The day the SNP abandoned its ‘civic’ nationalism

As Scottish pro-independence campaigners stoop to new lows in smearing and intimidating their opponents, it is increasingly clear that whatever the referendum result Scotland is going to be a sharply polarized country

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Rising anger of SNP leader Alex Salmond
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Tom Gallagher
On 24 August 2014 09:32

Scots-born but English-resident Val McDermid is one of the best-known British crime-writers. She specializes in blood and gore but her normally mordant view of humanity has vanished as she casts her eyes back to her native land. She is an ardent backer of independence and believes the marathon campaign that will end with a referendum on 18 September has been inspirational.

This is what she wrote about it in the Guardian on Friday: 

'What’s been inspiring… has been the absence of jingoistic Braveheart nationalism. This has been an overwhelmingly civil debate about a kind of civic nationalism. It’s been about an inclusiveScotland, not a narrow-minded, bigoted, hate-filled breakaway’.

On the very same day,  the Labour MP, Jim Murphy, opposition spokesman on international development, was assailed by a baying mob of Nationalist supporters in the town of Motherwell, in Scotland’s former industrial ‘rust belt’. 

He was on a nationwide speaking tour in which his aim is to have 100 meetings in 100 days, making the case for staying together with the rest of the United Kingdom. Murphy is one of the rare ‘people’s politicians’ who is confident in spreading his message and enjoys the cut and thrust of politics.

But even he was shocked by the malice of a crowd which surrounded his soap box, yelled ‘traitor’ and 'terrorist’ at him and afterwards sang the unofficial Scottish national anthem, ‘Flower of Scotland’. The scenes were filmed and can be seen here.

This was one of the most graphic illustrations of how deeply a 30-month referendum campaign has polarized the country. A recent poll of just over 1,000 Scots in June showed that almost two -fifths of people believe the country will be left ‘badly divided’ in its wake. One fifth indicated that discussions with family and friends about the referendum had degenerated into rows.

It may be even worse if it turns out that the vote is split on class and territorial grounds. Post-industrial Clydeside, the most socially volatile part of Scotland, is at odds with much of the rest of the country. Pro-separation feeling is running high among lower-income groups, especially economically under-active men.

The more that economic and health experts warn that the unpreparedness of the SNP threatens to do immense harm to Scotland’s social and economic fabric, the more support for its separatist goal appears to harden among this angry demographic.

Anti-British and pro-Irish Republican sentiments often animate such folk. Paradoxically, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Scots who say their primary badge of identification is British (something that of course will be overlooked by English chauvinists whose shrill defensiveness often mimics the posture of the SNP).   

Well-positioned media and academic figures who have gone over to the separatist camp refuse to believe that lasting harm is being caused by current polarization. Kevin McKenna, a seasoned media operator in Glasgow has admitted  that he is addicted to the melodrama:

‘I shall be sorry to see 18 September come and go. Indeed, I'm almost tempted to urge a no vote so that we can gather together the circus, strike up the band and do it all over again. The campaign hasn't got toxic at all; rather, it has become intoxicating.’

The historian Tom Devine, the nearest thing in Scotland to a national pedagogue, said this week that the author Alexander McCall Smith has ‘absolutely no evidence for claims  that Scotland has become a divided society’.

I was at a book launch in Edinburgh on Thursday, just after this rosy view was offered. It was noteworthy for the claim of First Minister Alex Salmond’s former chief policy adviser, Alex Bell that the SNP struggled to be effective at the policy-level and that the proposals for the future contained in the SNP’s White Paper were incoherent and contradictory.

Michael Gray, one of the young Turks of the "Yes" side was invited to speak up for the cause. His approach showed  how bound up the Nationalists are with image and not substance. He told the audience that in the 30 minutes since the event had started, tens of thousands of people had logged on to twitter accounts where Scotland’s future was being discussed.

They were then assured by him that ‘in exactly 4 weeks time Scotland will be the biggest story in the world. Let's vote to stay centre stage’. It was so appealing that he immediately posted it on his twitter account.

I made the case for the vitality of the British link and pointed out that the fixation with Scotland’s brand image was narcissistic, revealing the immaturity of a movement which was keen to bend a country to its will. Without batting an eyelid, Michael confidently asserted that it was impossible to believe that a single person in Scotland below the age of 50  thought like me any more.

Only a few hours earlier, I had been in the Scottish parliament for the very last debate before the referendum. In my hour there, I was lucky to catch the speech of Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives. She is well under 50, 36 actually, and she delivered a speech which would resonate with plenty of other Scots of all ages.

Here are just a few of the highlights:

‘I may be jeered or sneered at, as I am being today, but, looking around the world, I think that we are one of the good guys. We are one of the countries that others aspire to be like. From our art to our freedom, our humour, our decency, our sense of fair play and -- yes -- even our politics, we make a huge contribution to this planet.’…

‘I have never been prouder of my country than when, as a young journalist, I was sent to Kosovo to see the Black Watch and saw soldiers of my age and younger, who went to my school in Buckhaven and schools just like it, patrolling the streets, protecting schoolchildren from attack, clearing bombs and stopping bullets.

"The First Minister called our involvement in Kosovo “unpardonable folly”. He is entitled to that opinion. However, I know that the world is a safer place for Kosovars, ethnic Serbs and Albanians because of the servicemen and women of our country and because we have an integrated fighting force and the capability to act’.

The SNP benches were livid by such an effective appeal to Britishness and they showed it. Willie Rennie, the leader of the Liberal Democrats stated that he was ‘disgusted' by their attitude. The SNP does not have a monopoly on being Scottish’.

Scotland is now fast becoming a country as divided  as some of Britain’s neighbours, such as France, used to be . Minorities like the Huguenots, victims of French absolutism found a haven on this island as it was putting aside territorial quarrels 300 hundred years ago.

No less than 17 percent of Scots stated in a recent opinion poll that they would seriously consider leaving if Alex Salmond achieved his driving ambition. Could these be the  new Huguenots in the making? This is a massive indictment against a party which claims to believe that the people of Scotland are the country’s greatest asset.  

It is sobering to think that hundreds of thousands of Scots now fear becoming second-hand citizens if the arbitrariness shown by the SNP in these vitriolic times were to become a permanent formula for rule. 

Tom Gallagher is the author of Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis (Argyll Publications, 2013). Manchester University Press will publish his next book, Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration Through Monetary Union, in October

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