The SNP's success is nothing to do with nationalism

2 Jul 2016

IMPACT Article of the Month




It would be hard to argue that since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in 1999, the Scottish National Party (SNP) have represented anything other than a revolution in British domestic politics. In the 17 years that have elapsed since then, the party has gone from strength to strength, gaining an unexpected parliamentary majority in 2011 under the Additional Member System of voting. Even in the wake of the 2014 referendum, which crushed the SNP’s hopes of an independent Scotland, the party appears not to have been inhibited by the result, winning 56 seats out of 59 in the 2015 Westminster Election, and remaining the largest party at Holyrood by a margin of 32 seats in this year’s Scottish Election.



However, the specific factors that have driven this prodigious political success remain contentious issues. Of course, there exist a multitude reasons for the SNP’s success: the rise of Scottish nationalism; the failure to produce a credible Scottish right-wing alternative due to Margaret Thatcher’s legacy of deindustrialisation; and the SNP’s consistent recruitment of charismatic and politically competent leadership in the form of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.



Of these, the explanation for SNP success which has gained the most traction in recent times is that the Scots have become decidedly more nationalistic – that they have begun to view themselves as distinctly unlike the rest of the Union (particularly England), suggesting they are not homogeneous with the rest of the UK, but in fact a culturally and ethnically separate entity. This argument relies on the idea that the SNP have merely harnessed the power of a new wave of Scottish nationalism and translated this into support for independence.



This narrative has become dominant south of the border, where SNP supporters have been branded by papers like the Daily Mail as “thuggish nationalists” displaying “savage racialism”. While such claims from the highly partial Mail may not have fully legitimised this view in the eyes of the public, the argument presented by the Tories in the 2015 General Election that the SNP represented a nationalistic threat to the Union (and implicitly English interests), certainly did. David Cameron was successfully able to form a hegemonic view in England that if the SNP forged a coalition (or looser working arrangement) with the Labour Party in the event of a hung parliament, this would result in economic calamity, as a supposedly greedy Salmond and Sturgeon would “grab the cash” of the English. For the right-wing tabloid press, the stereotypical SNP supporter would be called Bruce, wear exclusively tartan, and enjoy nothing more in his free time than devouring haggis and thumping his chest while watching Braveheart.



However, contrary to this perception, the success of the SNP has been less due to a heightened level of Scottish nationalism but actually to do with the party’s social democratic aims. The SNP themselves are something of an anomaly when viewed along side other nationalistic movements in Europe. Ideologically, they sit on the left of the political spectrum, while many of their European counterparts occupy ground on the right.



This difference is related to the political landscape and climate of Scotland. Historically, Scotland’s economy was dominated by manufacturing, and this - coupled with high rates of poverty - fostered an enduring left-wing primacy there. This hegemony was only reinforced in the Thatcher years when deindustrialisation, with the pursuit of neo-liberal economics, left Scotland’s economy crippled.  Additionally, the introduction of the poll tax in 1989 (a year earlier than in England), further solidified the already widespread view that Conservatives and the right were no defenders of Scottish, social democratic interests. The perception formed in Scotland that Conservative politicians viewed Scots as second class citizens who could be used as guinea pigs for new right-wing projects.



This social democratic hegemony in Scotland had kept most Conservatives out of Scottish seats since the 1980s, but would also be significant in helping the SNP to triumph over the once dominant Labour Party. Tony Blair’s Thatcherite revisionism from 1997 onwards moved the ideological goalposts away from Scottish peoples’ comfort zone, and opened up a vacuum on the left, which the SNP were able to fill.



Increasingly, as the years of the Blair administration went on, voters were questioning their loyalty to Labour, due to issues such as the privatisation of public services and the Iraq War. The SNP were successfully able to propagate the opinion that Labour politicians now represented “Red tories”, and in a post-New Labour Scotland, no unionist party would pursue a social democratic agenda.



While Blair and Brown successfully managed to capture the English vote, they took Scottish votes for granted. This allowed Alex Salmond and John Swinney to monopolise left-wing politics in Scotland. The adoption of policies such as scrapping the Trident nuclear programme and a commitment to free university tuition have resonated with social democratic voters in Scotland, seeing the SNP increase or retain their share of seats at Holyrood and Westminster in every election since 2003.



The explanation presented here then is that the SNP hardly even represent a nationalist party, and it would certainly be questionable how they could constitute such a party in an independent Scotland. The party does not revolve around a single issue, and doesn’t view Scottish independence as the end goal. Instead, independence is the means by which the SNP can achieve their real end goal of a social democratic state. The fact of being a part of a union, in which the numerically and economically dominant English will likely (if not always) return a Conservative government is an unattractive concept within the intrinsically left-wing political culture of Scotland. Therefore, the SNP have been able to win in the “Scottish battle for socialism”, as voters have been able to acknowledge that as long as the structural constraint of the Union exists, their yearnings for social democratic policies cannot be satiated. This explains why Labour have come to the end of the road in Scotland. Labour politicians will have to maintain their commitment to union with a right-leaning England, and thus have to accommodate the preferences of English voters, not Scots.



Of course, the SNP did not achieve independence in the 2014 referendum, narrowly missing out as 55% of Scots voted to remain in the Union. In this instance, it seems as though fear of the unknown outweighed the known fear of possible Conservative governments for the foreseeable future. However, this doesn’t undermine the argument that the SNP - by offering a new brand of socialism that can only be achieved through independence - have come to dominate Scottish politics, and in light of the recent decision of the UK as a whole to leave the European Union, may still yet achieve their left-wing vision for Scotland.


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