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Is Alex Salmond - the best Unionist Nationalist?

Columnist DAVID TORRANCE

WHAT THE MEDIA calls the ‘silly season’ is well known for its distorting effect on the political classes. Deprived of their usual packed itinerary and Parliamentary agenda, politicians resort to making speeches; finely-crafted orations designed to sketch out a wider political philosophy.

Alex Salmond, the veteran SNP leader (currently approaching his 23rd year – on and off – at the helm) is no exception. And with the referendum little more than a year away, one might expect him to devote his summer schedule to prosthelytising about independence and the benefits of a ‘yes’ vote next September.

Not a bit of it. Rather the theme of the First Minister’s summer speaking tour is Scotland’s “six unions”. After independence, the argument runs, Scotland will maintain five of these: the European Union, a “wider defence union” (NATO), a currency union, the “United Kingdoms” (monarchy) and what Salmond calls the “social union”, a rather vague description of cross-border family ties.

Thus the public face of the Scottish independence movement is touring the British Isles (one speech was in the Isle of Man) presenting himself, as the journalist Alf Young recently put it, as “five-sixths a unionist”. This is worthy of comment, for presumably that would make a Eurosceptic Tory MP as much of a unionist as the leader of the SNP.

In Nigg, where the First Minister kicked off a few weeks ago, Salmond went even further, pitching himself as not only a Unionist, but a reforming one. “We will embrace those other unions”, he promised, “while using the powers of independence to renew and improve them.” This was positively Burkean – the purpose of reform is to conserve.

Only Scotland’s sixth union, the “political and economic union”, displeases Salmond. It “does not work for Scotland any more” he declared darkly in one of his summer speeches, “it holds Scotland back and imperils our future. It will not bend, and it will not change of its own accord. So we will – we must change it.”

Of course the political union has changed, often significantly, through devolution in the late 1990s, and indeed pending transfers of further powers to the Scottish Parliament. And even within that sixth union there are features the SNP wishes to preserve post-independence, for example a UK-wide energy market (including renewable subsidies) and aspects of the welfare state for a “transition” period.

To an extent, this approach is nothing new. A feature of Salmond’s leadership project has been to force his party to stop worrying and learn aspects of the United Kingdom. Only recently, however, has he been so explicit, a demonstration not only of the authority he enjoys within his party, but the confidence of Nationalism as a political creed.

Within Scottish boundaries, meanwhile, the SNP is instinctively Unionist, centralising (as, to be fair, are all governments) and generally contemptuous of demands from local government and the Northern Isles. When the “Our Islands – Our Future” (Ar n-Eileanan – Ri teachd) campaign recently gathered some momentum, Salmond flew to Lerwick full of reassurance, promising a ministerial working group but nothing tangible in terms of autonomy.

Thus Unionist Nationalism as preached by Mr Salmond has its limits. Self-evidently the motivation is more opportunistic than sincere; the SNP has gradually appropriated the language of Unionism for reassurance rather than a genuine conversion to its ideology, an audacious land grab akin to Ed Miliband’s requisitioning of “One Nation” from generations of progressively-minded Tories.

But the fact Mr Salmond et al have been able to park their tanks on Unionist lawns without so much as a skirmish indicates just how weak Unionism has become. In many areas the SNP wields the traditional binding agents of Union – the NHS, welfare and monarchy – rather more skilfully than any of its Labour, Lib Dem or Tory counterparts.

Yet Conservatives used to be rather good at playing that game. Between the two world wars Scottish Unionists posed as Nationalists, devolving more (administrative) power to the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, attacking the “centralisation” of Attlee’s post-war government and contriving a Scottish “coronation” for the Queen in 1953. It reflected their political and – above all – electoral confidence.

Even well after its heyday, Scottish Unionism rarely had cause to defend itself, so useful was it to politicians, a utility matched by its popular appeal. It was unthinking and often banal, a Union state without Unionism. Today there remains enough to fashion a Unionist narrative of sorts, from the territorial redistribution of the Barnett Formula to the fiscal transfers of an integrated welfare system.

But the confidence to do so is lacking, and the First Minister has never been short of self-assurance. And although philosophical weakness might not lose Unionists next year’s referendum, it could store up trouble for the future. Ironically this summer, at the height of this particular silly season, the best evangelist for what might be called New Unionism is none other than the man who has spent most of his adult life trying to break it up.
 

 

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Article from Monday 5, August, 2013