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The Scottish Piazza Echoes to the Liberation Beat

Tom Gallagher’s book, The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism was published in both paperback and hardback by Hurst and Co in London last Thursday. Following a series of guest posts exploring controversial features of the SNP’s time in government, he now reflects on what motivated him to write the book as well as discussing some of its key conclusions.
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I wrote this book because Scotland is displaying some of the negative consequences of a country where democracy arrived late and in an incomplete form. For centuries it has been dominated by a clutch of interest groups united in the belief that to govern Scotland it is best to ‘involve as few people as possible’. Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party, far from being the ‘change’ party, remain wedded to that principle. It look as if they are about to acquire domination over a small, hitherto sheltered, and therefore unavoidably naive country.

Spectacular progress is being made in propelling Scotland towards a post-British future. Social groups hitherto numb the nationalist message are being won over in operations like the release of Abdelbaset al-Magrahi which might even have had Machiavelli gaping in admiration. A social democratic country is promised, its cities catching up with Bergen or Toronto. But a case can be made that it is more likely to resemble Caracas or South Carolina.

Alex Salmond, the calculating showman who leads the SNP, is a cross between Hugo Chavez and Andrew Jackson, the first populist to take American politics by storm, sweeping in from the frontier to capture the White House in 1829. Jackson was the ‘quintessential “tribal chieftain”, a Scots-Irish leader, melding together the two ancient concepts of the warrior aristocracy and popular egalitarianism’. These are the words of Virginia Senator Jim Webb who heads the ‘Friends of Scotland’ caucus on Capitol Hill. Chavez in his turn evokes the memory of mighty native empires and the need to base a liberation struggle around a chosen figure.

The first political personality cult seen in Scotland revolves around Alex Salmond. Someone who in his public manner is a cross between the quiz show host Hughie Green and Jonathan Ross has achieved a remarkable ascendancy over a large segment of the population (a sign perhaps of how the Scots have absorbed the values of the downmarket media world to whose products so many are addicted). With a one seat majority but faced with a timorous opposition which fears humiliation if early elections are called, it is Salmond’s personal and strategic choices that now count in Scotland.

He insists that his party is a civic nationalist force that promotes individual responsibility and widespread participation in public affairs without reference to ethnicity. But in 2014 he plans to devote another Homecoming event to Scotland’s only significant military victory at Bannockburn in 1314 with millions in tax-payers money being devoted to stirring up antagonistic feelings about the English in the breasts
of young Scots.

He has already approved plans that will ensure a Scottish child’s education will not be complete until he or she have visited battlefield sites that were the scenes of Anglo-Scottish warfare. This new tribalism shows the narrowness and manipulative side of Salmond’s movement. After the 1989 massacre at Tian-an men square the Chinese authorities also linked educational success with absorbing a heavy dose of nationalist indoctrination. From 1994, the Beijing authorities began to select scores of ‘patriotic education bases’ around China. These are museums, or actual sites of past Chinese heroism or else humiliation in the face of foreign might. Young Chinese are taken in groups to these places to heighten their national awareness. From guides they hear about Japanese ‘devils’ and ‘Hitlerite’ Americans. Before graduation, a Chinese high school student must make several visits to these shrines of memory.

If instead of ‘interpretative centres’ at Culloden, Stirling and elsewhere, Scotland gets ‘patriotic education centres’, then the unemployment problem will be solved – at least for a certain type of badge-festooned SNP activist who is just as likely to vent anti-English feelings as a BNP militant is to run down non-whites or Muslims.

To his credit, Salmond has displayed restraint by declining to lower the voting age to 5 years before the referendum on Scottish independence which he plans to stage in 2010. Instead, he hopes to merely lower the voting age from 18 to 16. These young Scots barely out of puberty and coming to terms with their hormones are perhaps the SNP’s ideal citizens. They are highly susceptible to emotional appeals based on personal assertion and indeed outright rebellion.

How much of an exaggeration is it to contend that Scotland in general shows plenty of signs of reverting to a teenage phase in its political life when the desire to spurn familiar arrangements in return for experimentation for its own sake has become an all-consuming one? The era of the 1960s, when defiance and revolt filled the air, has finally caught up with a previously cautious and introspective nation. Even as late as 1997, the stoicism of the Scots ensured that most remained aloof from the lamentations and wailings that engulfed much of England upon the death of Princess Diana.

But nowadays Scotland is led by a movement which is as much a cult as a mainstream party. It springs from the decline of community and a retreat from religion, with a high proportion of its members being un-churched and without links to any secular civic groups. This enables the SNP to project itself as a surrogate family in an increasingly privatised age shorn of social commitments. It has also benefited enormously from the decline of Britishness.

Britishness started to become discredited as the outriders of radical capitalism, first under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, then under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, privatised or drastically altered the character of institutions which had helped preserve an attachment to the union state as the appeal of more traditional icons started to fade.

Numerous policy failures under two Labour premierships have reinforced the belief that the Westminster political system is broken and that it is unable to run an increasingly complex society in an effective way. The store of credibility possessed by central institutions has been seriously depleted and the quality of the political elite has declined at virtually all levels. This is in no small degree due to the way they have pursued first neo-liberal and managerial strategies which alienate far more citizens than they convince.

New Labour was all about a leader and his hand-picked team imposing an ambitious political agenda on the country without the public being consulted. The party leader was invested with a degree of authority more normally to be found in single-party states. He operated through interest groups, and especially the media, in order to impose his agenda. It meant that his own party and Parliament became echo chambers for his wishes.

A cursory look at Salmond’s SNP shows that it could easily be the Caledonian version of Blair and New Labour. Salmond operates through similar technologists of power from the media and management industries. Presentation of policy is more important than its substance or effect on people’s lives. Top layers of the Scottish civil service have cast neutrality to the winds and now support the SNP’s barely disguised political campaigns in the media. A recent leaked minute reveals that under its English head Sir John Elvidge, the Scottish civil service now believes that ‘conflict and confrontation’ should be at the heart of their dealings with Westminster.

It is eerie that a party which is far from being special in terms of the originality of its ideas or quality of its membership, is rapidly acquiring such an ascendancy over the institutions of power in Scotland . The SNP has actually been around for a long time, since 1928 when the National Party of Scotland was formed. It is therefore only several decades younger than Labour. But generations in the wilderness stretched ahead due to the salience of class politics. The post-industrial and arguably post-British political landscape of post-2000 Scotland means that only now has it become the natural political choice for a majority of Scots.

After a series of worthy but uninspiring leaders, finally along came Alex Salmond. In the last two decades, he has become one of the most accomplished manipulators of the media ever seen in British politics. Anyone who wishes to take his measure ought to read Thomas Mann’s Mario and the Magician. This novel describes how the minds of normally-level headed people in an Italian town in the 1920s are captured by a travelling magician who gets them to debase themselves until one among them wakes up and slays their tormentor. In part, it is an allegory of fascism: Salmond is no Hitler and the SNP s not a fascist party. He 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.

He rules through a tight-knit group of people whom he selects, moulds in his own image, and advances through the party. His period in office provides clues of what an independent Scotland politically might look like. There is likely to be an emphasis on a strong leader, on simplistic explanations for complex issues, and deliberate vagueness about what should be the ethical basis on which a supposedly independent order ought to be based. Checks and balances restraining the power of narrow sets of leaders are also likely to be limited.

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.

But right now Scotland has only reach its 1848 moment (161 years late). The nation defied Britain and America over the Lockerbie affair and the world was asked to look and learn about a previously invisible country whose genius lay in laws and a design for living based around values of compassion. Alas, Justice minister Kenny MacAskill never got around to explaining just what was the difference between the values of the Scots and those of the English and the Americans.

The release of Abdelbaset al-Magrahi and its iconography brought fulsome praise a phalanx of media personalities, academics, lawyers and church people who had previously been wary of the SNP. Lesley Riddoch, the doyenne of BBC Scotland radio journalism acclaimed MacAskill for no longer ‘kow-towing to the world’s most powerful nation’. Paul Laverty, the Scot who wrote the screenplay for several of Ken Loach’s films, penned an article rehearsing the numerous sins of the USA under the headline ‘MacAskill’s crime wasn’t to release a murderer but to disobey America’. The Observer’s Scottish correspondent Kevin McKenna believed that ‘a judicial system that has served Scotland soundly for more than 400 years’ had been vindicated in the eyes of the world.

With previously agnostic pundits, literati and theatre folk flocking to his side, Alex Salmond deserves to feel confident that the march towards independence will gather pace. The silent majority can be ignored or else told that their belief the state has the duty to uphold justice in the face of a horrendous crime, is medieval in its harshness.

But it is an ambiguous salvation that awaits the Scots , just as fraught with menace and uncertainty as that facing older and wiser European nations who remember with some discomfort the excesses that marked their own springtime awakenings.

I make a case in the book for a broad nationalism, believing that Scotland can retain its distinctiveness in partnership with the other nations and communities of these islands. I fear that the conspiratorial ways in which the SNP is manipulating nationalism will eventually lead to a backlash against the entire national principle as Scots recoil from the way it mishandles power. Albert Camus once remarked that there were Europeans who had decided that they loved their nations too much to be nationalists. I will belong squarely in that category until the SNP gets beyond the teenage state of stirring up mostly imaginary grievances against other countries and devises a serious programme for governing the country that acknowledges Scotland’s very real weaknesses as well as its strengths, both actual and potential.

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