Scotland’s Jacobins tighten their grip, threaten abolition of Britain
The Scottish National Party is infused with the Jacobin traditions associated with the French Revolution. If they succeed in their aims, the West as a whole will suffer
Scotland is midway through an election campaign which is likely to see the Scottish National Party tighten its grip on power. The emotion-laden nationalism brilliantly popularised by Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond dominates even the serious end of the media, as perusal of Edinburgh’s daily newspaper, theScotsman often confirms.
Edinburgh was once the home of a rival tradition associated with an analytical approach to solving major problems based on rationalist principles. The pragmatic thought of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment was associated with thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and others who placed the welfare of individuals and the stability of society at the centre of their ideas. By contrast, the lawyers and intellectuals who prepared the way for the French revolution believed that millenarian ideas could take society in a fundamentally better direction.
It is this Jacobin tradition not the pragmatism of 18th century Scottish philosophers and economists which grips the SNP. It was articulated with disarming simplicity by the Justice minister Kenny MacAskill on the day in August 2008 that he announced the release, on compassionate grounds, of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi convicted for blowing up a Pan Am jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988 and diagnosed twenty years later with cancer. MacAskill, a lawyer and atheist told the world’s press in August 2009 that the decision to free the Libyan was rooted in ‘the values, beliefs and common humanity that defines us as Scots’.
On closer inspection it was made in collusion with the Brown government at Westminster which was keen to regularise ties with Colonel Gaddafi mainly for commercial reasons. And in order to expedite the release of Megrahi, the Scottish government ensured that there were only cursory medical checks carried out on the prisoner who continues to defy MacAskill’s prediction that he only had months to live.
Megrahi’s release was just the most daring gesture carried out by Alex Salmond, the cheeky and subversive leader of a protest movement that has made a remarkably smooth transition to power. Scotland continues to be financed by a block grant from Westminster which takes pressure off the Edinburgh government to raise its own finances . The SNP has allowed the civil servants to administer the country while it has continued to campaign on numerous fronts to bring closer the day when complete separation can be achieved.
In building up a trans-class movement, the Nationalists have been greatly assisted by the weakness of the two main pro-Union forces. Almost uniquely in the democratic West, Scotland now lacks a strong centre-right party. The Conservatives lost all their seats at the close of the Thatcher era in 1997 and only the proportional system of elections for the Scottish parliament gives them a small foothold there. By opposing decentralization, they handed the patriotic card to their opponents and recovery prospects appear near to zero.
The Labour Party was the architect of the current devolution arrangements but in government the party simply lacked the ability or will to manage the new political institutions in an effective manner. The SNP is in no hurry to become absorbed in this unglamorous work of administering Scotland. Daunting social problems, including a serious drugs problem and some of the highest levels of violent crime in the developed world will have to await independence . The SNP instead focuses its attention on constitutional change and on challenging arrangements and institutions underlying the union whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Its main asset is its leader Alex Salmond. He has a self-confidence and an ability to relate to ordinary citizens and dominate the media which few other current European politicians possess. He has emerged unscathed despite the lavish praise he heaped upon Scotland’s two leading banks after their reckless investment policies resulted in devastating losses for the Scottish financial sector in 2008-9. He exploits the appetite inside his adoring party and indeed in the wider society for the kind of populist politics that bypass institutions and procedures and make a direct appeal to raw emotions.
He has courted Scotland’s large Roman Catholic minority and small but growing Muslim community, promising to safeguard denominational schools and empowering religious entrepreneurs of various hues in the hope that they will deliver him large voting blocks. Warnings about how the politicisation of religion has damaged Scotland in the past are brushed aside. So are claims that as long as the SNP is a fervent advocate of membership of an increasingly centralized EU, its support for real independence is disingenuous.
For a government which has no control over foreign and defence policy, the SNP has been remarkably absorbed with international issues. Salmond has promoted an emerging foreign policy based on triangulation, playing off different groups and telling them what they most want to hear. A search for wealthy backers in resource rich parts of the Middle East and East Asia was accompanied for some years by crafty efforts to schmooze with the great and the good in Washington DC. Among mainly Democratic figures in congress,
Salmond even formed ‘a Friends of Scotland caucus’ which would have its uses if Anglo-Scottish political hostilities were ever to spill over into the international arena. But many of the caucus members had constituents who were relatives of the 178 American victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Relations with the USA have gone into the deep freeze ever since it became clear that the Scottish government’s much-vaunted compassion did not extend beyond Megrahi to the victims of this outrage.
Most Scots continue to have a positive outlook about the USA and the SNP’s standing in the polls slumped for over a year. But the party’s fortunes have revived thanks to the presence of a Tory-led government in London trying to trim the state budget and a lacklustre Labour opposition under Ed Miliband. Salmond knows that the majority of Scots recoil from ending the Union. But he pins his hopes on English voters, resentful at what they see as the Scots benefitting from an unfair allocation of resources, pressing for an Anglo-Scottish divorce.
If Alex Salmond gets his way and a post-British era opens up, the adjustments will not merely be confined to the islands off Europe’s north-west coast. In historical terms, the end of the Anglo-Scottish Union would be a major event signifying the retreat of a western project, uniting countries on both sides of the Atlantic in common civilizational endeavours.
Tom Gallagher is an Edinburgh-based political scientist whose book The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism was published by Hurst and Co in 2009
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