David Maddox: Dangers of playing the identity card

There was always going to be a point when the Independence referendum debate focused on identity and whether somebody’s views on Scotland’s relation to the rest of the UK determined just how Scottish they were.

Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael was decribed as 'a supposed Scot'. Picture: PA

For all the talk of “positive nationalism” by the SNP leadership there has always an element within the party that cannot resist playing the identity card in a fairly negative way. One such character was SNP Fife councillor David Alexander who last week described the Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael as “a supposed Scot” – in other words not a real one because he supports staying in the UK.

Cllr Alexander no doubt thinks Carmichael is less Scottish than the Kentish SNP education secretary Mike Russell, the London-born, half-German SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson, French SNP MSP Christian Allard, and the Geordie special adviser to John Swinney, Elizabeth Lloyd, because of his political views.

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Mr Carmichael’s response, coming in a well-trailed speech tomorrow, has been interesting. His long list of what makes him Scottish is typically impassioned, although he may regret the line: “I drink malt whisky! What else do I have to do?”

Carmichael uses his speech to warn of the dangers of linking politics and patriotism, although those two things have walked hand-in-hand in many different debates. But Carmichael, his predecessor Michael Moore and others on the pro-UK side have also not shirked from saying they support the Union “because they are Scottish”.

The result of this attempt by both sides of the referendum campaign to set their political views alongside identity will, as Carmichael says, risk leaving a deeply divided nation after 19 September next year.

But it is not the only issue of the politics of identity to have raised its ugly head this week. Tory former Prime Minister John Major has raised concerns that the government appears to be run by a privately-educated middle class elite.

It is slightly ironic he should make that complaint given that many of the current senior Tory ministers, including David Cameron, were given their chance in the Central Office breeding ground for future MPs while he was leader. Also, there were more public school educated people in Major’s cabinet than Cameron’s. The point though being that Major himself was a working-class grammar school boy while Cameron is an old Etonian.

Sir John is not the first to make this comment, but the idea that the value of somebody should be judged on where their parents decided to send them to school has angered some in Westminster.

While the politics of identity is an easy card for politicians to play, it does not always reflect how people really are. They should perhaps heed the warning of the American poet Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”