Nicola Sturgeon, First of Her Name, Queen of Caledonia, Chieftain of the Great Heather Sea, High Priestess of the North, Saver of Bairns, Taker of Selfies, Mother of Scotland.
The leader of a benevolent kingdom where poverty and ill health have been eradicated due to an abundance of oil gushing forth from the North Sea. A veritable cornucopia built without the need for tax rises or for her subjects to look at their own lifestyle patterns. A social justice paradise. A world apart from the selfish and barbarous kingdoms to the South.
This is, in essence, what I was asked to vote for in 2014 and at every parliamentary election since. Do I want to stay as part of a corrupt union which is dominated by the political and cultural elites of the South East of England? Or do I want a chance to break free and be part of the genesis of a just and caring Scotland, a world apart from the increasingly politically and socially divergent England? Of course, how to pay for this is never discussed by anyone but that either way doesn’t matter to the majority of the participants. The utopian vision broadcast by the ‘Yes’ campaign and to this day by the SNP was intoxicating to many and understandably so. The ‘Yes’ campaign in 2014 almost started to have a carnival atmosphere, similar in intent to the ‘Hope’ campaign of Barack Obama before his election to the U.S. Presidency in 2008.
Indeed, the sensible managerial talk from Alistair Darling about economics, currency union and unpredictable oil revenue (or lack of) often fell on deaf and indifferent ears in the ruckus. Even the ‘great clunking fist’ of Gordon Brown entering the fray was ignored by many.
Of course, the SNP have to keep up the pretence of political and social difference with the rest of the United Kingdom. It can be difficult to secede from something if you say, ‘actually, those people over there are just like us.’ Nationalism itself is based on a random group of people on a plot of land being different from the people on your plot of land, usually inferior in some way. This is often based on more primal differences, such as race, religion or ethnic origin and has been responsible for some of the darkest episodes in human history.
In democratic Western Europe, these primal differences have mostly been subdued or at least abnegated. In Scotland, with its millennium-old integration with the rest of the British Isles, there is little difference between any of the constituent nations and its peoples that you could instantly point out. This hasn’t stopped some more militant organisations, such as Siol Nan Gaidheal (Seed of the Gaels) from trying to promote a ‘blood and iron’ type nationalism for Scotland. But to the credit of the SNP, they don’t associate with the group and Siol Nan Gaidheal members are not allowed to join them.
However, this has not stopped the SNP from portraying Scotland and its people as being somehow fairer and kinder than the people from other parts of the UK, particularly England. The SNP have painted Scotland, independent or otherwise, as having unique “Scottish values”, more egalitarian and socially just. Indeed, the fact that ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’ was sung at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 typifies this view and was probably a statement of political intent. England is viewed as a Tory bastion of laissez-faire economics where poverty is treated as a flaw in character rather than economic misfortune in a globalised economy. Scotland – the exact opposite.
Politically, the SNP tend to block policy or protest against if it comes from Westminster. They also have a habit of using divisive rhetoric to further their aims of separating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. Former First Minister Alec Salmond in his last speech before the day of the 2014 referendum stated that one of the aims of the ‘Yes’ campaign was the ‘exclusion of Southern Power.’ Quite a grandiose statement and for ‘Southern’ he really means English. Former First Minister chose not to mention the countless high positions that Scots have had in Westminster. Ramsay McDonald, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were all Scottish-born Prime Ministers. Surnames, such as Gladstone, Macmillan and Cameron also imply Scottish ancestry and are good examples of the centuries of integration and movement between Scotland and England. From 1997 to 2010 the Chancellor was a Scotsman. There are countless other examples of powerful Scots in Westminster but this is ignored as it doesn’t fit into the standard nationalist narrative.
However, Nicola Sturgeon appears to be towing the party line as well. In her 2015 conference speech, Scotland was mentioned a staggering fifty-eight times. The UK was mentioned eleven times. Austerity, Tory and Trident were mentioned five times each. Bedroom tax was mentioned twice and Margaret Thatcher even got mentioned once. With all this, she barely had time to talk about policy.
However, the problem for the SNP is that just because their leadership and some party members believe in something, it does not equate to the rest of Scotland believing in it as well. As with most things in life, reality is more nuanced and ‘grey’ than the SNP would like it to be. Take Europe, for example. The SNP would have you believe that Scotland is the most pro-EU out of all the nations of the UK, however, this is difficult to measure. Scotland may be slightly more pro-European but I expect not in any significant measure from England, perhaps seven or eight percentage points. Not enough to say that a radical difference of opinion exists. Many SNP supporters are savvier than their party leader gives them credit for. Why leave one union for a larger more bureaucratic one? This is best summed up in a Facebook image that states, ‘A True Independent Scotland: No Westminster, No Monarchy, No European Union, No NATO.’ For all its faults, this at least has an ideological clarity that the SNP lack.
I also expect the SNP stance on banning genetically modified (GM) crops in Scotland is based on the need to generate political difference with England. Regardless of your opinion on GM crops, pollen from them won’t stop at Carlisle, Coldstream or Berwick-upon-Tweed. The stance on Trident is also probably based on the need to generate tangible difference with the rest of the UK as well as the need to appease party supporters.
Sometimes it can be difficult to counter this view of Scotland as being different. The 2015 general election led to a Scotland that was almost entirely SNP yellow which was in sharp contrast to the Conservative blue in most of England. The SNP have also embarked on markedly different social policies, such as having a different drink driving limit than England. Of course, once you have different laws across different parts of a unitary state, it starts to feel like you’re entering a different nation. Indeed, this is probably the intention.
On issues a bit closer to home which the SNP thinks Scotland is much more progressive on, such as welfare and immigration, there is such a small difference as to be almost negligible. On immigration, the British Social Attitudes Survey discovered that 78% of people in England thought that immigration should be reduced, with 69% in Scotland saying the same thing. 9% doesn’t make a totally different nation with a new outlook on life. Voters in Scotland are only 7% more likely to want to increase social spending than those in England. In fact, even this could be disputed as Ailsa Henderson in her chapter on Scotland in ‘Sex, Lies & the Ballot Box: 50 things you need to know about British elections’ has stated that the ‘gap between actual attitudes and perceived attitudes is larger in Scotland than in any other part of Britain.’ Just believing that you’re different doesn’t actually mean that you are.
The fact that the SNP have ruled out having a different taxation system to the rest of the UK provides tangible evidence that Scotland isn’t the nation apart that they think it is and require it to be.
On the big “mega-trend” issues of the day, there is almost no visible difference throughout the UK. For example, when asked if climate change is man-made, 61% of people asked in Scotland said that it was. Compare this with the 58% for the North of England, 59% for the Midlands and Wales and 68% in London.
A similar pattern emerges when you examine levels of religious adherence, with 59% of English people stating they are Christian compared with 54% of the people in Scotland.
There are of course political, social and economic differences between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would be foolish and disingenuous to the diversity of the UK not to acknowledge this. Large cities in close proximity, such as Manchester and Leeds and Glasgow and Edinburgh are famous for their rivalries. I have witnessed political differences between small villages that are only a few miles apart. Cultural and religious cleavages can appear through one city or town.
But to say that there is a massive ideological gap between the nations of the UK is nonsense. Across almost every social and political indicator there is almost total coherence. This shouldn’t surprise us. I believe that the people of the British Isles share a ‘deep history’, one not based on the rise and fall of governments every five to ten years or the personality of a particular politician at that random point in history.
It is an identity based on a shared ideas of monarchy, the enlightenment, religion, liberalism and democracy. One also based on ancient conflict with each other and more recently, against existential threats from the continent. A maritime people on a small island with the same ebb and flow of the seasons and a similar rhythm of life no matter what part of the island you were born on. The idea that no matter where you go on the Isles, you aren’t a stranger in a foreign land is a crucial one. I would be heartbroken the day that London, Cardiff and Belfast are foreign capitals to me.