Scottish nationalists are not anti-establishment. They are the establishment

One of the most amusing tics of Scottish nationalists is their unshakeable conviction that they are in the vanguard of a daring anti-establishment movement.

If you count bravely standing up to the powers that be and telling them they’re doing an absolutely smashing job, I suppose they are. The same party which came to power declaiming the failures of the Lanarkshire Labour nomenklatura and has been running the show uninterrupted for 12 years cannot come to terms with the terrible, exhilarating truth: they are the establishment now.

The ruling-class-in-denial is well-represented in the ranks of the nation’s writers, artists and other celebrated ‘creatives’, some of whom love Scotland so much they even live here. They have issued ‘A Declaration for Independence, 2019’, the ‘2019’ presumably included lest anyone confuse the constitutional musings of Elaine C Smith with those of Thomas Jefferson.

The manifesto, signed by 50 of the most glittering names in Scottish public life, proclaims that ‘Scotland should take its place as an independent country on the world stage’. The alternative would be ‘to accept that Scotland’s fate would remain in the hands of others and that the Scottish people would relinquish their right to decide their own destiny’.

As a rule of thumb, when flag enthusiasts start talking about destiny, it’s time to stockpile canned goods. Other imperatives include a written constitution, an independent judiciary and freedom of speech (all of which the UK already has) and local government reorganisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament and the right to join trade blocs (all of which the UK can already do).

With a flourish, they ‘affirm the values of care, kindness, neighbourliness and generosity of spirit‘, values which are always best expressed by breaking up a centuries-old partnership and erecting a border between the erstwhile partners.

The very existence of the declaration is baffling. These instruments are usually drawn up by rebels against the reigning order, putting them on notice that their rule will soon be cast off. Scrolling through the signatories, I counted a half-dozen, maybe as many as a dozen, who could pick up the phone and get face-time with the First Minister at short notice. Quite why they feel the need to compose a manifesto when they could just WhatsApp their suggestions to the head of government is a mystery.

The intellectual establishment’s revolutionary self-image is matched only by its insistence on speaking for the people. The same dynamic was seen in the 2014 referendum, when the cultural cognoscenti were consulted for their insights from the literary coalface.

Alan Warner, best known for his 1995 novel Morvern Callar, warned of the ‘sinister and depressing implications’ of a No vote, namely a ‘profound and strange schism between the voters of Scotland and its literature’ and ‘the death knell for the whole Scottish literature “project”’.

Scots voting to remain in the UK would represent ‘a crushing denial of an identity that writers have been meticulously accumulating, trying to maintain and refine’. After all, ‘has there ever been another European country where a “progressive” – and to use two pompous words – “intelligentsia”, has united in a liberation movement, yet the majority has finally voted against the aspirations of this movement?’

If the country voted for the Union, it would ‘become a mere global brand, its reality officially cancelled by its own people’. It’s not hard to see why artists rely on grants and endowments, advances and prize money. Could you imagine these people in a job interview?

But it was Chicago-based Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, Scotland’s greatest living writer in non-residence, who captured what rubbed up the Scottish elite the wrong way about Westminster: it was too elitist.

A breakaway was stirring because ‘the Conservatives have long given up even pretending to represent anybody other than society’s elites and their cohorts‘ while the only promise of Labour was that they might ‘perhaps wring some begrudged concessions from those elites’.

The voters were now aware of ‘the public school elites’ and other establishment types who actually ran the country and would benefit from ‘freedom from the corrupt, imperialist and elitist setup’.

The superstition that Scotland is above the everyday human and social vices that bedevil the rest of the country is just a happy-clappy articulation of the national superiority complex from which these people suffer.

Scottish nationalism is not a grassroots initiative that the people managed to force onto the political agenda. It is an elitist project that finally learned how to do populist politics. Its adherents enjoy unrivalled dominance of Scottish government, the third sector, academia, and the arts. They believe themselves victims of a Unionist media conspiracy and yet, in no small part thanks to their intimidation tactics, the Nationalists enjoy an easier ride than Tory governments at Westminster.

The only facet of the Scottish elite that isn’t in their corner is the business community and they remain as gunshy about overt political statements as they were in 2014. Even the Church of Scotland church and society council has warned Westminster it would be ‘wrong’ to deny a second separation referendum.

What is missing from Scottish national populism, though, is the people themselves. They have little input to a campaign that is ultimately about those in positions of political, institutional and cultural power wearing them down until they give in and support separation. The only contribution the masses are allowed to make is the tax revenue that eventually subsidises those who presume to speak for them.

A populism of the people would not produce the document at issue, a self-indulgent meander through the political pedantries of a class apart, those with more ideals than insights and more influence than their mercurial analysis of priorities merits. That is why their manifesto does not declare a right to better healthcare or a quality education. It is why they do not clamour for job creation and why their statement insists that ‘economic growth should not be pursued at the expense of the wellbeing of the people or their habitat or that of other people or nations’.

These are pedestrian matters for those whose minds feed on the spiritual junk food of national greatness and whose hearts thump for higher things than mere schools and hospitals. Nationalism always puts the nation first and those who live in it have to wait their turn. This is hardly unique to Scottish nationalism; nationalists the world over do the same.

What knocks the spirit is that this bland and derivative politics is what stirs those minds that are meant to be our most adventurous, our most innovative — that Scotland’s creatives are so unoriginal.


I was sitting in the cavernous media room at SNP conference in Aberdeen yesterday when I took a prolonged panic attack. (See previous columns and thank you again for all the kind emails you send.)

Trying to take my mind off the crippling anxiety — always a doomed endeavour — I flicked through the conference agenda to see what kind of showing Scotland’s mental health crisis was getting.

None. And if your troubles are of a physical nature, you won’t be reassured to know there won’t be a single debate about health of any kind. Health secretary Jeane Freeman isn’t even down for a few minutes up at the main podium.

Happily for those of us on waiting lists (14 months and counting here), there was time for a long prodecural debate on the fastest route to a second referendum on independence.

There are many important matters on the agenda for the gathering but the complete absence of the NHS is a telling slip from a party that appears to have no clue about health and, worse, appears not to care.


My Mail on Sunday colleague Ruth Davidson tweets: ‘Finn started rampaging around the house so we got him a playpen. Wilson thinks it’s his job to keep him company in baby jail.’ An accompanying picture shows the pooch guarding the infantile inmate. Boy, when Tories talk about getting tough on sentencing, they really mean it.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

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