Even the Americans are noticing Nicola Sturgeon now and if you are – like many nationalists – the kind of Scottish nationalist forever on the lookout for external validation, lengthy articles featuring the first minister in The New Yorker and The Atlantic is the kind of thing to make you proud. There has always been a strong streak of what I like to think of as Sally Field nationalism – ‘And I can’t deny the fact that you like me! Right now, you like me!’ However happy it might be, it cannot quite escape being cringeworthy. But there we have it; nationalism is essentially myopic and all nationalisms are alike in that respect. This is a view challenging the sense, almost universally accepted by Scotland’s nationalist movement, that it should never be compared to other forms of nationalist sentiment.
In The Atlantic, Jack McConnell, the former first minister and leader of Scottish Labour, draws a distinction between Sturgeon and her predecessor. She is a social democrat who happens to be a nationalist, ‘rather than a nationalist who poses as a social democrat.’ It’s a good line and superficially plausible but not one which withstands much scrutiny.
Sturgeon joined the SNP when she was 16 years old. Even then, the Labour party had disappointed her. ‘I joined the SNP’ she once said, ‘because it was obvious to me then – as it still is today – that you cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the delivery.’ Note, then, the sharply drawn territorial limits Sturgeon places – and places – on her ambitions. Country first, then social justice. Neil Kinnock couldn’t do it for her and John Smith’s commitment to social justice left Sturgeon unmoved. Tony Blair, obviously, existed far beyond the pale.
Few people joined the SNP in the mid-1980s because they believed the party a vehicle for social justice. They joined it then, as they do now, because they consider the SNP the authentic articulation of a distinct Scottish political consciousness. A movement more than a mere party and, more importantly, the voice of a nation too. In Sturgeon’s case, they also joined the party during a period when she was tearing through the nationalist historical novels of Nigel Tranter.
There is nothing especially awful about this but it would be as well to be honest about such things. At its best, modern Scottish nationalism is an awfully dull business but no matter how much it pretends to be quite unlike any and all other forms of nationalism it is, in the end and at bottom, in precisely the same business as other nationalisms. Few things are quite so smug as a Scotch sense of moral superiority but when it comes wrapped in a saltire it takes on an extra special level of unbearableness.
And like other nationalisms it is, in the end, founded upon a keen sense of victimhood. Scotland must be protected because Scotland never receives its due, never enjoys a fair crack of the whip, can never be expected to thrive in whatever circumstances pertain at any given time. The neighbours to the south must take some of the responsibility for that, but the real villains are those Scots who fail to recognise there is even a problem. As Alex Salmond explained in a 1992 party election broadcast, ‘What sort of person are you? Do you let other people talk for you, act for you, walk all over you? Of course not. But here’s a puzzle. As a Scot, that’s exactly the sort of person you are.’
The modern SNP is a little more subtle than that, but the core message remains much the same. At the conclusion of an otherwise ordinary New Yorker profile, Sturgeon lets the mask slip: ‘Most people here in Scotland, subliminally, have spent their whole lives being told that we are not capable of being an independent country.’ Boris Johnson and those who think like him ‘don’t seem to understand that on an emotional level, that having things done to you… You know, people don’t like that in their individual lives. So why should a country put up with it?’
As always, the personal must be conflated with the national for, in truth, there is no division between the two as far as the SNP is concerned. And since the SNP is driven by the national interest it follows that SNP’s preferences must always, eternally, be in everyone’s personal interest too.
No sensible person disputes that Scotland could be an independent country and a perfectly respectable, if initially poorer, one too. Millions of people voted No in 2014, not because they had internalised and accepted some notion of Caledonian inferiority but because they neither saw the need for, or the wisdom of, independence. Since the SNP now disowns the case it presented for independence in 2014 and since Sturgeon now suggests Alex Salmond – the would-be premiere of the newly independent state – is not a person fit for public office, the SNP’s own arguments now implicitly suggest Scotland made the right choice seven years ago.
In truth, Scotland enjoys certain unusual advantages: all the advantages of nationhood without the accompanying inconveniences of statehood. The cringe lies with those who think nationhood cannot endure unless it is buttressed by statehood. But a passport and a seat at the United Nations are, in the end, mere baubles. Some things would doubtless be better arranged post-independence but every step forward is likely to be matched by at least an equal step back. For that is how life tends to work and it is dishonest to sell independence as a cause uniquely free of disagreeable consequences and then, when forced to concede the existence of those challenges, doubly dishonest to present them as some kind of ennobling voyage of national rediscovery. For your mortgage really is more important than your passport.
Sturgeon insists her nationalism is ‘utilitarian’ rather than ‘existential’ but this is, to put it fairly, a grossly dishonest interpretation of her position. There are, I think, no circumstances in which Sturgeon would consider independence a retrograde development. Her faith is unfalsifiable and, as such, cannot be subjected to any disinterested or useful cost-benefit analysis.
Indeed, Sturgeon has herself confirmed that her argument puts the conclusion first. In a number of interviews during this campaign she has conceded that no new work, taking account of recent developments, has been done on the practical or economic consequences of independence. At some point in the future, a fresh argument for independence will be presented to the people and, obviously, it will be an argument claiming that independence is the key, not just to a more democratic future, but to a more prosperous one too. The conclusion has already been reached; the evidence to support it has not yet been found. Feelings first, then facts. Existential nationalism, not utilitarian nationalism.
Once more, I make no suggestion this is intolerable. Nats gotta Nat. But, again, let us allow this magic to be spoilt by the intrusion of some honesty. Nicola Sturgeon is a utilitarian nationalist to the same extent Nigel Farage is. That scarcely means they are comparable in every way but what is independence if it is not a desire to ‘take back control’?
Just as Brexiteers insisted all would be for the best in the best of all possible post-Brexit worlds, so Scotland’s nationalists spin the same yarn. Fret not about currency or the border or pensions or mortgages or anything else for everything will be fine. We cannot yet show you how it will all be fine but you should know that one day we shall – and it will be. Those who worry it might not be are, once again, ‘talking Scotland down.’
Nicola Sturgeon undoubtedly believes all this for she is a conviction politician and I dare say she truly believes herself just a dull utilitarian. The evidence, however, points in a different direction.
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