Many Scottish nationalists are impatient and permanently angry. The hundreds of thousands who joined the SNP after losing the referendum in 2014 are both a blessing and a curse. Of course, they are better than the alternative. Remember when there was the idea that the SNP would somehow fade away after losing the referendum. This didn’t happen for a reason. It wasn’t because of any sort of betrayal. It also wasn’t because of what David Cameron said after Scotland voted No. The reason for the surge in SNP support was because the nationalist genie had been let out of the bottle in Scotland. Ordinary Scottish patriotism that has always existed was turned into the desire for independence by the campaign. This is the strength of the SNP’s argument.
For all of my life most Scots were perfectly content to express our Scottish patriotism within the context of being a part of the UK. No-one much thought there was anything odd about this. We might cheer on Scotland at rugby or football. We might sing Scottish songs or recite Scottish verse. It wasn’t political. Now it is political. The Scottish independence campaign gave those Scots who came to support independence a taste for something quite different. Now their patriotism was not merely about cheering Scotland from the terraces though it still included that, now it was something much more substantial. They say that once someone has discovered the delights of ἀνθρωποϕαγία [anthropophagia] everything else tastes bland. Well so too with patriotism. Why settle for Scottish country dancing when you have tasted the forbidden fruit of nationalism. This is why nationalism is the most powerful card that can be played in politics. If I am patriotic about Scotland and I have glimpsed just over the horizon the promised land of independence, why wouldn’t I desire it with all my heart? Why would I settle for anything less? Any other food will have lost its savour for me.
But this is where the SNP have a problem. Their supporters especially those with the zeal of the convert continually require red meat to be thrown to them. They have eaten it. They came so close they could taste victory. It was theirs. It was within their grasp, just one more heave and they were there. But what if they were not destined to see the promised land? What if it wouldn’t be for another ten years, another twenty? What if it wouldn’t be for ever?
There is an inherent impatience in Scottish nationalism. We came so close. In fact it really wasn’t that close, but we can allow them their little self-deceptions. They can’t bear the idea that they might have to wait even another five years, let alone a generation. This is not because they are so desperately concerned to start beginning the fairer, gentler Scotland that they all pretend to dream about.
Scottish nationalism has little indeed to do with creating any sort of Scotland other than a Scotland that is independent. If I said to Nicola Sturgeon that she could have her independent Scotland, but it would be ruled by Donald Trump’s son for the next fifty years, she would grab it in a second. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Scotland voting one way and England voting another way. Scottish nationalists would want independence even if we always voted the same way. All of this is just a ruse. It is a way of getting the people to taste of the red meat.
There are many ways of getting them to come to the communion. They must be promised free bread. This can be transformed into the forbidden flesh. They must be given free wine, brewed to a stupendous strength by monks and so already consecrated. They must be given free prescriptions, free eye tests and free tuition. All of this is so that they can taste the promised delights of Scottish independence. Just one taste and they will be licking their lips forever.
But what of the rest of us? What of those who are immune to the SNP’s charms? We are still here. We won last time around. Who is to say that we wouldn’t win again? This is the SNP’s problem. It is also the reason why there are two types of Scottish nationalist. There are the old and the patient and there are the new and the impatient.
Most of the SNP leadership have been true believers from the cradle. In the 1980s Nicola Sturgeon joined the SNP when they had hardly any seats. This is someone who hasn’t really changed her mind about anything substantive since she was sixteen. This is the equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn in a skirt. Scottish nationalism for her is what socialism is for him. It’s their everything. Sturgeon needs no red meat dripping with juices for she was weaned on it.
But how to keep the new believers content? What do these new SNP members want? Above all else they want to change the morning of September 19th 2014. They can’t get out of their memory the anticipation, the waiting for the result. It was so close they could almost already celebrate. They can still taste it, indeed they can’t get the taste out of their mouths, but for this reason they can never be satisfied. They are left only with the thin gruel of daily life and a disappointment that will never quite go away. The only thing that will even begin to satisfy their cravings is the promise of another referendum. But what if they should lose?
Who would win such a vote? I have no idea. It seems to me that the SNP could win by twenty points or alternatively lose by twenty points. Polls have become meaningless and political argument is left looking for a role. I cannot persuade nationalists and so I don’t even try to so anymore. They cannot persuade people like me. A second independence referendum might offer a taste of the forbidden flesh to a new generation. Nationalism is indeed a powerful argument, because it is not an argument at all. It is simply a feeling. Whip it up enough and it will win, because with ease it will defeat any argument you care to put up against it. It is for this reason above all that I would prefer not to go up against it. I might end up in a pot like a missionary.
The SNP lack an argument. The economics is against them. Brexit has made the case for Scottish independence much harder to make, but the SNP know that they don’t really need an argument. They just need a leader and an adoring crowd. The crowd doesn’t really care what the leader says or if it makes sense. Just let her promise them the promised land and that they will soon be living in it. The manna will come from heaven, the benefits will always continue and no one will ever lose their job or indeed have to work. It’s only the Tories that have kept us from this heaven.
It’s an interesting dilemma. How long can you keep a crowd whipped up to a frenzy. If the crowd is disappointed for too long, if it begins to lose heart because the journey becomes tiresome, then some may begin to walk away. So Sturgeon has to keep threatening a referendum, but at the same time for the moment she clearly wants to keep Scotland in the UK. It’s a balancing act. She walks along the tightrope between wanting to leave and wanting to stay. But a tightrope walker with a contradiction at the heart of their strategy is always liable to wobble and when you wobble you tend to fall off.
Now she is arguing that the condition for not having an immediate referendum on Scottish independence is that Scotland should have its own passport and a different EU status to England. But if these things were given to her what would be the result? Scotland in some odd sense would still be part of the UK. She would still expect the UK Treasury to continue to fund Scotland. She would still demand that Scotland had seats at Westminster. But which sort of countries have passports? Which sort of countries get to make their own separate deals with the EU? They are independent countries. So what Nicola Sturgeon wants is that Scotland should be both independent and not independent.
This is classic SNP gradualism. The wiser thinkers see that asking for ever more ways in which Scotland can be different from the other parts of the UK, while retaining the benefits of being in the UK means that they make progress towards their goal while taking next to no risks. The have patience. They have fought all their lives for Scottish independence. A few more years won’t matter much either way.
Luckily for the SNP their opponents are weak. Pro UK politicians are always desperate to make just one more concession to the SNP, because obviously it would then give up it’s dream of independence. The folly is that we never ask for anything in return. Why did David Cameron not insist that the condition for holding a referendum on independence was that the SNP would promise not to ask for another one for fifty years? Why did Labour not make it a condition for their being a Scottish Parliament in the first place that it would be written into its constitution that it would not seek to break up the UK? This is perfectly normal in other countries. If it should require a written constitution to make the UK secure, then let us write one.
What did we gain by making concessions to the SNP after they lost the referendum in 2014? We gave the Scottish Parliament huge new powers, but got nothing in return. You really begin to wonder about the quality of the supposedly Pro UK people who were doing the negotiating. What did they ask for from the SNP? What did they get? Nothing whatsoever. It’s an odd form of negotiation that gets nothing.
So let’s be clear. No further concessions must be made whatsoever to the SNP without a promise from the SNP that they will give up, at least for the foreseeable future, their goal of independence. If that is not acceptable we should give them nothing just like Michael Corleone. “My offer is this, nothing” is not a difficult line to learn. It’s the key to dealing with the SNP.
A Scottish passport would indeed be real red meet for the new SNP supporters. They would no longer be British citizens, they would be Scottish citizens. Hurrah. But how does Nicola Sturgeon think it is possible to share a nation state if you don’t share a citizenship? Once Scots cease to be British citizens, why should British people subsidise them? In the end she is asking for the impossible. She wants both to stay in the UK and to leave. She must know this. She won’t get her separate passport. Only independent countries have passports. She likewise won’t get her separate EU status. This too would amount almost to independence. What her argument amounts to then is give us independence or we will demand an independence referendum. Sorry Nicola. This isn’t much of an offer. Under those circumstances we find we can offer you nothing.
Brexit is only going to work if it applies to the whole of the UK. The point of bringing back power from Brussels is that the UK Parliament and its electorate will no longer be constrained by EU rules and regulations. But how would that work if an integral part of the UK was still subject to these rules. If England was not in the Single Market while Scotland remained a part there would be different trade rules affecting England and Scotland. Would we have to charge each other tariffs? If the UK Government negotiated a trade deal with the United States it could not apply to Scotland. How on earth would that work? Fundamentally the Scottish Parliament does not have control over foreign affairs. Sturgeon is agitating for powers that she knows cannot be given her, for they amount to granting her Scottish independence without a vote.
So what game is Nicola Sturgeon playing? She’s playing the long game and she’s playing for a grievance. She wants at present for Scotland to remain in the UK. The reason for this is that even if she could persuade Scots to vote for independence she knows they would blame her when their living standards fell dramatically. If she really wanted an independence referendum at this moment why doesn’t she simply ask for one? Why instead does she come up with weird and wonderful convoluted ways in which Scotland can stay in the UK? What she in fact wants is for Scotland to stay in the UK in such a way that Scots feel angry about it. This stores up the grievance she will use when she is good and ready.
Her problem is this though. The grievance she has chosen is something about which most of us are not that bothered. I would not have minded that much if we had voted to remain in the EU. There would indeed have been certain advantages. But conversely most people in Scotland are not that bothered by us leaving the EU. We debated the pros and cons, but now we will have to await how it all works out. For most people it’s a matter of practicalities. How will my job be affected? Will my standard of living rise or fall? What will happen when I go on holiday. Long term I think Brexit will benefit the UK. I could be wrong. But oh well whatever, it’s not an existential question for me nor you.
Almost no-one has tasted of the EU forbidden flesh. There are a few EU fanatics, but almost no-one thinks about the EU as Scottish nationalists think about Scotland. But then Nicola Sturgeon is trying to manufacture a grievance about something her own supporters don’t really care about. Even SNP MPs and MSPs were tempted to vote for Brexit, for the simple reason that the EU fundamentally contradicts the essence of the idea of Scottish independence. The SNP only ever wanted to be in the EU for pragmatic reasons, but most of the arguments they use for leaving the UK could equally easily be used for leaving the EU. It is for this reason that so many Scottish nationalists voted for Brexit.
There was initial anger when the UK as a whole voted for Brexit, but Scotland didn’t. This anger quickly subsided. Nicola Sturgeon’s problem then is that she needs to manufacture a grievance about something most Scots are indifferent about. Theresa May can legitimately tell Sturgeon to wait until Brexit has been completed. The UK Government needs to make no concessions to Scottish nationalism, because the SNP depends on Theresa May’s permission and this can be withheld legitimately pretty much indefinitely. Sturgeon could try to whip up the mob, but Scotland is not going to go to the barricades because of the EU.
Theresa May is much brighter than Nicola Sturgeon, this is obvious just from listening to them for a few minutes. It’s the difference between Oxford and Glasgow. May will be careful not to give Sturgeon a reason for complaint. She will consult her. She will be polite to her. She will then tell her that what she wants is inconsistent with Scotland being in the UK. She will finally remind Sturgeon that we voted to stay in the UK a little over two years ago and that the matter is settled. Sturgeon thinks she is being clever, but this is not the usual word to describe a strategy that is full of contradictions. In the end Scotland can only have a different EU status to England by leaving the UK. You cannot both be part of the UK and not part of it. Given that Sturgeon is asking for the impossible it will always be legitimate for Theresa May to offer her nothing in return.
This post was originally published by the author 19 November 2016: http://effiedeans.blogspot.com/2016/11/my-offer-is-this-nothing.html