Brian Wilson: Scottish voters are ready to move on from nationalism

Scottish voters are ready to move on from the distorting prism of nationalism, wries Brian Wilson.

Nicola Sturgeon discussed her issues with the word nationalist at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
Nicola Sturgeon discussed her issues with the word nationalist at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

Allow me to help Nicola Sturgeon with her semantic problem.

She really does not need to find the word “nationalist” difficult, even if the name of her party contained it, which it doesn’t.

Nobody confuses the SNP with the Ku Klux Klan. That is an embarrassment which exists only in her own imagination or, more plausibly, was constructed for the benefit of an Edinburgh literati audience which expects to be flattered by such insightful musings.

Insofar as she is genuinely troubled by identification with dark Nationalist forces, a more practical course of action would be to tell her MPs and MSPs to stop disseminating content from even their most deranged online cheerleaders, which they do in droves. I await an announcement.

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Having settled that, we can turn to the more practical difficulties associated with Ms Sturgeon’s brand of politics and why an increasing number of Scots regard them as a source of tedium rather than white terror. Far from reflecting any deep ideology, they add up to little more than a procession of contrived grievances wrapped up in a flag.

Most “national” movements have some cultural basis, often with a language to protect. They can advance and defend honorable concerns which affect the nation without tying them to the establishment of a separate state. They have an existence beyond that solitary objective and can work with others to achieve good outcomes.

Whatever it was called, Ms Sturgeon’s party fails that test. It has only one dimension and raison d’etre – pursuit of a separate state. My guess is it was not like that in its origins which is probably why it was called “National” rather than a Nationalist Party. But if that distinction existed, it is long gone.

There are good people within it, of course, who do not fit that stereotype and pursue causes which are not delineated by borders. But the collective posture of the SNP defines the perception that every action is a manoeuvre towards one end.

That is the problem which Ms Sturgeon could more usefully address but can’t because it so accurately reflects her own limited politics. Indeed, the referendum factor has made matters worse. In the past, the prospect of creating a separate Scottish state was sufficiently distant, that it did not require plotting a daily course towards it.

Now that “IndyRef 2/3/4 . . .” is a more tangible objective, the focus applied to pursuing it is correspondingly narrower.

The legitimate charge against Scottish Nationalism is not that it carries the connotations Ms Sturgeon alluded to but that it has distorted the prism through which every issue is seen. We need look no further than the famous GERS figures which, from nowhere, have become as much part of the national calendar as Hogmanay.

It is a straightforward fact that per capita public expenditure in Scotland is substantially higher than in the UK as a whole.

This week’s figures suggest a margin of £1436 a head. There need be nothing controversial about this. Scotland has always had higher public expenditure for perfectly good reasons – geography, demography, social need.

That used to be no big deal. Forty years ago, it was even codified into a formula which underpinned the arrangement, regardless of who was in government.

When public expenditure in the UK as a whole was cut, Scotland shared in the politics of that debate. When it rose, we benefited from a higher platform than the rest. There was no Scotland v England argument.

Ms Sturgeon’s Not-a-Nationalist Party invented that dispute by refusing to accept the integrity of the figures, most spectacularly in their disgraceful White Paper which preceded the 2014 referendum. In order to disinvent the inconvenience of a massive revenue to spending deficit, they falsified the numbers to make them add up.

The result is an annual ritual of pro-UK politicians battering the Nationalists with a “subsidy” figure while they respond with ludicrous claims about oil taxation and seek solace in billion less than last year lying between revenue and expenditure.

Yet what everyone could be saying is that Scotland does well out of that balance – but so it should, because of geography, demography, social need . . . In other words, the politics of need rather than artificial division.

Which takes me on to Jeremy Corbyn and his visit to Lewis this week.

I have not been shy in expressing reservations about his leadership, mainly because I believed him to be unelectable. On that assessment, I am now at one with just about everyone in admitting that I was wrong. That includes the high command of the Tory Party, who will not be holding another election any time soon.

Corbyn clearly is electable, which is still very different from assuming he will be elected. That will depend a lot on timing and evolving circumstances.

In the meantime, it makes for more interesting politics which throws up unlikely events like a Jeremy Corbyn rally in Stornoway attended by 600 people. He is no great orator but the effect of his approach was still impressive.

It struck me that it was the first political meeting I had been at in Scotland for years, maybe decades, where the constitution was barely mentioned.

Corbyn’s pitch is on basic issues of social justice and inequality. It’s about how bankers created the banking crisis while working people and their families paid the cost through austerity. It’s about fairness and broad principles which should inform government; the detail can come later.

I have no idea how sustainable his popularity or lead in the polls will be. Apart from that, there is a lesson for Scotland that extends far beyond the Labour Party.

We have been talking about the constitution and nationalism and all the petty arguments that accompany them for far too long. We have been lured into the distorted prism while the audience sends out signals it is ready to move on.

Is it now possible that the politicians who will get a hearing, in Scotland as elsewhere, are those who go over the heads of the commentariat to talk about matters that directly affect people’s lives, while Ms Sturgeon is left to worry about the name of her party?

It’s worth a try.