Brian Wilson: Beware the SNP’s hidden Ex-factor

Promising a better Scotland must be backed by evidence
Promising a better Scotland must be backed by evidence
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NICOLA Sturgeon espouses independence for a fairer Scotland, but there’s no evidence the two are connected, writes Brian Wilson.

It IS always uplifting when a philosophical note is introduced into vulgar political discourse. So the dichotomy between “the existentialist and utilitarian strands” of Scottish Nationalism sounded encouraging.

Sadly, the distinguished author of that phrase, Sir Neil MacCormick, is no longer with us. So it was left to Nicola Sturgeon to resurrect it in order to distance herself from “Existentialist Nationalism”, which is not a great vote-winner.

Basically, the Ex-Faction want independence come hell or high water, for better or for worse, richer or for poorer. The U-Team, in contrast, are portrayed as pragmatists who wish to see an independent Scotland only because it will be a richer, fairer, happier place with better weather.

Actually, I doubt if there is a true Utilitarian sitting on the Nationalist benches at Holyrood and certainly not Nicola Sturgeon. It is impossible to imagine her Damascene conversion – “Alex, I have erred” – which must surely be the test of one who follows the evidence rather than the flag.

What Neil MacCormick described as Existentialist Nationalism is a perfectly honourable position. There are plenty who believe fairly and squarely in the cause of Scottish independence without worrying about whether it is going to mean being better or worse off. That is an honest and selfless political outlook.

The problem for the SNP is that, while “independence for better or worse” is their raison d’être, it has never shown much sign of commanding majority support within Scotland. So they require that third category which, I guess, covers the entire SNP leadership. They are E-Faction who must pose as U-Team in order to tempt the unwary with wonderful promises and disappearing problems, when what they are actually after is a vote for independence by hook or crook. No more, no less.

So Ms Sturgeon told us in her speech earlier this week that she wants independence, not in the name of “identity” or “nationhood” but in order to further “democracy and social justice” in a land where “enterprise and fairness are two sides of the same coin”. Who but the meanest spirit could dissent from such noble aspirations?

Then comes the difficult bit – persuading the electorate that this is a meaningful prospectus, rather than a barrowload of platitudes to give cover to her fundamentalist ambition. Nobody can blame her for trying, but I guess most can see through this existentialist/utilitarian divide, even if they don’t put it that way. In other words, we know what she’s up to.

Airily asserting that the “abolition of child poverty” and other desirable social outcomes are logical products of constitutional upheaval is actually an insult to the seriousness of the subjects. Where’s the evidence? At present, any redistribution of wealth emanating from Holyrood is in favour of the better-off. Surely if such a noble political will exists, there is no need to wait for independence?

In framing her pitch to what she perceives as a target left-wing market, I wish Ms Sturgeon would leave the dead out of her formula. It is an obligatory passage in the U-Team script to present themselves as part of a continuum, carrying forward the work of past giants who wouldn’t have touched separatist politics with a barge pole. So Nye Bevan and Donald Dewar are invoked as heroes while their living heirs are reviled as enemies of Scotland’s destiny.

The party of Bevan and Dewar, according to Ms Sturgeon (the mask slipping) was “not an alternative to Conservatism. It was business as usual”. We can only regret that Donald is not here to go through this trite untruth like a knife through cheese. As for Bevan, his commitment to creating our NHS was matched only by his disdain for Nationalism as a source of conflict and division. So let them rest in peace, Nicola – they had nothing to do with you or your politics.

Those of us who do not want to break up the United Kingdom should also acknowledge that the argument should be about more than the utilitarian prospects for Scotland – economically, socially and culturally. Each of these cases must be won on the basis of evidence and argument but it would be foolish to under-play our own intrinsic starting-points – including a regard for the implications elsewhere in the UK.

Just as we know that all the great social advances which benefit Scotland have been achieved in solidarity with the rest of the United Kingdom, so we must recognise that divorcing ourselves from that country would critically change the political balance within what remained of it. I doubt if most Scots want to turn our backs on the needs of our counterparts in Newcastle or Liverpool; Corby or Cardiff?

We should not be afraid to put that argument – a real “other side of the coin” to Scottish independence. I do recall that the “Scotland’s Oil” campaign foundered in the 1970s when the Nationalists put what was supposed to be their killer question: “Rich Scots or Poor Britons”? The answer they received was not the one they expected. The Scots were not prepared to be played off in that way.

I was at a funeral the other day and had a great conversation with the long-retired headmaster of a secondary school in a poor area of Glasgow. His perspective was the exact opposite of the one that Ms Sturgeon is trying to convey. Not how little change had been achieved in the course of his adult lifetime through the politics of progress, but how much.

During the Glasgow East by-election a couple of years ago, he told me, he asked the Labour candidate, Willie Bain, to visit the St Mungo’s old folks’ club – not to talk, but to listen to elderly people’s accounts of how politics had changed their lives for the better.

What a great idea, I thought, telling a young politician to listen rather than to talk. Listen and understand. Listen and be inspired. Listen and never forget that every piece of social progress that has ever been achieved came through political effort, and not one was conceded lightly.

Over the next two years, such reality checks will be very necessary. When Ms Sturgeon can produce witnesses to attest how Nationalism changed anyone’s lives for the better by transforming their health, their housing, their children’s education, their life prospects, then she will deserve a hearing.

Until then, she might try listening to the voices of history rather than picking and mixing for her own dodgy and decidedly existentialist ends.