ALEX Salmond has presided over three great cultural revolutions within the SNP. The first was to persuade his sceptical and suspicious party to accept that devolution could be a stepping stone to independence.
The second was to inculcate within his party an inclusive attitude to minority groups in Scotland, particularly Muslims and Catholics. Each of these cultural revolutions was a landmark achievement, won against some deeply engrained resistance. Changing the SNP’s culture required tact and tenacity, and Salmond’s success on both fronts was a testament to his political skills. And the third cultural revolution? Well, it’s happening now, and in some ways it’s the most difficult yet. Salmond is trying to get the SNP to embrace its inner Britishness.
This is a quiet revolution, but a revolution nonetheless. To gauge how far the party has come we need only go back to the ill-tempered speech John Swinney made when leader of the party in 2003, urging the SNP to “tell the Brits to get off”. Today, such language from a Nationalist leader would be unthinkable. So too would be the kind of speech Salmond made as leader in 1995, urging the faithful to identify themselves with William Wallace and exclaim “with Wallace – head and heart – the one word that encapsulates all our hopes – freedom, freedom, freedom!” Contrast this with the Alex Salmond who wrote in his introduction to the independence referendum consultation earlier this year: “Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated.”
Today’s SNP leadership is preparing a prospectus for independence that would have been unrecognisable to the average Nat just a few years ago. These days, an independent Scotland would proudly keep the Queen as head of state; share British embassies around the world; share military functions and bases with the British armed forces; use the pound as its currency; and have the Bank of England overseeing monetary policy. At the SNP spring conference in Glasgow last weekend, SNP MP Pete Wishart described 300 years of the Union as an “incredible journey” that had delivered as much to Scotland as it had “to the most unionist of people in the shires of England”. We have come a long way on this road and, take my word for it, we have further to go.
What puzzles me, though, is the way these moves toward ‘indy-lite’ are seen by the SNP’s opponents as a sign of weakness. Ha, they say, the Nats can’t persuade Scots to back real independence so they’re reduced to this! Cue much scoffing and ridicule from various shades of unionist opinion. These critics are entirely missing the point. They fail to realise this cultural revolution is a game-changing piece of political strategy. It represents nothing less than a paradigm shift in Scottish politics. It puts the SNP in a position of greater strength and hands the party a historic opportunity in the independence referendum.
What has made this shift necessary? Devolution, that’s what. Scotland is a different country to the one that reconvened its parliament on 1 July 1999, with excitement tinged with some trepidation. These days the average Scot is far less likely to define him or herself in relation to the English. Scottish identity is now far less paranoid, far less insecure. An important strain of Nationalism in the latter half of the 20th century was a concern that Scottish culture was somehow in peril. That view is much rarer these days. We are a country confident in our Scottishness, at ease with ourselves and our place in the world. Ironically, those least at ease with their Scottishness are often Nats, who (contrary to the opinion of Alex Salmond) feel decidedly oppressed by British institutions, both political and cultural.
Of course, not every Nationalist has signed up for the great British love-in. For some, old antagonisms run too deep. Cultural antipathy to Britishness is what defines many as a Nationalist, and the mere sight of a Union flag is enough to elicit a Pavlovian growl. Their attitude reminds me of left-wing Labour party activists in the 1980s. They knew what they believed in – it was socialism and collectivism. They scorned individualism, entrepreneurs and the flabby morality of the Daily Mail- reading denizens of Middle England. What mattered was keeping the flame alive. They failed to grasp that to achieve success at the ballot box they had to understand and embrace the concerns of the people they took so much pleasure in denigrating.
So it is today with many Nats and Britishness. Many find any attachment to Britain utterly inexplicable, and even offensive. They don’t see it as something their party must understand and accommodate if the SNP is ever to reach its ultimate goal. They prefer to hope that somehow the majority of Scots will have the scales fall from their eyes as they realise how foolish and utterly wrong they have been, trapped under Britannia’s heel. This shows a rather curious grasp of human nature, let alone identity politics. Which is why the SNP leadership’s embrace of Britishness is a masterstroke. It ignores the instincts of many party supporters, going over their heads to talk to the majority of Scots for whom Britishness is a component part of their complex national identity.
Of course the SNP’s “indy-lite” strategy is not without peril. One obvious difficulty is what I like to call the Grand Old Duke of York syndrome. Everyone accepts that the optimum level of national sovereignty in the 21st century involves sharing competencies with international neighbours on a range of issues, from defence to the economy to the environment. The debate in Scotland is whether you reach that optimum level by accruing more powers within the UK, or become a completely independent nation state and then start to give powers away. In this latter case, you have to march right up to the top of the hill of sovereignty, only to march right down again. Most Scots currently see the alternative as less hassle. But they are now firmly in the sights of the new, Brit-friendly SNP.