Alex Salmond has pulled off a remarkable coup by leading his party to an overall majority in the new Scottish Parliament. We are told that the Labour Party designed the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament specifically to avoid this outcome. This spoiling thought may have been in Donald Dewar’s mind, but whatever is the case, a referendum must now intervene and a majority vote in favour of independence before it can come to pass.[ A majority of those who turnout to vote? A majority of the total electorate?]
I gave the SNP my third preference vote on the regional list. This is despite my distaste for nationalist politics in general. Yet I have found a good deal to admire in the conduct of the SNP: the canny game they have played in running a minority government; Alex the Salmond’s audacious plan to make Scotland self sufficient in renewable energy by 2020; his stout defence of the health service against privatisation and prescription charges. I don’t go along with the argument that the SNP are a one man band; without having made a close study, I note some other very credible figures: Fiona Hyslop [I know she lost her job in Education, but I thought she was making a good hand of it]; Mike Russell; Jim Swinney; Nicola Sturgeon. The Salmond himself though needs to take care. Following his victory his presidential swagger is becoming toad like; he seems visibly to be swelling before the cameras. But that aside, there is much to respect; yet I will not vote for independence when the chance to do so is set before me.
Not that I have a particular antipathy to the idea of living in an independent Scotland; it could be an interesting experience. Should the outcome of the referendum take us down that road, I will not be without optimism for the future. However; we are living in a time of change: technological change; climate change; rapidly increasing world population; shifting economic and political power. There is a need for social and political culture which has the openness and adaptability to respond constructively and quickly to these changes and the challenges they present. Nationalism is by its nature culturally backward looking and possessive of sovereignty at a time when nation states need to construct democratic political institutions at a supra national level and be prepared to share sovereignty.
The left of centre slant of the SNP and its focus on the goal of a prosperous Scotland as the means to seduce Scottish people into voting for independence masks the anglophobic undercurrent in Scottish society which energises the nationalist cause.
Pride in ones national identity is inevitably backward looking and rooted in an imagined past. Hugh McMillan makes the point with wit in his poem “Anglophobia”:
“But despite all that, and sober, the limp
red lions stir the blood and in a crowd of
fellow ba-heids I’ll conjure up the pantheon
of Scotland’s past and jewel it with lies.”
Anglophobia bubbles away in Scotland surfacing mostly in what we can call good humoured rivalry. Let me return again to Hugh McMillan’s “Anglophobia.”
“The Philosophy was mother’s milk to me
Our cat was called Moggy the Bruce
In 1966 my uncle Billy died on his knees
before the telly screaming “It didnae
cross the line ye blind bastard!”
But anglophobia expresses not so much pride in national identify as residual dislike of an ancient oppressor, which despite democratic institutions, when it comes to the division of spoils, can still put one over on the Scottish people.
The problem with this analysis however is that poverty, unemployment, failed housing schemes, and failed schools are not exclusively Scottish phenomena. There is a class basis to these problems which nationalism does not address, and worse still, obscures.
Let me refocus on pride in national identity and the words of, Hamish Henderson, addressing his fellow poet and Scottish Nationalist, Hugh McDiarmad.
`Just what do you stand for, MacDiarmid? I’m still not certain.
I don’ wanna step behin’ dat tartan curtain …’
Henderson, understanding McDiarmid to be a great poet, is nevertheless questioning his alignment with Scottish Nationalism and associating this with the oppression and cultural sterility of the Soviet Union. Strong stuff; but is it just to then link the modern, democratic, liberal minded Scottish National Party with the cultural failures of Soviet society?
There is I think a cultural vitality at many levels of Scottish Society. Yet the appeal of contemporary poetry, drama, literature and the arts, is limited and does not offer Nationalism the unifying mythology that can be drawn from the past. In Ireland Develera’s vision for the new Irish State was founded on the richness of the Gaelic language and literature which be believed could be regenerated and rooted in the moral authority of the Catholic Church. What transpired avoided the brutality of Soviet Russia, and was not without cultural distinction; yet the hallmarks of Irish society were poverty, outward migration, banned books, censorship in the Cinema, corruption in politics and child abusing priests.
Alex Salmond promotes a pluralist vision, inclusive of cultures which are new to Scotland. Yet can we be sure that this vision will hold into the future once the new independent Scotland is established, and the novelty and thrill of this new society has settled into the quotidian; how then will we entertain ourselves? Alex Salmond is intent on neutralising Scotland’s sectarian shame – the remnants of tensions from a previous wave of migration which originated Celtic Football Club and the Celtic Rangers axis in Scottish culture. Can he really turn Scottish football into a game which all the family may attend without fear of offensive chanting from the terraces? The same impulses that draw tens of thousands across Scotland to choose their club colours as their preferred dress, and bring them together on the terraces each week to sing songs which mock and abuse their city neighbours – are the same impulses that fuel the extremities of racism, sectarianism and yes, nationalism.
One should not gloss over the many flaws in the political structures of the United Kingdom which is at best an unfinished democratic project. Historical baggage is at the basis of many of the divisions and imbalances. Scotland though is riven with divisions and resentments of its own making. I have already referred to sectarianism, but this is just the start of a long list. Glasgow’s miles better…than Edinburgh that would be; the central belt versus the regions; the islands versus the mainland; Gaelic versus Scots; why even in little Dumfries and Galloway from where I write, while Dumfries pompously aspires to be the regional capital, Stranraer looks on bitterly and complains perpetually about being hard done by.
If Scotland does vote for independence, there will I am sure be a grand party, but it won’t be long before the fights break out.