct and emotion even in the realm of scientific policy was no longer seen as outlandish. As long ago as 1929, the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his influential book “The Revolt of the Masses” had predicted the rise of a self-referential society. Across society a levelling down effect was occurring thanks to changes in education and culture generally. Doubt was increasingly caston “expert judgment by a mass man” who preferred to make his own judgments based on his own hunches and evaluations. 

Along with other populist movements the world over, the SNP has benefited from an anti-elitist atmosphere where all manner of doubt is now thrown on established reasoning in many fields. Ortega warned that dumbed down citizens would end up surrendering power to a state led by populists who were likely to betray the trust invested in them. He believed that democracy would be a prime casualtyof this egalitarian revolt. 

Democracy has staged a modest revival in Scotland perhaps aided by the fact that a government with profoundly centralising urges no longer has an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament. But the SNP’s confidence in promoting schemes where there is an overt design to get Scotland noticed further afield is undiminished.   

Introducing a minimum pricing scheme for alcohol this month, Sturgeon emphasised the bigger picture: “I am extremely proud that the eyes of the world will once again be on Scotland with the introduction of this legislation. It is brave, and shows once again that we are leading the way in introducing innovative solutions to public health challenges”.

Deaths through alcohol misuse in Scotland are 54 per cent higher than in England and Wales. But with favoured beverages for dedicated drinkers such as Buckfast tonic wine unaffected by the law and cheap supplies available nearby in Carlisle and Northumberland, it is unclear what difference minimum pricing will make. 

Four years ago, the then justice minister Kenny MacAskill introduced a stricter drink-driving law in order for Scotland to be appear more vigilant than the rest of the UK  only for deaths to rise  in consecutive future years

Professionals flourish under the SNP who can come up with eye-catching proposals that can be floated and directed across the world by the First Minister’s large media office. Another two have come in quick succession. The Scottish National Investment Bank and the proposal for a minimum income for all citizens. Critics allege that both measures, involving a redistribution of income and further taxes, will be costly gimmicks unlikely to reduce poverty or economic stagnation.  But anything that suggests Scotland is a land of progressive innovation is likely to have money thrown at it by a government which sees endless possibilities in altering perceptions. 

The most ambitiousmind-altering scheme was the 2013 White Paper that was meant to be a blueprint for Scottish independence. That blueprint has been slammedby critics and has been repudiated by the SNP in key respects. But it enabled the then First Minister Alex Salmond and his colleagues to insistthat Scotland was “on the cusp of history”, watched by a fascinated world. 

Four years on from the referendum and a decade after he informed an American audience that Scotland was capable of being the Saudi Arabia of tidal power, Salmond has moved on. Next Thursday he will be “remaking the case for independence” at a rally in an Edinburgh theatre for party members.

It follows a pro-independence march in Glasgow on 5 May in which a turnout inflated well-beyond the 10 to 15,000 who processed was meant to convey the impression that the momentum for a second referendum on independence was so bigthat it far exceeded even the SNP itself. Yet polls show huge hostility for another referendum, support for independence over twelve points behind support for the Union, and Ruth Davidson the opposition leader far more popular than Nicola Sturgeon.

Nothing daunted though, the SNP flourishes by relying on stalwart activists who wish to promote a permanent festival of Scotland. The nation is a brand or an exhibit. It doesn’t really matter that unlike the great exhibitions held in the past to showcase Scotland’s prowess and ingenuity in science, engineering and design, there is nothing much to exhibit beyond flags. 

Against a daunting record of failure in office, the SNP remains relevant because of how emotive culture has become. Venting feelings and repeating slogans are motivational for millions. Scotland in 2014 successfully resisted the wave of simplistic populism in a crucial referendum. The SNP prays that risk-taking can one day beat caution. But its exhibitionism may need a more inspiring brand and fresher people for that dream ever to be realised. 

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who lives in Edinburgh. He published “Scotland Now – A Warning to the World” in 2016. His 14th single-authored book and debut novel, “Flight of Evil: A North British Intrigue”, came out in March.  His twitter address is @Cultfree54.

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