Nationalism is sweeping Scotland – and progressives should be concerned

The patriot game is one the left can’t win


An otherwise unremarkable tenement flat in the street next to mine had a flagpole installed last year. After a break of a few months, it is once again flying a large Saltire.

The head of an ostensibly left-wing think tank compares Scotland’s place in the UK to that of Elisabeth Fritzl.

A few weeks ago the Scottish Labour party changed its rulebook to include a commitment to ‘the patriotic interest’.

These things aren’t connected other than that they all say something about Scotland’s ‘new political situation’. This is one where the Patriot Game is the only one in town, or rather the only one that anyone seems interested in playing.

This isn’t a state of affairs that anyone on the left, either in Scotland or beyond, should be happy with. Because ‘new political situation’ is simply a euphemism for an upsurge in nationalism, and the Patriot Game is one progressives can’t win.

That the prevailing political trend in Scotland is nationalism is seldom acknowledged. Had anyone managed to copyright the phrase ‘I’m not a nationalist but…’ they could long since have retired on the royalties. Instead, the flag waving and transformation of the SNP into a mass party is attributed to ‘anti austerity politics’, or ‘an embrace of democratic potential’ or other such warm words – anything but nationalism.

Advocates generally deny all nationalist motivation, claiming rather that the SNP deserve support because they will ‘push Labour to the left’ or, bizarrely, help ‘reclaim Labour’s soul‘ . This ignores the inconvenient reality that it is the SNP who have only recently adopted Labour’s plans for a 50p tax rate, having previously voted against the principle.

It took until after the leaders’ debates last week for the SNP to adopt a policy on zero hours contracts. They now support Labour’s proposals word for word. The SNP are widely proclaimed as an anti austerity party despite a governmental record that has seen over 50,000 jobs lost in public services, while they adamantly rule out using any of the tax raising powers they have and boast of having the lowest business taxes in the UK.

The SNP are a ‘radical anti-establishment force’, as anyone who has read the serialisation of Alex Salmond’s memoir in the Scottish edition of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun would know. The SNP are ‘progressive’ in a way that Labour somehow aren’t, having adopted all-women shortlists, some two decades after Labour. And so on. But pointing these things out makes little difference. In today’s Scotland, flags beat facts.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Nationalist movements, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, are ‘dual phenomena, constructed essentially from above, but which cannot be understood unless also analysed from below, that is in terms of the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people, which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist.’

Put more bluntly, nationalist movements do not arise in a vacuum. As we can see right across Europe, they do better in hard times. And the last time a nationalist movement said ‘Let’s get rid of the foreign influence and get poorer’ was never.

Scottish Labour’s response to all this has been an attempt at a ‘Clause 4’ moment. The ‘Aims and Values’ statement of the Scottish Labour Party was rewritten by Jim Murphy so that it now has 12 references to ‘Scotland’ or ‘Scottish’ and a commitment to ‘work for the patriotic interest of the people of Scotland’.

It is difficult to believe this move stems from a sense of mission on Mr Murphy’s part. Rather it’s a response to grim polling numbers and an acknowledgement of a situation where arguments need to put more emphasis on saltire than sense. The ‘patriot clause’ exemplifies where Scottish politics is now – to gain permission to speak you have to be seen to be, and only be, ‘speaking for Scotland’. This isn’t progressive at all – it’s the opposite.

The politics of identity seem to have all but displaced the politics of economic interest north of the border. The party arguing that the country wins ‘when working families win’ is trailing badly behind the party that promises to be ‘strong for Scotland’.

The nationalist movement by definition seeks to divide rather than unite and looks to emphasise difference and particularity ahead of common endeavour. Their advance is not something the Left, however broadly defined, should be welcoming.

Stephen Low lives and works in Glasgow  

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225 Responses to “Nationalism is sweeping Scotland – and progressives should be concerned”

  1. uglyfatbloke

    Little tip Martin…read some history before you start citing it

  2. ChezzyHi

    Actually your facts are wrong
    Re the over-55s *NO” vote: you’ve misread the Ashcroft poll, which wasn’t properly weighted.
    A more effective poll revealed core support for Yes came from male thirtysomethings. And do carry on with this VOW stuff: but again polling revealed that it was marginal in its effect on voting.
    No voters don’t regret their decision: the GE polls are not about independence, they are about mainstream party disaffection.
    Modern voting is also about half-grasped facts and groupthink – exemplified by your factually incorrect assertions here

  3. JustAnotherNumber

    The two assertions we’re making here, that the Over-55s overwhelmingly voted No, while the core of the Yes vote was males in their 30s, are not actually mutually exclusive, are they? We could both be right – and probably are. I’m quite happy to believe your point about males in their 30s.

    The Vow issue is more tangled, as few people would probably admit to it being an influence on them when asked some time after the fact, particularly when The “Vow” turned out to be as flimsy and disingenuous as it was.

    And I’m sure you’re right again that many No voters do not regret their decision, but I still believe that, having spoken to them and read about them, many do.

  4. uglyfatbloke

    He may be right; a lot of Scottish local government has been run by independents since forever; I think (I may be wrong) there are still some that don’t have any party councillors at all.

  5. David Lindsay

    It was Gordon Brown, the distilled essence of the Scottish Labour Party, who appointed sitting Tory MPs as Government Advisers.

    There were no fewer than three Republicans in Obama’s first Cabinet, including Bush’s Secretary of Defense, simply kept on. Another of Obama’s Defense Secretaries has also been a Republican, making 50 per cent of the total.

    Preciousness about these things is amateurish, adolescent and undergraduate.

  6. uglyfatbloke

    What a curious response..
    Firstly, I was n’t being precious about anything. My point was that in situations where there are no party representatives there is very little prospect of party coalitions; what that has to do with Obama is beyond me.
    Secondly, Gordon Brown was the ‘distilled essence’ of the tribal authoritarian aspect of the Labour party in Scotland; there is no such thing as ‘The Scottish Labour Party’ – nor has there been since Sillars and Douglas in the later 1970s.
    It’s been quite a while now since I was teaching undergraduates and marking their essays. They were n’t all exemplary students, but I would not call them either amateurish or adolescent.

  7. uglyfatbloke

    Thankfully, most people (grown-ups anyway) got over the Jacobite episode more than 200 years ago – and of course they were n’t that popular in Scotland in the first place. Even the majority of despot clan chiefs (and the not-so-despotic ones too) kept well away from Bonnie Prince Shortbread. The response was n’t ‘English’ though – it was British; there were lots and lots of Scots fighting on the government side in 1745-6. Unsurprisingly that tends to be overlooked by romantic dewy-eyed gnats of the ‘we wuz robbed’ variety. Can’t imagine why.
    James (below) is quite right. The Culloden Visitor Centre does provide a pretty good insight. It’s a pity the new Bannockburn centre is so …now what’s the historiological technical term for this….oh yes….rubbish.


    Utter bollocks.

    How can you be so wrong and what about British Nationalism. You know the one that ripped flags off wee lassies and proudly waved their Union Flags with a few Nazi salutes thrown in.

    The union seeks to divide us but we are not listening.

    Tick tock LIEbour.

  9. Comrade

    Ha, it’s not as if you Labour lot didn’t have time to get things right is!! You stuffed up and you time is gone.

  10. Stephan

    I’ve lived and worked as a teacher in both London and Edinburgh. As an EAL teacher part of my role is to ensure understanding by schools of their responsibilities under the Equalities Act 2010. Compared to London, Edinburgh has by far the better record of race relations. Minority groups feel included in Edinburgh and many refer to themselves as Scottish-Chinese, Turkish-Scottish, Scots-Pakistani, etc. In London not a single one of my students acknowledged themselves as English despite many having been born in London and their families having lived there for 3 generations.
    Regarding SNP policy, they are the most supportive of the parties regarding emigration and for encouraging foreigners to take up residence in the UK. While I have heard many complaints about the fact that England has to pay tuition fees when Scotland doesn’t. Much of the mandate for that was that educated foreigners might decide to stay in Scotland after completing their degrees and take up residence. Yes I think the word ‘Nationalist’ has negative connotations, but look at policy and diversity in Scotland, and the lack of any violent protests in Scotland from ‘Yes’ campaigners (the same alas could not be said of ‘No’ campaigners) following their defeat in the referendum. I really think to accuse them of being flag waving patriots, shows a lack of awareness of the situation in Scotland, and that you have not been following politics too closely.

  11. andrea

    Bollocks that the SNP seeks to divide …or is racist or cultist …….it is uniting people all over Britain to vote for change ..because change is sorely needed when the biggest rise in ‘industry’ is a network of foodbanks….and emigration ……step back and look at your own country – it is a joke that a country so resource wealthy struggles to give jobs to its brightest and best…… it is hard to beleive that the SNP could do any worse than the Labour or Tories with their eyes firmly fixed on Westminster……the opposite direction to Scottish hopes.

  12. Annette Kupke

    I am a left-wing German and about as suspicious of nationalism as anyone can be. I am also extremely suspicious about your article, which seems designed to deny a small country the right of political self-determination and prefer it to remain dependent on its hugely more powerful imperial masters. What’s the point in dropping some not-very-subtle hints about good things Labour have done in the past? The reality of the present is that the leader of “Scottish” Labour is a right-wing, pro-tuition fees, pro-austerity, neo-liberal Blairite nuclear bomb enthusiast who lies as soon as he opens his mouth and shouts at anyone who asks him an uncomfortable question. The very idea that this narcissistic bully aspires to becoming First Minister gives me the creeps. While the SNP are not left enough for my tastes, I look at the country and I see the SNP passionately opposing Trident and the Iraq War. I see Labour voting for austerity with the Tories and failing to support the fracking moratorium. The SNP have a gender balanced cabinet and have put an inspiring woman into the position of First Minister. Labour have the Barbie Bus. I rest my case.

  13. not on

    You say, flags not facts. I say to you, you think bullshit baffles brains!

  14. desb74

    What an awful waste of time his article is. The only people mentioning patriotism or nationalism during indyref were the BT clones. I’m a non-patriotic socialist who has been abandoned by the right wing labour party. If you’re going to invade my FB page with your writing you could have at least researched your subject matter first. Only racism on show is the outrage expressed that people in Scotland might choose how to vote instead of slavishly voting for a UK party. Democracy in action.

  15. Alasdair Riktam de Voil

    What a load of rubbish points! Its not nationalism that s made SNP popular and where it is today- its the choice of policies, the positive messages and the distinctive emphasis on let’s build a fairer society and imagine better expectations of what kind of government we want, which has inspired mass engagement with SNP vote. You d do better to title your website, “left foot back ward’s”.

  16. Alasdair Riktam de Voil

    So if you loathe the Tories, who is it holding us back from being able to give real power to Scottish government to plan a better more equitable future starting now? Its the Tory voters in England who will always mean we can’t see the type of change we want- unless Scotland can elect a more powerful government that fits what Scotland s voters want to see. Its Red and Blue Tory parties that block this opportunity

  17. gunnerbear

    In the linked UNISON report was this gem, “”We have not had a decent pay rise for years and inflation is still more than our pay rise and we now have to pay more towards our pension.” Nurse, Highlands” Well, guess what, those of us working in the private sector are in exactly the same boat as our employers shut our pensions………no silly me….I forgot there are millions in the public sector who have their gold plated pensions underwritten by those us in the private sector who’s own employers are saying, “Sorry, it is simply too expensive in real life for us to pay the sums necessary towards a good pension…” …..but lo and behold…..hellfire…..the public sector still think that the cold hard facts of economic life shouldn’t apply to them….

  18. gunnerbear

    Scotland, the nation that thinks that it should be able to access much cheaper electricity generated in England but then expect English taxpayers to foot the bill for eye wateringly expensive ‘green power’ from Scotland. Sorry to say it, but the sooner the Scots go, the better. We’ve now seen the SNP be prepared to end CASD to suit their own parochial aims……time the rUK got a vote on whether we wanted to be tied to the deadweight that is Scotland.

  19. gunnerbear

    “- No prescription fees, No Tuition fees” Paid for the excessive amount Scotland gets from rUK taxpayers. ” A revolution in green energy in Scotland” That the SNP are demanding that rUK taxpayers pay for that yet also that Scottish fools who wanted the unreliable Green power also get nice, stable, conventionally generated power from England at a low price. Time for another ‘indie vote’ – except this time the rUK decide if we think Scotland should be allowed to stay in the UK.

  20. Jim Bennett

    Enjoy the time you have before the general election results gunnerbear: because after it, we’ll be coming down there to take more of your money, force you to wear see-you-jimmy hats and eat porridge for breakfast!
    It won’t just be Derby we get to this time!

  21. gunnerbear

    ‘Nuff said….. 🙂

  22. Jim Bennett

    …and I hope you like haggis because we’ll be replacing roast beef as Sunday lunch with it … and making you foot the bill!

  23. gunnerbear

    Roast beef – who the hell can afford roast beef!? 🙂

  24. Jim Bennett

    We’ll be able to afford roast beef with all that money we’ll be taking from you. You can have the haggis and porridge!

  25. flicktokick

    The problem with much of the debate from a Unionist perspective is that it sees any desire to see an Independent Scotland as automatically beyond the pale. Why so? It is legitimate to argue that the Union has been a power for good, that you wish to se it continue, that the people of these isles share a common link and much common heritage it is however crass to brand anyone that says, “I get all that, but I still think Scotland should be a sovereign state’ as not having a legitimate or honourable point of view.
    To many on the Yes side, that is how the No campaign portrayed them and how it continues to this day – for example with this article.
    The logical pursuit of the argument that no desire for independence from a larger state can be anything but bad, suggests that we should have been calling out Montenegro for it’s departure from Serbia, the Baltic States for their move away from the USSR and historically Norway from Sweden.
    All too often the language used to describe the pro-Independence side is pejorative “they want to destroy the UK!’ Do they? Was the UK destroyed when Ireland became independent? Would it be destroyed if the SDLP achieved their aim of Irish unification, removing Ulster from the UK?
    There are undoubtedly partisans and fundamentalists on the pro-Independence side for whom any truck with continuing the Union is seen as a betrayal of Scotland, but they are a small – though obviously vocal (in social media terms at least) minority, but do not attempt to take the moral high ground because your attacks are more articulate. Intolerance and unreasonable language are no less unacceptable from those who defend the sovereignty of one large nation than those who proclaim it for a smaller part of it.

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