It may not have quite the provocative bluntness of “It’s Scotland’s Oil”, but I think we get the message. Kirsty Blackman MP, speaking on the BBC earlier this week, made clear the SNP’s outrage that North Sea oil and gas profits might be used to support the wrong sort of struggling family – that is, struggling families who live south of the River Tweed.
Scotland’s self-proclaimed “progressive” party of government has decided that solidarity and support for hard-up people across the country during the current crisis is a bridge too far. In doing so, the SNP have reminded us all of a fundamental truth – nationalism and progressive politics simply do not mix.
Reasonable people can disagree about the exact level of redistribution that is fair or realistic or practical in a modern society. It is a basic principle of progressive politics, however, that sharing across our communities in order to alleviate poverty and hardship for hard-pressed families is a ‘Good Thing’.
Nationalists are perfectly entitled to disagree with that progressive principle – but if they disagree with it then they probably ought to give up the con of calling themselves progressive.
The SNP talk a good game on poverty and inequality and austerity when it is convenient for them. Their compassion comes to a screeching stop when it comes to people outwith their narrow vision of our political community.
There is nothing progressive about saying that families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland must go cold and hungry because nationalism says that we should keep oil money here in Scotland. There is nothing progressive about deciding that your solidarity with others stops at the stones of Hadrian’s Wall. You cannot conjure up a political principle in defence of that proposition – certainly no left-liberal, compassionate, communitarian principle.
The only way to justify such a cold and closed-minded idea as Kirsty Blackman and the SNP espouse is through nationalism. What matters to them is not the progressive ideal but the nationalist identity. They defend such selfishness by denying any shared political community with others – by claiming that “we” in Scotland are different from “them” in the rest of the UK, and that we deserve more because of it.
It is all the more disgusting and disheartening given that the SNP showed no qualms about taking money when it was flowing freely northward during the pandemic, and indeed stamping a saltire on it for their own ends.
When Covid hit, whatever quibbles we may have about the exact implementation, funds were released by the UK Government to help people in every corner of the country, through the furlough scheme and other support measures. It was an enormous fiscal undertaking, one which relied upon the stability and credibility of our collective finances as a country.
That money helped people in Livingston just as much as people in Liverpool, and we all saw the real firepower of the Treasury that can be brought to bear in a crisis.
The SNP grasped at UK-wide funding as though they believed it was a spigot that would never be closed off. This led to concerns from the Institute for Fiscal Studies during the Holyrood election last year, as they assessed that the SNP were using that temporary monetary boost from the Treasury to fund their permanent campaign promises. Now the budget boost has stopped, and the Scottish Government has a looming £3.5 billion hole in its balance sheet.
No wonder, then, that they are scrambling to grasp at a target for blame for their own failures. No wonder that they push austerity on local councils while refusing responsibility for their own feckless financials. As with SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford’s pensions debacle earlier in the year, the SNP want to nationalise the easy bits of governance – and outsource the hard parts.
If Kirsty Blackman can claim all oil revenues for Scotland based on geography, however, why then could my constituents in Orkney and Shetland not do the same? The vast majority of “our” North Sea oil and gas sits within the waters of the Northern Isles. If the argument is about geographic proximity, it is hard to see on what basis the SNP would deny islanders our rightful revenues.
Nationalists hate this retort because it shows them up for exactly what they are – not progressive, open and generous but regressive, parochial and self-centred.
The principled answer, the one that nationalists cannot give, is that when we focus solely on narrow identity and self-interest, everyone loses. If you haggle over every penny, if you claim grievance at every turn, you beggar every one of us in the end. It is only through pooling and sharing that we can grow together.
That sense of progressive solidarity, however, runs entirely contrary to the SNP narrative that any mutual obligation with struggling families outside of Scotland means that Scots are getting “shafted”.
The SNP pretend to be a “centre-left”, “socially democratic”, “progressive” movement. I have no doubt that many within the party, like Kirsty Blackman, truly believe that they hold those values.
But if you can look at the hardships of people across the UK in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and think that the answer is not more cooperation but less, then you have lost sight of what progressive politics is supposed to be about.
Forget centre-left social democracy – the SNP are the leading party of “anti-social democracy”. Identity over ideals. Suspicion and division over social solidarity. Grievance over cooperation.
When push comes to shove, nationalist identity trumps any progressive ideal that the SNP lay claim to. Hard-up families risk paying the price.
Alistair Carmichael is Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland