The Scottish Nationalists, Alex Salmond and the Slur of Fascism
Open Democracy, September 30th 2009
It is not often that you come across an essay so wrong-headed, opinionated and inaccurate that it is worth drawing attention too – in part because the writer is one with an influential past, and because it validates English and centre-left xenophobic traditions of Scotland and these isles.
That sadly is the fate of Tom Gallagher’s ‘The Scottish Piazza Echoes to the Liberation Beat’, published on Harry’s Place (1). Gallagher has written several books on Scottish society over the years, albeit all of them twenty years ago, but his ‘Glasgow: The Uneasy Piece’ – a book on the scar of sectarianism and its interface with politics was in my mind an undoubted masterpiece (2).
Gallagher’s essay is to mark the publication of his ‘The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland under Nationalism’ – an ambitious, if fatally flawed book that I will return to at a later date and more fully review (3). Suffice to say his book is in his own words an attack on the SNP and Scottish nationalism. It is a book which tries to cover far too much ground, as if Gallagher wanted to cram everything into one book. Thus it tries to be a complete history of ‘Scotland’s status as a managed society’ since 1707, and the SNP’s complicity in this in the present day.
Independence would be ‘deference to a governing class and to newly invented traditions’ in a ‘relatively poor nation’ which would be ‘the equivalent of a multi-cultural left-leaning London borough having a seat at the United Nations’.
These above quotes are just from the introduction to the book, which he wrote he claims to ‘encourage debate about the political future of Scotland’. Sadly Gallagher has weakened any argument he has about Scottish society and democracy with such inflamed rhetoric and polemic flourishes.
His essay, obviously playing to the prejudices of the London dinner table circles he frequents goes even more over the top than the book. Gallagher is filled with fear of Scotland heading ‘towards a post-British future’, and sees Alex Salmond as a populist demigod who is a cross between Hugo Chavez and US President Andrew Jackson with the style of Hughie Green and Jonathan Ross.
The SNP are charged with wanting to spend taxpayers money in 2014 celebrating the 700th anniversary of ‘Scotland’s only significant military victory at Bannockburn in 1314’. Apart from the gratuitous insults, this is inaccurate history given the Wars of Independence, but the main point is that Gallagher alleges the SNP are using all this manufactured history with the aim of ‘stirring up antagonistic feelings about the English in the breasts of young Scots’.
No evidence is produced for this charge while the counter-argument is not explored: why would not celebrating your history be the most productive way of getting on with your neighbours!
This project of politically educating the masses into anti-Englishness is then tastefully compared to the Chinese Communist ‘patriotic education bases’ post-Tiananmen.
The SNP itself is seen as a ‘cult’ dominated by one man – Alex Salmond – and its success his creation, which is bordering on the delusional. The party he claims is close to ‘the Caledonian version of Blair and New Labour’, this latter point an accurate measure and assessment lost in all the hot air.
Here Come the Tartan Nazis and Fascists
Gallagher then goes down a route which happily few travel. Firstly, he proclaims as if it needed to be, just in case you had any doubt:
Salmond is no Hitler, and the SNP not a fascist party.
That’s good news for all of us then and cleared the air once and for all! Then he does just exactly that, raising the spectre of Hitler and Mussolini and fascist marches in a set of paragraphs which defy belief. Salmond he writes:
… enjoys elections and the Parliamentary cut and thrust but he is driven by a mixture of deep-seated resentments towards England and (I would contend the West in general) that anyone who has studied the career of the Austrian corporal who swept to power in Germany, might see some parallels.
Salmond runs ‘a tight-knit group of people whom he selects, moulds in his own image, and advances through the party’. Then comes Mussolini:
Scotland could still confront its 1922 moment if the challenge of governing the nation alone proves beyond the SNP’s capabilities. For Italy, it meant the triumph of fascism, for Ireland a destructive civil war. The party could crater and experience violent schism or democratic conventions could be dispensed with in order to harness the energies of the nation in times of adversity.
The implication is that Salmond with his messianic hold on power and hand picked group of fanatical followers could see himself as the man of history with parallels to 1922 or 1933.
What can one say about such offensive, inaccurate words which reflect so damagingly on the writer in question? The ground that Gallagher has travelled is one that is not his alone though: it is the terrain of the bitter left-winger once filled with dreams now disillusioned with the way the world has worked out, and the toppling of their various heroes and causes. And that is quite a sizeable group of people many with access to PCs and the internet!
Gallagher’s villains include ‘the outriders of radical capitalism’ – Thatcher, Blair and Brown and their ‘neo-liberal and managerial strategies’. And although there is no evidence from the words on the page, I suspect that these figures are the real cause of Gallagher’s disappointment and obvious hurt. The SNP and Alex Salmond, the rage and anger Gallagher directs towards them, is I believe a displacement for this wider disappointment.
This then is a tragic set of arguments; tragic because Gallagher was once a respected writer and voice and tragic because we cannot just dismiss this as the rantings of one lonely, embittered voice.
Part of the English chattering classes associated with the Euston Group claimed to represent the rigor of Enlightenment thought. Nick Cohen is a warning. Occasionally he can still hit a worthy target with his polemics. But increasingly all one hears is a burbling degeneration into beer and bad faith that the blogosphere notoriously reinforces. Revealingly on the Harry’s Place website discussion following this piece, most of the comments thought the ranting and raving and Fascist and Nazi slurs fair game! That’s how much such people understand the politics of Scotland and Scottish nationalism.
There is even a tragedy here about part of Gallagher’s thesis, because minus the polemical insults and mis-reading of history and mass murdering dictators, lurks another argument deserving of a wider hearing. As Gallagher writes ‘democracy arrived late and in an incomplete form’ in Scotland.
The Scottish political environment has long acted as a ‘self-preservation society’ which has maintained its power and privileges across the institutions of the land (4). Gallagher could have made this argument – about the state of Scottish undemocracy his central thesis and the role of the SNP in lacking imagination and radicalism to challenge the powerful vested interests. Instead, he has chosen to write with invective, rage and misjudgement, whose purpose will not be to advance any serious argument, and instead will have the opposite, diminishing the causes and arguments Gallagher advances, including this one. This from someone who once lauded the modern SNP as displaying ‘a new maturity and sense of purpose’ and talked of Alex Salmond’s ‘dynamic leadership’ (5).
This is more than a ridiculously misguided thesis. It is not even possible to congratulate Gallagher for exposing his prejudices so honestly. By indulging himself he has given permission for a further degeneration of language and thought in a part of what passes these days for liberal, elite opinion in Britain.
1. Tom Gallagher, ‘The Scottish Piazza Echoes to the Liberation Beat’, Harry’s Place, September 26th 2009,
2. Tom Gallagher, Glasgow: The Uneasy Piece, Manchester University Press 1987.
3. Tom Gallagher, The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland under Nationalism, Hurst and Company 2009.
4. Gerry Hassan and Chris Warhurst (eds), Anatomy of the New Scotland: Power, Influence and Change, Mainstream 2002.
5. Tom Gallagher, ‘Introduction’, in Tom Gallagher (ed.), Nationalism in the Nineties, Polygon 1991, p. 1, 2.