The nativists are getting restless.
Not content with their war on Tunnock’s tea cakes and the rest of the vast Unionist conspiracy, the cybernats have turned on former comrades in the campaign for independence.
The dissenters, mostly left-wingers not affiliated to the SNP, had the temerity to suggest voting for a party other than the Nationalists at the Holyrood election in May.
Angela Haggerty, one of the bright young things to emerge from the Yes movement, edits CommonSpace, a left-leaning news and comment site that refuses to toe any party line.
She has warned that an “extreme minority” of SNP supporters are undermining the case for independence by shouting down even those who agree with them on the constitution. Writing in a newspaper, she contends: “Questioning the party of government, which happens to be the SNP, is no longer tolerable for this extreme minority: Wheesht for indy, we can always ask questions later.”
She adds: “The independence movement on social media is descending into bickering between those who still want the debate and those who want to shut it down in favour of soundbites about evil journalists, Unionists, and Saint Nicola Sturgeon.”
The casus belli for this uncivil war is the emergence of a new party to the SNP’s left.
RISE – Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism – is not a breakfast cereal but an electoral coalition bringing together the Scottish Socialist Party and various other Trots and sods from the Yes campaign. The SSP alone couldn’t be the vehicle for the Left because some teenagers discovered politics during the referendum and we have to pretend they have something new and interesting to say.
So far, so far-left. But RISE poses a problem for an SNP that has scaled the heights of Scottish politics by demonising its opponents as Tories and traitors. This schtick doesn’t work with RISE, which is authentically radical on public policy and the constitution. After stirring the disaffected during the referendum with airy promises of untold national wealth and social utopia, the Nationalists find themselves having to govern in prose again. Unavoidable cuts, a funding crisis in local government, and failing health targets are just some of the bumps on the road ahead.
A socialist challenger makes life uncomfortable for the SNP, which talks left but walks centre. Until now, warm words about land reform, fracking, and public sector procurement have appeased the grassroots but a new party with a bolder agenda would pose awkward questions.
SNP loyalists don’t quite know how to handle RISE so have gone with their strengths and lashed out. (Upon hearing that there were other parties, GA Ponsonby wept that he had not yet denounced them.) Lending your second vote to one of the smaller parties, they warn darkly, will only help more Unionists escape the justice of the Scottish people. Crucially for a political strategy devised by and for furious middle aged men who spend their evenings in their Y-fronts typing “BIAS!!!!” under every Herald article, it has a hashtag. #BothVotesSNP is where frustrated extremism meets low-level neddery. It’s as if residents of The Scheme joined ISIS but stuck to handing out leaflets down the precinct on Saturday afternoons instead of flying out to Raqqa.
The backlash against RISE has shocked broad-church Yes activists and yet was entirely predictable. The SNP was always going to rat on the much-vaunted “Yes Alliance”. Orwell diagnosed nationalism as “power-hunger tempered by self-deception” but not so Scottish nationalism. The SNP knows what it is; what it excels at is taking in everyone else. Tories in Tayside, Bolshies in Baillieston but the cause remains the same.
Scotland’s national movement is not uniform. There are two distinct strains of nationalism that were forced together in a hasty shotgun wedding during the referendum. With apologies to Isaiah Berlin, these are positive nationalism, which seeks independence as a means to another end (e.g. a just socio-economic system), and negative nationalism, which is more concerned with sovereignty and national pride.
Derek Bateman, a former BBC broadcaster turned cyber pied piper to the paranoid and the aggrieved, is commendably honest about this division in motivation. In response to the #BothVotesSNP schism, he writes: “For me as, I admit, an old style Nationalist, the attainment of national sovereignty is the ultimate prize. It isn’t just an ambition that would be fine to claim, it is an all-consuming passion to see our country break free from restriction and diktat by others to join the family of nations. I desire independence (almost) no matter what kind of country results.”
Many Nationalist hearts will warm to hear Bateman’s paean to “the reinstatement of the Scots’ ancient rights – the fulfilment of national destiny”, though they have been taught to be ashamed of such feelings. In truth, there is a dignity to “negative nationalism” but only if you are honest enough to admit what you really believe.
And it is a nationalism that can win and go on winning whether or not a few sociology lecturers take a handful of votes on a regional list. Despite its modest record in government, the SNP is the only viable party to lead the country at the moment. Nicola Sturgeon stands unchallenged; a European leader of European leader quality.
Scottish Labour is a wake without decent whisky, a desperately sad affair of glum glances exchanged and consoling pats on the shoulder. Kezia Dugdale is sincere and hard-working but most voters couldn’t pick her out of a one-woman line-up. The Conservatives have Ruth Davidson but unfortunately for Ruth Davidson she has the Conservatives. If they cannot gain ground in these circumstances, the party really is over and Davidson should be allowed to go to Westminster where she belongs.
Whatever the merits of RISE and its platform, the notion that a vote for them hurts the independence cause is risible. In fact, a phalanx of radical-left MSPs could help keep Nicola Sturgeon’s party honest. But no political party wants to be kept honest; they want to hold power and hold it exclusively.
The pro-independence Left has spent so long gloating over the ill-conceived Better Together that they haven’t noticed their own alliance largely benefited the Nationalists. The Scottish Greens, having emerged from their referendum sojourn as the Meadows/Morningside branch office of the SNP, are in a strong position but much of that is down to a clearly defined policy profile on non-constitutional issues.
The Left must break out of the mindset that considers the SNP “one of us”, a radical party that hides its red hues in a shade of yellow to win independence. Yes, it opposes Trident but if your definition of socialism begins and ends at the gates of Faslane Naval Base, you’ve got lost somewhere along the way. The SNP is a ruthless election-smashing machine that lives and dies on the centre ground; it’s not Syriza with a dod of tartan. When the Left looks at the SNP it sees comrades but when the SNP looks at the Left it sees useful idiots.
#BothVotesSNP is an electoral strategy and an argument. It contends that the Nationalists are the sole parliamentary vehicle for achieving independence. You have to vote SNP. It’s too risky to back another party. You’ll just let the Unionists in by the back door.
Doesn’t this all sound terribly familiar? The Scottish Labour Party didn’t die, it was just reborn in a new body.