Lying around on the desktop of my computer is a document from May 2015 that I’ve never quite got round to deleting. It’s an LSE blog by Jan Eichhorn of Edinburgh University, published just after the SNP won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in that year’s Westminster general election, titled: “There was no rise in Scottish nationalism: understanding the SNP victory.”
Lying around on the desktop of my computer, there’s a document from May 2015 that I’ve never quite got round to deleting. It’s an LSE blog by Jan Eichhorn of Edinburgh University, published just after the SNP won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in that year’s Westminster general election; and its title reads “There was no rise in Scottish nationalism: understanding the SNP victory.”
I suppose I saved this one document, among hundreds, because the surveys on which it was based matched what I intuitively felt, on my travels around the country; that in an ever-globalising world, Scotland’s sense of itself as a distinctive country and culture has if anything weakened slightly over the last 30 years, rather than increasing. Scotland’s cultural performance over that period has been formidable; but there has been no huge popular or emotional surge in a sense of Scottishness – rather the reverse, as younger people turn away from nationhood as a source of identity, and towards the worldwide cultural kinship groups they find on the net.
“If commentators want to understand why the SNP is successful,” argues Eichhorn, “they need to make a greater effort at understanding how public attitudes are formed in Scotland. Suggesting that it is down to sentiment is lazy at best, and actually misrepresents the majority of Scottish voters… who are much more likely to base their votes on concrete issues that affect people’s lives, than on identity-based issues.”
It was a valuable observation then; and it remains so now, as we hurtle towards another UK general election characterised by fundamental misunderstandings, south of the Border, of the reasons for the SNP’s long dominance in Scotland.
“Vote Corbyn, lose Scotland,” whimpered arch-Tory Toby Young on Twitter this week, apparently convinced that the mere sight of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party striking a post-election deal with the SNP would seal the fate of the Union, and guarantee a huge Yes majority in any future Scottish referendum; and the Tory spin machine is clearly planning a repeat of its successful tactic of 2015, when fear of an over-cosy relationship between Ed Miliband and the SNP, leading to untold constitutional horrors, is said to have cost Labour a significant number of English seats.
Height of Empire
All of which only goes to demonstrate just how little attention has ever been paid to Scottish politics by those within the Westminster bubble.
Ever since the Union was formed in 1707, support for it in Scotland has varied not according to national sentiment, but to practical considerations about the quality and achievement of UK government; it has always thrived, in essence, when the UK has appeared to be involved in some kind of progressive project, and lost support when the UK is mired in reaction.
It hit a low point, for example, during the fierce authoritarian crackdown just after the Napoleonic Wars. It surged at the height of Empire, surged again during the Second World War and its long social democratic aftermath, and began its long current decline after 1979, when Margaret Thatcher seemed set on tearing apart the welfare state settlement that gave the UK its postwar meaning and purpose.
Even today, it tends to rise when a new, more progressive-looking government takes over in London, and to fall again when Westminster lurches towards reaction; a pattern visible as recently as 2016-18, when support for Scottish independence fell in the first year of Theresa May’s premiership, then rose again with the rise of Boris Johnson and the Tory right.
Now it may be that this common-sense pattern in Scottish politics will not survive much longer, given the huge centrifugal forces now preying on western politics.
Yet for now, it seems that most voters in Scotland are still concerned, first and foremost, to ensure that they live in a functioning social democracy with strong public services, excellent education and health care, a high standard of human rights and freedoms, and real economic opportunities for young people, whether born in Scotland or not; and that the long-term rise in support for independence has largely been caused not by a surge of primal Braveheart emotion, but by a sense that the leading Westminster parties – both Tories and New Labour – were increasingly betraying those values.
Trampled underfoot by ‘tough’ Tories
Why observers in London find it so hard to grasp that rising support for Scottish independence could actually be driven by a difference of political opinion, rather than national sentiment, is a complex question, even a profound one.
For now, though, those south of the Border who want to keep Scotland in the Union should clearly be voting to demonstrate two things.
First, that they too still care primarily about those basic social issues; and secondly, that they understand that none of these good things can be delivered under a hard-right Tory government with an appalling social record, now bent on the madness of a hard exit from the European Union.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom of Conservative commentators, in other words, the one thing voters in England must not do, if they care for the Union, is to vote Tory this time.
Their priority should be to vote for a radical softening of Brexit or no Brexit at all, a sharp turn to the left in economic policy, and a respectful attitude to the right to self-determination of the people of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; and to vote for the party in their constituency – however imperfect – that most closely reflects those attitudes.
And they should, above all, ignore the siren songs of those who tell them that Scotland’s pro-independence 45 per cent can safely be trampled underfoot by a “tough” Tory government, in the cause of British national unity. Of course, a post-Brexit time may come when Scotland is so broken – in its economic hopes, in its self-respect, in its sense of itself as any kind of political community – that that trampling might work, at least for a while. That, though, would be the path of fascism, or at best of a cruel, disrespectful, over-centralising authoritarianism; and who, in a Britain still apparently so much in love with the story of its own resistance to fascism, 80 years ago, would really want that?