20 June 2012

Is the SNP's Britishness forlorn?

Over the weekend, I was scooting across Oxford in a taxi, when up piped the driver, "So, what do you make of this Scottish National Party then?" The fellow hailed from somewhere in the Middle East - difficult to place where precisely - but he was firmly of the view that Scottish secession would be a mistake.  Clenching his fist by way of illustration, he argued that while thin, extended fingers are liable to snap if buffeted, when our digits are all drawn together into a first, their combined solidity rebuffs all threats. The constitutional analogy drawn speaks for itself.  It was a pithy restatement of the No campaign's "stronger together" motto, quite unsolicited by me, offered up almost immediately when the chap ascertained I was Scottish.

Although the content and pitch of these conversations vary significantly, this encounter was just one of many recent instances.  Whether they be taxi drivers, or an academic stranger plonked next to you at dinner, it's now quite common for folk to ask about my attitude towards the national question in particular, and about the SNP in general. This isn't just me being a tedious obsessive, endlessly shoe-horning independence into every conversation - well, mostly notA number of folk down south seem honestly curious about it all, about the character and nature of Scottish nationalism. Are its primary drivers romantic nationalism or pragmatic calculation? Its prime spurs political disagreement with the prevailing UK political scene, or the stuff of atavistic ethnic animus?  

For me, however, the most interesting perspectives on the whole conundrum have come not from folk from south of the Tweed, but hailing from the other side of the Atlantic.  In Oxford, I have the advantage of several (primarily Anglophone) Canadian friends, and their perspectives on the referendum - informed by the legacies of Québécois nationalism and the 1995 referendum in their own lives - has been a source of significant interest to me.  One friend, keen on French and the beneficiary of a francophone Canadian education, speaks of how, as a child, she went to bed on the eve of the poll, anxious that she might wake up to find that her country was no more, if Quebec peeled off from the country's provinces and territories.  Even as a wean, she understood Canada in terms of its dual founding, and the prospect of losing that identity was an unwelcome and discombobulating prospect. She greeted the close failure of the Québécois referendum with an undisguised sense of relief.  

Following on from Ed Miliband's speech on Britishness, another Canadian crony put an interesting - and tricky - question to me. The SNP and others are strongly promoting what we might think of as an instrumental rather than a romantic or ethnic account of their nationalism. As Salmond once put it, "It is not for flags and anthems that I fight, but for fairness and compassion".  Mere bloviation, the skeptical amongst you will surely cry, bloviation and humbug.  Now, one may be somewhat cynical about how programmatic Salmond's idea of fairness and compassion really are, or how thoroughgoing and thought through his ideological commitments might be.  But on the core principle that independence should be envisaged as a means to greater political ends rather than an end in itself , the First Minister's position is absolutely solid.  

As Iain MacWhirter put it recently, contra Miliband's characterisation of the referendum - “To stay in the United Kingdom or to leave? To be Scottish or British or both?” - "this debate isn't about flags and national identity ... it's about power." Who do you want to decide your rates of taxation? The character of welfare provision? To decide whether or not Scottish soldiers are deployed in battle on some foreign field? George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith? William Hague and David Cameron? While the current political situation personalises the rhetoric and gives it a contemporary spice, the point can be framed more generally.  What sort of folk do you want taking decisions about your life? What kind of politics would you like to see for your country? Do you imagine that sort of politics is remotely attainable through Westminster?

The question my Canadian pal put to me was this.  Just how effective will this nationalist framing of the referendum really prove? Will a practical, political nationalist case focussing on who makes decisions impacting on people's lives really be able to displace those questions of identity, as the pencils of the undecided middle hover over their ballot papers? In the end, despite all the practical issues to and fro, might a sizeable percentage of the population not put a rather more simple question to themselves: who am I? how do I feel? And if an idea of Britishness-entangled-with-UK-institutions enjoys any purchase, and excites any fondness or sense of connection, won't they just vote "no"?

A politically-driven, instrumental nationalist approach to the referendum is one which I'd enthusiastically endorse, but if yesterday's Ipsos-MORI poll on independence is anything to go by, nationalists still have some way to go to break the link in many people's minds between (a) feeling British and (b) support for the United Kingdom.  Most folk lingered over the 35% to 55% topline polling against independence, but in the light of last week's blog, I was particularly interested in the table which correlated "Moreno" identities with support or opposition to independence.  The survey asked, "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" Taking the responses of all those absolutely certain to vote in the referendum, Ipsos-MORI found the following spread:


A few initial caveats.  Firstly, this data doesn't capture the number of Scottish voters who self-identify with each of the options given, and in particular, in the population at large, there are a far greater number of folk who identify as Scottish more than British than more British or just British.  For example, while 91% of respondents identifying as British not Scottish were opposed to independence, they made up just 7% of the whole number of respondents polled by Ipsos-MORI.  The whole number of respondents to this part of the poll broke down as follows:


We may have a lively disagreement about whether these percentages really reflect the underlying Moreno identities of the Scottish population - but it doesn't matter terrifically for our rough and ready purposes. It is clear, and clearly reflected in this poll, that Scottish identities are clustered around the left-hand side of the Moreno scale, prioritising Scottishness, but often identifying to some extent with Britishness too.  Whether or not 33% of Scots think of themselves as equally British and Scottish, nevertheless, a significant segment of the population certainly feels that way, and they are, for the moment, strongly opposed to independence. Just 10% of respondents who felt equally Scottish and British would vote "yes", compared to 41% of those who give priority to Scottish but feel some British sensibility who would do so. 

While caution about conflating correlation and causation is sensible, this data seems to suggest that Miliband's British nationalist proposition - if you feel British, keep the UK - still enjoys a very strong purchase in the minds of many Scots, especially those who comfortably and concurrently avow both identities. As I noted in a recent essay, various SNP politicians have recently been promoting the idea that British identities can be comfortably decoupled from ongoing political union.  They argue that we can be British by dint of our geography, or enjoy solidarity shy of shared participation in a more-or-less integrated state.  Advocates of this position strongly contend that Britishness need not be relinquished on independence, and vitally, should be imagined distinctly from the United Kingdom.  To feel British is no impediment, on this theory, to support for Scottish independence.  This sort of rhetoric has penetrated pretty deeply into SNP discourse. While we've heard a good deal on these themes from Pete Wishart, Salmond and Angus Robertson, on a recent BBC Question Time from Inverness, even Alex Neil dutifully suggested that he thinks of himself as an "Ayrshire man", and British to boot (colour me skeptical about that one).  

This is a understandable strategy for nationalists to adopt.  If independence is framed as a referendum on the extent to which Scots feel British - and we fail to dismantle the connection between British identities and the UK state in voters' minds - we'll get handily drubbed.  Ed's head doesn't button up the back. Neither do the noggins of Salmond, Wishart and Robertson - and this new-found articulation of a Britishness distinct from the UK is clearly an attempt to neutralise the threat of a British nationalist framing of the referendum along Miliband's lines. 

While drawing parallels with Scandinavian solidarity between Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Swedish peoples seems a nimble rhetorical move, on the evidence of this MORI poll, that argument hasn't remotely begun to displace the sort of British nationalism which Ed was promoting last week. It may well be that a sort of "geographical Britishness" decoupled from UK state structures is simply too esoteric a proposition to ever do so.  In particular, how much do Scots really know about the extent to which Scandinavians feel a common, cross-cutting sense of identity, despite their formal borders and distinct states? To your average punter, I'd guess that the Nordic Council sounds like just another abstract European bureaucracy, rather than a crucible of comity between independent states, to be imitated in these islands after independence.  For all of its virtues, and the importance of imagining future affinities between states after independence, I'm exceedingly skeptical that the Nordic parallel really resonates.

The lesson of all of this? For all of the cunning, I'm profoundly skeptical that re-accommodating themselves to Britishness will seriously dent the anti-independence logic which the Ipsos-MORI captures amongst people who feel equally Scottish and British.  The rhetoric may serve other purposes, of course, couching the nationalist project in positive, temperate terms, rather than alienating those sections of the Scottish population - the majority - who think of themselves as British, however slight or thin that affiliation might be.  It is early days, of course, but the ineffectiveness of nationalist rhetoric on Britishness thus far makes it all the more important for nationalists that the referendum not become Miliband's question of identities - Scottish or British, and so independent or in the UK? - but focusses instead on questions of power, and who the people really want to be making political decisions which affect them.


  1. A lot of things are changing though. For a start Britishness is not what it was - the jollifcations of the Jubilee and so on only mask the reality of an NHS being systematically dismantled, young people being forced to shell out ££££s to go to Uni etc and on the continent, well, goodness knows. So there is less and less certainty in what being British means and what being European means as well. In some senses voting yes at least would provide some certainty about what being Scottish means. That's quite an incohate argument but I think it may become important as we go on.

    Secondly there is always a lag between events and public perception. That was partly why opinion polls were still predicting a Labour victory in the Scottish Parliament elections long past the point where the SNP were beginning to feel quietly confident. That's not to say that opinion polls are wrong but they are not predictive even months never mind years from the poll itself. Most people have still not really started to think about this yet.

    Thirdly, there is a really fundamental realignment going on in Scottish politics now which hardly anyone has picked up on, even political types. There are now, what is it, ten Labour/Tory local authorities? That is totally about the referendum. Labour and the Tories are working their way around having to present a united front. It's very very tricky for them, especially for Labour. Because it will alienate many of their own supporters. But what choice do they have? The effects of this have hardly been realised, never mind measured.

    It's going to be very interesting to watch!

  2. The SNP leadership has a bit of a tendency to take what we might call its core support for granted. It believes it can make nice about Britishness safe in the knowledge that those like me who can't abide the sight of the Union Jack, regard the British armed forces as little, if any, better than a bunch of murdering mercenaries and believe the term "British" is best left to the Brigantes and the Iceni, have nowhere else to put our votes anyway. That's as may be. But since we have started talking up "British" identity, the pound sterling, the queen, and the value of Morayshire airbases, I have been much more reluctant to put my hand in my pocket. We should make Scotland at least LOOK as different as possible. We are not Brits. Haul down the Butcher's Apron wherever it is found, particularly where it smears our public buildings like Edinburgh Cstle and New Register House. Ecrasez l'infame!

  3. You were doing all right until you wrote..

    "As Iain MacWhirter put it recently.."

    "While drawing parallels with Scandinavian solidarity between Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Swedish "

    I've got Swedish relatives. They have exactly the same relationship we and the Wesh have with the English. No love lost in a lot of cases.

  4. You were doing all right until you wrote..

    "As Iain MacWhirter put it recently.."

    "While drawing parallels with Scandinavian solidarity between Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Swedish "

    I've got Swedish relatives. They have exactly the same relationship we and the Wesh have with the English. No love lost in a lot of cases.

  5. The Finns rush to eschew the Swedes by adopting the Euro was at odds with their general appreciation of the close ties with Sweden.
    An emotional reaction they sorely regret.
    Even after independence we know we'll be closely tied to England. But we'l be free to explore other avenues. Just as Norway was after 1905 and in 1940.
    Dependence is a two way street. Independence is more of a one way street.

  6. LPW, I think your choice of title, "Is the SNP's Britishness forlorn?", is an indication that you think it is forlorn.

    What I see is nationalists who waved the flag and yelled the braveheart and sang the grannie's heilan' hame for 70 years begin to realise the thinness of their case.

    It's threadbare.

    And so they cast about for substance to shore it up, or diversions to misdirect attention away from the inadequate see-through curtains of their long-term position.

    But every time they change position the fabric rends in a predictable (or unpredictable to them) way.

    You can't say "independence" is the cure for all ills and at the same time it changes nothing.

    You can't say you want proud "independence" but keep the monarchy, the Pound and the national grid and an endless list of other things.

    You can't say you want to be stand-alone Scotttish, but also still British.

    Above all you can't cry "Freedom!" for fifty years and then when it approaches (or rather recedes) qualify it with "- or devo max, if that's all that's on offer!!"

    The Yes campaign's troubles are caused by the inherent foolishness of their first proposition - that "independence" will improve everything or indeed anything.

    It was the Nats who emphasised "identity" to marshall the emotional support of the voters. They can't now say "identity is a bagatelle and we didn't really mean it anyway".

    So to answer your question "Is the SNP's Britishness forlorn?" Yes it is. As is any number of gyrations they have and may in future go through.

    The more they struggle, the tighter the net constricts.

  7. actually @braveheart the national grid is a poor example to choose. The national grid is a transmission system covering England and Wales. It is linked by two interconnectors to the network in Scotland (which is linked to the network inNorthern Ireland). The national grid (ie English and Welsh grid) is also connected to France by yet another interconnector. So there's no need to "keep" the grid, we already have our own (though thanks to Mrs Thatcher it is owned by the electricity companies rather than the nation).