The Scottish National Party’s great and continuing success has been to mobilize a large part of the Scottish population to see England and the English as a more or less malign force.
In this, the party has connected with and deepened strong currents of thought and belief in Scots culture, especially in the 20th century.
The country’s most famed and lauded poet, Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Grieve), its most influential ideologist, Tom Nairn and its most prominent literary novelist, James Kelman have all adopted long-running acidic views of the southern neighbour.
The Scottish sense of resentment against the elephantine presence of England in the UK, and the view, only partly stated, that the Scots are a ‘more moral people’, is part of a tradition that is longer than the Union itself. But it co-existed with a strong attachment to that Union, and an even stronger one to the empire, in which Scots prospered. Scottish 21st century nationalism has weaponised these often humorous themes. My grandfather, a merchant seaman, would observe from time to time that ‘There’ll aye (always) be an England, as long as Scotland’s there’ – but voted solidly for the Unionist candidates when he was on shore and able to do so.
The two SNP leaders and first ministers of the devolved government – Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon – mix occasional wordy expressions of goodwill to the English with more pointed comments to the party faithful about England’s reactionism, lack of tolerance and – at full blast – misgovernment, the last an easy target in a country where Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seen as a shambolic, mendacious clown.
Boris Johnson is at times the largest anti-English card the SNP has to play, greater than the outrage of Brexit in a country where nearly two thirds voted to Remain – especially when he is shown to ignore his own rules.
This steady anti-Englishness makes the SNP a sourly negative movement, basing itself on historic wrongs and old stereotypes, seeking every possibility of division and hatred in a British structure which, whatever its deficiencies, could lend itself to encourage affection and respect.
The SNP is keen to promote its liberalism – even extreme liberalism: its proposed Gender Recognition Reform Bill will allow self-declaration as the sole criterion for recognising the sex of a trans person. But nationalism is its galvanising force. The SNP is not a ‘normal’ party, fighting on the grounds of public services, tax and housing: it is a campaign group in government, and its supporters see it in a different way than voters of other parties.
In the few households now displaying them, posters and stickers calling for a vote for the Conservative or Labour party come down the day after the election. Not so for nationalists: the posters are permanent, and where possible the Saltire flag is flown. In the east coast fishing village in which I grew up, I saw last week posters in the windows and the Saltire in the front garden of a house which is also a chiropodist’s studio – the owner’s apparent nationalism overcoming any fears of repelling unionists with foot trouble. This is not ‘whom I vote for’ but ‘who I am’.
The nationalists dominate the Scottish Parliament; Sturgeon, constantly on the airwaves and the net, remains far ahead of other leaders. The polls on voting intentions in another referendum turned febrile in November: Panelbase showed 45 per cent support early on, YouGov had only 40 per cent in mid-month; but Ipsos Mori found a 52 per cent support at the month’s end.
It prompts the thought: do a significant number of the 40 to 55 per cent of Scots who at times favour independence do so in a trivial fashion, a way of professing an identity which, in Scotland (and surprisingly often in England) has the aura of a more autochthonous, intellectual, leftist, even romantic character? Is it a pleasantly self-serving way of passing political time between votes on independence – which, being serious, would return a fairly clear ‘NO’? Or have Sturgeon and Salmond, despite their now deep mutual antipathy, succeeded in embedding such a rancorous view of the United Kingdom that, sooner or later, Scotland will take the leap? Or, yet again, is the turn against the established Unionist parties a Scots expression of the anti-elitist mood in Europe and elsewhere, with the SNP fashioned into the populist receptacle for resentment over the long decades of a politics deferential to the Union?
However that may be, there’s no denying its power. And the largest proof of power is that the SNP has for years got away, if not with murder, then with a mountain of mendacity which, in its shamelessness, still seems to quiet serious public opposition.
Scots and English must be posed as quite different peoples – even amounting to different civilizations. But they are not. Research for the Our Scottish Future think tank, published in September, showed that Scots, English and Welsh were closely similar in their moral convictions.
“‘In Scotland England and Wales, people are united in their belief that equality (78 per cent, 76, 78) tolerance (83, 83, 83), liberty (86, 87, 83) and diversity (82, 82, 80) are important to making them proud of their nation.'
One of the major elements in the nationalists’ appeal to voters is that, once independent, Scotland will slip quickly into the European Union, membership of which appeals much more to Scots than to any other of the UK nations, especially England. It will, claims the SNP, be a much more agreeable and profitable union of which to be a part than the UK. But it won’t. Membership depends on the applicant state having its own currency: Scotland uses the common UK currency, sterling – and, overwhelmingly, Scots wish to keep it.
The struggle within the SNP over holding a referendum – the radicals demanding one now, Sturgeon and the Scottish government insisting it must be sanctioned by Westminster, since referendums are a retained power – has a large element of show. An un-sanctioned referendum would get nowhere: the EU has made it clear it would not accept the result unless Westminster assented. And if Scotland did after all get in, it would, as the director of the European Policy Centre, Fabian Zuleeg, emphasized in an essay, be expected to ‘uphold the principles of European integration, not least in accepting the terms and conditions of membership in full.’
The pre-Salmond SNP argued against future EU membership, on the grounds that it would make no sense to throw off the English yoke and put on a European one. Salmond and Sturgeon said this was nonsense. But the old-timers were right.
Among the most brazen lies which the SNP peddles is that Scotland raises enough revenue to pay for current levels of public spending, once independent. It has not been true for many years, and it is even less so now. Scotland’s deficit, after two years of crisis Covid spending, is now over 22 per cent of GDP, while the UK’s is a little over 14 per cent. Scotland could ‘pay for itself’ after independence – when it would lose the £12 billion annual transfer from the UK Treasury – only by drastic cuts to public spending, or much higher taxes, or both.
Worse yet. The spell cast over supporters of independence – most of all, by Sturgeon: she has no near competitor within her own ranks, and the leaders of the Unionist parties in Scotland struggle to be heard and seen – means that much of official and reliable information is regarded as deliberate lies.
In May this year, the pro-Union organization These Islands found that ‘57 per cent of Scottish independence supporters agree with the statement “the figures used to calculate Scotland’s deficit (The Government Revenue and Expenditure Scotland figures) are made up by Westminster to hide Scotland’s true wealth”.’
The figures are national statistics, over which statisticians labour to make accurate. They are not produced by ‘Westminster’, but by economists employed by the Scottish government (Sturgeon has not taken to the airwaves to defend her officials on this).
These Islands also found that 54 per cent of independence supporters believe that ‘Scottish tax revenues are understated because of Scottish exports leaving from English ports’; that 66 per cent of supporters believe that ‘Scottish tax revenues are understated because taxes generated by the whisky industry are not properly allocated to Scotland’; and that 55 per cent of independence supporters think that ‘Scotland is only seen to be running a deficit because some costs outside of Scotland, like HS2 and infrastructure spending in the South East, are charged to Scotland.’
In each of these cases, a vast cover-up, undetected by opposition or the news media, would have to be mounted and maintained. Such conspiracy theories always depend on the existence of such a structure of subterfuges – yet remain tenaciously in place, if they bolster a faith which departs from rationality.
One of many pessimistic studies, out in February, was a report from the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, which estimated that losses from Brexit would be dwarfed by those from independence. Scottish trade with the rest of the UK is four times greater than that with the EU; a hard border between Scotland and rUK – inevitable with independence – would mean, with the effects of Brexit and the much larger effects of independence, that income per capita would fall by something between 6.3 to 8.7 per cent. The Scottish government’s response was to argue that, since Ireland and Denmark do well within the EU, so would Scotland.
The decline in Scottish education in secondary schools has been the most obvious of the nationalists’ failures – a subject not so much of lies, but of endless excuses and unkept and unrealisable pledges. The Glasgow lecturer James McEnaney published, in August, Class Rules, The Truth About Scottish Schools, which showed that the attainment levels set by the government for levels four, five and six were not met, while targets for literacy and numeracy, where there has been a sharp decline, were missed by even greater margins. Worst, the pledge to raise the standards for the poorest children was not only badly missed but, according to McEnaney, could never have been reached. A report by the Legatum Institute in May showed that Scotland ranked 15th among 15 UK Metropolitan areas, ‘with particularly poor primary and secondary outcomes.’ The OECD’s long delayed report on Scottish education and the Curriculum for Excellence, its governing philosophy, appeared in June, and is critical of the ‘ownership’ of the system by schools, of the absence of an identifiable cycle of policy reviews, of misalignment between the curriculum’s aspirations and the system of qualifications, and of its ‘reactive and oftentimes political approach.’
The flood of negative forecasts has swelled in the past year. The nationalists’ ascendancy remains. At some point – those who trust in democratic rule and responsible electors must believe – the mountain of mendacity must crumble. But not, it seems, yet.