When the Scottish Government’s current Brexit minister, Michael Russell, accused political opponents of being “anti-Scottish” on the floor of the Scottish Parliament – because they had the temerity to disagree with his education policy – it prompted a predictable outcry.
The SNP cabinet secretary, then in the education brief, was accused of “intolerance” and exposing the “true ugly face of the SNP” during the debate over university tuition fees. That was five years ago and although demands for an apology fell on deaf ears, it has proved a solitary event.
Senior SNP figures have generally been a great deal more measured in the way they use national identity politics. It’s something that goes to the heart of the modern SNP which has sought to embrace an all-encompassing “civic nationalism” and eschewed the more divisive approach of other nationalist movements around the globe and even in the UK.
So when the London Mayor Sadiq Khan compared nationalism with racism during his weekend address to the Scottish Labour conference, it was both unfair and misinformed about the political dynamic north of the Border in recent decades. Not only have a number of English MSPs sat on SNP benches at Holyrood, the party was also the first to return an Asian MSP and to appoint an Asian minister in government.
I can recall a journalist colleague from England being sent out to cover an SNP campaign event in Stirling the best part of 20 years ago. He found himself being accosted by one party campaigner who urged him to join up. My colleague duly drew attention to his English accent (and birth) and reasoned that this surely ruled him out of joining the SNP.
“Where do you live?” The campaigner asked. “Here in Stirling,” my friend retorted. “Well then, you’re Scottish by adoption.”
My friend loved that and although it didn’t convert him to the case for Scottish independence, he has always retained an affection for the SNP and its supporters.
The success story of the party in recent decades has been built on a conscious effort to wean itself away from a traditional, romantic sense of nationalism based on sentimentality and instead speak to the broader economic and social needs of working class voters in Scotland.
This was largely driven by Alex Salmond and his cohorts in the party’s 79 Group, which came to prominence after the disappointment of that year’s devolution referendum reverse. They were determined to see the party adopt a far more centre-left position.
The late SNP grandee Stephen Maxwell argued, in a keynote 1981 paper for the group entitled The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism, that Scotland’s sense of political and cultural identity is simply “too weak to serve as the basis for modern political nationalism”. To succeed the SNP must look to “Scotland’s future, not her past” and be ready to embrace the changing face of multi-cultural Scotland.
Even back then, almost 40 years ago, he identified the divergence in voting patterns between Scotland and England as an opportunity for the SNP, once branded the Tartan Tories, to emerge as a “radical alternative to the Scottish Labour Party.” It was to be the start of a long process of displacing Labour as the natural party of government in Scotland.
The last two Holyrood elections are testament to how resoundingly this has been achieved. With Labour’s demise having seen the party slump behind even the Tories as the third party in Scotland, perhaps there was an element of desperation in the London mayor’s comments at the weekend.
Alex Salmond has always been quick to point out that there has never been a drop of blood spilled in the cause of Scottish independence. That’s not to say the nationalist movement has been without its more extreme elements. But the more sinister element has never amounted to more than a series of letter-bombs to senior UK figures which failed to cause harm and were unflinchingly disowned by the SNP.
The last independence referendum certainly saw some fraught times. Senior Nationalists like to portray the campaign as a widespread flourishing of democracy in Scotland where political discourse explored the possibilities of a new nation.
For others it wasn’t such a pleasant experience, but instead marked a divisive and unsavoury few years which they aren’t anxious to repeat. It was certainly no great advert for Scotland’s so-called “democratic flourishing” when the Ukip leader Nigel Farage found he had to rescued from a baying nationalist mob by a police escort as he briefed journalists in the heart of Edinburgh in early 2014.
Similarly, the former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy was forced to halt a soap box tour of town centres around the country because he found himself being targeted by nationalist “flying pickets” who targeted the events, shouted Murphy down, and hurled eggs at the politician, forcing him to seek police advice.
Salmond’s reluctance to criticise these fringe elements prompted anger.
But this was the white heat of battle in the biggest political dogfight Scotland has seen in 300 years. Passions were running high and the SNP chief perhaps felt political leaders, like Farage and Murphy, must be ready to take a bit of knockabout as Salmond himself has no doubt faced throughout the years.
SNP leaders were certainly quick to criticise the more offensive elements among the online army of so-called “Cybernats” which emerged during the referendum campaign, although such fringes soon became just as prolific on the pro-union side.
It’s always been a delicate tightrope for the SNP to walk, portraying itself as the party of working class Scotland in the face of traditional left-wing “internationalist” arguments that the labourer in Glasgow has more in common with a labourer in Liverpool than a fund manager in Edinburgh.
It has managed this by reaching out across class, age and race divides throughout Scotland. Opponents may be better served seeking to learn from such an approach themselves, rather than play the race card.