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?