Euan McColm: identity is key in referendum battle

BY THE time we discovered that the leader of the Better Together campaign had not directly compared the SNP to the Nazis, it was too late. A head of fury had built and nobody could stop it exploding, writes Euan McColm

Voters sense of identity will be key factor in referendum battle. Picture: JP

The independence referendum campaign has thrown up a good many bewildering moments over these past months, but outrage over something which Alistair Darling did not, in fact, say was especially strange.

Darling, you may have heard, gave an interview to the New Statesman magazine which was trailed with a number of toothsome quotes to entice the passer-by. Not only had the former Labour chancellor compared Alex Salmond to the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il but, we were told, he had drawn parallels bet­ween Scottish nationalists and Nazis.

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Specifically, Darling was said to have dismissed the SNP’s nationalism as being of the “blood and soil” variety.

From the very highest level in the party came righteous indignation that Darling should have have used a phrase that many associate with Hitler’s ideology.

And then the New Statesman iss­ued a clarification: the Better Together leader had not actually spoken these words.

Fortunately for those nationalists pumped out with anger, there was that Kim Jong-il line. Even if Darling hadn’t said “blood and soil”, he had suggested Salmond was comparable to a murderous tyrant. There would be outrage.

The Kim Jong-il dig was Darling’s response to Salmond’s (fairly wacky) complaint that Ukip had won a Scottish seat in the European Parliament because the BBC had “beamed” Nigel Farage’s party into Scotland. It was a twitchy, paranoid response (and ignored the fact that Ukip was mentioned during the European campaign more frequently by the SNP than by Scottish Labour or the Conservatives). Darling’s snipe might have been a stinger but it was hardly more than that.

The real meat of last week’s row was that “blood and soil” attack that never happened.

It’s perfectly understandable that the SNP reacted as it did to the suggestion that their project was based on ethnicity. Over recent years the party has gone to great lengths to describe its “civic nationalism”.

Inclusive and welcoming, this civic nationalism has nothing to do with one’s culture or geography, instead, it’s about shared endeavour among anyone who cares to join in.

The rebranding of the SNP’s nation­alism has been a thorough exercise. The rhetoric of the party’s politicians has changed – Scotland is now no longer held back, for example, by England or Britain. These days, the problem lies with Westminster which, by great good fortune, is hardy held in high regard by anyone, be they nationalist or unionist.

A few years ago, senior figures, such as the party’s estimable Westminster leader Angus Robertson, toured SNP constituency associations, describing to members the need for a change in the language they used. There was to be no more “freedom”, for example. The SNP’s civic nationalism demanded a story about opportunity and potential and such.

So, we can see why the SNP reacted as it did to the thing that Darling was alleged to have said. To a nationalist of the civic variety, being lumped in with those of the ethnic variety is quite the insult.

Yet, surely we can see why this might occasionally happen?

The SNP may be adamant that its nationalism is civic nationalism but there remain those within the party for whom the campaign for Scottish independence is anything but.

Go to an SNP conference and, yes, you will find the likes of Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon discussing issues of social justice and co-operation with our English neighbours but you will also find those for whom the project is about freeing Scots from English oppression. You will find those for whom the engine is anger over what they perceive to have been centuries of the suppression of Scots culture. (Often, one will hear from this faction the accusation that neither Scottish history nor literature is taught in schools. Though if that is truly the case, why is it that I know something about Bannockburn and how come I’ve read The House With The Green Shutters?)

Civic nationalism perhaps works best as a theory. In practice, it seems unable to fully disconnect from ethnic nationalism. But then, of course, alongside its talk of co-operation between all who wish to join, civic nationalism still demands the separation of one group from another. While many of its members – including elected politicians – continue to talk a politics of identity, the SNP may struggle to win over sceptics.

The truth, of course, is that the SNP is perfectly (and understandably) happy to accept the support of those who haven’t quite caught up with the civic nationalism that it espouses. A Yes vote is a Yes vote whether it is cast in the hope of removing nuclear weapons from the Clyde and investing in child care or because the voter in question feels they didn’t read enough Lavinia Derwent books at primary school.

This politics of identity, though, is not solely the preserve of the Yes campaign. Just as many of those who vote in favour of Scottish independence will do so simply because it feels right, so too will many of those who vote against.

Both campaigns focus on the practical, arguing over detail, presenting to the electorate a series of graphs and charts explaining how we will be a grand better off if we vote this way and how all of us will be immediately declared bankrupt if we vote that.

There may be some for whom the decision on how to vote is based ent­irely on the figures. More, I suspect, may be influenced by how the leading figures are seen to handle the debate.

Yes and No alike are dependent on voters who, while perhaps not of the blood and soil school, will base their decision on their sense of identity and nothing more tangible than that.

To deny that both sides bring their shares of irrational thinking and petty prejudice to proceedings is to ignore the presence in this often tetchy campaign of human beings. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm