Lesley Riddoch: Is the word ‘National’ a weakness for SNP?

Nicola Sturgeon with Elif Shafak (left) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon with Elif Shafak (left) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: PA
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Did Nicola Sturgeon score an own goal declaring she would rather have a different name for the SNP?

The First Minister expressed misgivings about her party’s name during a debate at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, when a Turkish author said nationalism had a very negative and ugly meaning for her, and asked if it could “ever be benign”.

Ms Sturgeon replied: “The word is difficult. If I could turn the clock back, what, 90 years, to the establishment of my party, and chose its name all over again, I wouldn’t choose the name it has got just now.”

Critics of the SNP, Ms Sturgeon and the cause of independence obviously hoped the air would soon be thick with Yes-supporting comrades falling out over this apparent snub to “nationalism.” Instead, there’s been very little debate on the First Minister’s comments in papers or online.

That may be because recent events make semantic arguments appear very small fry. Paradoxically though, bite-sized arguments can be uncontrollably tempting when every other issue is fiendishly complex.

So the first thing to say is there is virtually nothing to say.

But is Nicola Sturgeon right? Is the word “National” in the title a weakness for her party today?

It’s possible the SNP looks like a Scottish version of the BNP – though you’d have some trouble spotting any meaningful similarity. And there’s the equally weird idea that identity with a nation automatically runs out of control in the way that Hitler’s National Socialist Party did in 1930s Germany. As one online blogger commented; “It was neither nationalism nor socialism that drove them to be fascists, it was their despotic attitudes to governance. Any political party can become a fascist regime, the name of the party is irrelevant.”

Quite.

But if the SNP’s name ain’t broke, why fix it? Ms Sturgeon didn’t reveal her preferred new name, which has prompted some online speculation.

Some favour the Scottish Party. Ironically, that would indeed suggest ethnicity plays a big part in Scotland’s independence movement when it absolutely does not.

The vast bulk of “nationalist” movements across Europe represent distinctive ethnic and/or linguistic minorities – Scotland doesn’t. Indeed, this is part of what hinders the case for Scottish independence – the emotional underpinning that comes with membership of a linguistic community is all but missing in Scotland and the modern SNP studiously avoids almost all trappings of shortbread tin Scottishness. The indyref was not held on the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn as many commentators gleefully forecasted.

Au contraire. Scottish nationalism is civic not ethnic -- and the very different voting criteria used in the Scottish and EU referendums demonstrates that fact.

The indyref gave the vote to all EU and Commonwealth citizens who live and work here, and even though famous Yes supporting ex-pats like Sir Sean Connery were disenfranchised, most were happy voting was based on where folk choose to live not where they happened to be born.

Ironically, it’s only elections and referendums conducted by the UK Government that consider the ethnic origin of voters. Indeed, negative perceptions of “nationalism,” have been so strongly connected with English nationalism and right wing thuggery, that it’s been hard for a much-needed debate about English self government to develop.

For just this reason, some favour changing the SNP to the Scottish International Party - summing up one important strand of the current Brexit debate and the desire amongst progressive Scots to create a modern country that’s inclusive and welcomes non ethnic Scots as citizens with full rights.

But the general mood is for no change.

Firstly, every other UK party has tried to change somewhat from the words that initially defined it. But it’s not clear the Liberal Democrats has been a stronger brand than the old Liberal Party, and New Labour went out of fashion as quickly as Tony Blair. Clearly the SNP’s current name hasn’t deterred opponents of independence from supporting it at domestic elections.

The Scottish Independence Party might refocus the argument on that single important issue, but deter wavering voters who simply want strong governance.

Secondly, for supporters of the Union, an independence party by any other name would smell as rotten. The 1990’s feminist magazine Harpies and Quines got its name partly to encourage a publicity-creating lawsuit from the publishers of Harpers and Queen (which it did) but mostly to ridicule female stereotypes. Some suggested we drop the word feminist from the title in case it put some readers off. But experience shows that any other word chosen would rapidly become just as pejorative.

Of course, the difficulty of naming pro independence parties in other European countries didn’t really arise, because existing parties tended to lead home rule movements. In Norway, the Liberal MP Christian Michelsen organised independence supporters from other parties into the Coalition Party which used an argument over consular representation to engineer a showdown in which the Norwegian Cabinet collectively resigned and the King of Sweden was unable to form a new government.

Sadly, there are no prospects for such a coalition of the willing in Scotland – yet.

If the Scottish Labour Party was more mindful of its own home rule legacy, the Scottish National Party might not have thrived or even survived long enough to question the suitability of its name. Indeed as former SNP Cabinet Minister, Kenny Macaskill pointed out in the New Statesman, “Labour seemed to be the national party of Scotland, speaking for the Scottish people. All that changed, though, with the referendum on independence and the alliance with the Tories in the Better Together campaign.”

Ultimately though, the name SNP is a signifier not a descriptor -- like most names. Lesley doesn’t describe me - but combined with an unusual surname simply points my way. Similarly the Scottish National Party simply points at the party of government, which is led by a woman confident enough of the goal to feel able to question the name. The absence of ferocious infighting, introspection or even interest within the Yes movement suggests most independence supporters feel the same. It’s the content of the cause not the tilt of the title that excites. That’s not to say Yessers are immune from the temptation to take sides over relatively trivial issues. But the good news for the independence movement is that this isn’t one of them.