Mhairi Black stirs anger in those left behind by the new Scotland

Mhairi Black fair riles them, doesn’t she?

The SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South was termed a “slut” by the prominent Unionist academic Dr Jill Stephenson during a Twitter exchange, the Sunday Herald has reported.

In the comments made before the general election, Dr Stephenson described the Nationalist politician as an “appalling harridan” and a “foul mouthed little slut” in one of a series of hostile tweets.

The apologism in response to the Sunday Herald article was wearingly familiar. Just as Nationalists rationalise and justify the cybernat sludge flung at JK Rowling and others, a power of Unionists were syllogising themselves into a right old lather to excuse the remarks. Only Nationalists are abusive online. Jill Stephenson is not a Nationalist. Jill Stephenson was not abusive.

Others pointed to the abuse Dr Stephenson has received from cybernats, some of which is revolting and deeply derogatory to women. Yet I can find no evidence that Mhairi Black has ever so much as tweeted the academic a “hello” let alone a four-letter tirade.

What, then, inspired her jeremiad against Black?

Dr Stephenson is no 12-follower cyber-nobody. She is professor emerita of modern German history at Edinburgh University. I am told she is renowned for her research on the role of women in Nazism. She was a member of Academics Together, the No campaign’s higher education branch.

The professor is not alone in her irrational contempt for someone barely five minutes in political life. Solicitor Ian Smart has branded Black a “wee Nazi”. Also no anonymous Twitter egg, he is a past president of the Law Society of Scotland.

Professor Tom Gallagher charged her with embodying “the culture of negation that is assailing Western civilization”, quite an achievement for a 20-year-old from Paisley, and posited that she would heckle José Ortega y Gasset if he gave a lecture at her alma mater Glasgow University, an even greater feat since the Spanish philosopher has been dead for 60 years.

The Daily Mail guffawed at her gauche fondness for McDonald’s and buying rounds of drinks for her friends. Even the eminently sensible Daily Record briefly became obsessed with her and her Twitter profile.

Perhaps we can chalk this up as the sort of juvenile taunts that fly back and forth in contemporary online debate.

Wings over Scotland’s Stuart Campbell recently set about retweeting posts describing Nicola Sturgeon as a “bitch”. This was in response to Scottish Labour releasing a dossier of SNP members who had called Unionists “traitors” and other unpleasant epithets on Twitter. (All Scottish politics now takes places at the level of the playground. Please Miss, Willie Rennie pulled my pigtails and called me an ethnic nationalist!)

Or perhaps an explanation lay in the misogynist flavour of Dr Stephenson’s word choice. “Slut” carries a particular contempt for liberated young women.

Of course, the Nationalists’ smelling salts routine would carry more credibility if they hadn’t lustily defended Alex Salmond’s own sexist braying against Tory minister Anna Soubry. That, a party spokesperson said, was a “boisterous but good-natured exchange”. No one sees the hump on his own back, runs an old Yiddish proverb.

No, I don’t think this was about sexism. It was about iconography. Mhairi Black has a long career ahead of her in which to flourish as an MP but for now she is a symbol. A marker of how Scotland has changed and by how much it has changed.

It was said of Margaret Thatcher that she roused such antipathy in the Scots because she was “a woman, an English woman, and a bossy English woman”. Black is an emblem of the new Scotland that confuses and offends the old Scotland. She is a woman, a young woman, and a working-class young woman. She’s not supposed to be an SNP MP, she’s supposed to be a Labour voter.

Women have often been at the helm of the SNP’s advances but Black differs from her foremothers. Winnie Ewing was a middle-class solicitor who spoke like Miss Jean Brodie on a day trip to Glasgow. Nicola Sturgeon hailed from Labour’s West of Scotland heartlands but was too obviously a nationalist, joining the SNP rather than Labour at the height of the struggle against Thatcherism. Margo MacDonald, to whom Black merits comparison, was a trailblazer, not one of 56.

That Mhairi Black stirs such choler in Unionists underscores the trauma inflicted on May 7. It feels like it’s not their country anymore, that they no longer understand Scotland. They do not see themselves in her and what they do see, or what they think they see, scares them.

These fears are misplaced. Scotland has changed and while it will surely change again it will never be what it was. But the transformation is political, not essential; no one has lost their country, just the old assumptions and crumbling certainties. The more irredentist Unionists will have to come to terms with that and they could start by trying to understand rather than revile Mhairi Black.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Andy Melton by Creative Commons 2.0.

Tunisia shows there is no opting out of struggle against Islamism

The grammar of 21st century terrorism is depressingly familiar by now.

First comes the outrage: Innocents savagely cut down going about their lives. Then the reaction, as politicians emote, 24-hour news speculates, and viewers gasp at the brazen, bloody theatrics.

We move quickly onto the clichés. “They hate us for our freedom.” “Terrorism is caused by alienation.” “There is nothing Islamic about violence.”

Then there are the recriminations, as cultural warriors volley blame back and forth from US foreign policy to Islamic clerics to poverty to “moderate Muslims” who do not declaim terrorism loudly enough.

The victims are identified and newspapers filled with heartbreaking collects of smiling mums and giggling children in happier times. Survivors give tearful interviews to daytime television and the “I was almost on that plane but arrived two minutes late” stories are taken up by the tabloids.

That is the stage we find ourselves at in the wake of the murder of 38 people at a beach resort in Sousse, Tunisia.

News coverage divvies up the dead into national categories and we retreat into our provincial shrouds and mourn our own. Many casualties are British, others German, Irish, or Belgian. The nationality of the victims is important to concerned relatives and friends back home but not essential to understanding the enormity visited upon defenceless people.

That the UK media should report this attack more extensively than others is not surprising given the high number of British fatalities but it risks obscuring the nature and objectives of Islamist terrorism. For horrific as these slayings are, British tourists are atypical victims.

On the same day as the Sousse attack, 27 worshippers were blown up in the Imam Sadiq Mosque in Kuwait. In May, 45 Ismaili Shias were gunned down in Karachi after their bus was ambushed by Pakistani terrorists. Thirty-four Afghans were murdered in a suicide bombing outside the New Kabul bank in Jalalabad in April. In March, 137 Muslims were killed in ISIS suicide bombings at two mosques in Yemen. The previous month, 21 people died in a Taliban attack on a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan. At the start of the year, Islamists killed 37 people in the Yemeni city of Sanaa when they detonated a bus outside a police training academy.

These are a few examples chosen at random; there are many more. Muslims at work, Muslims at prayer, Muslims going about their lives, daily human sacrifices to an inscrutable god. Their deaths will not have made it past the foreign pages of your morning paper. You will not be familiar with their children’s smiles.

And yet Muslims in non-Western countries are the most common victims of Islamist nihilism. Every now and then some clever data journalist informs us that we’re more likely to be killed by our televisions or toddlers than by terrorism, factoids arrived at by a perverse logic of discounting the overwhelming majority of incidents. Muslim deaths don’t even make statistics, let alone the nightly news.

I am reminded of Le Monde’s declaration following the September 11 attacks that “we are all Americans”. Revisiting Jean-Marie Colombani’s leader, I wonder if people who don’t read beyond headlines might be onto something. Much of the article is what we might call “brave” – “Russia, at least in its non-Islamised areas, is going to become the main ally of the United States” – but the Parisian newspaper editor captured the trauma of a world grimly rent from the Nineties, that feel-good decade of denial.

History had not ended and its losers were seeking vengeance. Europeans could empathise with the slain New Yorkers because we shared a culture, a language, and a political inheritance. We were all Americans because we were all Westerners and any one of us could be next.

Le Monde, you will have noticed, has not informed us that we are all Iraqis or Syrians. Terrorism is shocking when it bloodies the streets of London or Paris or New York but the Middle East – that’s where those things are supposed to happen.

More than a decade on from 9/11, we can say that the world did change but that our resolve quickly faded. It is probably healthy that liberal societies do not tolerate entrenched conflict in far-off lands but disenchantment with the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq has coloured our outlook on foreign policy.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States. A majority of the country believes in the use of military force against terrorism but public support for airstrikes and ground operations have returned to pre-9/11 levels. Although there is some evidence that Americans are starting to rediscover an appetite for international leadership, this has yet to translate into support for concrete action.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans say their government must “do whatever is necessary” to defeat the Islamic State but 57% also oppose putting boots on the ground. Containment over military action is the preferred response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions by 45% to 29%, with almost one in five saying they pose no current threat.

The great tempting of America is not to what our professors railed against – imperialism, global hegemony – but to insularity. US global leadership is a few decades shy of its centenary and can too often seem fragile, imperilled by public fatigue and a lack of political will. Damned from the isolationist right as dreamy Wilsonianism, placarded by the anti-war left as neoconservative empire-building – it would be so much simpler just to withdraw.

Tony Blair warned against the seductions of “not our problem” in his prescient Chicago speech in 1999. Addressing US policymakers and the public beyond them, he appealed:

[T]hose nations which have the power, have the responsibility. We need you engaged. We need the dialogue with you. Europe over time will become stronger and stronger but its time is some way off. I say to you: never fall again for the doctrine of isolationism. The world cannot afford it.

Those words apply far beyond the United States today. In our ambivalence towards strong, concerted action against Islamist terrorism and rogue states, we are all Americans once again. The horror in Tunisia should teach us that ignoring global problems does not make them disappear. Mosques still burn and street markets still explode, even if they do so out of sight and out of mind.

When we sense danger, we in the West clamour for security but when others are under threat, we turn tediously introspective and agonise about the burdens of being “the world’s policeman”. “We in the West” must stop thinking in those very terms, or broaden our definition beyond physical borders. Islamism is no more a threat solely to people in Aleppo than communism was to people in Moscow.

In truth, we are not all Americans and nor are we all Muslims. We are who we are; we need not be anything else. But we have a shared interest in the maintenance and promotion of liberal precepts, democratic institutions, and free enterprise. These are not “Western” values but the universal toolbox for those seeking to build open and prosperous societies.

There are no national or faith-based distinctions in this struggle. British deaths should command our horror no more or less than Afghan deaths. Muslim women, gays, secularists, and reformers are owed our solidarity, moral and material, as much as Manhattan stockbrokers and French satirists.

We began with the stages of terrorism. The next stage is the response to Sousse and beyond that how we internationalise our counterterrorism strategy. The political class seems to have agreed on the pretty harsh sanction of refusing to call the Islamic State by its name. Our leaders are going to have to do better than that. Free societies need robust defence and solidarity demands more than semantics.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Tony Hisgett by Creative Commons 2.0.

The speech Nicola Sturgeon could give to put an end to cybernats

I am writing this from a coffee shop in Edinburgh.

Half the people in the room are tapping away on laptops, smartphones or tablets.

Who knows what they’re doing. Some might be emailing clients. Others will be checking Facebook. At least one might be updating a Tumblr dedicated exclusively to Photoshops of Jim Murphy as a sexy cowboy with a strategically placed six-shooter.

Some might even be tweeting about Scottish politics and doing so in a less than constructive manner.

The downside of a world in which everyone is connected to the internet and can become a commentator, entertainer, and publisher in just 140 characters is that problematic word “everyone”.

There is no filter online. People who want to share pictures of family holidays or a blog on welfare reform are on an equal footing with those who long to open everyone’s eyes to the international Zionist conspiracy to conceal the truth about shape-shifting lizards and the spaceships they’re hiding at Area 51.

The latter are part of what commentators term “the digital underclass”. They are as deprived of behavioural norms and shared inferences as the economic underclass are of resources and opportunities.

In Scotland, this stratum finds most notorious expression in cybernattery, the often belligerent, endlessly paranoid, and pungently abusive prosecution of the case for Scottish independence. Cybernats come from all walks of life, social indices, and educational levels but share a commitment to the SNP that borders on the Branch Davidian.

Opposition politicians are accused of disloyalty and journalists pronounced lackeys of a Labour establishment that, despite eight years of SNP government and 95% of Scotland’s Westminster seats, they are convinced still exists.

Nicola Sturgeon has written a column for the Daily Mail, later reproduced on the SNP website, warning party members to toe the line in online communications.

This is just the latest occasion on which she has had to condemn cybernattery, an area where she has been much more alert and responsive than her predecessor.

She writes: “Obviously, I can’t police Twitter single-handedly. I follow 3500 people and am followed by almost 230,000 – I can’t personally keep track of everything that is said. But when tweets or postings from SNP members that cross the line are brought to our attention, we will act – as we have done before.

“That is why I am making clear today that the SNP will take steps to warn those whose behaviour falls short of the standards we expect. We will tell them to raise their standard of debate, to stick to issues, not personalities, and to ensure robust and passionate debate takes precedence over abuse and intemperate language.

“And I am also making clear that, where appropriate, we will take disciplinary action. In the SNP we have a code of conduct and online guidance for our members. Where that code is broken, members should have no doubt that we will use our disciplinary processes.”

The First Minister has acted against Twitter heavies in the past and those who fall victim to them will welcome her sensible remarks.

The fact she finds herself here again is not cause to doubt her sincerity; she appears genuinely appalled by cyberslime. The question is whether her supporters think she is serious.

Given Sturgeon’s repeated denunciation of Twitter trolls, the persistence of some Nationalists in this behaviour indicates they either have no respect for their leader or don’t believe that Sturgeon, in her heart of hearts, really disagrees with them.

Since she is phenomenally popular inside (and outside) her party, the former possibility seems unlikely. So we are left with the conclusion that some of her most fiery partisans reckon she is with them and just spinning a line to the media. She MUST know Jackie Baillie hates Scotland. She’s too wonderful not to.

If this is the case, it seems likely Nicola Sturgeon will find herself back in this situation. Next week, next month, maybe in the run-up to the Holyrood 2016 elections, someone with a “Saor Alba” Twitter profile will make a hideous statement and we’ll be back here all over again.

Since I know the First Minister would rather get on with running the country, and I and many other journalists would rather be holding the SNP to account on its policies and record in government than writing endless process stories, I’m going to make a suggestion.

Sturgeon should give a speech that lays down the law to the cybernats in no uncertain terms. That means telling them not merely that what they are saying is obnoxious but completely at odds with what the SNP believes. The aim should not be to hush them up but to force them out.

Given the SNP’s poll numbers, and the repeated insistence that it is only a tiny number of trolls involved, she could easily afford to alienate them. Indeed, she would strengthen her party and perhaps bring yet more people into it by booting the bullies out the door.

Neil Kinnock’s strategy for rooting out the Militant Tendency from 1980s Labour was, as Roy Hattersley once put it, “detaching the illegitimate left from the acceptable left”. Sturgeon should adopt a similar approach to cleave sensible nationalists, good-natured trouble-makers, and the incipient alternative media from the poison-pushers.

She should court sympathetic outlets like Wings over Scotland, CommonSpace, andNewsShaft in much the same way that editors and columnists from the print media are courted. Off-the-record briefings, exclusive stories, and mutually beneficial relationships should be offered.

There is a risk associated with this, of course, but by reaching out to the very best of pro-SNP and pro-independence media, the SNP could help shape the online discourse in a more positive direction. They could also head off future discontent with the party amongst outlets with significant influence over members and supporters.

As for the illegitimate elements in online Nationalism, she should dedicate her speech to telling them where to go.

She could say: “The problem with cybernats is that they’re all cyber and not enough Nat. Sniping at Margaret Curran on Twitter might be some people’s idea of a fun Saturday morning but I’ll stick to meeting voters and trying to win them over ahead of next year’s election.

“Those who see the world in brutal black and white should understand that they are in the minority. Don’t take my word for it. Go knock some doors. Meet the public. Listen to their concerns and needs. They’re not talking about liars and sell-outs. They’re talking about jobs and schools and living under Tory austerity.

“They’re not as fanatical as you and our country is all the better for that.

“Kezia Dugdale and I disagree passionately on Scotland’s constitutional future and we will go on debating our differences. But she loves Scotland and has our country’s best interests at heart every bit as much as me. If you think she doesn’t, if you call her a traitor or a quisling – don’t vote SNP. We don’t want you.

“I think Ruth Davidson is wrong on public spending and welfare and a hell of a lot in between. She’s a Conservative and I will always oppose that party’s agenda. But she is a committed public servant who wants to make Scotland a better place just as much as me. If you think she doesn’t, if you tell her she should go live somewhere else, if you send her homophobic abuse on Twitter – don’t vote SNP. We don’t want you.

“Journalists are not the enemy. They are not part of a cabal or a conspiracy. They are men and women doing an important job – holding politicians to account on behalf of the voters. That includes the SNP, for we know that parties and governments under-scrutinised quickly turn complacent and error-prone. Sometimes the media get it wrong; some outlets are unfair or driven by an agenda. But they do not deserve insults and attacks. If you think they do – don’t vote SNP. We don’t want you.

“The SNP doesn’t want you and we don’t want your vote because you don’t share our values. I would sooner see Scotland remain part of the Union than become independent on your terms. An independent Scotland will be born in hope and common purpose, not rancour and recriminations.

“Robust debate is fine. Indeed, it’s essential. Taking on the scare stories and relentless negativity of the Unionist parties is important. And we should speak with passion unbounded when we present our case for Scotland to make its own decisions and choose the kind of country we want to be.

“That is what the SNP is about. We are a party of government, not an online fan club for political delinquents. Anyone who has a problem with that – there’s the door.”

If someone in this cafe was tweeting abuse at Kezia Dugdale and they heard the First Minister make a speech like that, they would slam down their phone and pledge never to vote SNP again.

Mission accomplished.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Watching Scottish Labour fade away made for awkward viewing

Never speak ill of the dead, our mothers instructed us, and I suppose that taboo extends to the dying.

But those shuffling off this mortal coil are encumbered by no such niceties. Indeed, they can be vicious, lashing out frantically at everyone else, dreading the looming inevitable.

Scottish Labour is raging against the dying of the light and swinging pathetically at its tormentors.

Monday’s The Fall of Labour wasn’t a post-mortem so much as one of those unpleasant scenes that sometimes play out in hospital rooms, as the family patriarch wheezes his final breaths while the children fight over the will.

The inheritance is meagre indeed in this case. The party of Keir Hardie has been driven from its tartan redoubts and the only place in Scotland that still raises the red flag is Morningside.

To survey the dire straits the party finds itself in, BBC Scotland brought together former leaders and senior figures in an hour that will have made painful viewing for the members and supporters who remain.

Even the most unforgiving Nationalist could not have indulged in schadenfreude, for the whole thing was just so desperately sad.

Jack McConnell told everyone Better Together was a terrible idea. Johann Lamont didn’t agree but she could see where he was coming from. Iain Grey had warned what was coming in May but no one listened. Westminster was to blame, the Holyrood side of the family claimed. No, it was those bumpkins up north, Westminster wailed of its embarrassing in-laws.

David Whitton disclosed that Ian Davidson had turned up for a selection meeting in his trackies. Davidson denied this. Helen Liddell, Stalin’s Granny herself, sighed: “Scottish Labour could start a fight in an empty house”. That’s a theory they’ll be able to test now.

Susan Deacon seemed happy to be long since away from it all and Henry McLeish had that look on his face like he’s still trying to work out why he hasn’t joined the SNP.

I’ve always liked Deacon (criminally underrated health minister) and Lamont is now a bona fide social media star. To my surprise, though, I was most impressed by Davidson, who looked refreshed and relieved after his defeat in May. Who would have thought being bayonetted could do such wonders for your complexion?

The abrasive former Glasgow South West MP cut through much of the self-serving bromides and was punishingly honest about the mediocrity of the Holyrood group and the paucity of ambition for the country. Donald Dewar, he charged, was “an intellectual and social snob” who didn’t really want a parliament but a forum for the great and the good to tell Scotland what was best for it. The cult of Dewar is lamentably durable and it was refreshing to hear someone assign part of the blame for Labour’s woes to the architect of devolution.

We can see now what a failure Dewar’s project was. The parliament set up to “kill the SNP stone dead” has given the Nationalists a platform from which to win and win again, finally cleaving all but the most hidebound of voters from the I’ve-Always-Voted-Labour party. But nor does Holyrood function properly as a legislature, lacking a revising chamber and independent committee chairs to check executive power.

Labour’s time in power was spent, Susan Deacon admitted, plotting how to “get one over on the Nats”. Their red-raw hatred of the SNP has scarred Scottish politics for a generation but Labour is largely to blame for the rise of the Nationalists.

If the SNP is the parliamentary wing of a grievance, it is not the first such example in Scottish politics. Labour became adept at drawing dividing lines between Scotland and Westminster, offering itself as the protector of Scottish interests against the London-centric political establishment. It scarcely mattered that the UK Labour Party was in with the bricks of that establishment.

Scots are given to melancholy and self-pity in heavy doses and no one ever lost an election north of the border by appealing to our inner victim. (At their height even the Tories stoked these flames, promising to safeguard Scotland’s autonomy from the centralising socialists of Whitehall.)

After stirring nationalist sentiment and building it a parliament of its very own, Scottish Labour were shocked when slicker, more authentic populists came along and dislodged them. It is a lesson that parties of the centre-left often learn the hard way: You cannot out-demagogue populists and if you try you will only succeed in legitimising their slogans.

This is where The Fall of Labour was strongest. It identified that the shifting fortunes of the two parties are not governed by ideology but by competence and incompetence, direction and disarray. Scotland has changed in some regards but in others it remains largely the same. The electorate wants to vote for low taxes and toughness on crime but wants to be told that it is progressive and compassionate at the same time. Labour once squared that circle and now the SNP does.

Despite the efforts of idealists to will the Nationalists into an analogue of Europe’s radical insurgencies, the party stubbornly squats in the neoliberal centre. Scottish politics has undergone not an ideological transformation but a commercial transaction — we’ve taken our business elsewhere. Far from being Syriza to Labour’s PASOK, the SNP is Google Chrome to Labour’s Internet Explorer. Scotland hasn’t revolted; we’ve upgraded.

The Nationalists have an iron grip on the flag, the narrative, and the centre ground. Scottish Labour cannot shift right; a punchy Tory leader has staked out that territory. It cannot reclaim the left for elections are not won and lost there. It has no power base at Westminster or Holyrood. It has no money. It has no leader.

Labour are not shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. They are in one of the lifeboats. And it’s got a huge gaping hole in it. And people are taking turns scooping out sea water with an empty Campbell’s soup can.

There is scope to needle the SNP on its lengthening charge sheet of policy failures but that is a complaint, not a vision for the exercise of power. The SNP, for all its flaws, is the only viable party of government in Scotland. (Quite why Kezia Dugdale wants to be Labour leader escapes me. She’s bright, talented, has a law degree and experience in the education sector. Go become a lawyer. Run a trade union. Start a business. Do something worthwhile with your life.)

The Fall of Labour hit all the right notes, even if it hit all the obvious ones too. “They were there because they were there because they were there,” Davidson said of Labour functionaries in local government at one point. The principle applied to some of the talking heads too. Henry McLeish was there so viewers could argue with their spouses about which one he was again and Gerry Hassan because he’d only moan about it if he wasn’t.

Last night’s proceedings benefited from a direct and accessible presenting style. A blokey insider affair fronted by a political editor might have been more satisfying for anoraks but would have struggled to find an audience.

But even Jackie Bird’s energy could not lift the sense of doom hanging over every minute of the documentary. At times it made for awkward viewing; you felt you were intruding on private grief.

Time to back away from Scottish Labour and let them mourn in peace.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Eike Sauer by Creative Commons 3.0.

Civic or ethnic nationalist: Can you pass the Quidditch Test?

There are two questions which, unlikely as it seems, go to the heart of Scottish nationalism today.

Question One: Is JK Rowling Scottish or English?

If your answer to our first question is “Scottish”, you are probably a civic nationalist. Your framework of belonging is inclusive and dependent on choice and geography rather than heritage.

If, however, your answer is “English”, you are more likely to be an ethnic nationalist. For someone to be Scottish in your worldview, they or their parents must have been born here.

At this point, the civic nationalists may leave us but for their ethnic counterparts I have a follow-up.

Question Two: As someone who lives in Scotland, can JK Rowling become Scottish while continuing her support for the Union and opposition to independence?

This is the kicker. If you can’t go along with this, chances are you’re not just an ethnic nationalist but a chauvinist. Before you will consider someone Scottish, you require either blood or loyalty.

Rowling identifies as Scottish but she understands that there are those who do not accept her as such.

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We might call this the Quidditch Test. Former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit infamously questioned the loyalty of Britons of Asian origin, posing a challenge to them in an interview given in 1990: “A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the Cricket Test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”

The Harry Potter author last week found herself in a Twitter spat with the Herald columnist Iain Macwhirter. Rowling is a longstanding supporter of the Labour Party and a believer in the United Kingdom; Macwhirter has drawn fast to the SNP in recent years and shares its dream of an independent Scotland. The cause for their dispute was a column in which Macwhirter warned Scottish nationalism against the rise of nativist parties in Scandinavia. I thought Macwhirter’s column was excellent and said so, though I felt his view of the SNP’s relationship to Anglophobia charitable.

“Any trace of ethnic nationalism, and anti-English sentiment,” he wrote, “was expunged from the party in the 1970s.” On Twitter, Rowling queried the columnist’s categorical statement: “Quite a claim. How many English incomers were polled before the making of that confident assertion?”

The two parties flyted back and forth in that fine Scottish tradition and were inevitably joined by partisans, mostly on Macwhiter’s side. Because these were Nationalists, they declared that Rowling was not merely in error but had personally offended them, the SNP, Scotland, and all three seasons of Hamish Macbeth. They complained that she had called them racists, which she hadn’t, and Nazis, which she really hadn’t. Worst of all, she was rich and was therefore seeking to impose her will on good, honest, salt-of-the-Earth Scots. Mini Saltires will be flying at half-mast on car aerials for at least a week.

The Quidditch Test arises because a number of interjectors in the exchange objected to Rowling on first principles. She was not, they argued, Scottish. The responses startled me because it had never occurred to me that the celebrated novelist might be considered anything other than a Scot. I had always taken some pride in the world’s most successful author being Scottish and in our role in shaping the writer who has enchanted a generation of children with the charms of reading.

Those for whom Rowling is English by necessity of her birth in Yate, South Gloucestershire are in good company. For a person to be considered Scottish, a majority of Scots believe it is “fairly important” or “very important” that they were born in Scotland and almost three-quarters think their parents should have been born here. This is in line with attitudes in England and Wales. The fluid identities forged by our continuing constitutional journey find themselves in conflict with outmoded language and categories.

I think most SNP members would pass the Quidditch Test, if not on the first question certainly on the second. But those who would cannot ignore the presence of some within their number who wouldn’t. Instead of retreating into the comforts of victimhood, they should ask themselves why people as politically diverse as JK Rowling, Chris Deerin, and Hugo Rifkind have expressed unease about aspects of the SNP’s nationalism.

It can come as a shock to Nationalists when a writer criticises them or their political prescriptions. One of the most remarkable developments on the cultural scene of late has been the migration of many of Scotland’s creatives from conventionally social democratic parties and the odds and sods of the far-Left to the SNP. The very people charged with challenging power through art now swoon over the First Minister, her government, and its agenda. The SNP has not changed; it remains a pro-business, tough-on-crime party of the European centre-left. It is the artists who have changed. They have become writers, painters and singers in the national interest.

In 2008, The Times published its rankings of the fifty ”greatest British writers” of the post-war period. What is striking about the list, other than its dubious exclusion of Jeanette Winterson and Ian Rankin, is that almost one quarter of the authors was born outside Great Britain. There’s Doris Lessing (present-day Iran), JRR Tolkien (the Orange Free State, now South Africa), Melvyn Peake (China), Kazuo Ishiguro (Japan), and Isaiah Berlin (what is now Latvia). Iris Murdoch, who was born in Ireland, and CS Lewis, from pre-partition Belfast, are both on there too. Others — George Orwell, VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, JG Ballard, are Derek Walcott — are children of Britain’s faded Empire.

The list underscores how the reverberations of British imperialism judder on but it also tells us that British identity can be remarkably expansive. I cannot imagine a Scottish newspaper announcing that one in every four of Scotland’s greatest authors wasn’t born in Scotland. Alasdair Gray characterises English people who come to work in Scotland’s creative industries as either “settlers” or “colonists”. Contrary to his critics, though, Gray was not attacking English incomers so much as the enemy within: “Remember that these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people.”

As Sky News political editor Faisal Islam and BBC Scotland correspondents have found, this is not a prejudice confined to the elder statesman of Scottish letters. All nationalisms contain two components of blame: one for the outsider, who doesn’t belong to the tribe, and another for the “self-loathers”, whose lack of pride undermines the nation. Scotland is an inclusive country in this sense. People from abroad can come here and be abused for disagreeing with the SNP just as much as people born here.

The SNP is a victim of its own success. It has reaped historic gains from a post-referendum surge that brought it tens of thousands of new members and hundreds of thousands of new voters. Unfortunately, it now owns those people. Every nasty tweet from a Nationalist sympathiser with a “Team 56” twibbon is a communication from the SNP. The bigots within nationalism share symbols with the non-bigots and to their victims the distinction can be hard to establish.

It is not, however, simply a question of obscure cybernats. It is a matter of the language and tone some parts of the SNP continue to use.

Were someone to suggest that a strain of racism existed in the SNP, I would laugh heartily then probably get offended on their behalf. It is not that kind of nationalist party. This we can observe from its favourability towards immigration and the European Union and its many ethnic minority members. We need not even consult some of the more gushing panegyrics offered by court academics, whose championing of the SNP is happily funded by research grants from the wicked British state.

It is a party that exudes from its every pore a benign disregard for whether you come from Pakistan, Poland or Pollok. But what about Portsmouth? On that, I am less sure. Not the leadership, of course; Nicola Sturgeon is probably as beloved in Portsmouth as in Pollok, and given her recent form I wouldn’t write her off for the next Polish elections. Nor the bulk of the elected officials, a number of whom were born south of the border.

No, we are not talking about a faction within the SNP or the wider national movement but a dark impulse, harboured in hearts and given voice at indiscreet moments. Former leader Gordon Wilson called on his party to “strike at the southern cancer” while former deputy leader and ex-member Jim Fairlie noted research suggesting “native Scots” voted Yes in the referendum while those “born [in the] rest of UK” voted No, before asking: “Does open door immigration make sense?”.

When Alex Salmond indicted the Unionist parties as “a parcel of rogues”, he was not unaware of the preceding line of Burns’ verse: “We’re bought and sold for English gold.” Pete Wishart, the SNP’s Shadow Leader of the House, objected to Anna Soubry’s participation in Scottish Questions on the grounds she was “an English MP and Minister in BIS”.

There’s your trace. In size and significance, it is probably comparable to far-leftists in the Labour Party, homophobes in the Tory Party or anti-Semites in the Liberal Democrats. It is a trace but it is there.

Originally published on STV News. 

Labour is the Hiroo Onoda of Scottish politics

World War II didn’t actually end in 1945, you might be surprised to learn.

Japan’s aggression against the Allied Forces in fact ceased on March 11, 1974.

Or at least it did for Hiroo Onoda, a second lieutenant in the Imperial Army, who finally surrendered on that day.

Onoda spent 29 years cut off from his commanders in a jungle outpost, convinced the war was still waging and that approaches from police to explain the situation were another American ambush.

The authorities air-dropped orders to surrender but he assumed they were fake. They dropped letters from his family but he figured this was a trap. He would not listen to reason; all outside communication was rebuffed.

Eight years since the SNP came to power, Scottish Labour is still holed up in its jungle redoubt, though that fortress increasingly resembles a treehouse in size and sturdiness.

The Scottish people sent signals — the 2011 Holyrood vote, the 45% Yes vote in the referendum, and the Westminster wipeout — but Labour has managed to convince itself that each was a Nationalist subterfuge.

As First Minister’s Questions confirmed, Labour is the Hiroo Onoda of Scottish politics; it will not surrender to reality. The thought of 29 years of this is enough to make sensible Labour people seek out their own jungle sanctuary.

Iain Gray led the charge for the party on Thursday. It is not the first time he has served as interim Labour leader, a position he held from 2008 to 2011. His elevation, such as it is, came after Kezia Dugdale stood down as deputy leader to contest the leadership and he will speak for Scottish Labour until the parliamentary recess. Mr Gray was chosen for the role using a little-reported formula implemented under the recent party reforms: ABJB, “Anyone But Jackie Baillie”.

(Full disclosure: I lobbied for the job to go to Ian Smart. It would have added to the gaiety of the nation to have a Labour leader who turned up to FMQs in a replica SS uniform, goose-stepping around the chamber and singing the theme from Dad’s Army.)

The stars were in alignment for Mr Gray, given the Scottish Government’s continuing failure to meet its own A&E waiting times targets and the woes besetting the new Death Star hospital in Glasgow. But if the temporary Labour boss had the facts on his side, he also had himself on his side and no matter how hard he aimed, almost every round went straight through his own foot.

He was smug, taunting, hectoring, every question beginning with a sneer and ending with an exclamation mark. It was as if he was providing a catch-up service for anyone who missed Labour’s decade of sullen mediocrity. “I know that jet lag can mess up a person’s body clock something terrible,” he sniped in one barrage. Mr Gray hasn’t been so commanding without the aid of a Subway BLT in years.

All in all, it was Kezia Dugdale’s finest performance thus far at First Minister’s Questions.

The problem isn’t laying into the SNP. I have no truck with the phoney calls for consensus that say Labour should stop being so critical of the Nationalists. “The opposition like to come to this chamber with problems,” Ms Sturgeon rebuked Willie Rennie at one point, still puzzled that some folk think First Minister’s Questions is a chance to ask questions of the First Minister. That’s the point of an opposition party, to oppose the government of the day. If Labour becomes an echo, saying “me too” on everything except independence, it would be as well merging with the SNP and becoming its Edinburgh South branch office.

But there are ways to score points off bumbling ministers. Consider how Alex Salmond’s SNP took on Jack McConnell from 2004 to 2007. They picked their battles carefully, attacking Labour on its natural territory. Scottish Labour doesn’t seem angry with the government so much as downright surly with the electorate. We’re really sorry we’ve let you down, Labour. What can we do to make it up to you?

There are problems in Scotland’s NHS, as the First Minister acknowledges, but recognition will only get her so far. She could appoint Annie Wilkes the chief medical officer and the Heaven’s Gate wing of the SNP would still weep at the mere mention of her name. But the Scottish Government’s — and specifically Nicola Sturgeon’s — competent management of the health service was a key selling point for the party in the 2011 election. Voters trust the SNP on the NHS and until now the Nationalists have for the most part vindicated that trust.

Waiting times are a running sore and with no referendum to distract the public, the record on service delivery is only going to come under more scrutiny. Diehards will be with them until the end but if they lose the confidence of Middle Scotland on bread-and-butter issues, the SNP could see themselves in real trouble for the first time in years.

Mercifully, the FM didn’t fall back on her favourite response to difficult questions: “Stop talking down nurses/teachers/Scotland/our alternative economic reality.” At one point, SNP backbencher Roderick Campbell noted that diabetes levels were “at an all-time high” in Scotland. I half-expected Ms Sturgeon to chide him for talking down hypoglycemia and offer him a Mars Bar.

The SNP leader also made do with a single deployment of her well-worn “we won the election, na-na-na-na-na” line. For linguistic dexterity, though, no one could rival her insistence that the CalMac ferry service wasn’t being privatised but merely run by the private sector.

While I apologise to her for all these martial metaphors, which she isn’t keen on, the First Minister emerged victorious from today’s combat with barely a scrape.

Scottish Labour is still secreted away, hunkered deep within the thickets of denial. Come out of the jungle, Labour. The war is over. You lost. Time to draw some new battle lines.

Originally published on STV News

Leadership contest shows Labour needs to get serious

The Labour Party goes through bouts of introspection.

At these times, which inevitably follow electoral reversal, Labour throws all its energies into internal dispute.

It was famously said of the Left in the 1980s that they “refused to compromise with the electorate”. Doctrinal purity or factional harmony has all too often taken precedence over winning in the Labour Party.

Labour didn’t suffer much during these impotent sulks, except for a few trashed careers and bruised egos. It was the people who rely on a Labour government who felt the party’s elective irrelevance most keenly.

History seems to be repeating itself. After the worst general election performance since 1987, with their Scottish heartland seized by the SNP, Labour is once again refusing to compromise with the voters.

This can be seen in the contest – the term flatters this limp squabble – to replace Ed Miliband as leader. Parties in the doldrums struggle to attract talent and, as the pretenders to what passes for a crown in Labour circles show, the People’s Party is at one of its historic low points.

Liz Kendall, MP for Leicester West, is easily the most impressive of the crop but because this is the Labour Party, activists are looking for every possible reason not to back her. Kendall could knock Labour back into shape and that’s just what some people fear. They are not in the mood for politics; they fancy a bit of therapy.

No wonder she has been branded “Taliban New Labour”, a sobriquet designed to suggest ultra-Blairism on her part. (Or possibly her time in Kandahar tendering out suicide bombings to PFI contractors.) It says a lot about what’s going on inside Labour’s institutional headspace that its most successful leader is so reviled.

Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are the frontrunners in large part because neither is particularly associated with Tony Blair. While not left-wing in the traditional sense of the term, both are uncomfortable occupying the centre ground where elections are won and lost. They are best understood as the continuity candidates, rival options for Labour members who would rather abdicate responsibility than go on the offensive against the government.

Thus far the leadership election was shaping up to be a battle between the Coke and Pepsi of political mediocrity. The entry of Jeremy Corbyn changes that. Nominated by some MPs for the asinine reason that he should be “part of the debate” – he is part of the debate and has been on the losing side throughout his career – Corbyn is an unreconstructed Bennite, whose apparent selling point is that he can reconnect with the key SOAS graduate student and CNDer demographics.

Eighties nostalgia is in vogue but most people can settle for throwing on some Human League and cringing over photos of big hair and shoulder pads. Only the Labour Party could hanker for a rerun of the 1983 election, for that is what would follow if Corbyn defied all the odds and emerged victorious over his opponents.

That is unlikely but his mere presence on the ballot is a symbol. It tells us a section of the party remains committed not only to undoing the Blair reforms but those of John Smith and Neil Kinnock too. It is an admission that the Labour Party is still home to a strain of ugly extremism.

Corbyn addressed a Stop the War Coalition event in March 2009 and boasted: “Tomorrow evening it will be my pleasure and my honour to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. I’ve also invited friends from Hamas to come and speak as well. Unfortunately, the Israelis would not allow them to travel here.”

Friends from Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation whose leader Hassan Nasrallah says of Jews: “If they all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”.

Friends from Hamas, a terrorist organisation that has transformed Gaza into a tyrannical enclave of jihadism, misogyny, and homophobia. Its charter swears it to the “obliteration” of the State of Israel.

The same charter goes on to say: “Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious. It needs all sincere efforts. It is a step that inevitably should be followed by other steps. The Movement is but one squadron that should be supported by more and more squadrons from this vast Arab and Islamic world, until the enemy is vanquished and Allah’s victory is realised.”

The question is not why 35 MPs nominated Jeremy Corbyn for leader of the Labour Party. The question is why such a person is still allowed in the Labour Party.

The party’s travails would be comical if there wasn’t so much at stake. At least voters in Scotland have the SNP. A navel-gazing, ideological Labour Party leaves England without any effective opposition to David Cameron’s government. And by their solipsism, they are giving the Prime Minister free rein to redefine his as “the workers’ party”. Tories are talking about raising the minimum wage, helping hard-pressed families, and giving more tax cuts to the poorest in society while Labour is determined to bury the legacy of its most sustained and transformative period in government. If this party went into satire it could put Armando Iannucci out of business.

Labour is supposed to be a serious political party, not the fifth season of The Thick of It. If they don’t like the idea of a generation in opposition, they should start acting like grown-ups.

Originally published on STV News.

Jim Murphy hands Scottish Labour a chance to rebuild

Every pundit in Scotland knows what ails the Labour Party and the prescription for its malaise.

We’ve written many columns and monopolised hours of airtime telling you so.

On Saturday, Jim Murphy took his turn to lay out a framework for reforming Scottish Labour and electing a new leader and deputy leader. He did so during his final press conference in the top job, before handing the reins over to acting leader Iain Gray. #HunkyJim no more. #Murphalicious no more. That picture of him jogging in his tatty Scotland top no more.

The atmosphere was relaxed and Murphy joked with the press pack. Gone was the strain visible on his face during the campaign. He looked rested, even relieved, in a just-out-of-Barlinnie open-necked shirt. You could hardly blame him for wanting to be done with the whole wretched business.

But before he could be free, there was the matter of his changes to the Scottish Labour rulebook, which were voted through by the Scottish executive committee.

The five-point plan will see elections for the leader and deputy leader conducted under a one-person-one-vote system, councillors will be eligible to stand for the second-in-command post, the Holyrood 2016 lists will be reopened, primaries will be introduced for choosing 2020 Westminster candidates, and the leader and deputy will automatically assume the top spot on their respective regional list.

Of these changes, the most important in the short term is the decision to reopen the regional lists. This gives the best and brightest of the defeated MP crop an opening to stand for the Scottish Parliament in 2016. There are some good MSPs on the Holyrood benches but at least as many seat-warmers and time-servers. Labour can be a right sentimental bunch at times but there’s no place for pity in drawing up the new lists. Former MPs like Gregg McClymont, Gemma Doyle, and Tom Greatrex are real talents; May 7 should not be allowed to mark their exit from parliamentary politics.

The rule change to allow councillors to stand for the deputy leadership is another piece of good news for the party, which still has almost 400 councillors and a number of rising stars amongst them.

In the longer term, setting up open primaries for selecting UK parliamentary candidates could attract strong contenders otherwise put off by the “local people” politics of some constituency Labour parties. On the down side, primaries are a costly process — as Gordon Guthrie points out — and Scottish Labour isn’t as flush as its Nationalist opponents. Still, the opportunity to bring in “normal people” with lives and careers outside the political bubble should be seized.

Vitally, Scottish Labour leaders will from now on be elected on a one person, one vote basis. (“One person, one vote” could be the slogan of the Scottish Labour Party at Westminster.) The change here is that all members and affiliated persons will have an equal say and the trade unions will be deprived of some of their influence.

Nominations for leader and deputy leader will open on Monday and the final result will be announced on August 15. Kezia Dugdale has resigned as deputy leader to contend for the top spot and so far her only rival is Eastwood MSP Ken Macintosh. I wouldn’t presume to tell Scottish Labour members and trade unionists who they should vote for — though my track record on predicting the fortunes of the Scottish Labour Party is impeccable — but I would hope the answer is obvious.

There is a pungent pall of futility hugging the air. “Scottish Labour will change the way it chooses its leaders.” So what? They have one MP, two MEPs, and polls predict they’ll be light a fair few MSPs this time next year. The public has as much interest in elections for the next president of their local bowling club. That is why Labour needs an effective leader and a first-principles overhaul of policy, strategy, organisation, and communications. The party is in a fight for its survival, not against the SNP but against its own growing irrelevance.

As for Jim Murphy’s future, he insists he won’t be pursuing another career in Labour politics and won’t go to the House of Lords. (A pity, since Baron Murphy of Barrhead has a certain ring to it.) He will be giving a speech on Monday at Policy Exchange, a centre-right think-tank based in London, where he will outline his thoughts on Labour’s future. Murphy is a political star — the seizer in 1997 of the Tories’ safest seat in Scotland; a deft Westminster player; the only Scottish Secretary to hold his own against the SNP — and when he decided to stand for the leadership, it was as if a Third Division club had found itself signing a Premiership striker. (Yes, I just used a football analogy. That is Jim Murphy’s legacy in Scottish politics.)

Yet the brutal business of politics — if I may mix my metaphors and I may because I’m very fragile right now — sees him kicked out into the street like a stray dog. He deserves the gratitude of colleagues and members for his efforts on their behalf during the darkest electoral period in the party’s history.

At 47 and with a substantial political career behind him, Jim Murphy will not struggle in finding new opportunities. What lies ahead for his party is a more opaque matter. If Scottish Labour has a long-term future, his reforms could prove invaluable over the years and decades of recovery. It is, however, a very big If.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Policy Exchange by Creative Commons 2.0.

What is Scottish nationalism, what is it not, what could it be?

Half the country thinks it’s a cult, the other half is chugging down the Kool-Aid.

The SNP is a political and cultural phenomenon sweeping away the old certainties of British politics, enthusing and enraging in equal measure as it goes along.

As things stand, the Nationalists are the majority government at Holyrood, the third party at Westminster, and run 11 councils across Scotland. They have 64 MSPs, 56 MPs, more than 400 councillors, 105,000 members, and opinion polls rate their leader Nicola Sturgeon as the most popular politician across the UK. Few political parties in the democratic world can claim to dominate a country so completely.

The political commentator and Nicola Sturgeon biographer David Torrance has explored the historical themes underpinning the rise of the SNP. His is a sober and insightful take but one that tells only part of the story. Just as important, and in some ways more so, are the ideological, emotional, and attitudinal forces at work in the movement that has seized the country.

What is the SNP? What does it want for us? What, in short, is Scottish nationalism?

Beginnings

The SNP is an ideological chameleon. Formed in a merger of the left-wing National Party of Scotland and the right-wing Scottish Party, it was for many years a small-c conservative outfit. Prominent elements dallied with more reactionary ideologies in the 1930s and 1940s but the party has remained firmly within the democratic nationalist tradition. In recent times, it has identified itself with social democracy and egalitarianism.

For much of its existence, the SNP was the party of strange little men with names like Hector and Drummond and spinster Home Economics teachers austerely swathed in tartan shawls. Their alpha and omega was “the restoration of Scottish national sovereignty”; there were about five smiles between them. The epithet “Tartan Tories” described their social profile as much as their political inclinations. Beginning in the 1980s, the party underwent a quiet modernisation, adopting leftish language and poses to define itself against Thatcherism and an increasingly moderate Labour Party. Policy shifted from absolute sovereignty to “independence in Europe” and the vestiges of Anglophobia were superseded by opposition to “Westminster” and “London”.

There are any number of SNPs. It is a party of the sensible centre in the rural fringes and of the political fringe in the urban centre. There’s the Fergus Ewing SNP, low-tax and pro-business, and there’s the 45er SNP, the tens of thousands of new members convinced they have joined a radical party. There’s the tattie-peelings fundies and the Glasgow solicitor gradualists. The SNP unites the entrepreneur with the artist, the public sector worker with the welfare claimant, as distinctions of income and class are blurred in pursuit of national advancement.

In the middle of this unconscious coalition of sharply opposed interests, there is to be found a standard European party of the centre-left: Pro-public services and pro-business, pro-growth and pro-environment(ish). On fiscal and economic policy, they are not radically different from the “Red Tories” they excoriate. The 2015 manifesto echoed Labour’s major pledges on tax and for all its anti-austerity bombast the party merely advocated “a more moderate approach to deficit reduction”.

Analysis of its spending plans by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies found the SNP would cut borrowing by as much as Labour, though it would do so more slowly. While raising spending in real terms, the proposals could have seen a cut of 4.3% on everything except the NHS and foreign aid. “The SNP’s stated plans do not necessarily match their anti-austerity rhetoric,” the think tank noted, adding that “the implication of the plans they have spelt out in their manifesto is that the period of austerity would be longer than under the other three parties”.

Policy

Even without the IFS’s commentary, we could conclude that the SNP’s electoral prospectus, committed in rhetoric if not in reality to ending austerity, was far from a transformative programme. Their newfound fondness for Brown-era public spending levels is amusingly ironic but doesn’t suggest a party in the grips of economic radicalism. This moderate Labourism can also be seen in their exercise of power at Holyrood, where the first two SNP governments have abolished the graduate endowment, funded 1000 more police officers, abolished prescription charges, and delivered a council tax freeze.

As with all centre-left parties, it has learned the limitations of government. Its council tax policy “disproportionally benefits the wealthy”, according to Unison, and means “those on lower incomes face new or increased charges for the services they rely on”. It continues to miss its own targets on A&E waiting times and climate change, has presided over drops in literacy rates, and seen college places fall by 140,000 and college staff numbers by more than 1000.

Where the SNP stands apart is in trigger areas like nuclear deterrence, immigration, and Europe, where the party feels it can differentiate Scotland from the rest of the UK. The Nationalists are anti-Trident, though whether this is motivated by genuine internationalism or an insular reaction against the complexities of global politics is up for debate. They are pro-immigration and put their rivals to shame with calm, rational, evidence-led policymaking. When the latest quarterly migration statistics showed a spike in immigration, the Conservatives and Labour duelled over who would tighten the borders more; the Scottish Government released a statement welcoming the figures.

For a party that organises its politics around national identity, the Nationalists’ vocabulary on asylum, refugees, and humanitarian crises is commendable even if their queasiness about British military power can render their compassion impotent. They back Britain’s (and a future independent Scotland’s) membership of the European Union, though this is one constitutional question on which they do not wish to give Scots a referendum.

And of course there is independence, or rather interdependence. For the SNP does not envision a truly independent Scotland but one that pools sovereignty and resources across the EU. Its dictum that “decisions about Scotland should be made by people in Scotland” would be more accurately rendered as “decisions about Scotland should not be made by people in London”. Yet despite its antipathy for all things Westminster, the party went into last September’s referendum proposing that a separate Scotland share a monarchy, currency, central bank, monetary policy, financial regulation, and (temporarily) a welfare infrastructure with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Former leader Gordon Wilson fears his party is drifting away from independence and towards federalism; a casual perusal of the Scottish Government’s 2013 White Paper suggests the drift began some time ago.

Ideology

Qualified sovereignty aside, there is no discernible ideology of any coherence but the Nationalists’ mode of governing is notably authoritarian. The SNP doesn’t seek to manage economic outcomes but it is obsessed with controlling social behaviour. Nationalist parties are often more attached to the ideal of a given country than to the country itself. With the SNP there is a near-missionary zeal to improve us all and to this end ministers now determine what kind of songs we may sing at football matches and what products shopkeepers can put out on display. Every child in the land will soon be assigned a state-approved guardian who will, at their own discretion, “promote, support or safeguard the wellbeing of the child or young person”.

A centralised police force roams the streets armed and searches people, including children, at rates that would make the NYPD blanch. A plan to scrap the ancient safeguard of corroboration was only latterly shelved after much condemnation. And yet the party is sexually tolerant and is a wellspring of measures to increase gender equality, even ones which are meritocratically dubious.

The enduring paradox of Scottish politics is that the country tells itself it is left-wing while what it tells pollsters can be startlingly right-wing. The political theorist Stephen Maxwell, instrumental in the left-nationalism project, once lamented “the myth that the Scottish working class has an instinct for radical if not revolutionary socialism lacking in its Sassenach counterpart”. This national myth is perhaps the only common ground remaining in a politically divided land. In championing national identity over ideological struggle, the Nationalists have managed to square this circle. Scotland now has a party that speaks to its socialist sentimentalism and a party that appeals to its economic pragmatism, only they are both the same party. The SNP’s greatest achievement is not turning Scotland nationalist but deploying the rhetoric of Clement Attlee while accepting many of the economic assumptions of Margaret Thatcher. When his political perceptiveness was at its height, Alex Salmond remarked that Scotland “didn’t mind the economic side” of Thatcherism – “but we didn’t like the social side at all”.

The long march of the Nationalists, towing along a colourful caravan of Trots and cultural establishment luvvies, vindicates that analysis. The SNP is not a socialist party and it requires a generous interpretation to accept its claims to be a social democratic one. There is a strong egalitarian instinct at work but it emerges in checklist progressivism rather than a coherent radical programme. Hate the Tories? Tick. No student fees? Tick. Ban the bomb? Tick. Reshape the fundamentals of the economy? Ummm… Indeed, it can seem a party in denial of its own pragmatism, even though technocratic centrism has been largely responsible for its electoral success.

Shettleston and Salford

Into the vacuum left by Labour’s forsaking of class, the SNP has inserted the nation as the organising principle of political action. “Stronger for Scotland” ran its election campaign slogan. This is of a piece with the endless charge that opponents are “talking down Scotland”. Unionists protest, with some justification, the sinister conflation of the country with the governing party but far more telling is the apparent belief that a nation is something that can be wounded by words. Poor little Scotland’s ears must be shielded from these big, bad self-loathers lest it get itself in a guddle.

The fragility of the nation and the enervating influence of those who do not cheer for it are common themes in nationalist thought. It is also a tacit admission that national strength takes priority over social solidarity and economic justice. Those principles are important to the SNP but only sovereignty is precious.

Depending on whom you believe, Alastair Darling either did or didn’t describe the Nationalist ideological impulse as “blood and soil”. (Some Unionists will never forgive the SNP for not being the party they desperately want it to be.) There is a drop of blood to Scottish nationalism but it has been diluted over the years. Above all else, to accept the SNP as a nativist outfit requires us to believe that its many first-generation Scots supporters are victims to a mass Stockholm Syndrome. No, blood is of little help to us here.

What, though, of soil? There I think we are on more solid ground. The charge to which the SNP has offered no coherent answer is that of parochialism; that by choosing nationalism we forgo what used to be called international solidarity but might now be termed cosmopolitanism. At root, the Nationalist contention is that a bus driver in Shettleston has more in common with Sir Brian Souter than with a bus driver in Salford. The connection, though, is not genetic but geographic; it matters to the SNP which side of the Tweed the bus is being driven on.

The risk for the SNP is not advancing the bigotry of race but the bigotry of place, a danger only underscored by lofty campaign talk about a “progressive alliance” across the UK. A meaningful alliance, if it is to be more than warm words, must involve the redistribution of resources and the safeguarding of equal public provision of services. The SNP has yet to set out how such a pact would function after a vote for Scottish independence.

Fervency

If the SNP lacks an ideological backbone, this doesn’t seem to trouble the new members. A majority of supporters report that they experience criticism of the party as a “personal insult”, a phenomenon unique in British politics. To Nationalists, this is not evidence of an unhealthy emotionalism – the SNP as the Princess Di party – but proof that there is finally a party that people trust. Throughout the campaign, they would share pictures on social media of adulating crowds surrounding Nicola Sturgeon and demand: “Could you imagine this happening for Cameron, Miliband or Clegg?” Of course no one could because those are men, not icons.

This unyielding devotion can be a blessing and a curse. One of the side effects of mass re-engagement in politics is a Miranda tendency whereby 45ers, still dazzled by the shiny new club they’ve joined, puzzle at fusty, unfamiliar conventions and bristle at the discovery of opposing points of view. In the good-natured and inquisitive, this dramatises the awkward joys of political self-discovery. In the drudgingly humourless and Pentecostally literal, it manifests as innocence enraged. O brave new world, that has such quislings in it!

Ask any political journalist in Scotland and all but the most committed adherents of The Cause will tell you that criticism or even insufficiently flattering reporting of the SNP attracts a brand of backlash peculiar to that party. Into your Twitter feed and email inbox rush reservoirs of invective, some of which is creatively paranoid (“…but your MI5 paymasters won’t let you report that, will they?!”) though much of which is prating victimology, whataboutery, and the Salmond Subjunctive (“If Alex Salmond had said that…”). The patriotism police will arraign you for bias, treason, and assorted crimes against the nation. Try as you might to maintain a professional distance, reminding yourself that Unionists can write in green ink too, you know the preponderance of zoomers is very much with the SNP. What kind of party, you find yourself asking, consistently attracts people like this?

Political self-help

Most political parties are a broad tent. In the case of the SNP, there is no tent. As long as you believe independence is the answer, the question can be anything you like. Believe in a Scotland of lightly-regulated small businesses, low-taxed nuclear families, and the Queen on the money? That’s why we need independence. Long for a demilitarised socialist republic? You’re going to need independence for that.Supporters are fiercely loyal to their conception of the SNP more than to the party itself. Once we appreciate this, the fervency becomes a little less impenetrable and a lot less unnerving.

The SNP has been compared to a megachurch, a cult, a collective madness but while there is a palpable post-rational strain to contemporary Scottish politics none of these descriptions is satisfactory.

Emotionally, the party can function as a political self-help group, providing meaning and a feeling of belonging for those hitherto excluded from the democratic process. “See me, I’m SNP” declared a popular badge at the party conference, and you always know you’re in the presence of an SNP member because they proudly tell you so within about a minute. The gradual eclipse of economics by identity politics across the Western world has found expression in a number of parties and platforms. In Scotland, the SNP operates at the intersection of national and personal selfhood.

But if the personal is political, so too is the social. The enlarged SNP is a source of new friends, new pastimes, and a sense of community. In the former industrial towns of the west and central belt, where working men’s clubs and Co-operative societies were once landmarks in the social topography, communal spaces lie empty, or in disrepair, or have become bookmakers and charity shops. A spectre haunts these towns, the ghost of Labour Scotland receding into memory just as manufacturing and municipal socialism did.

The SNP offers civic rejuvenation and participatory politics on a scale not seen since the peak of trade unionism. Public meetings are back in vogue and rallies, once organised around occasional flashpoints, are regular events. Members feel like their views matter, that they are shaping a movement and through it changing a nation. Labour reduced politics to a four-yearly transaction between a remote governing class and the public; the Nationalists seem open to a crowdsourced democracy, though the test will come when civil society turns its guns on Scottish Government policy failures.

Nationalisms, civic and cultural

Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University laments as “drearily familiar” the British’s left’s “misconceptions” about the Scottish national movement, which he characterises, sunnily, as “liberal nationalism” and, heroically, as “a child of the Enlightenment”. The attempt to write the nationalism out of the Nationalist project is no doubt appealing to liberal sympathisers but it deprives us of a genuine understanding of the party’s purpose and its role in a changing Europe.

In this regard, Professor Vernon Bogdanor’s analysis of the new nationalism is more enlightening, even if his close comparison of the SNP and Ukip contains important flaws. The constitutional expert contends that the Nationalists, like other anti-consensus parties across Europe, appeal to those left behind by globalisation and the austerity measures imposed in the wake of the global recession. Despite the economic roots of the crisis, parties like the SNP offer a national rather than social democratic solution.

Professor Bogdanor asserts: “They seek to replace the politics of ideology with the politics of identity. They are not easy to place on the left-right spectrum of politics… You can be a left-wing Nationalist or a right-wing Nationalist and the Scottish Nationalists aren’t saying that the other parties aren’t too left-wing or too right-wing but that they’re not Scottish enough.

“These parties are concerned not primarily with the distribution of income and resources – the economic matters which constitute the main elements on the political agenda for the other parties – they’re concerned about questions on where we belong.”

Where the esteemed academic loses his footing is in garbling SNP and Ukip nationalisms. Both are dissenters from the Fukuyama school of history (a dubiously accredited institution from which even Dr Fukuyama has since graduated) and the liberal internationalism project of the 1990s. Both too are populist insurgencies against remote and sneering elites, champions of the democratic emboldening of their respective nations. The root of their difference lies in identity, how they answer the “questions on where we belong”.

For the SNP, identity is a choice rather than an accident of birth, an interior dialogue between people who find themselves living in Scotland and the Scotland they find around them. For Ukip, identity is external, it lies out there in the modern, multicultural world which is Not England and therefore threatening. Ukip blames immigrants for our social and economic maladies while the SNP proposes them as a partial solution to demographic decline and a monochromatic culture. Reduced to its simplest terms, Ukip wants fewer people to be English while the SNP wants more people to be Scottish.

The fault line in traditional national movements lies between civic and ethnic nationalism. The SNP has comprehensively rejected the latter, though it might be the case that a small minority of its supporters still view independence through an anti-English prism. However, there is a midway point between the civic and ethnic strains, which might be called cultural nationalism. By this I mean the proposition that Scots and English people are not racially separate but socially, culturally, and even morally so.

The cultural nationalist can be an elusive creature but usually conforms to certain behaviours. Such people are readily identified by the five-foot Saltire on their car and ten-foot chip on their shoulder. Their case for independence is rooted in historical claim and cultural distinction as much as or more than democratic self-determination. They imagine Scotland as an oppressed nation, classify (English) incomers as settlers or colonists, diagnose self-loathing in non-nationalists and fear their morale-sapping influence, and spout mystical cant about “hidden poo’ers”. Much havering about the differences between Scottish and English society will shoot from their lips, regardless of the evidence from social attitudes research. And never, ever pass critical comment on their project to subsidise Gaelic into relevance in the 21st century. They don’t like that.

The sterile fetish of flags and heritage that makes a culture out of rewritten history will always be backward-looking. Nationalism is not, contra Orwell, the belief that the past can be altered; it is the fear that the past, or at least a political rendering of it, might be forgotten. Adherents protest loudly that theirs is nothing like other and earlier nationalisms all the while replicating the same tropes of division, grievance, and victimhood. Sometimes, a cultural nationalist is just an ethnic nationalist with a humanities degree.

‘Community justice’

Cultural nationalism does not characterise Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership but it remains a force within the wider movement. For a party that talks left and governs centre, the SNP’s nationalism in places bears the hallmarks of old-right chauvinism.

Alex Salmond charges Scottish Labour under Jim Murphy with being “neither Scottish nor Labour” and accuses the Unionist parties in general of being a “parcel of rogues”, while his political mentee Joan McAlpine denounces them as “anti-Scottish”. Stewart Maxwell, ordinarily a thoughtful and considered parliamentarian, tweeted a picture of a man in Ku Klux Klan garb and asked if he was marching in favour of a No vote in the referendum. During the election campaign Dr Lisa Cameron, the new Nationalist MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow, enjoined Scots to “vote for your country, not against it”.

Edinburgh South candidate Neil Hay tweeted about the “disproportionate number of non-Scots accents” in the audience of STV’s Scotland Debates programme, chivalrously attributing the observation to his “non-Scots wife”. He will have more time to monitor television’s Sassanach cadences after the ignominy of being the only SNP candidate to lose to Labour on election night.

The Edinburgh Western branch had to be reproved by HQ after it told people to take pictures of Labour activists and post them online. Nationalist campaigners in Glasgow East evidently took their advice and went “hunting” for Margaret Curran, filming the former Labour MP as she spoke to constituents on their doorsteps. (Her SNP opponent objected because it “obstruct[ed] the access to democracy” of the voters but allowed that politicians were “fair target for community justice”. She is now MP for Glasgow East.)

One of Curran’s pursuers was later suspended from the party after ugly scenes at a Jim Murphy event. But in contempt for alternative points of view, none could surpass the four Renfrewshire SNP councillors who publicly burned the Smith Commission report on further powers for Scotland.

The real tension that runs through the party is no longer left versus right; that battle has resolved in a score draw. The dividing line is now civic versus cultural nationalism.

The Salmond problem

These incidents seem at odds with Nicola Sturgeon’s optimistic vision for Scotland. It is hard to imagine the First Minister believes her opponents are sell-outs earning a hireling traitor’s wages. This sinister mood music belongs to the tenure of her predecessor.

Alex Salmond was, until Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s greatest electoral asset but as defeat in the referendum loomed Mr Salmond’s tone grew more belligerent. In the six months since he stood down as First Minister, his behaviour has become even more erratic, including a new hobby of penning logically tortured bon mots to the editor of The Herald. Someone encouraged Mr Salmond to write at greater length and he produced The Dream Shall Never Die, a triumph of third-rate style and first-rate self-regard. Score-settling books customarily trade in low blows but Mr Salmond’s scribblings are just plain low, that infamous swagger translated onto the page.

When not engaged in literary vulgarism, he has raised the spectre of a unilateral declaration of independence, opened a discount supermarket as a political statement, and picked a fight with a headteacher over which plays she allows to be taught in her school. Mr Salmond is now the poor soul on the night bus who tries to convince you the driver and the little man on the EXIT sign are conspiring against him. The comedown from high office is seldom easy.

The Gordon MP’s political abilities and achievements on behalf of his party cannot be denied. His blokeish bonhomie forged with national sentiment and economic populism was central to bringing the SNP out of its seven decades of opposition and into power. He ran and won two presidential-style election campaigns and without him Scotland would almost certainly have Anonymous Labourbot 2.0 as First Minister today. It would be a less confident country, a less dynamic economy. And it would be a nation that had not glimpsed the possibility of independence, though his vexatious personality and dubious currency proposals played some part in it remaining a mere glimpse.

I understand why Nationalists hold him in such affection but he is a figure of and for the 45%. What the SNP needs is a leader who can take it to 60%, a clear and decisive victory for independence. The old politics must give way to the new politics.

The Sturgeon opportunity

The herald of that new politics is Nicola Sturgeon. Mr Salmond’s departure from the leadership and inevitable declining influence on the party is an opportunity for the SNP. The Salmond era saw a change in Scotland’s electoral behaviour; the Sturgeon era could witness the transformation of the nation’s political imagination. The First Minister has a strength of character and force of personality that no one in Scottish politics can match. She is a politician capable of recalibrating the debate from whether Scotland should be independent to what kind of independent country it should be.

Sturgeon was responsible for arguably the most effective front in the Yes campaign, the pitch to Labour voters that an independent Scotland could more practically achieve the just society they longed to see. Those voters, the ones who came on the journey and the ones who stayed behind, remain key to a Yes vote next time round. They like Nicola Sturgeon, they trust her, they think she’s one of them.

Too often in pursuit of their votes, she has charged Scottish Labour with “talking down Scotland”. That, however, is a nationalist response and what she needs is a social democratic one; not that Labour is not Scottish enough but that it is not Labour enough. To advance this line, the SNP has to become more like the Labour Party instead of just aping its rhetoric. If it can reconcile an assertive national identity with authentically social democratic politics, there is potential for the SNP to be more than a nationalist party. Not just stronger for Scotland, but fairer for Scotland, more prosperous for Scotland, more outward-looking for Scotland – and recognising that other people and institutions can be for Scotland too.

That will take a change in what the SNP stands for and how it expresses it. It means redefining the SNP as a left-of-centre party that happens to believe in independence rather than a nationalist party that sees left-populist policies as a means to achieving independence. (It would also be helpful if it could live up to this.) Cultural nationalism should be shunned in the process and the abrasive machismo of the Salmond years too. If she relies on the current toxic brew of anger, blind optimism, and flag-waving, Sturgeon should know that sentiment passes and when it does the public deflects its embarrassment by turning on the object of their affection. Just ask Tony Blair.

That the SNP leader does not approach independence with the impatience of her members signals an openness to such changes. In an interview in April, she told the BBC’s Evan Davis she’d be “disappointed” but “philosophical” if Scotland was still part of the UK at the end of her political career. That is not the response of a doctrinaire nationalist but is consistent with the party’s “democracy and constitutionalism” tradition. As Neil MacCormick observed: “Gradualism is an all but inevitable corollary of constitutionalism, but also of a commitment to democracy, for we should seek to go at the speed of the greatest majority in promoting constitutional change.”

Gradualism can be arid and formalistic or it can be purposive; waiting for the nation to realise the wickedness of the British state or working constructively within the Union to improve people’s lives and by doing so give them hope that things can be even better. The opportunity of devolution was only ever partially exploited by Alex Salmond, for whom the allure of populism was often too great.

If Sturgeon is sincere about progressive politics-and I think she is-she could amend her party’s constitution to enshrine those values. The SNP swear left-wing motives but turn to their constitution and the only aims listed are independence and “the furtherance of all Scottish interests”, a helpfully vague if ideologically suspect phrase.

Such a change might be largely symbolic but as Blair’s reform of clause four of the Labour constitution proved, symbolism can be powerful. By 1995, no one seriously believed Labour was still committed to “common ownership of the means of production” but by replacing this with a paean to “the strength of our common endeavour”, the party signalled that a shift had taken place in its psyche and its designs on government.

The Nationalists’ mission statement could be reworded thus: “The SNP is a social democratic party that believes the people of Scotland, from wherever they may come and whenever they may have arrived here, are sovereign and entitled by their democratic will to the same rights of self-determination as every other people on earth. To this end, the SNP seeks to realise an independent Scotland based on the principles of social equality, economic justice, and personal freedom.”

A union lost

And the charge of parochialism is a substantive one; it warrants a substantive answer. How would an independent Scotland, no longer pooling and sharing resources, maintain socioeconomic solidarity with people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland? I don’t know the answer but the SNP’s promise to work in the interests of people across the British Isles, while not sufficient, hints at a way forward. In selling their vision for an independent Scotland, the Nationalists should be honest about the effects on England and Wales and articulate a post-UK progressive relationship that goes beyond bromides about a “social union”. This would entail breaking new ground in intergovernmental relations but the United Kingdom is a unique proposition and its unravelling was never going to be straightforward. If the SNP can settle for a federal Britain in the short term, it should recognise its interest in fashioning a post-independence social and economic community between the countries of the former UK.

None of this is incumbent upon Sturgeon. Her position in the party and the country is secure. Her approval ratings are of the sort that usually originate from the Pyongyang politburo. She could take a nail gun to the nation’s pets and the electorate would agree Fluffy had it coming. But victory is not power and nor is adulation. Power, real power, is about making choices and challenging people.

It matters what Sturgeon chooses. The Scottish Labour Party is in existential crisis and the Scottish Tories are too marginal to offer anything but intermittent resistance. There is no opposition to the SNP in Scotland. With strong leadership, a policy overhaul, organisational restructuring, a lot of hard work and even more luck, Labour may one day return as a force in Scottish politics but the scale of the challenge is dizzying. The greatest obstacle is not the referendum alliance with the Tories – on balance, probably a mistake – but how a party selling economics can trade with a country where identity is now the primary currency. As Tony Blair counsels: “Nationalism is a powerful sentiment; let that genie out of the bottle and it is a Herculean task to put it back in.”

Scotland is independent in all but the numbers. YouGov polling now shows the over-60s are the only age group still opposed, and excepting an unforeseen catastrophe or a painful taster of full fiscal autonomy, it is hard to imagine that trend reversing. We are approaching the Columbo moment in the long-running psychodrama that is the British constitution; “just one more thing” the voters will say and suddenly Westminster will know it’s all over. Less than a year after we rejected independence, it seems more likely than ever. Every impossible height reached by the SNP turns out to be a false summit. Nothing is impossible in Scottish politics anymore.

Unionists have no one to blame but themselves. Ten words saved their hide on September 18, 2014: “Nothing else than a modern form of Scottish Home Rule”. Ten words they had to redeem, ten words they reneged on. The Union was lost for ten words.

For much of his tenancy of Bute House, Alex Salmond showed spirit but lacked the temperament to coax a sceptical people into the history books. He was an undeniably successful political demagogue but never an instinctive statesman. That is not the case with Nicola Sturgeon. Day by day, she shows that she has what it takes to lead an independent country out into the world. Day by day, I grow more convinced that she will.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

Swinney comes out swinging in stand-in FMQs joust

John Swinney was one of the best leaders of the SNP in decades.

Nothing will dissuade me from this view. Not the party’s mediocre electoral performance during his tenure (down one MP and eight MSPs). Not his failure to unite the gradualist and fundamentalist wings. Not even his role in the departure from the party of the Blessed Dorothy-Grace Elder.

No matter what you throw at me, I simply won’t resile. (I am, let us not forget, someone who still thinks Jim Murphy was a resounding success.)

This is in large part because Swinney was instrumental in overhauling the SNP from a party of protest – the SSP with Brigadoon on loop – to a credible alternative to Scottish Labour. He forged links with civic society and particularly the business world that continue to benefit the Nationalists today. Alex Salmond might have broken down the door of Labour’s tartan fortress but John Swinney jimmied the lock for him.

He is also a terrific parliamentary performer, something in evidence again during First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, where he stood in for Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister is in the United States on a fact-finding mission, though her trip has been overshadowed by an ill-fated decision to go for a pricey cup of tea in a posh cafe instead of necking day-old Cup-a-Soup from an empty crisp poke underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

So it was left to her second-in-command Swinney to field questions from Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale. The Lothian MSP has racked up a series of impressive performances at FMQs, cunningly needling the SNP on its increasingly mixed record on education and health. Today, she went on the North Sea energy sector, a field she has successfully drilled before and one where the SNP’s pre-referendum promises and projections have been found to be…optimistic.

During the independence campaign, the Scottish Government’s taxpayer-funded civil servants prepared oil and gas bulletins at the drop of a press release to show that there were oodles of petroleum under the North Sea. Fergus Ewing even claimed we’d be bathing in the stuff for a century and the SNPvoices in Alex Salmond’s head… Scottish Government White Paper trumpeted oil prices of $113 a barrel. It seemed the only question was how we would go about extracting the small deposits of water still left in this vast ocean of black gold.

After Scotland voted No in the referendum — honestly, it did; I was there — the oil price went down faster than a first-timer at Polo Lounge. The value of a barrel plummeted to $55 and still hasn’t nudged above $70 on Brent Crude in six months. But if the Aberdonian Irn-Bru hadn’t dried up, the Edinburgh government’s oil and gas projections certainly have.

“Once upon a time you couldn’t move for oil and gas bulletins,” Kezia Dugdale quipped. When would ministers put out another report? When the price is back at something vaguely respectable, Swinney didn’t say but was almost certainly thinking.

Why the radio silence on oil revenue, which accounts for 15% of Scotland’s economy? The fault lay — and you’re not going to believe this — with Westminster. Scottish ministers were still considering Chancellor George Osborne’s changes to the energy tax regime in the Budget. That’s the Budget announced in mid-March, since which time we’ve managed to hold a General Election, legalise gay marriage in Ireland, topple Sepp Blatter, and learn more than we could ever possibly want to know about Caitlyn Jenner. I’m not saying the deputy first minister’s excuse was weak but he might have been too hasty in dismissing “Please Presiding Officer, the dog ate my oil projections”.

Kez — can I call you Kez? — was having none of it: “This is less about North Sea oil and more about SNP snake oil.” A good line but it didn’t matter. Swinney is a master blusterer and got stuck into Scottish Labour over its disastrous electoral performance, which is a bit like kicking a man when he’s down. Actually, kicking Scottish Labour is literally kicking one man while he is down.

This is where Swinney’s parliamentary deftness comes to the fore. Some ministers fall into the trap of answering questions, which is not the point of FMQs. The point of FMQs is to have a good televised barney. Swinney knows this and is a skilled ducker of unhelpful questions. He has a rare ability to leave his opponents looking like they are their ones being evasive. That kind of debating nous can’t be taught.

So while Big Kezzy D (sorry, I’ll stop soon) had a damning report showing Scotland would need oil prices of $200 a barrel to balance its budget, the SNP had John Swinney and statistics don’t stand a chance against him. Even quoting his own MPs’ descriptions of full fiscal autonomy as “economic suicide” and a “disaster” did little to dent Swinney’s confidence that all the economic indicators pointed to Scottish Labour being pants.

He softened the braggadocio for his exchanges with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and later her colleague Liz Smith. For both raised questions about the SNP’s failures on education, namely falling literacy and numeracy rates and college cuts. Nationalists hate it when these problems are brought up, and they really hate it when it’s done by Tories.

But the Swinney Swing came back out and lamped Willie Rennie. The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, a party whose claim to the plural form is growing tenuous, echoed Kezia Dugdale on full fiscal autonomy. He told the chamber: “The Scottish National Party has been all over the place. It was in the manifesto, then out, then back in again and now the SNP’s MPs say, ‘Let somebody else decide.’ It started as the hokey-cokey and it’s ended as pass-the-parcel.”

This generously set up Swinney’s response in the same way Stan Laurel used to stand still for Oliver Hardy to smash a cream pie into his face. Swinney splatted: “The Scottish Liberal parliamentary group in the House of Commons could not play pass the parcel because it does not have enough members.”

Of course, Rennie — who still does a commendable job holding the government to account for the leader of a tiny party — was right. The SNP is a party in blind terror of its own policy, knowing that the economic pain that would accompany full fiscal autonomy would bury any hope for independence for a generation or two. What they want, in the short-term at least, are some extra powers that they can call fiscal autonomy without the mood-killing downside of the attendant economy realities.

This isn’t full financial freedom but it doesn’t have to be. The Nationalists are so popular now they could wave around a Greggs steak bake and call it full fiscal autonomy and the public would go along with it.

In fact, the public will go along with so much of what the SNP says that you can’t help but feel for John Swinney. He could have been First Minister, steak bakes and all.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.