Whisky, strawberries and the limits of Scottish ‘civic’ nationalism

Written by: Noah Eastwood

There is no reference to origins or founding members on the SNP website. This is quite deliberate. Ex-leader Arthur Donaldson is known to have spoken about the ‘great possibilities’ for Scotland were the Nazis to invade England. Douglas Young, who led the party between 1942 to 1945, managed to wind up in prison after campaigning vehemently against conscription and Scotland’s part in fighting the Second World War. Party founder and poet of the ‘Scottish Renaissance’ era Hugh MacDiarmid wrote of the London Blitz ‘I hardly care’.

The SNP has tried to move away from identity politics in the time since their nascent, treasonous days. But despite now being officially progressive, the party has a history of red-blooded nationalism. One of the defining features of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership has been to play down this fact and move with the times on issues such as climate change, refugees and LGBT rights while emphasising civic (as opposed to ethno) nationalism.

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2017 Sturgeon attempted to reassure Turkish author Elif Shafak stating ‘If I could turn the clock back, what 90 years, to the establishment of my party I wouldn’t choose the name it has got just now, I would choose something other than the Scottish National Party.’

‘Because what those of us who do support Scottish independence are all about could not be further removed from some of what you would recognise as nationalism in other parts of the world’ argued the First Minister.

So, there’s a difference between the SNP and scary nationalists such as, say, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But in nationalist politics the waters are always muddy and the debate over Scottish independence has a habit of falling in at the deep end.

‘England get out of Scotland’ controversially appeared on some nationalist banners during the Covid-19 pandemic and Sturgeon raised eyebrows when she played with the idea of closing the frontier with England over quarantine concerns. In the event, reinstating a hard border for the first time since Emperor Hadrian built his wall would probably have been outside of her political remit.

Photo by: The Scotsman

The party doesn’t like these sorts of spats. Hadrian’s wall is still rubble and Sturgeon was quick to condemn the ‘get out’ messaging. Preferring instead to focus on openness in civil life, the SNP has won support among ethnic minorities and Asian Scots favour independence at higher rates than the rest of the electorate. Yet, the problem of England as the ‘other’ still seems deeply rooted in the Scottish nationalist psyche demonstrating how some cornerstones of identity are harder to erode.

In 2018 it was revealed that members of the Scottish government were pressuring high street retailer Marks and Spencer into discontinuing Union Jack branding on ‘made in the UK’ Scotch Whisky and ‘fruit wars’ over Tesco’s choice of flag on their strawberries made waves 2016.

Impartial onlookers to the fuss over flags may wish to point out that the Union Jack is an amalgamation of both English and Scottish colours. Trivial though these squabbles may be, they highlight the cultural significance of Scotland’s rising national self-image.

Yet this rise appears to be running out of steam. Two-way polling on succession from the United Kingdom remains leant in favour of ‘no’ and brief frissons for independence after Brexit and during the Covid-19 pandemic have failed to buck the trend.

This November Sturgeon will mark seven years since she took office in 2014. Her predecessor, Alex Salmond, had held the post since 2007. The SNP has now enjoyed well over a decade of incumbency. Despite consistent electoral hegemony since 2015 and the banishment of most UK parties bar perhaps the Scottish Conservatives, the party is still no closer to governing an independent Scotland.

SNP leaders have been successful at getting the public to support continued political autonomy after devolution in 1997, but they have failed categorically to sell independence and not moved past defeat in the 2014 referendum.

To bring these ideas into focus: Scottish nationalism is still somewhat about identity, as the ‘us versus them’ rivalry with England shows. But this sits uneasily in the party’s modern political conscience and is seldom expressly articulated. The civic values of inclusivity, diversity, and equality espoused by Sturgeon and her colleagues forbid them from drawing too thick a line around what it means to be Scottish beyond a flag.

Therefore, the more chauvinistic elements of nationalism are off-limits to the SNP, which is a good thing. But it means that the Scots cannot, in the words of American diplomat James R. Lilley, ‘ride the tiger’ of nationalism. Unlike their Irish nationalist counterparts, the SNP’s devotion to civic participation compels them to take their seats in Parliament and keep the Anglophobia to a minimum.

But the modern SNP cannot entirely escape the sticking points of identity that define nationalism’s broader family tree. Civic nationalism has taken the party to new heights and devolved power and influence to Scots they will never willingly give up, which explains the anguish over Brexit. But ascending to nationhood requires a more compelling promotion of the social construction of sovereignty. This means talking about identity and appealing to hearts over heads, a difficult task for civic nationalists for whom identity is secretly important but publicly taboo. The Scottish apple might just have fallen a little too far for its own good.


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