Hugo Rifkind

Scotland’s nasty party

We have a new politics, yes. And most of us are quietly terrified of it

Scotland’s nasty party
Text settings

You get bad losers in politics and bad winners, too, but it’s surely a rare business to get a bad winner who didn’t actually win. Yet this, since they lost last September’s referendum, has been the role of the SNP. Dismay, reassessment, introspection, contrition, resignation; all of these have been wholly absent. Instead, they have been triumphalist. Lording it, with cruel and haughty disdain, over their vanquished foes. Who, we must remember, they didn’t even vanquish.

Well, maybe they’ve vanquished them now. I write this pre-election, with the polls all saying that the Nats will win something between almost every Scottish seat and actually every Scottish seat. Only, of course, you don’t call them ‘Nats’ any more, do you? That’s a word from my youth; you used to hear it all the time. Nats were cranks, weirdos in kilts and cagoules. Half Jacobite, half trainspotter; you really didn’t need to worry about them. I see the numbers today, and it is not my place to say they are wrong, but I still cannot quite believe they aren’t. Really? You’re all actually going to do this? You’re going to vote for the Nats?

The day of the referendum I walked Edinburgh’s streets, polling station to polling station, struck by the sheer volume of ‘no’ voters who suddenly, finally, seemed to have dragged themselves into the light. Never forget that a majority of Scots still don’t want independence. Offered it, they said no. Offered it again, they’d say no again. Many are sickened by what Scotland is becoming; the jingoism, the aggression, the piousness, the division. Most of all, they’re sick of being miserable all the time.

For make no mistake, being a unionist Scot is miserable. Even the word is miserable. Unionist? Unionist? Half a decade ago, the word meant Ulster or Ian Paisley or the ageing, brittle members of weird Masonic lodges who got their kicks out of marching down your road in a bowler hat. Most ‘no’-voting Scots never wanted to be bloody unionists. They didn’t want to have a fight over the Union and win it. They just wanted to be left the hell alone. Call the SNP ‘nationalists’, or draw attention to their more militant, scary fellow travellers, and supporters will invariably respond by pointing out that there are unionist thugs out there, too. Indeed there are. That’s because if you start a big fight, the fighty people come running. And you lot did. So don’t bloody blame me.

For the unionist Scot, though, the misery doesn’t end there. Did David Cameron comprehend, in this election campaign, the extent to which he ripped the rug from under our feet? I don’t see how he could not. I can only assume he didn’t care. The Tory campaign has traded heavily on the notion of Scots being a problem; of Scottish influence at Westminster being a thing to be feared, and where possible, marginalised. That the legitimacy of Scottish MPs, in other words, comes not from the people who may have voted for them but from the extent to which they can be accommodated in Westminster with the least difference made. That’s not a Union. At best, that’s a vassal with a voice. I can well understand why even some Scots with no interest in secession at all might have heard all of this and fancied sending the SNP to box clever on their behalf, as a regional bloc.

The trouble is, that’s just not what the SNP is or wants to be. That’s certainly not where its passion comes from, much as Nicola Sturgeon might occasionally pretend otherwise. A year ago I wrote a column in this paper asking why, if Ukip was not a racist party, so very many racists seemed to flock to it under the impression that it was. A similar set of questions have to be asked of the SNP. Why do the haters of difference, the defenders of Scottish purity, the loathers of the English all cheer it on? Why does it seem to operate so often on faith rather than logic? Why does it appear to contain no internal dissent whatsoever? Why does it inspire such wariness and intimidation in a majority with quite different views? Why will the response to this very column be so different from the response I’d get for writing about any other British party, bar Ukip? If this is not — on any level at all — a traditional, nasty, blood-and-soil nationalist party, why do all those traditional, nasty, blood-and-soil nationalists seem to think it is?

Scotland has a problem, whichever way this week’s vote goes or went. Its politics have become shrill, illogical and nasty. It has learned to exclude. It always has a bit, of course, and a whole vein of Scottish politics has long involved the ridicule of the likes of me, the private-school poshos, as ‘pretendy Scottish’ or ‘Scottish-ish’.

The striking thing now, though, is how much further it has gone. Scottish nationalism has bundled all of its enemies together, as Tories and Red Tories and quislings and traitors and all the rest of it. Scottish Labour, the dominant political force for a generation, is in absolute shock; speak to them and they sound like White Russians not quite in exile yet. They’ve lost their country. It sounds melodramatic, I know. But they have.

Sane and sensible politics doesn’t do that to anybody. Really, this is my beef with nationalism. It is the politics of people who claim to be defining themselves, but are actually defining everybody else, thereby cowing a majority into silence. And for the lonely Scot in London, left trying to hold the centre against the divisive ravages of Sturgeon and Cameron alike, it is about not being sure who you are any more and, more than anything else, minding the way it no longer seems to be up to you.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.