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  

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

  1. Matthew

    The Scottish have more favourable attitudes towards the English than the reverse. Your argument is a myth.

  2. JustAnotherNumber

    The Westminster neo-liberal agenda, as shared by both sides of the house, with its obsession with the austerity regime and worship of big business, simply doesn’t fly up here. There is no left-wing option to vote for on a UK level, so we’re off.

  3. David Lindsay

    What, the SNP? Passed four Budgets on the anti-Labour votes of the Tories, wants to cut Corporation Tax, was elected to centralise the setting of Council Tax as Thatcher did that of Business Rates, is funded by Brian Souter, has the transport policy to prove it (never mind sex, this is what it is about), has slashed FE to fund free university tuition for upper-middle-class offspring, and has as its heartlands places that have never elected Labour MPs. Never. Those places are still basically full of Tories. That is why they vote for the SNP, the Tartan Tories.

  4. Solletico Ranting

    What socialist policies does the SNP have that Labour don’t have too?

  5. Solletico Ranting

    That’s just total shit man. 😀

    I’ve not had a single bit of anti-English racism to my face from an adult in the last 20 years in Scotland and even online it was only last week or the week before that i met these shitey cybernat pricks who say anti-English stuff online.

    Nationalism is on the rise (not a good thing at all i think) but it’s not fueled by anti-Englsishh racism.

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