The SNP Left and the New Scottish Identity

As I watched the results of the 2015 UK general election from my American side of the pond, my thrill (though not surprise) in full bloom as the number of Scottish National Party MPs swelled, I was struck by one image that seemed to sum up the entire evening: that of Mhairi Black, a 20 year old politics student standing for the SNP, trying to remain composed on stage as her 30,000 vote majority over the old Labour hand Douglas Alexander was read out to the cheering crowd. Incredible it was, and all congratulations to Mhairi Black on such a great accomplishment at such a young age, but let us be clear as to what she heralds. She was not elected because of her repeatedly demonstrated talents, nor because she bridged divides and offered new solutions. No, she was elected because she toed the old Labour line better than Labour -- she ascended because of ideology. And if that is what passes for political engagement, then the spirit of last year's independence referendum, far from being alive and well as many claim, is dead. The open, positive, non-partisan debate on Scotland's future which the vast majority of Scots experienced has disappeared. The mythologizing of the ascendency of Mhairi and the other SNP MPs now at Westminster has turned the meaning of that experience on its head and has created, if inadvertantly, an emerging Scottish identity that is intimately associated with being on the Left, one which has the potential to monopolize national identity in terms of a single political ideology, to the exclusion of other definitions and to the danger of social and political life in an independent Scotland.

This emerging perspective grew in prominence throughout the election campaign, but reached fever pitch with the surprise Tory gain of an outright majority. Scots were greatly appalled almost to the same extent that those down south were incensed that the Scots had the audacity to send such a massive bloc of representatives who will be almost entirely unwilling to play the union’s long established game of governance. The Tories care nothing for Scotland anymore, having only one MP there, and the Scots seem to care nothing for Westminster as a place where any of their hopes have traction. Whatever the SNP’s noble attempts at reform, as an opposition party in a parliamentary system, they have no influence. This bleak state of affairs led some, like Jack Foster of Newsshaft, to make the case that Scotland is already independent in all but sovereignty. The conventional nationalist wisdom says Scots may not be of a totally different mind than everyone else in the UK -- after all, there are a huge number of disaffected voters in England and Wales upset over the outcome -- but what sets Scots apart from everyone else in the UK is that they are willing to vote in large enough numbers to make a difference.  Whether or not this is actually true is beside the point -- that is the current narrative in nationalist circles.

You will notice I write ‘Scots’ in the collective sense, as if all Scots reflected this view point of conventional social democracy fused with national identity in the institutional form of the SNP. They certainly do not. Indeed, a great number of them do not, as the SNP only gained 50% of the vote in Scotland. Certainly the Labour vote was devastated by a swing to the SNP and the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives suffered greatly as well. But the SNP was not the only party who gained on election night. The Greens and UKIP saw gains in their vote over the 2010 election. Although their gains were less than one percent, that nonetheless seems to say there is a minority in Scotland which do not conform to the old parties but also are not entranced by the SNP’s rise. These parties are not only holding voters but attracting at least a few more. Down south, the Greens and UKIP had greater gains, especially UKIP, and while the movement in Scotland toward these parties is not as great, it also is something impressive to consider in light of the Scottish tendency toward very conventional social democracy. Obviously there are still those in Scotland who do not agree with the move that the country has taken in the months since the referendum, just as there are No voters who would still vote no on independence today, but who voted SNP because none of the other parties would stand up for Scotland at Westminster. That voter could be a Liberal Democrat just as easily as ex-Labour and, fed up with the Lib Dems’ coalition with the Conservatives, went over to the SNP for this election. His vote for the SNP is not necessarily guaranteed in the future; indeed, he may still hold to some classically liberal views that fly in the face of much of what the SNP proposes; yet he will bite his tongue and vote anyway. There could be, and almost certainly are, tens of thousands of voters like this, in numbers just as great as the Labour swing vote that went for Nicola this time around. But there is not much comment on this, for the big tent of the SNP spreads so wide that the very thing it stands for, independence, can’t be seen and everyone pays attention to the social democratic domestic policies it must put forward as a competitive, governing political party.

But you won’t really get that reading much of the independence-oriented press. What they talk about all day long is how this really proves that Scotland is a left nation and they will vote for it if given a real opportunity. The left have long been the most vocal advocates of independence and their constant application of their voices in the public ensures that once the unionist narrative collapses under its own weight, theirs is there to pick up where the old narrative left off. And if these left-oriented independence campaigners have succeeded in defining in public discourse what it is to be Scottish, then what greater indication is there that Scotland is independent in all but sovereignty? After all, the history is written by the victors and there is no one else save the SNP Left to offer any other successful narrative. Via Bella Caledonia or The National or Commonweal or any number of nationalist outlets, Scotland is defined as what it “is” and “isn’t.” Inclusive, compassionate, fair, democratic -- these are the terms used over and over. These are traits of character, of course, representative of the actions of people, of individuals -- yet in the brief span of the general election campaign, these terms have become associated with explicitly ideological stances, like anti-austerity, anti-Trident, anti-bankers’ bonuses, stances which can’t be compromised for anything. There is a certain self-righteousness about this viewpoint, which seems to believe that virtues are not bestowed upon groups and institutions by their members but rather are concomitant traits of belonging to a certain group, a certain way. This destroys the possibility of discourse or consensus with other philosophies, and it appears that the SNP Left have settled for a majority determining the consensus, as democracies are wont to do. To be SNP Left is to be Scottish -- not just SNP for the sake of independence, not just SNP for the sake of a strong Scotland in the Union, but to be SNP because it is The Left when no one else is, and when independence comes, we can rejoice that full-blown Scottishness will let Scotland's deepest Left nature flourish.

The SNP Left asked for their own country and they will get it one day, unintended responsibilities and all. An unfortunate side effect of the constant campaigning of the left in opposition is that a constant focus on correcting the issues at hand leaves little imaginative capacity of what to do if in control. That perhaps is the most pointed criticism that can be leveled at parties like Labour, which always seemed very principled in opposition, everything cast in simplistic moral tones, but, once in power, found that the machinery of the modern state demanded pragmatic responses. For all the constant praise by the UK left of the post-war welfare state, it was not the socialist utopia some make it out to be. Even under ministers like Harold Wilson, for every bone thrown to the left of the party, there was another act which went against professed Labour principles. Increased taxation on the rich, but nationalization of industry deferred. Liberalization of homosexuality laws, but tightened restrictions on immigration. The Left embodied in Labour -- that is to say, the only real Left that could get elected -- had to act in a way which was not entirely in keeping with what it thought was absolutely true. To govern is to govern; it is to respond, even react to events and that often throws cold water on ideological tenets. Perhaps it should perhaps not be surprising that Labour made the move to the right and copied their own opposition by becoming New Labour. By examining the actions of the left and not just its rhetoric, we can see that compromises must be made when it comes to actually running a country -- one side does not have all the solutions all the time or even at any given moment. Running a country is not about what the ideologically assured want to see clamped down as iron law upon the land, consequences be damned. Those consequences often prove to have a tragic side and can prove hollow the very principle everyone thought was being upheld. There must be consideration, foresight, and a balancing of what we believe with what we can accomplish. But that requires imagination and practical application, neither of which can be found in stringent adherence to an ideological line, on the left or the right.

Thus there is a great danger in this hard and fast association of the new Scottish identity with the left. It means that once an independent Scotland is sovereign, as it probably will be in the next decade or so, there is no longer space for alternative narratives or philosophies in the social and political sphere. To be a good patriotic Scot, you must be on the left and all the others be damned. What could easily result is the first government of an independent Scotland being elected on some sort of SNP Left-type platform, and then, coming up against the realities of actually running a country in the 21st century, that government goes against its election pledges and settles down to create something quite different. An independent Scotland may have a renewed manufacturing sector with state support as some imagine and improved agriculture following land reform, but it will also require financial services, a stock market, and all the other outposts of international capitalism. This is not so much what we want for the world as the necessity of surviving in it with some measure of real independence for the foreseeable future. But in seeing this, the Scottish-identity Left may say, “Look at the bastards we’ve put in charge. They don’t really do what they said. They’re no better than Westminster was.” Even if the charge is not true, simply because the government did not slavishly adhere to the ideological line, the Scottish-identity Left will pull away from the government they put in and return to an opposition of sorts as they have been used to, redefining the patriots, the true Scots, as those who have nothing to do with this corrupt government and who are constantly pushing for that ideologically pure, entirely abstract Scotland which can (and will, oh, how one day it will!) happen.

And with that, Scotland will be reduced to what the Union is now, a mocked and derided shell, simply a place where people eat and sleep and work and have a drink down at the local while waiting for the true nation to arise. And it will have happened because the nation will only exist on ideological terms. Once nations were defined by race, religion, and clan, and modernity has seen fit to sweep all that away. But somehow modern people do not understand that ideology is an equally fallacious standard for identity. Why privilege ideology in the definition of a society and polity? A nation is a sum of its discrete parts, a sum of its diverse experiences. Many Scots had a similar experience of the independence referendum, having the opportunity to discuss and debate what they wanted their country to be in the future. But that does not mean every Scot who took part has the same history of the referendum, or the rest of Scotland's past for that matter. Histories are stories intimate to ourselves and thus inextricable from a certain interpretation, which politically savvy leaders often manage to link up with ideology. Pretending otherwise is dangerous, for it leaves us susceptible to one ideology emerging as dominant and inevitably one history as well.  These complementary twins tend to subsume other narratives which offer different perspectives. Abstract ideology cannot be the measure for what makes a nation or gives its people the means to understand themselves and work together -- for to set all hope on ideology is to take a measurement of what we do and turn it in the sole objective to which everything else must be sacrificed.

That will not do, not if this long-coming, long-fought for independent Scotland is going to be worth it. It is understandable that political parties take ideological lines -- that is what they do to justify their existence in the modern world. But the question is, should Scotland anew be just another modern country? Or should it be different? Should it face the same predictable dichotomies that other modern states endure, with all the disillusionment and anger that breeds in its people? Or should it see fit to find other means of organizing and understanding human life together, ones which do not subject everything to the all-encompassing and merciless scrutiny of ideology?  If Scots want to be inclusive, compassionate, fair, democratic people, then they must be willing to act like it first and in ways and in habits that do not assign such meanings to political abstractions. Not all Scots now are of the same mind and there will be Scots left, right, and center, liberal, conservative, and libertarian even once the Union Jack has been run down for the last time. That is what people found during the referendum and they discovered at the same time that political tenets did not always indicate whether someone voted Yes or No. But this can have a positive affect on Scotland only if people remember it and act on it. For it is not in opposition or domination that anything worthwhile can be accomplished between people of similar background and different outlook, and it is not in the spirit of this general election, but in the spirit of the referendum that Scotland can find the means to reconstitute itself as the nation it can be.

Equality becomes a word without meaning if there is nothing within which to establish it.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery