The problem with exceptionalism is that sooner or later everyone wants in on it.
The Romans claimed to be exceptional and none but the most contrarian observer of history would seek to refute that. The British at the height of the Empire considered themselves a uniquely bold and industrious force, settler of far-off lands, world leader in trade, and ‘the mother of parliaments’. Since World War II, the United States has thought of itself as ‘the indispensable nation’, guaranteeing global security through firepower, economic leverage and popular culture.
To this we must add the unlikely figure of Scotland. At least that is how it sounds to listen to the pronouncements of Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the Nationalist flag-wavers. While the rest of us are content with Scotland being a good country, they believe and need it to be a better country. Better, specifically, than England.
Health Secretary Shona Robison was at it again yesterday while trying to explain away the NHS winter crisis she has presided over so miserably. The real story was not the missed waiting times targets or the under-staffed ambulances or the hospitals forced to cancel operations. No, it was that things were supposedly worse in England.
There is an old New Yorker cartoon with two dogs talking in a bar. One canine says to the other: ‘It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.’ This is more or less the SNP’s worldview. It doesn’t matter if there’s a leaky tap in Scotland as long as there’s a flood in England.
Miss Robison seems to believe that lying on a trolley in a corridor of a Scottish hospital is somehow a more restorative experience than doing so elsewhere in the UK. Though, being Scottish, it’s not clear why we don’t just heal ourselves and a few passing lepers as we head back out the door.
All this self-righteous superstition has been dealt a thwocking blow by Professor Sir John Curtice, who has more than earned his New Year ennoblement with a new study into cross-border social attitudes. Sir John produces these surveys annually and has become an anti-Father Christmas figure for Nationalists, turning up once a year to dispel their fantasy of Scottish difference.
Nicola Sturgeon might have wished for public anger over Brexit to kick start yet another campaign for independence. What she got was a humiliating verdict on her strategy and performance over the past 18 months. After losing the Brexit vote, the First Minister demanded a differential deal for Scotland and loudly banged the drum for it at every opportunity.
Sir John’s research shows two-thirds of Scots want the same post-Brexit trade rules as the rest of the UK. Where the First Minister insisted Scotland must remain in the single market and safeguard freedom of movement, the public says otherwise. Fifty-nine per cent want an end to free movement and 63 per cent would prefer to stick with UK immigration rules than for Scotland to set up its own.
These findings may seem surprising since voters north of the Border voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU. Here the Nationalists — and, to be fair, all Remain-minded people — are hoist with their own exceptionalist petard. They relied on Scotland’s famed canniness to secure a thumping rejection of Brexit at the ballot box but that same caution now works against them. Scots were wary of breaking away from Europe but now that it’s happening they are warier still of breaking away from the UK on top of it.
All the same, UK ministers would be wise to tread carefully here. Seven out of ten Scots think the UK Government is fouling things up something rotten, up from 57 per cent a year ago. Many who voted Remain still harbour grave reservations about the wisdom of Brexit and are fearful of the economic consequences. Whitehall must address these concerns. Complacency could hand the advantage back to Nicola Sturgeon.
The survey also shows clear majorities in favour of decisions over fishing and farming being taken at Holyrood rather than Westminster. Unlike the vanity-driven hyperdevolution that demands yet more powers for the sake of it, voters see fisheries and agriculture as sectors where local control would be more practical. Ministers cannot simply ignore these views and will have to take them into consideration when drawing up post-Brexit plans for two of Scotland’s most cherished industries. Does that necessarily mean serving them up to the SNP on a platter? No, but it does require common sense, pragmatism and a willingness to cooperate with Holyrood counterparts.
The lessons for Scotland’s two governments are clear. As Sir John notes: ‘Our results suggest that both the UK and the Scottish Government may need to do some rethinking of their plans for post-Brexit Scotland. The UK Government’s proposal that EU responsibilities for devolved areas such as fishing and farming should in the first instance at least be given to Westminster appears to be out of tune with the public mood north of the border. Equally, the Scottish Government appears to have made little headway in persuading voters that Scotland should have a closer relationship with the EU post-Brexit. Most still think the rules on EU trade and immigration should be the same in Scotland as in the rest of the UK.’
Sensible heads in each administration should study Sir John’s findings and factor them when taking the next steps in the Brexit process.
Politically, the research is significant for what it suggests about the Prime Minister’s Scotland strategy. Theresa May had a beastly 2017, much of it self-inflicted and entirely avoidable, but one decision continues to be vindicated 12 months on. In rejecting Nicola Sturgeon’s demands for a second independence referendum, and in doing so arguing that Scotland must leave the EU with the rest of the country, Mrs May showed sound judgement and solid mettle. Whatever her faults, and they are in busy company, she has managed to hold the line on Scotland and thus far make it stick. For that, she owes a debt to Scottish Secretary David Mundell and Ruth Davidson for their efforts.
By contrast, the First Minister demonstrated that there’s more to being a top political strategist than owning all seven seasons of the West Wing on DVD. The tribune of the people, who claimed to ‘stand up for Scotland’, has been shown once again not to have a terribly clear picture of the Scotland she is standing up for. Ensconced in her hotel suite, France 24 rolling on the TV screen and the New European open at yet another AC Grayling polemic, Miss Sturgeon imagines all Scotland speaks of nothing but second referenda and how good and virtuous Scotland is and ‘Why they don’t just go independent and leave us behind, I’ll never know’.
The First Minister has never been more distant from the bulk of the population, from the Brexit-minded fishermen of the north east to the small army of Leave voters in her own ranks of supporters. Since the SNP came to power, and especially since their referendum on independence, politics and public life north of the Border has come to see Scotland as a separate entity. Small differences are exaggerated and non-existent ones imagined. ‘Scotland’ is said to believe this or demand that, as though we were an homogenous entity. In fact, there are as many differences between Largs and Leith as there are between Newcastle and Nuneaton.
But the First Minister and much of her party holds Scotland to be better, more moral, more <ital>civilised</ital> than those horrid Little Englanders. Miss Sturgeon has profited from promoting this fiction and has come to believe it herself. It’s Scotland’s snake oil and the only natural resource the SNP can promise an abundance of these days.
That’s the other problem with Scottish exceptionalism — the facts take exception to it.