27 February 2011

"Historically the SNP has had an aversion to debate..."

In a recent post on his blog, Gerry Hassan reproduces Michael Gardiner's review of Hassan's edited collection of essays, The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power (2009). This passage struck me, and set me thinking:

"Analysing the relationship between emotional and political nationalism, Hassan also persuasively describes how the Party have used the failures of New Labour as in a previous era they did with Thatcherism. He charts, as do others here, the movement from amateur group to pragmatic political party, and a rise to power despite the lack of a mass membership and a difficult relationship with its intellectual supporters such as Tom Nairn and Neal Ascherson. Indeed there is some debate here about how intellectual SNP supporters are – they tend to be highly educated, but as Stephen Maxwell and others point out, historically the party has had an aversion to debate..."

Some might well suggest that SNP claims that we're for Scotland lacks ideological definition. Surely the vital question is, what sort of Scotland are we for? We shouldn't be too impatient about this, as the idea of promoting Scotland's interests, whatever ideological prism those interests are refracted through, says something significant about the party's priorities. The phrase may be problematic, but it is not empty. For example, the new Tory-and-friends Westminster government have been making extensive use of the phrase that given reforms or spending cuts are in the national interest. Such arguments are best approached, I'd suggest, as alternative, coherent, accounts of what constitutes "the national interest".  We shouldn't waste our time arguing about who has got a real or accurate vision of that interest. No external definition will be forthcoming. Rather we ought to recognise that within the United Kingdom, Scottish nationalists disagree with Unionists about what the national interest amounts to. Diverging on these basic presumptions, but sharing a political vocabulary, it is all too easy to enter into redundant arguments where we talk past one another, hardly recognising the other party's differing premises. Noticing that we part ways early on - in the definition of apparently straightforward phrases - is a vital precondition for meaningful debate, if we are not to get lost in a redundant linguistic argument about the definition of terms.

Disagreement within a party is inevitable. I've no interest in being part of an outfit which seeks to discipline its supporters into uniformity. However, when a single soul simultaneously expresses two incompatible positions - that is not internal debate, but naked incoherence. A man for all seasons is too easily just a say-anything charlatan. Or an idiot.  Some of you may disagree, but I'd suggest that this is doubtlessly a recognisable tendency in some Scottish Nationalist circles - broadly equivalent to those post-ideological, market-drunk Tories who bluster on in the House of Commons about common sense, who furnish a blazing confirmation of the idea that nothing is more ideological than the creature who cannot recognise the extent to which this common sense is governed by submerged ideological commitments. The gormless, problematic, dimension of this we're for Scotland rhetoric, is that some of its proponents appear to believe that all the ills of the world are generated by the Union establishment, and a clean excision from that Union entails a wholesale rehabilitation of the Scottish body politick. This is clearly inveterate nonsense, which misses the inevitable (and appropriate) ideological political content of identifying, reconciling or promoting particular political interests. Like the poor, political dissonance is always with us. It may be displaced, but it cannot and should not be attempted to be suppressed.  Governance by a minority SNP administration has not helped in this respect, arguably reinforcing the strict discipline of party in the teeth of a united opposition, resulting in an over-sensitivity to dissent and a tendency to support the party orthodoxy. Conceived as sorely embattled by Scotland's Union-skewed press, we should form up behind Salmond, stow our doubts and complaints - and focus on sticking it to Labour. This approach may be understandable, but it isn't particularly appealing, admirable - or I'd suggest - even productive in the longer term.  Unhappily, the tendency will be aggravated by the promise of an imminent election, where supportive souls are well advised to fall loyally and quietly in line.

For example, Iain Gray has made great play of mocking the bendability of Salmond's arc of prosperity.  Striking a more sober note, Alex Massie has suggested that Alex Salmond was another loser as a result of the Irish economic predicament.  This is clearly not a sin limited to the SNP, but it is ludicrous to claim that it does not have significant implications for the sort of nationalism we are envisaging and that Salmond doesn't have serious questions to answer on this score. It is all very well to say that Georgie Osborne made the same missteps and misjudgments. It is not, I'd suggest, a final or fatal rebuttal of Scottish nationalist arguments, nor is it an impressive defence of continuing participation in the Union. However, it is surely a question which deserves more pensive consideration that defensive globe-trotting huff-puffery, which largely ignores the ideological and political choices which separate Ireland from Norway and between which an independent Scotland would realistically have to choose. What sort of state should an independent Scotland be? What sort of values should it pursue? I don't think it is particularly unfair to suggest that, like others, the SNP haven't remotely begun to  think through - never mind answer - these thorny questions.  Are we seriously suggesting that there is no discussion to be had, no questions to be asked?

Similarly, I'm getting a mite fed up of the extent to which certain SNP figures employ the distant prospect of independence to serve as a mechanism to de-politicise contemporary political problems or contradictions, by deferring them until that independent future, in which we are reassured they could be unproblematically reconciled. I've previously taken the Maximum Eck to task for his lamentable incoherence on the question of European Convention of Human Rights.  Last week in Holyrood, Kenny MacAskill gave a bravura nonsense performance on the Cadder judgment in a similar vein, the significance of which the press seems largely to have missed. Early next week, I'll be taking a look at MacAskill's remarks in detail and shan't be forgiving.  My sense is that it is vital to get away from the defensive attitude that you are either for us or against us, all or nothing. It is all very well, when faced with ones own inadequacies, to point to the clear deficiencies of the alternative options, whether that is Labour, the Liberals, the Tories. It seems to me, however, that exchanging motes for beams gets us almost nowhere. Time, I'd suggest, to change the historical legacy Gardiner identifies. All of us who are sympathetic to independence have cause to seriously reconsider the political limits of the SNP's tendency to assume the character of everyman Nationalism, which all too often feigns to face every which way simultaneously, and hopes nobody notices. It is time, I'd suggest, to start taking the question I opened with far more seriously. We know that the SNP is for Scotland. What we want to know is, what sort of Scotland are we for?


  1. How on earth do you expect the SNP to say what sort of state an independent Scotland should be or what sort of values it should pursue?

    I can't think of anything more pointless than the SNP setting out its manifesto for the first independent Scottish elections when we are not at that stage yet.

    That's a panel game, it's not politics.

  2. I think Jim Mather has made it clear what kind of place he thought an independent Scotland would be when he wrote 'any notion that an independent Scotland would be a left wing country is delusional nonsense.’

  3. Have to agree with Indy. For myself, with a few qualifications, I think that Scottish independence is, of itself, a 'good thing'.
    There is no doubt that Scots recognise a national 'we'. That 'we' is damaged by constant assualts on our self belief. Like it or not, the constant thrust of argument against independence has been, simply, we're not up to it. And that has been widely assimilated.
    Intellectuals (and quasi-intellectuals) sometimes like to pretend that what the public is weighing in it's collective mind is not whether we CAN do it, but whether we should.
    At the risk of being rudely emphatic, that is utter bullshit.
    I'm convinced that the only thing stopping a gallop to independence is fear. A fear that has been engendered by , let's say vested interests.
    Frankly, if the Scottish public ever reaches a position where we believe that we would be successful as an independent country, but choose to reject that route, then I would have absolutely no complaints.

  4. Excellent post. Whenever I mention independence so many people ask 'what will be different from the status quo?'. People want to know and because these issues aren't debated publicly, the electorate will continue to think independence has nothing to do with them.

    I've said often enough many tories in this part of the country vote SNP only because they believe in independence. Of course the word tory is a four letter word in most of Scotland. John Swinney will tell you there are more tories in his constituency than SNP supporters but he achieves his good majorities because tories, who believe in independence, vote for him. And of course he's a well liked man.

  5. Subrosa Scotland the day after independence will be exactly the same as it was the day before.

    The only thing that will have changed is that the decision-making powers will have moved from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament.

    Thereafter, there will be a general election and the Scottish people will decide what changes they want to see in the various policy areas that have been absorbed into the remit of the Scottish Parliament and Government.

    At that point the parties will set out their positions. I can see no point now in the SNP setting out an imaginary manifesto for an independent Scotland.

    I understand that people will want to know what an independent Scotland would be like but the truth is that the SNP cannot answer that question, any more than unionist parties can answer the question what will the UK be like in ten, twenty, fifty years time. None of us have a crystal ball.

    The case for independence does not rest on defining what kind of country Scotland will be post-independence because we will all have different ideas about that - even within the SNP people have very different political outlooks. What is important is that Scotland's future course will be decided democratically and by the Scottish people - and only the Scottish people.

    The case for independence is simply that we believe Scotland will be better governed and more successful as an independent nation. No-one cares as much about Scotland as the people who live here. No-one will prioritise Scotland as much as a Scottish Government. That is not an intellectual argument or an ideological argument but it is, I would suggest, a common sense argument.

    People who want us to take it further and not only say why we want Scotland to be self-governing but to make assertions about what future - and as yet unelected - Scottish governments will do are quite simply asking the impossible.

    As I said it would make a good panel game but it is not politics.

  6. I thought the reason why the SNP does not specify what post-Independence Scotland would be like is to keep the party together, being a broad church collection of those who think having an independent Scotland is the most important political issue. That dates back to the creation of the SNP from the merger of the National Party and the Scottish Party, and has applied to more recent issues such as republican v monarchist etc.

    Of course the SSP and the Greens also believe that Scotland should be independent, but that is subordinate to the their primary aims; hence why they are not in the SNP.

    Now this does mean that logically the SNP should be less inclined to apply "the whip" to its members in parliamentary votes; whether or not this is true I leave to someone inclined to statistical analysis.

  7. I could only imagine (often quite frightenly extreme) what kind of mother I would be until the reality of my childrens births created the actual changes that shaped my and their behaviours. Ask any midwife, an ideal Birth Plan rarely goes exactly to plan but the primary purpose is a healthy mother and baby whatever other compromises have to be made in the real and frequently unpredictable circumstances.
    I would suspect it is the same with Independence! We can theorise and plan only to a certain extent - that makes sense - but to establish the exact nature,function and aspiration of a whole new nation in some unpredictable future scenario is not a 'brave new world' that I want. My children have flourished, independently, in unexpected ways that I could not have predicted or predicated.
    I agree with 'voiceofourown' above that "fear" is a barrier almost exactly the same as I felt before my first child was born. I have a feeling that the basis of my fears were(still are) quite different from those of their Dad? Perhaps differing male/female "fear" of change/future would be an interesting take on voting intentions etc.?

  8. Indy writes: "The only thing that will have changed is that the decision-making powers will have moved from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament."

    But surely the decision-making will remain in Brussels? I simply can't understand nationalists who would exchange a parliament where we have 59 seats out of a total of 650 for one where we have six out of a total of 751.

  9. Achieving the goal of national self-determination is enough for me and I think it's important that we do not attempt to shape what Scotland would or should look like post-independence. To do so would obviously create divisions, some of them perhaps deep and I, too, thought this was the main reason why it was consciously avoided by the SNP.

    Or does it, consciously avoid it, or only when it suits it? Is it even possible? Is there not a conflict between the SNP attempting to adopt a neutral stance while at the same time holding office at Holyrood? I actually take issue with much of what MacAskill has been up to of late, to such an extent that it dampens my enthusiasm for the SNP. Please note that I'm not necessarily arguing that the SNP should reject holding office pre-indepedence, I'm merely asking out loud whether or not it conflicts with any attempt to adopt a neutral stance, sometimes with serious consequences.

  10. If you want to understand it better McGonagall, look up the list of reserved powers published in schedule 5 of the Scotland Act.

    It simply makes no sense to argue that you do not want the Scottish Parliament to acquire these powers from Westminster because other policy areas come within the competence of the EU.

  11. Jings!

    Always nice to scribble up something that gets folk chin-wagging. Many thanks for all your comments. I'll try and address some of the points you've all made.

    Firstly, Indy, I don't accept that it is an either/or. The distinction you seem to draw seems to me to be too artificial. A clearer idea about what sort of Scotland the SNP is for has clear implications for policy choices, even within the devolved settlement. Secondly, I recognise that we're talking about a complex combination of groups here - party leaders, members of parliament, ordinary members, supporters - and so on. Encouraging more debate and greater ideological self-consciousness has different implications at these different levels. For example, in response to this article, the Burd suggested that the SNP suffers due to a lack of formal mechanisms for organised research and reflection on public policy. That idea strikes me as one that may have significant merit and implications for future party activity, broadly defined.

  12. Voice of Our Own, I have sympathy with your point about the mechanisms by which independence might actually be realised. I'm not talking stratagem here, so much as substance - although I'd argue that vagueness and Janus-faced politics doesn't help the cause of independence in certain quarters. Like Subrosa I have friends who find resort to the sorts of arguments I mention in my last paragraph to be totally intolerable, and as a result, cast their votes elsewhere.

    On the other hand, as some of you have mentioned, shouldn't this be subordinated to the wider interests of maintaining a broad movement, arranged around a commitment to independence for Scotland - obfuscating or at least relegation to secondary concern other contentious political issues, such as different conceptions of the role of the state, whether neo-liberal, social democratic - and so on. I think Highland Lawyer's way of conceiving the issue - one of the priority of issues - is an interesting and potentially helpful and clarifying one. Your remarks also raise a fascinating further argument, which I may well enlarge on in a subsequent blogpost. Indy and Anonymous No 2 broadly suggest that...

    "... achieving the goal of national self-determination is enough for me and I think it's important that we do not attempt to shape what Scotland would or should look like post-independence", to quote the second commenter. My question in response is this:

    How compatible do you think this is with gradualist participation in the governance of devolved institutions?

    It may be one thing to assume a broad minded attitude as part of a stratagem to hold a coalition around independence together. It is quite another to insist that reflection can or ought to be deferred until after the movement when Scottish political sovereignty was repatriated.

  13. Sorry Mr Worrier, sir, I'm with those who think the sort of Scotland the SNP should be seeking is an independent one, full stop. The answer to the question "how will it be different after independence?" is to say firmly to one's interlocutor, "Well, it'll be up to you what Scotland will be like when we are free, in a sense which is completely impossible under the present arrangements".

  14. How compatible is political neutrality with administering devolution? Somewhere between not very and rarely if at all. And yet, to the SNP’s credit, it appears to have managed it to a sufficient degree, thus far. I'd suggest that this incompatibility exists whether the administration is of a Scottish nationalist or British nationalist hue, although perhaps to varying degrees.

    By all means, let's have the arguments, as many of them as we like and to our hearts' content. In our own homes, workplaces, pubs, meetings, on-line etc. But the pitfalls of any attempt at influencing SNP policy in that regard should be obvious.

    Some may even argue that the following is too much:

    "The SNP is a democratic left-of-centre political party committed to Scottish Independence. It aims to create a just, caring and enterprising society by releasing Scotland's full potential as an independent nation in the mainstream of modern Europe".

    There's nothing in that lot to raise my own hackles but there is certainly ample room for disagreement - left-of-centre, Europe.

    However, I could assert that post-independence I want the frontiers of the state rolled back, leaving greater space for individual liberty instead. Perhaps even more controversially, I could advance the proposition that Scotland's over-reliance on public sector employment is to the detriment of our wider economic prosperity and needs urgent addressing instead of pandering to. Private enterprise would be stimulated and greater revenue created by lower taxes and a less punitive regime, all of which are desirable. But where are such arguments likely to get us at this stage? Certainly not any closer to independence. More likely even further away. Therefore, I’ll refrain.


  15. I don't really get your point LPW. Clearly the SNP does have a political identity and policies within the devolved context. If people didn't have a pretty good idea of what the SNP are like before we were elected to government they do now.

    The problem arises a) when people want the SNP to start making commitments about a post-independence Scotland and b) when they want to ally support for independence with other specific issues or want the SNP to identify itself as belonging clearly to one particular strand of the political spectrum.

    This is a problem which is unique to the SNP because our aim and our identity as a party is not defined in the same way that other parties are, it is much clearer in one sense (independence) but less clear in another (where exactly we fit on the right/left/liberal/authoritaruan spectrum by which other parties are defined).

    Add to this the increasing personalisation of politics i.e the tendency of many voters to choose a party or candidate not on the basis of policy or ideology but on the basis that they can identify with that person or party and the values they seem to represent - a less mental version of the Christine O'Donnell "I'm you" scenario.

    A lot of people do vote on that basis these days - I don't like that but it's very much the case. That's why the first job of the SNP Govt was to persuade people that they were not a bunch of shortbread-eating, kilt-wearing, Braveheart-watching nutters. They were normal. It also explains why so many people are appatently still thinking of voting Labour. It doesn't matter how threadbare their policies are or how patently unfit they are to be in office, if people still feel that Labour represent their values and are suspicious that we don't (whether because we are soft on crime or whatever else - the facts don't enter into it, it's all about perception).

    I can understand that the way the SNP tries to deal with that may come over as trying to be all things to all people but the big tent approach to independence is the only one that wull ever work.

    The final point is that we do operate - more so than any other party - in an extremely hostile media environment and that, more than any characteristic of the SNP itself, explains why people are extremely wary of doing or saying anything which could be construed as indicating a divided party.

  16. The SNP, as caretakers of nationalists aspirations, have an obligation to hold together all strands of nationalist thinking. That is more difficut as a political party than as a 'movement'.
    The way the SNP has dealt with this is to position themselves on the political spectrum where they feel most Scots see themselves (whether or not it matches the reality).
    The problems alluded to in this blog piece are a consequence of the choice to pursue party- political power.
    To complement this (to an extent hamstrung) political wing, we need a diverse, politically unaligned, nationalist movement which can speculate about a future independent scotland with no fear of shooting the main agent of that aspiration in the foot.
    I had myself considered setting up a blog to do just that (Title: Imagined Futures, Strapline: Personal visions of an Independent Scotland).
    I certainly see no harm (and probably much good) coming from such a project BUT, the SNP should steer well clear of such deliberations.

  17. I agree with that completely VoiceofOurown.

    I think sometimes confusion arises where people believe that the SNP = the independence movement.

    In reality the SNP is a political party, which exists to fight elections and to deliver a parliamentary route to independence. But it does not encompass the whole independence movement, never could, does not claim to and does not want to.

  18. Fascinating thoughts, I must say. I hope you'll forgive me, but I'll be holding back from trying to give a reasoned account of my own view for a future blog. The content-impoverished blogger must maximise the usefulness squeezed from such significant debates!

  19. Indy writes: "It simply makes no sense to argue that you do not want the Scottish Parliament to acquire these powers from Westminster because other policy areas come within the competence of the EU."

    But I don't argue that at all. My argument is why stop with reclaiming powers from Westminster but leave vast areas of competence in Brussels hands?

  20. McGonagall, there is so much that needs to be done, so many decisions to make, that to attempt to address every issue simultaneously is to fail to make progress on any of them. I agree that the SNP should not be PRO EU but should remain neutral in that debate as combining any other issues with the independence question can only dilute the independence one.

    Scotland is already in the EU so nothing would change there, but EU membership is definitely something which has to be addressed at some point... AFTER independence. The reasons for that are twofold; first, it distracts from the independence debate and, second, before independence Scotland's electorate is in no position to decide on Scotland's membership of any international bodies. Without independence Scotland's decisions will be made by the UK, and Scotland's voters do not constitute a significant portion of the UK's electorate.

  21. McGonagall you said "But surely the decision-making will remain in Brussels? I simply can't understand nationalists who would exchange a parliament where we have 59 seats out of a total of 650 for one where we have six out of a total of 751."

    You are implying there that independence would not result in any real decision making powers being transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

    That is just daft. All of the reserved powers - including of course the power to sign treaties and to enter into or to leave supranational bodies like the EU - would be transferred from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament.

    What happened then vis a vis EU membership or any other matter would be down to the Scottish people.

  22. Indy - 'Subrosa Scotland the day after independence will be exactly the same as it was the day before. The only thing that will have changed is that the decision-making powers will have moved from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament.'

    So no change except powers? People want to know how the powers will be employed and an independent government will be attributed to a more successful country. They want information and the unionists are doing everything in their power to stifle informed debate and succeeding.

    I haven't suggested the SNP produce an independence manifesto, but what I would suggest that, in the current political climate, it's only the SNP who can keep the independence flame alight. Yes it's a balancing act of some complexity, due to the wide variety of opinions with the party itself, but it's the only act in town.

    Personalisation of politics has been happening throughout my lifetime. My own MSP and MP owe their seats to personalisation. It has possibly assisted in more of the electorate looking at the SNP more positively instead of generally ignoring it.

    The greatest cure for fear is knowledge.