Under The Table
A friend of OTS has drawn our attention to a book review (*) by Chris Bambery, published by conter.scot in late 2022.
‘Within today’s SNP and wider nationalist and independence movements, there is a curious echo of the debates and tendencies of the first half of the 20th century. When SNP representatives point to the Irish Free State as some kind of model, they motion again to Dominion status (which that state held in its first decade). An attempt to portray itself as part of the status quo – or even the status quo ante – dominates thinking about independence at the top of the SNP. This is why Nato, the Bank of England and the EU remain the emphasis of the official case. What the Catalan artist and independence activist, Luis Llach, denounces as “neo-autonomism” – a conception of self-government or home rule without meaningful independence – has a home in Scotland today.’
This makes worrying reading for independence supporters and activists. Whether we like it or not, the behaviour of the SNP in recent years would appear to bear out growing unease about the real role of the nationalist movement as perceived by those managing the status quo. In previous blogposts we presented galleries of images showing (largely) metropolitan slants on the nationalist movement generally and the 2014 referendum in particular.
Off-Topic Scotland | As Ithers See Us? (offtopicscotland.com)
Off-Topic Scotland | Scots Online: What Are We Like!? (offtopicscotland.com)
It is perplexing and offensive to many independence supporters that the movement is so frequently portrayed as some kind of Trojan Horse for neo-fascists but we have to consider where these tropes come from and why they resonate with unionists who become myopic when asked to describe the nature of the current government (and opposition) sitting in Westminster.
The SNP is usually described as a ‘left of centre’ party, professes to be social-democratic and promotes civic nationalism, but given that the political spectrum is in constant flux depending on predominant economic forces, the precise positioning of any party (or individual for that matter) at any specific moment is never fixed.
The 1938 film Storm In A Teacup provides an interesting vignette which helps illustrate the reality of the Scottish independence ‘threat’ as perceived by the British establishment. A light romantic comedy (and the debut screen performance of Rex Harrison), the figure of Provost William Gow, played by Cecil Parker, is a vainglorious upper-class politician who aspires to high office and treats the people he is supposed to represent with open disdain, cruelty and indifference - their function is merely to maintain him in position whilst he rehearses the more important roles he expects to play. When the film was released, the SNP’s leader (only its second) was Andrew Dewar Gibb, an ex-British Army major who had served in France in WW1.
Gibb's involvement in Scottish nationalism came initially as a member of the Scottish Party which had been founded as a counterbalance to the left-wing National Party of Scotland. In 1934, he became a founder member of the SNP.
If this is where the caricature of Scottish nationalists as ‘Tartan Tories’ originates then it is plain to see how ‘real’ socialists would find the movement objectionable. The social standing of those leading a nationalist movement would be of obvious concern to democrats of any hue, and while the florid rhetoric may jar in modern ears, it was typical of the time and Parker’s portrayal, while heightened for dramatic effect, rings true - here is a unionist, an establishment figure, openly exploiting his position of power in a small highland village as a rehearsal for greater offices further down the line.
The idea that a popular cause, expressed democratically by the majority of citizens, can be used merely as a launch-pad for careerists motivated by nothing greater than self-interest is not new. The critics of ‘Nu-SNP’ have long decried the apparent tendency of politicians to temper whatever conviction they may have for the sake of party and ‘pragmatism’. Whether such individuals tweak their sincerely-held beliefs before or after achieving office is ‘a known unknown’ but the behaviour of characters such a Mhairi Black and Tommy Sheppard suggests that ‘settling-down’ does not cause them much sleeplessness.
The definition of ‘Tartan Tory’ may be mercurial but the inherent contradiction remains stark. It is difficult to imagine anyone laying proud claim to the description. Indeed, one of the most damaging aspects of an over-reliance on opinion polls and voting-intention projections is that an unknown percentage of those who vote for the Conservatives in Scotland are too ashamed to admit as much, to pollsters, friends, or anyone else. Putting their embarrassment to one side, we should be adult enough to accept that a significant number of Scots - for whatever reasons - do vote for the Conservatives and will continue to do so. Their motivation is important if we are to understand a vision of a future independent Scotland with a range of democratic parties headquartered in our own country. Unfortunately, the current situation means that their votes are indistinguishable from those of so-called ‘settlers’ who take advantage of cheaper property prices, enjoy the limited but highly visible benefits made available via devolution, but whose allegiance remains squarely with the concept of a ‘United Kingdom’ governed from London. We cannot even guess how the Tory vote in Scotland would break down if analysed with that fact in mind but we do know that, with the 2014 referendum vote being so much closer than most expected, it is no exaggeration to say that every vote counts. That is why the issue of franchise remains vital and cannot be ignored, hard though it may be to draw the necessary lines.
No-one left to blame
From time to time it is important to step back and review one’s motivation. Why do so many of us still yearn for independence?
We cannot speak for anyone else but, in reviewing our own contribution to the discussion via this blog (only 7 months old, 87 blogposts thus far) we believe that the motivation is clear enough.
When Alex Salmond resigned, child poverty in Scotland was 24%. It is now 24%
The political parties stand or fall, win or lose, on the basis of their policies having sufficient appeal to move voters to trust them and turn up at the ballot box on the few available opportunities. In between elections, be they local, national or UK-wide, the normal business of Tory vs Labour grinds on in Westminster regardless of how many representatives there are as the result of Scottish votes. Even if the bookies are right and Labour forms the next UK government, we have already been told not to expect any significant change on the UK level let alone in Scotland. (The government and opposition front benches’ being in constant lockstep when it comes to war, be it in Ukraine, Gaza, and now, Yemen, tell us all we need to know about the true depth of their ideological ‘differences’.) And if the recent by-elections in Scotland are anything to go by then the turnout for the UK General Election will be dismal and whatever cohesion was offered by a beleaguered SNP/Green coalition will end.
The 24% child poverty rate will not drop.
Suicide rates will not drop.
The dire state of addiction/recovery services will not improve.
The cost of living will continue to rise while wages stagnate.
What remains of manufacturing in Scotland will have to deal with the threat posed by sinister ‘Freeport’ development even as the Scottish government airily assures us that ‘there is nothing to see here’.
Casual and/or 'self’-employment will increase and workers rights will be further eroded.
We must stop blaming ‘Tories’, be they of the Tartan variety or not. Only radical action focussed on the end-result we all want to see can offer hope. What form that action takes depends not only on the willingness of the most powerful parties and civic bodies to get their acts together and present a united front - it also requires that we take a long hard critical look at our relationship, as citizens, with the form of representative democracy we have allowed to develop since devolution began.
And key to that difficult process of self-assessment is an acceptance that we are responsible for our own children. If a quarter of them are living in poverty, that’s down to us.
‘But it’s the Tories!’
The Tories were in power 45 years ago. Labour shat the bed in Scotland almost a decade ago. The SNP has been exposed as a fundamentally devolutionist entity for years.
We have no-one left to blame.
To be sure, some Scots have enjoyed their space on a bigger stage than Scotland could ever provide but the idea that they can or will use that platform to effect meaningful change for the citizens who granted them that power in the first place now looks as forlorn as it is naive. No - they deserve to be ignored and none should be granted another vote from any of us ever again.
Who else can be to blame for allowing these exploitative cynics to ‘represent’ us?: at Holyrood and Westminster they openly, in public, live on television, swore a solemn oath to serve the monarch i.e. the English Queen. New MPs and MSPs will swear allegiance to King Charles. They are betraying us in plain view, yet still expect (nay ‘demand’ e.g. Tommy Sheppard’s recent comments) our support and votes.
If child poverty (and the myriad generational problems it produces) cannot be tackled by the parents and guardians and everyone else concerned with the future of our own children then we might as well throw in the towel and admit that we Scots really are the benefit scroungers we’re so often painted-as by others, cowering beneath the masters’ table, hoping for scraps, eternally grateful to be allowed even that space, silent and permanently afraid.
(*) Richard Finlay, Scottish Nationalism: History, Ideology and the Question of Independence, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.
Review: Scottish Nationalism’s Roots In British Imperialism | Conter