Peter Jones: Vision of Scotland is hit or myth

Idealised view of Scottish identity and lack of a credible UK alternative are a real threat to Better Together, writes Peter Jones

Visions of a shared Scottish identity are key to the SNPs drive. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Visions of a shared Scottish identity are key to the SNPs drive. Picture: Ian Rutherford

DOES anything link Ukip and the SNP? Beyond the likelihood that both will do very well at the European parliamentary elections on 22 May, the idea that they may have something in common sounds absurd. In policy terms, Ukip is anti-EU and anti-immigration while the SNP is the polar opposite. But look deeper and they are both tapping into the same powerful current of emotions.

By this, I do not mean to smear the SNP with some of the fruitcakery or downright nastiness that afflicts some of the more crazed Ukip elements, tempting though it is given some of the abuse that gets thrown my way by nationalist cyberfanatics. No, what I want to discuss is miles away from such foaming nonsense.

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At its heart, nationalism is about identity and myth. I use “myth” in its academic sense, meaning stories people tell about themselves to explain why they have something in common with other people sharing the same territory and which differentiates them from other nationalities.

In Scotland, an example is the egalitarian myth, exemplified by the “we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns” saying, the “A man’s a man” poetry of Burns, and given substance by being the birthplace of the Labour Party, an inheritance which the SNP is now trying to claim. Myths, in this sense, are very real and at the heart of modern politics.

British myths are rather different. Central to the idea of British identity is the notion of an island nation which belies its small size by being a great power for good in the world and thus “punches above its weight”.

Despite this (as all national myths are) being highly contestable – slavery, imperialism, exploitation, and all that – I suspect that an opinion poll question asking whether people believed Britain has been a civilising world-improving force, you would get a very strong Yes to that.

But now all our national myths are in flux and up for grabs, which is where the SNP and Ukip come in. This realisation dawned on me while reading a recent book by distinguished historian Murray Pittock, The Road to Independence? Scotland in the Balance, a strangely querulous title for one wholly committed to independence.

Prof Pittock raises one of history’s mysteries – why was Scotland seemingly unaffected by the wave of nationalism that swept Europe in the second half of the 19th century? He explains that this was a consequence of the 1790 French revolution and “the destabilising impact the Napoleonic Wars [1803-1815] had on the great empires of the early modern period”.

In 1829, Greece became independent after an eight-year war against the Ottoman empire. In 1831, Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands. The year 1848 saw revolts against “foreign rule” across Europe, eventually resulting in the new nation states of Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, limited autonomy for Bulgaria and, by a process of unification of regional potentates, Germany and Italy.

This period also saw revolutionary Irish nationalism emerge, but Scotland remained untouched. Pittock explains: “This was a time when Scotland was solidly rooted in both imperial opportunity and successful British resistance to Napoleon.

“The country remained on the side of the winners and a key partner in the leading power in the world while retaining significant autonomy; there was thus little incentive for anything but symbolic or cultural nationalism on a limited scale.”

Historian Linda Colley, in Acts of Union and Disunion, argues that the construction of the British empire was deeply rooted in the conflated myths of islandness and, after the Reformation, of religious exceptionalism: “This conviction of being God’s chosen islanders undoubtedly fed into British imperialism, with its marked and confident sense of mission, and its frequent aggression and racial arrogance.” Scots were no exception to this as Scottish historians Tom Devine and Michael Fry have shown.

But now, of course, the empire is long gone. And what, exactly, is Britain’s purpose in the world? The myth of imperial power was dealt a crippling blow by the disastrous 1956 Suez invasion, revived somewhat by successful action in the Falklands in 1982, Kuwait in 1990 and in Kosovo in 1998, but severely undermined by the dreadful messes left after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the supposed substitute of being a leading force in the construction of a united, barrier-free Europe has become highly questionable. This is where the “God’s chosen islanders” myth has taken a different turn, harking back to other connotations of anxiety and siege as in David Low’s famous 1940 cartoon of a soldier defiantly raising a fist at approaching Luftwaffe bombers and declaiming: “Very well, alone!”

The SNP and Ukip have very different policy solutions to this fundamental unease. Ukip’s solution is to quit the EU and halt usurping European legislation, regulation and immigration from eroding British liberty, democracy, culture and values. Only then can the Greatness of the British past be reborn.

The SNP’s solution, having realised decades ago the failing nature of British national identity and purpose, is to quit Britain to allow the assertion of a different Scottish identity and purpose which will somehow become more easily attainable through enthusiastic Scottish participation in the EU.

In this, the party is at odds with nationalist sentiment in the rest of the EU, as will become obvious in this month’s European elections which are certain to produce an unprecedented number of MEPs from all parts of the continent committed to re-asserting national sovereignty.

This may yet be a problem for the SNP and the Yes campaign, but it is also clear that Better Together faces a much bigger problem – answering the question which the SNP has been posing, in Prof Pittock’s analysis, since Winnie Ewing’s 1967 Hamilton by-election win: “What is Britain’s purpose in the world and is it worth being part of it?” Or, as Mrs Ewing put it: “Stop the world, [Scotland] wants to get on.”

The No campaign has so far concentrated on showing why Scots would be Worse Apart rather than Better Together. But all those economic facts and figures may not count for much in many Scottish minds unless there is a demonstrable worthwhile vision and purpose for the British nation to pursue together. So far, it seems to me, no British political leader has articulated that. Until they do so convincingly, it is a major weakness in their campaign to preserve the union.