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Iron Scotia

This is a guest post by Professor Tom Gallagher

Beside me waiting to enter the Scottish Parliament  on Monday were a party of  excitable thirty something men, supporters of the Scottish National party,  one of whom turned to his fellows and said: ‘Today could be the moment of decision for us’. I asked him where he had been since it was Thursday’s statement by Kenny MacAskill justifying the release of  Abdelbaset al-Magrahi which was the day of definition for the SNP.  The evasions, contradictions, and nomination of Scotland as Planet Earth’s compassionate and humanitarian Sun, caused the eyes of the world to alight on Scotland’s parliament for a fleeting 90 minutes.

Anyone who had hopes that this would be a transparent exchange between a minister and his Parliamentary colleagues soon found them dashed. The Justice minister simply repeated large chunks of his statement almost verbatim when asked about parts  of his statement  which begged more questions than were  answered:

– His visit to Megrahi when in prison and what had transpired between them.

– The exact state of his health.

– Why he could not be kept in Scotland if released on compassionate grounds.

– Whether he had informed the relatives of the 180 Americans on the plane of his intentions.

On these and other issues, he endlessly stonewalled.

He and Gordon Brown seemed joined at the hip through their preference for leaving questions unanswered. Instead of reeling off pages of statistics, MacAskill emoted about how he had been driven to his decision by his Christian beliefs and the need for a higher being to assume responsibility for al-Megrahi. He enlisted the support of Archbishop Conti, the head of Glasgow’s Catholics who somehow had gleaned that most of them supported him. He quoted at length from Ian Galloway, the head of the Presbyterian Church’s most important committee  who said: ‘This decision has sent a message to the world about what it is to be Scottish’. MacAskill found time to take sideswipes at the British government and complain about the Times newspaper for acting as ‘an organ of the British establishment’. He came over as a cross between a clean-shaven Guevara or Garibaldi and the US president Woodrow Wilson cloaked in Presbyterian virtue.

His colleagues were quietly exultant, the theatrical Michael Russell, responsible for piloting through the planned independence referendum, could not conceal his glee. But at least one minister who has to sell Scotland abroad to foreign investors in order to preserve a viable economy, appeared lost in his own thoughts. Many on the Labour benches had the demeanour of defendants at a show trial in communist Eastern Europe. In 2010 at Westminster and at the 2011 Holyrood elections many must know they are not likely to outlast Megrahi, politically at least, for very long. Several Labour figures even broke ranks and praised the SNP decision, including Henry Mcleish a former First Minister. At least the Labour leader Iain Gray got to the heart of the issue. In the words of Hamish Macdonell in the Daily Mail (Scottish edition):

‘Mr MacAskill made it clear in his statement that he had not acceded to the request to transfer Megrahi to Libya under the prisoner transfer agreement because the American families had been given an assurance that the Lockerbie bomber would serve out his sentence in Scotland .

How could Mr MacAskill back the American families in that way and then turn round and release Megrahi on compassionate grounds.

Didn’t the same assurance given to American families apply to compassionate release too?

…the Justice Minister clearly flummoxed, paddled round repeating the same phrases about it being his decision and how he made it in accordance with “due process”‘.

This shiftiness indicates how it is political factors that shaped the way the SNP is handling the Megrahi affair, however much reference is made to God, the church, and the law of Scotland. This could well turn out to be the SNP’s Falklands moment. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher a populist leaders, presiding over a declining economy, saw her prospects transformed by a crisis of international dimensions, the Argentinian junta’s invasion of these British islands in the South Atlantic. She stepped forward to defend the nation at an elemental point and the myth of Iron Britannia was born. It’s early days yet and things may emerge that reveal MacAskill as a total knave with no hiding place. But a similar apotheosis of nationalism is occurring in Scotland with the SNP projecting itself as the nationalist shield when the country is misunderstood and under attack.

It matters little that the SNP ignited the psycho-drama by making the decision and even tipping off  the media about Megrahi’s release before the families of the victims were informed. A kind of national salvation front has sprung up flanking the Salmond government. Phone in programmes have been deluged by pro-MacAskill callers. Jean Brodie type  Morningside matrons and have made common cause with the workshy druggies who feature in Irvine Walsh’s Trainspotting. This is one of those occasions when the manipulativeness  of nationalism enables  a huge human catch to be hauled in.  The Scottish Great and the Good were also mainly loud in his support. Most of the Scottish political blogging community, including quickwitted bloggers who have seen through nationalist tricks before, rolled over for Kenny and Alex to tickle their stomachs. (Hammers of the Nats like this Paisley Labour councillor, http://councillorterry.kelly.blogspot.com, supported the release but slammed the Nats for exploiting it for publicity!). If Kenny MacAskill had left Parliament and walked on his hands around the nearby extinct volcano called Arthur’s seat, many of them would have said he was still doing Scotland proud.

Just as Thatcher found Michael Foot and other opponents on her side in 1982, the SNP decision has won it backing in other parties, the media, the churches and the cultural establishment especially among people for whom distrust of America is a default position. Iron Scotia has come of age. A dramatic gesture to the world has been made albeit in very tangled circumstances. London has been evasive and mealy-mouthed in comparison. If politicians like Hillary Clinton and the late Edward Kennedy didn’t like it, the cybernats ( and not just they), said it was just too bad.

Next week when Parliament resumes the issue will be debated and it will be a surprise if a glove is layen on the SNP despite the alarming gaps in its explanation for the affair. Nor do I even expect a vote of no confidence, so alarmed are the SNP’s opponents of facing the electorate and so incapable of forming any kind of coalition that would convey credibility.

This was one of the few occasions when Alex Salmond knew it was his turn to be quiet. But one of the most percipient of the 30 questions asked to MacAskill was really aimed at the SNP leader, from Labour’s Duncan McNeil:

‘Will the planned visit by the Scottish government to the Middle East to seek investment funds for public projects go ahead.

Should it be ruled out to avoid further damage to Scotland’s reputation’?

For however short a time he and his party are now a fixture on the Arab street, at least those gated neighbourhoods inhabited by wealthy sheiks. The Scottish  Saltire fluttering in the Tripoli breeze on 20 August reopened old wounds among the families of the Lockerbie dead but could be an Open Sesame for the SNP in corporate Araby. If Salmond returns to Scotland with Arab bounty, then the propaganda benefits will be immense.

But is the dominance of the SNP assured and the fate of the 302 year-old Union sealed? I am not so sure. This is a Scottish version of a political revolution in a country where radicals of any kind usually never had a look-in. The  initiative has swung to the most fervent  elements and indeed it is now militant Nats who make the headlines and are petted by the leadership: MSPs who want to reclaim Berwick-upon-Tweed; sharply curtail cricket coverage on BBC Scotland; or even force supermarkets to put Scottish sub-titles on arrange of food products.

These are driven and sometimes even cranky people. Many other abrupt and self-righteous types  have flocked into the party as its prospects have soared. The SNP is factional  in spirit and if Labour crumbles, this aggression will be directed inwards. The party doesn’t have a positive liberating message based on an ethical and practical vision of a new Scotland. The images MacAskill drew upon to show the world that the release of Megrahi was Scottishness in action were flimsy and contrived. The SNP thrives because of a capable leader, a broken opposition, and a society in flux due to cultural changes and economic crisis.

There is still a ‘silent majority’ of Scots who don’t want their identity to be repackaged along political nationalist lines. Once the mood calms many are bound to reflect on why so many nationalists are keen not only to row with England but provoke the United States as well. The need for assertiveness is unfortunately not matched  by any desire to invest time and energy for plans that will create a new Scotland  in the 21st century.  This will become plain and I suspect that many Scots who are on the verge of losing their heads will step back  and demand from the Nats explanations of how a small under-resourced country can be safe in their hands, ones  which they will find it hard to provide.

Next week, my use of the internet will be sparing. I will be enjoying  a break in a country which derives its popular nationalist fix from soccer not by anointing  a leader who in recent days seemed  a cross between Don Quixote, Mother Teresa, and Che Guevara.

I can already anticipate some of the responses to this post:

– How can an academic be so politically outspoken?

The time and the issue warrant it and some of us still defy convention by trying to be relevant and confront important questions like the revival of nationalism (Instead of being bean-counters, devotees of various theoretical dead-ends, or obscure miniaturists in our research).

You are in the pay of…the National Endowment for Democracy, the Labour party…

Actually, it’s the Institute for Japanese Whisky.

– You are animated by hatred of a progressive cause  that is now making the mighty tremble…

Not quite. I’ve been in the fortunate position of being able to teach and research on a subject like nationalism and get paid for it. So when a contemporary nationalist movement like the SNP begins to display some of the self-righteous features that made nationalism so problematic in international relations, I feel obliged to speak up. Nor  can I  think of a better electronic debating chamber than Harry’s Place – it puts the Scottish Parliament to shame.

I had pronounced sympathies for the SNP for a decade or so after 1974 when it appeared to be a civic, pragmatic and participatory force. In 2009, it is increasingly ethnic, confrontational, and impatient with key aspects of democracy. This matters a lot especially when civil society, particularly the universities, are loathe to audit the SNP’s performance; indeed, much of civil society is being absorbed by the state.

The SNP offers tunes of glory and manipulates people’s emotions often quite shamelessly.  Napoleon, Hitler…and nowadays Colonel Qadafi have tried to standardise the thoughts of their citizens in order to forge a path to personal greatness or notoriety.  No I am  not comparing Alex Salmond to Adolf Hitler. The Nazi leader built concentration camps and placed his opponents and ethnic victims inside them. Salmond flays his opponents with his biting invective and loves many of the democratic rituals like elections.  But they are distantly related to one another just as Salmond has closer relations with more responsible nationalists from India to Ireland. Too often even humdrum nationalists insist on uniformity and an insistence that collective nationalist values are the supreme ones; nationalism is shaped around distrust and sometimes even antagonism towards others; important political issues are relegated until the ‘national question’ is solved; and freedom is defined as freedom from foreign rule not untrammelled exercise of democratic self-government .

The circus put on by the SNP in the last week has indeed focussed the eyes of many elsewhere in the world on Scotland. The SNP will find the closer scrutiny uncomfortable as it steps up its campaign to fully realise its separatist project.

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