SNP conference: Can Scotland unite against Cameronism?

by Mar 15, 2010 No Comments
Eve Hepburn

Senior Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Could Scotland unite against Cameronism for independence?

Finding an alternativeThe SNP has launched its general election campaign with an ace up its sleeve. Relishing the prospect of a Conservative Government in power in Westminster, Alex Salmond has remembered something that many Scottish nationalists may have forgotten over the last 15 years. In order to survive, and indeed flourish, nationalism – even of the ‘civic’ type – needs to define itself in terms of the ‘other’.

And after being derided by Conservative leader David Cameron for ‘living in a perpetual episode of Braveheart’ (amongst other things), the SNP’s much-needed ‘other’ seems to be gearing up for the fight.

As any student of Scottish politics knows, the greatest ‘other’ that Scottish nationalism has ever had was Thatcherism – an ideology that united a heterogeneous and divided movement in favour of greater autonomy for Scotland to demand, and ultimately win, a devolved Scottish Parliament. The question now is whether the SNP can sufficiently ‘other’ David Cameron’s Conservative Party to rejuvenate its campaign for Scottish independence in the context of (English) Tory rule from Westminster.

So what does this process of ‘othering’ actually entail? In scholarly terms, it means that the collective imagination of a national community is inherently relational, depending as such on a dialectical opposition to another identity. In layman’s terms, we could say that we need a common enemy to unite and define us.

While this proposition may be the basic material of an undergraduate course, in the post-devolution heyday of ‘new politics’, consensus and progressive pluralism many of us may have overlooked the fact that nationalism works best when ‘we’ can be pitted against ‘them’. And this doesn’t necessarily allude to the stuff of ‘two nations warring in the bosom of a single state’. Rather, the SNP needs a figurehead to represent everything that ‘Scotland’ is not in order to increase its electoral standing and bolster the cause of independence. And thus far, Labour has provided an inadequate ‘them’.

In fact, Labour – for some people – is as Scottish as Irn-Bru and haggis suppers.

As much as the SNP may hate to admit it, Labour was responsible for reconvening the Scottish Parliament after 300 years ‘in recess’.

Furthermore, devolution was implemented by a government in London that had a disproportionately large number of Scots in senior positions, and by a party that was founded by a Scotsman – Keir Hardie – with the clear aim of supporting Scottish home rule. In other words, Labour has been an ineffective ‘them’ for the SNP to unite the Scottish nation against. This is because Labour was perceived by many as representing the Scottish nation. And with Gordon Brown – an almost archetypal Scotsman brought up in a Kirkcaldy manse – at the helm, the SNP have got fat chance of othering the Labour Party.

Not so the Conservative Party. The Tories have had a problem with their overwhelmingly (southern) English image at successive Scottish elections. This has not always been the case. Being an independent Scottish party between 1912 and 1965, the Scottish Unionists once eschewed the use of the word ‘conservative’, which was regarded as an English phenomenon. Instead, the party drew its electoral appeal from a distinctive Scottish persona, ideology and policies.

Yet the party’s electoral decline in the 1960s caused it to partially merge with England and reinsert the word ‘Conservative’ into its title. The problem was, the party was incapable of articulating a Scottish brand of Conservatism, especially with the election of Margaret Thatcher as leader of the UK party in 1975. The Scottish Tories were handicapped by Thatcher’s desire to free the party from the ‘painful hook’ of recognising national identities within the UK. Instead, Thatcher espoused the vision of a unitary state based on free-market liberalisation, an economic project that lay in opposition to the Scottish commitment to the postwar welfare settlement. Furthermore, Thatcher’s opposition to devolution, and her disdain of concessions to Scottish needs and interests, went against the grain of Scottish national consciousness. In short, the Tories were viewed as an English party out of touch with Scottish needs – something that the SNP, together with Labour and the Lib Dems, loved to gloat about.

It was a combination of the popular hostility to Thatcher’s unitarist project, in addition to a widespread rejection of her neoliberal policies, which catalysed a surge in Scottish nationalism, advanced calls for constitutional reform, and unified the SNP and other socialdemocratic parties in support of devolution in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, if we superimpose this scene of Tory neglect and Scottish nationalist backlash onto the current British political scene, we’ll see that there are significant differences and a number of hurdles for the SNP to overcome if it wants to unite the nation in favour of independence against Cameron’s English conservatism.

Firstly, Cameron has been suave enough not to spell out the exact ways in which his neo-liberal policies might rankle with the (Scottish) electorate. Unlike Thatcher’s iron fist, Cameron has floated over a mixed policy agenda. This makes it difficult for the SNP to characterise Cameronism as an English/ anti-Scottish ideology. Perhaps more problematically for the SNP, the Scottish Conservative Party now has a distinct voice from the rest of the party. Following a steep decline in electoral support, the post-devolution party has gained more autonomy from the UK party. This has allowed the Scottish Tories to return to their socialliberal roots, emphasising the Scottish Unionist position of ‘service to others and to the community’, whilst advocating fiscal autonomy to enable the devolved institutions to steer the Scottish economy. At times, this position has enabled the Tories to work together with the SNP in the Scottish Parliament.

So how exactly might the SNP go about ‘othering’ Cameron’s Conservative Party, when the Scottish branch has made so many efforts to become more, well, Scottish? Here lies one of the challenges of multi-level politics. Statewide parties are no longer one single animal, but many – with different organisations and policies at different territorial levels. And while the Labour Party has been loathe to let the Scottish branch off the leash, Cameron’s Conservatives have been happy to let Annabel Goldie make the Scottish party what she needs to, even if that means diverging from the UK line. So although Alex Salmond has raged against the ‘metropolitan political consensus’ and Cameron’s disregard of Scottish matters, it will be difficult for the SNP to ignore the fact that the Scottish Conservatives are a Scottish party.

In all likelihood, if and when a Conservative government is elected to Westminster, the SNP will seek to reassert its position as the party of Scotland, and to carry forth the ‘mandate’ it has been conferred by the Scottish people (by obtaining the largest number of seats in Holyrood in 2007), much in the same way Labour did in the 1990s.

This might allow the SNP to push through its independence referendum bill in the Scottish Parliament when the circumstances are more favourable – namely, if the Conservatives win the General Election this summer, at which point there may be a popular demand for a referendum on the future of Scotland.

YouGov polls already suggest that people will be more likely to support Scottish independence if a Conservative government takes power in London. Furthermore, by portraying itself as the Scottish ‘David’ to an English Tory ‘Goliath’ the SNP may also win the next Scottish Parliament election on the back of antipathy to Cameron’s policies.

These are the dreams, we can imagine, that send our First Minister to sleep each night: whereby Cameron does for the cause of Scottish independence what Thatcher did for the cause of devolution.

But a niggling question remains: while Thatcher was adamantly opposed to devolution of any kind, Cameron has celebrated Scottish self-determination. That makes one wonder if Cameron has ever seriously considered the benefits for his party if Scotland went its own way – namely, the prospect of many more majorities at Westminster once Labour’s vote in Scotland is removed from the equation. In this case, Cameronism may be less Scottish nationalism’s ‘other’ and more its saviour.

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