‘When I hear the word Scotland I want to say: ‘Shut the Fuck Up’’
Scottish Review, May 3rd 2017
‘When I hear the word Scotland, I want to say: ‘Shut the Fuck Up.’’ These were the emotive words someone said at a public event in Newcastle I spoke at exactly one year to the day after the 2014 indyref.
They undoubtedly voiced the views of a part of the country – by that I mean a part of England. But at the same time their anger and loss of patience taps into something that is clearly going on in present day Scotland.
The English part is the more easy to surmise. England has had an awful lot of Scotland in recent years. There was the indyref, the 2015 UK general election, the SNP 56, and then the after affects of Brexit.
The tone of the SNP 56 has had lots of shades and positives, but can often come over, particularly for those outwith Scotland, with a sense of Scottish exceptionalism, conceit and sense of its own moral superiority. This translates into a lack of awareness of impact that can alienate those outside Scotland, not all of whom are the SNP’s natural enemies.
Anyone doubting this should just reflect on the unwitting role of the SNP in the 2015 campaign in bolstering Tory electoral prospects. In part, this was about Labour and Ed Miliband’s weaknesses, and the Tories talking in a very English voice, particularly to swing UKIP voters. But some of it was undoubtedly about the SNP’s role and potential impact in England and the rest of the UK, and how English voters felt about their influence as possible kingmakers, propping up a Labour Government.
All of this will be revisited in the next few weeks by the Tories and their ‘coalition of chaos’ strapline and campaign, and by the nature of how the SNP speak in the election.
More nuanced than the above is that this remark has an increased resonance in sections of Scottish opinion. This is obviously so in the unionist camp, and the Tory version of it. But it is also true of elements of independence opinion, and particularly in those who don’t sign up blindly to everything the SNP or Yes sentiment says and does.
One artistic and cultural figure of pro-independence disposition said to me last week that he was fed up of discussions which ‘begin or end talking about ‘Scotland.’’ He yearned for a wider tablet of possibilities than Scotland as this never-ending, self-obsessed, rather insular set of non-discussions.
This sentiment captures the narrow range of what Scottish politics has come down to post-indyref: independence v. union, SNP v. first Labour, and now, Tories. In the aftermath of the referendum, this narrowing played to the SNP’s advantage as their poll ratings and membership surged, and Labour lost its way. But now the mood has turned in places, and while the SNP are by far Scotland’s dominant party (and will remain so), they are on the defensive, trying to hold on to all their gains, with a new spring evident in the step of Tory Scotland.
This restricted choice is one which suits the uber-partisans: the SNP and Tory true believers, and the most fanatical adherents to the causes of Yes and No. But frankly it is awful politics – dysfunctional, disconnected and mostly alien to most voters in the country. And while it served the SNP post-indyref and the Tories for the moment, it does both a disservice in the long run.
This politics as predictable and empty slogans isn’t just seen in Scotland. It can be seen here in the way that independence is discussed in absolutist and fatalistic terms by Yes and No, but across the UK the way ‘austerity’, ‘inequality’ and ‘Tory cuts’ are invoked are equally similar. This is politics as abstract – having potent meaning to the convinced, but meaningless to most voters.
Similarly, Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable leadership’ will be used to breaking point in the election and invite rage and fury from opposition supporters, but unlike the above it does tap into a popular desire in anxious times for leadership and certainty.
Scotland’s tradition of anti-Tory rhetoric is long and deep seated. It can be seen in 19th century liberalism, 20th century Labour and 21st century Scottish nationalism. It is one of the clarion calls of radical and progressive Scotland.
From 1979 and the arrival of Thatcher it took on a distinct agenda: emphasising Scotland’s centre-left, supposedly communitarian, and cross-class national characteristics, portraying Scotland as a distinctive community of the realm, compared to England. It was adopted by Scottish Labour to cloak its conservatism and self-preservation tendencies, and is now used by the Scottish Nationalists in exactly the same manner.
The contours of Scottish Labour’s, and the Scottish Nationalist, message is often word for word the same. It isn’t an accident that some of it is even said by exactly the same people who have shifted over the years from one party to the other. Tommy Sheppard, Jeane Freeman and George Kerevan are all examples of sitting SNP politicians who were once Labour advocates.
It is perfectly admissible to change your party colours, but what is illuminating is that while party allegiance has changed much of the politics remains the same. Hence, Tories are extreme, callous, uncaring, dogmatic and right-wing. Worse than that they are ‘other’, not from round here or understanding the concerns of ordinary voters in Scotland, anti-Scottish, and only interested in the views of a narrow slither of southern, prosperous England.
The highest calling of Scottish politics is to protect the people from such naked and amoral vandalism which is out to reek social havoc and target the weakest and most vulnerable in society (the poll tax, bedroom tax, rape clause). Implicit in all of this down the decades has been the invitation to first trust Scottish Labour, then the Scottish Nationalists to shield the people from such brazen, barefaced ideological dogma.
Yet, all of this assumes that Labour and then SNP successfully embody progressive politics, social justice, and even a higher form of humanity than the Tories. That may be a given for most of Scotland and self-evident on the facts of the last few decades, but it has allowed Labour and SNP a free pass for a politics of defensiveness, caution and lack of imagination. They have posited a mindset of resisting Tories and defending Scotland’s own cloistered way of doing many things in domestic life: think the legal and medical professions as but two obvious examples.
Scottish Tories have been over the past couple of decades described in the most apocalyptic terms – as unScottish, alien and even as fifth columnists, traitors and quislings. This is as equal a failure of humanity and empathy as some of the most offensive Tory policies. There is a continual reference back to the sins of Thatcher with Iain Macwhirter writing this weekend: ‘Scots haven’t forgotten the Iron Lady, but they could do with being reminded about her.’ Thatcher was brought down as Prime Minister twenty-seven years ago: that is a world ago.
Such sentiment continues to this day in how modern Toryism is talked about. Macwhirter the previous week described May’s English Conservatism in the following way: ‘Theresa May is behaving like a Home Counties version of Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan.’ This is inaccurate in both regards. A whole host of Scottish opinion struggles to recognise the Tory revival north and south of the border and instead embraces caricature and denial.
Scottish politics is now two and a half years after the indyref and we desperately need a new language of politics and political philosophy. In this we are one part of a wider sentiment which can be found across the West: the battered, compromised, hollowed out promise of social democracy, and the empty nature of the market fundamentalist crony capitalism which still has the attention of corporate and political elites everywhere.
Yet, in Scotland many SNP and Yes supporters embody a widespread conceit that there is no need to do too much rethinking or reappraisal because we have somehow held the line against the worst excesses of Thatcherism and Blairism. That sense of Scottish conceit and exceptionalism doesn’t hold against the facts – the increasingly glaring evidence of public spending cuts and the widening inadequacies in the SNP’s record in office after ten years.
The newfound Tory appeal in England, Scotland and Wales needs to be understood. We just cannot just brand them as ‘the nasty party’ and hope the old hymns will turn out the voters. The Tories are combining brilliantly an evocation of the age-old Tory appeal to leadership, stability and the national interest, with the request for a mandate on Brexit (including utilising xenophobic sentiments), and the invoking of Jeremy Corbyn as a dangerous, divisive extremist.
In Scotland, Ruth Davidson and the Tories are playing an adept campaign with the slogan ‘We Said No. We Meant It’. It is clear, succinct and cuts through to voters, many of who whether Yes or No, are weary of Scotland’s permanent politicking and anxious about instability in the future. It stands in contrast to the SNP’s muddled message that this isn’t about independence, but about Brexit and assorted other issues – something the SNP are going to have to sort quickly if they aren’t to be completely wrong-footed in the coming weeks.
After the dust settles Scotland will at some point require a different kind of politics. The SNP will need a new message – one that adjusts to worries on Brexit, is more honest in any indyref2, and is less about citing the old certainties of anti-Tory Scotland.
The SNP need a different political language to speak to Scotland of the difficult times ahead, and to England and the rest of the UK, which isn’t just about harping and haranguing about Scotland. Perhaps in Westminster terms, they could draw less from Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish Nationalists and more from the ‘Red Clydesiders’ of 1922, who despite the mythology, combined rhetoric, detailed policies and clever use of parliamentary procedure. Less Parnell and more Maxton and Wheatley.
Scotland needs to find some new tunes. But don’t expect them anytime soon in the forthcoming weeks. A section of Scottish political opinion is bought into the old slogans and assumptions. But eventually Scotland will have to embrace change, whether via the pressures on public spending and services, related to Brexit, or the next indyref. The sooner we start the better for all of us. Conservatism with a small c – whether English or Scottish Tory, Labour or SNP, is going to be increasingly ill-suited for the challenges of the next few years.