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The paradoxical faces of Scottish nationalism

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THE SNP CAMPAIGNS for office by leveraging a political populism entirely at odds with its identity-politics. How long can this dissonance last?

Professors Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell in their book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy define National Populism as the following:

“National Populists prioritize the culture and interests of the nation, and promise to give voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected, even held in contempt, by a distant and often corrupt elites.”

They specify the four ‘D’s’ in explaining where it is attached and National Populism finds its roots. High levels of political distrust, perceived destruction of national cultures ways of life and values, anxieties relating to deprivation and lastly dealignment, the process where old bonds between parties and voters weaken.

If we hold all of this in mind, it is possible to see how the Scottish National Party of identity politics wokery is actually – at least during election cycles – inherently quite populist. Naturally any suggestion of the SNP being described as populist is decried by Nicola Sturgeon quite vociferously.

“Politics today is dominated in too many countries by strongman leaders with inflated egos and an overbearing sense of entitlement” warned Nicola Sturgeon in her 2019 party conference speech.

Fast forward to May 2021 and the same First Minister was campaigning for re-election with her very own Orwellian tv advert; in which at one point a scene shows televisions stacked atop each other – all with Sturgeon’s face on each one. Meanwhile a large picture of the First Minister looms large on the wall behind. A caption appears on screen reading “There is only one way.”

Still keeping an entirely straight face, Ms Sturgeon would go on to warn about the dangers of “crude populism”, explaining “That is not for us. That is not who we are.” All of this from the same politician who has a life-sized portrait of herself painted on her helicopter and is not for nothing known as “Elsie McSelfie”.

The hypocrisy of Nicola Sturgeon’s words from 2019 speak for themselves. She leads a party which peddles in populism, but only during election cycles.

For one thing the SNP often leans into the high levels of political distrust in our body politic. The party rhetorically plays up Scottish fears of a distant Westminster elite disconnected from ‘the people’. Touting a prescription of direct democracy in the form of its plebiscite on separation. This fits with the national populist appeal to direct democracy over the liberal democracy where checks and balances are set to protect against the idea of majoritarianism. The SNP’s ‘big idea’ of separation is pure majoritarianism – a 50 per cent +1 approach to politics.

It is however ironic since the SNP leadership itself is precisely that which Scottish voters’ mistrust. Politically correct, degree-holding middle class types who are more comfortable discussing identity politics issues. But that sort of thing is downplayed during election cycles. After all, Nicola Sturgeon was very careful to make sure her Gender Recognition proposals were kicked into sufficient long grass to be off the May 2021 election radar. In its place the SNP had ‘Scotland’s Choice’ demands for referenda on matters already decided upon.

Concealed within its ‘Scotland’s Future Scotland’s Choice’ mantra is its line about ‘the other’ posing a threat to ‘our’ way of life, ‘our’ values. As Boris Johnson sought election in the 2019 General Election on a pro-democracy, pro-Brexit platform Nicola Sturgeon countered with her anti-democratic, stop Brexit alternative. Hidden beneath the surface is the notion of imminent destruction a ‘Tory Brexit” posed to ‘our’ Scottish values and culture.

It is a common feature of populism to peddle ahistorical and anti-pluralist idealisations of society. The SNP has its ‘Scottish exceptionalism’, a land where everyone apparently once spoke Scots Gaelic before ‘the other’ sought to strip it from us. It’s a curiously homogenous and collective identity pitch. One which is naturally nonsensical – Scots Gaelic is no more the ‘national language’ of Scotland than Cumbraic, Pictish or Scots. But rooting the conceptualisation of ‘the people’ in a romanticised ‘heartland’ is par for the course for populist outfits. And the SNP’s shortbread, Brigadoon nationalism is exactly the sort of ahistorical, emotional conception of the past you’d expect from a populist. Even the Scottish ‘Green’ Party gets in on this act, reflecting its special sort of primitivist longing for a idealised agrarian ‘Scottish community’.

The SNP regularly touts the notion of this ‘heartland’ being threatened or eroded or even endangered by this ‘other’.

Alistair Grey’s controversial ‘Settlers and Colonists’ essay best captures this national populist instinct. He wrote of the dangers of an English migration influx into the Scottish arts, decrying that “these colonists [English people] were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people”.

Grey would later rewrite his piece conceding anti-English sentiment could be perceived in the remarks, toning much of it down. Perhaps a pang of regret moving him to do so? Or maybe he had a mental break from SNP’s ginned-up nationalist-fever? Either way, it is a perfect example of the populism the SNP hopes to spread across Scottish cultural life.

The rise of the SNP to its current political dominance is itself a reflection of another of Professor Goodwin’s ‘four D’s’. Dealignment. The SNP under Alex Salmond and later Nicola Sturgeon have worked assiduously to ensure it stands to benefit from the weakening of old bonds between established parties and voters. As the traditional ‘labour movement’ weakened amid deindustrialisation and outsourcing under Thatcher and Blair era governments, so Scottish Labour’s grip on the nation’s politics weakened. The SNP played down its ‘tartan tory’ colours and shifted toward the clothing of being social democrats. Leading SNP figures such as Michael Russell who backed NHS privatisation were given the marching orders to tone all of that down.

The SNP worked to make sure it was seen by voters as being on the side of popular democracy, the nation and community. Only they could be trusted to ‘speak for Scotland’, castigating Scottish Labour as ‘red Tories’ somehow beholden to ‘Westminster’. Nicola Sturgeon has often enough labelled Scottish Labour leaders as ‘branch managers’, somehow not to be properly trusted to defend ‘the people’ from ‘the other’.

It is ironic that the reality is quite different when the SNP are safely ensconced in office. When not needing to fear the mob the Scottish Nationalists reveal themselves to be every bit the cosmopolitan, globalist, technocrats they decry others as being.

As Stuart Waiton, sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee, wrote:

“The SNP MSP’s comfort zone is the committee room, sitting with like-minded lawyers, heads of charities, academics and experts, formulating policies in an echo chamber, at a distance from the electorate.”

The SNP presents itself as a vehicle for the sort of voters David Goodhart describes as the ‘somewheres’. Those who crave a sense of belonging, of groundedness to a certain place, and of Scottishness. But the paradoxical twist is that this is the same SNP who would have their ‘independent’ Scotland re-join the supranational EU. The contradiction is obvious, but unstated. Covered up by the SNP’s machine-politics of slick PR and ‘get out the vote’ operations.

The SNP has benefited from the dealignment between parties and voters and has leaned into national populist rhetoric when it is convenient. The paradox of a cosmopolitan, woke SNP leadership trading opportunistically and periodically on populism is, however, inherently unsustainable.

The SNP cannot forever be the defenders of Scotland’s ‘somewheres’, purporting to guard against the ‘distant elites’ of Westminster – all the while promoting Brussels’ rule. Fragmentation awaits, the rise of Alba is but the first crack in the wall, albeit small thus far. When and how further fragmentation will occur is anyone’s guess.

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