Saturday 6 October 2012

What the history of the SNP tells us about nationalism

Every political party goes through a process of development and rebranding as a means of gaining popularity and power, but often looking at the history of a political party tells us much about what that party really wants and what are its real motivations.
The Labour party suffered defeat after defeat post 1979 and was out of office until 1997. During that period it changed a great deal first under Neil Kinnock, then under John Smith and finally under Tony Blair. In the end, the Labour party’s core policy could be described as being social-democratic rather than socialist. The reason for this change was partly an admission that previous policies were wrong, the fall of the Berlin wall made socialism as an ideology untenable, but also a recognition that previous policies were not popular. Britain did not want socialism and so in order to be elected, the Labour party had to change. But think for a minute of all those people who joined the Labour party in the seventies and eighties and before. They did not join the Labour party to create social-democracy, they joined because they wanted socialism. They still do. If they are realists they recognise that this ideal is probably impossible, but if it were possible they would wish it to happen. There are of course some genuine Blairites, ideologically in tune with social-democracy, but they are not in the majority.  This is the reason that Blair is not really liked in the Labour Party. The party was grateful to him for bringing them success, but activists did not go into politics for this watered down vision of what they really want.
The same can largely be said of the Conservative party. After 1997 the Conservative party kept being defeated by New Labour and suddenly it began to look as if the policies which gave Margaret Thatcher and John Major victory were not in tune with what the British people wanted. So the party went through a rebranding process under David Cameron and moved towards the centre ground, taking on some of the policies of New Labour, while Cameron endeavored to appear as a sort of Tory Tony Blair. In terms of expediency, this was quite sensible. British politics, at the moment, really is fought in the centre ground. Whether it should be is another matter. But most Tories, most activists, did not go into politics to get this sort of watered down Conservatism. What they really want is Thatcherism and more. Conservatives want free market economics, small government and the dismantling of the nanny state. Most now also want the UK to leave the EU. Insofar as David Cameron brings the party government and power and insofar as he brings Conservatives some of what they want, he is supported, but he is not loved like Margaret Thatcher was, because he is acting out of expediency rather than ideology.
Let’s turn now to the SNP. The most important thing to remember is that the SNP is a single issue party. It has the purpose of gaining Scottish independence and activists will say and do anything, will accept any policy in order to reach that goal. But just as the core ideology of Labour supporters is socialism and the core ideology of Conservative supporters is free market capitalism, so the core ideology of the SNP is nationalism and in order to find out what that ideology is, it is necessary to cut through the rebranding that has been going on in the SNP for the last decades and explore the history of the party.
The following article gives a very useful summary of the history of the Scottish National Party:
What the history of the SNP shows is that although it  now puts forward policies which appear liberal and leftist, while it has developed policies which are a form of civic nationalism, these are really part of a rebranding exercise in an attempt to gain power and win a vote on independence. This does not mean that SNP is lying when it puts forward these policies. They are no more lying than Tony Blair or David Cameron. But these sort of policies are not the reason why SNP activists joined the party. They joined the party out of a fundamental sympathy with the core ideology. The nature of this ideology is shown by the history of the SNP.
What we find from the survey of prominent historical nationalists may seem like ancient history, and the disgraceful antics of a bunch of nutters with almost no public support. But when an oak grows out of an acorn, it retains the essence of the acorn in its finished form, and it is possible to see much in the embryonic SNP which remains visible in its fully grown form.
The sympathy and siding with Germany, the hopes for a  German victory during World War Two  are just an extreme form of the anyone but England mentality so prevalent in the SNP today. It was England’s war and they hoped for anyone but England to win. They were willing to give up anything, including being ruled by Nazis, in order to obtain “freedom” for Scotland.
The obsession with Celts and attempts to revive the Gaelic language, which obsessed nationalists before the war, can still be seen in the SNP putting up signs in Gaelic  in places where that language has barely been spoken for hundreds of years. Real Gaelic speakers deserve some support as do speakers of any minority language in Scotland, but SNP activists learning a few Gaelic phrases has less to do with supporting a declining language as it has to do with the fact that Gaelic is not English.
The pacifism of the SNP leadership during World War Two, and their refusal to be conscripted to fight in England’s war, can be seen today in their opposition to nuclear weapons and their hesitations about being part of NATO. They attempt still to portray the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as England’s war, with the warmongering English dragging poor, innocent Scots off to the deaths.
The roots of the SNP lie in ethno-nationalism as is evident from their flirtation with fascism in the thirties and with the connections between Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism, which extended from meetings between Scottish nationalists and Michael Collins in the twenties, right up to 1982 when a member of the 79 Group was invited to address a Sinn Féin conference.
Alex Salmond, a member of that group, made an appeal to reject the invitation and won, but the fact that the group was communicating with Sinn Féin at all shows the continuing connection between Irish nationalism and Scottish nationalism. It can be seen today in Salmond picking up some of the language of Sinn Féin and appropriating it to the struggle for Scottish independence.
The Scottish national party to its credit has tried to divorce itself from ethnic nationalism, kicking out groups such as  Sìol nan Gàidheal (Seed of the Gaels)
But to deny that the sort of ethnic nationalism expressed by such groups is not in part a motivation for some people wanting independence is absurd. This can be shown by the following example:
If civic nationalism is about a group of people in an area choosing to be independent, why not choose Northumbria, and the Borders to be a new country? What’s the objection to that? The objection obviously from the SNP would be that such a place would not be a nation. But why not?
The OED definition of a nation is as follows:
“A large aggregate of communities and individuals united by factors such as common descent, language, culture, history, or occupation of the same territory, so as to form a distinct people. Now also: such a people forming a political state; a political state”
But this could well apply to a nation formed from Northumbria and the Borders. It could equally apply to Aberdeenshire, or Orkney and Shetland.
What would be the objection then to forming a nation from the Northumbria and the Borders? After all, there was once such a country.
No doubt the SNP would object that this nation would include both English people and Scottish people. But what is the difference between an English person and a Scots person?
Let’s take a person who lives in Peebles, but was born in Pakistan. According to civic nationalism he is a Scot. Let’s take a person who was born in Pakistan, but lives in Berwick. According to civic nationalism he is English. But there is clearly no difference between these peoples, nor potentially is there any difference between any resident of Scotland and England, by the standards of civic nationalism, so there would not appear to be anything to prevent any of them forming a nation.
The only basis for objecting to Northumbria and the Borders forming a state is that different peoples live in these regions. But that difference can only be ethnic, because according to civic nationalism, if a state were formed from Northumbria and the Borders the people living there would be Northumbrian, they would be that simply by virtue of living there. Likewise the people of the United Kingdom are British by the standards of civic nationalism and one becomes British simply by virtue of living here. But it is precisely this that the SNP does not believe. Otherwise they would have no motivation for splitting up Britain.
They do not believe that it would be possible to form a nation from Northumbria and the Borders. This means that they require a distinction between these regions. And the fundamental basis for this is that they believe that different peoples live there and that these people are different ethnically. The only way to distinguish Northumbria from the Borders is because the people who live in the one are descended from the English, the people who live in the other are descended from the Scots. Of course this is all lies and nonsense as everyone whose family is from Britain has a similar mixture of Celtic and Anglo Saxon genes.
But this must be what the SNP believes. They must believe that the Scots are a different people, but they can not have become a distinct people on the basis of the criteria of civic nationalism, because by the criteria of civic nationalism a Scot can come from anywhere. Therefore, the hidden foundation of present day Scottish nationalism falls back as it must on the ethnic nationalism seen in the origins of the party.