NATIONALISM HAS STALLED. It may not seem like it from the shrill cries of delight from the SNP following the recent Holyrood elections, but the big picture across the UK at the present time is that nationalism is on a road to nowhere.
For all the hype around the prospect of an absolute majority for the SNP, mostly from itself, that majority failed to materialise. Even though the threat from ALBA was never realised, despite Brexit, and with the prospect of a Conservative Government in Westminster for many years to come, even then not enough of the electorate was convinced to go for broke and vote SNP. The SNP gained one seat, rising from 63 to 64, still short of the super majority it so much desired. Support for independence is back down to where it was in the 2014 referendum and the party has fewer votes than a decade ago.
At least the SNP retained the lead position to become the next Government at Holyrood, whether or not that is with a formal or informal co-operation agreement with the Scottish Greens.
Pity too Plaid Cymru in Wales. A one seat gain still leaves Plaid only the third largest Party, with the Conservatives second. The Liberal Democrats have one seat. Labour, in contrast to England or Scotland performed well, no doubt benefiting from the speedy and efficient roll-out of Covid Vaccine; the percentage vaccinated in Wales has consistently outpaced any other part of the UK to date. The story of the election in Wales was Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru’s former leader, losing her Rhondda seat to Labour.
Almost ignored in reports was the wipe-out of UKIP/Brexit Party from seats (UKIP had held seven) suggesting that the Welsh electorate has moved on. Labour’s ability to be both demonstrably Welsh and not separatist, keeping the focus on its own ambitions for Wales within the UK context seems to have been a winning formula. Plaid may poke from the side lines but has little ability to do much more in the near term.
Talk of the prospect Sinn Fein being the largest political party following next year’s Northern Ireland Assembly election has more to do with it standing still while the largest Unionist Party, the DUP, seems to be pulling itself apart.Whether or not fortuitously, Sinn Fein may be ready and more than willing to take on the First Minister position or tick more boxes off its never-ending list of grievances. That will not cover the fact that Irish nationalism too is in a rut.
Unionism in Ulster has only really dipped at the European elections in 2019 when a combination of pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit votes surged parties outside the four main Unionist/Nationalist parties (DUP/UUP and SDLP/SF).
Current debate around a Border Poll is one that is entirely within the world of nationalism talking to itself, pollsters and newspapers and academics looking for an easy headline and some attention. Unionism is focused on the NI Protocol, the impact on goods available online and on the high street (if/when eventually open fully), and the degree to which the State has a role, if any, in its day-to-day social interactions.
Despite nationalism flatlining, only in Wales does there seem to be any effort to put further distance between traditional parties and separatists.
Mr Drakeford, the Welsh Labour leader, vowed to be “radical” and “ambitious” in government – time will tell. The Conservatives too had offered ‘change’ in their election campaigning. A first-time anti-devolution party (Abolish the Welsh Assembly) gained as many votes as the Lib Dems or Reform – each on 1.6% of the vote.
In Northern Ireland, leadership changes for both main Unionist Parties, Edwin Poots now leading the DUP and Doug Beattie the UUP, seems to have turned both parties to introspection and chasing after unionist votes while not sounding that much different to the leaders they replaced. Chasing each others’ voters and reverting to shallow soundbite politics with little substance or strategy in evidence to trigger advances that will widen the unionist tent, nationalism gets a bye.
Neither the smaller SDLP nor larger Sinn Fein has much by way of offering to the broader electorate, both seemingly content to wrap themselves in the Irish Tricolour shouting Brexit and Irish Unity as an alternative to actually delivering anything much through their presence in the Northern Ireland Executive, or Assembly. Sinn Fein has had its own bout of internal upheaval, with a simmering undercurrent of dissatisfaction and discontent barely concealed.
Sinn Fein have other issues. It clearly disregarded guidelines around Covid to stage a grand funeral for Bobby Storey, a ‘prominent’ Republican. It wasn’t just this event that raised eyebrows. Covid grants seem to have ended up ‘resting’ in accounts close to Sinn Fein. While in the Republic of Ireland a former Sinn Fein Councillor has been charged with murder related to a gangland feud, having been previously convicted of torturing a man.
None of this seems to impact on Sinn Fein polling numbers. Although it has probably reached a high mark in number of votes, it may still end up as the largest Party come next year’s Assembly election (or sooner if it manufactures another ‘crisis’).
Meanwhile in Scotland, both the Conservative Party and Labour Party appear relieved to have ended the election campaign having largely stood still. The Conservatives have the same number of seats on a marginal decline in percentage vote, and the Labour Party lost out to the Greens for two seats even though it had marginally gained in percentage vote.
Both Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar had decent campaigns (by their own parties’ standards). However, just as nationalism failed to punch through to the magic majority, the two main unionist parties didn’t pack the punch that suggests they are any way close to finding a means to break the grip the SNP holds on the public discourse. Partly that may be because the two unionist parties remain ideologically distinct, though efforts to criticise the SNP record of Government should hardly be difficult. That ideological difference should enable challenges to the SNP from both political barrels.
What unionists seem to lack in both Northern Ireland and Scotland is the ability to make a strong case as to why nationalism is so poor at delivery. Unionists seem to accept the state of public discourse centred on separation, rather than on delivery of day-to-day services (which has been poor in both jurisdictions) and on how Barnett consequentials ought to result in services as good as or even better than those delivered by Whitehall for England – shouldn’t smaller and closer government deliver better?
Even though nationalism seems content to travel on a road to nowhere, it is for Unionist parties to clearly point out the declining state of repair and to champion an alternative route that has added value and strength in being part of a greater destination. Unionist parties will not see that route for as long as they continue to navel-gaze: to look at what they have rather than what they could achieve; to fight over the size of the slice of cake rather than adding some ingredients and making a richer cake for all.
Photo: The road to nowhere from Talking Heads video of The Road to Nowhere (1985).