The Scottish Nationalist Party gathering at Inverness is an historic occasion. It is the first time the SNP have enjoyed a party conference since they won the elections in May to gain an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament. They feel that this is their moment and that nearly anything, including independence, is possible.
International dignitaries, corporates and lots of hangers on are evidence of the SNP’s importance. Even the UK media in one of their episodic fits have noticed Scotland and the SNP with various correspondents scuttling north and dusting down their clichés.
Inverness catches the SNP in transition. They have mastered the art of government and even more impressively, the balancing act of modern successful government. This entails, as Thatcher and Blair did, being in government and opposition at the same time; taking credit for all the good things, while blaming others (usually Westminster) when things go wrong.
The SNP were for years outsiders, defining themselves as not part of institutional Scotland and as an anti-establishment force. This still shapes the party’s attitudes; they don’t like the entitlement culture of institutional Scotland and bodies like CBI Scotland who think and act like they have an innate right to inflict their prejudices on the rest of us. Who they do like are independent minded, self-made people and entrepreneurs such as Jim McCall and Tom Hunter.
Now the SNP face the prospect of becoming the new establishment. This is aided by large swathes of society, in the voluntary sector and public bodies, without pausing for breath transferring their allegiances from the Labour Party to the Nationalists; and changing their language from ‘fairness’ and ‘inclusion’ to ‘the democratic deficit’.
The SNP Government has to attempt for as long as it can to navigate the balancing act of being both in government and opposition, which eventually becomes impossible for all incumbents. The party has to articulate an agenda which isn’t just about obsessing on the Parliament and its powers, but society, and at this moment of strength, park itself on its main opponents territory, social justice.
Scotland is not a society defined by being more equal or fairer than the rest of the UK. We are disfigured by poverty, health inequalities as this week’s statistics show, fuel poverty in a nation awash with energy, and too many blighted, fractured lives.
The SNP like Labour have chosen so far to buy into the couthy, comforting account of the Scottish nation: that we care for and look out for one another, that we are more solidaristic and less individualist than England, and that because of this we can take pride in our inclusive, civic traditions.
The only real way to aid a fairer, more equal, open Scotland is to challenge, not cuddle up to this delusion. The SNP could dominate the social as well as the constitutional agenda if they call Labour’s bluff on social justice, and call time on the complacencies and inadequacies which have led us to where we are.
Then there is the issue of independence and question of the how and why. We are clearly heading for two questions, to allow the SNP to position itself behind the forces of majority change. Nationalist thinking has already been set out in ‘Your Scotland, Your Voice’ and ‘Scotland’s Future’ government papers published in the last Parliament with the latter even having a set of suggestions on the wording of both questions.
The SNP’s motivating force behind the word ‘independence’ is the idea of Scottish statehood. What do we want a Scottish state to look like? A Scottish Treasury, macroeconomic powers, energy security and a nuclear free Scotland are all surely non-negotiable. But what of defence and foreign policy? What elements are people if any prepared to share in some form of political co-operation with the rest of the UK?
This is a debate which needs to be had, and involve not just the SNP, but wider nationalist movement, academia and political community. It takes us onto the terrain of post-nationalism; the SNP has been implicitly post-nationalist since Jim Sillars floated the kite of ‘independence in Europe’ in 1988, but most senior party politicians never go near the phrase. Alex Salmond, Kenny MacAskill and before them, Andrew Wilson didn’t use the phrase ‘post-nationalism’ in the way Douglas Alexander would never use the words ‘post-socialist’, but that is where their politics lye.
Post-nationalism draws from the thinking of the late Ernest Gellner and Tom Nairn to understand the new forms nationalism takes in an age of globalisation and huge concentrations of economic power in the hands of a tiny class. It takes to task the unionist idea that independence is irrelevant in an interdependent age as just plain wrong; that perspective is an old-fashioned, unreconstructed nationalism: the kind which inhabits the Westminster corridors and obsesses about undiluted sovereignty and the European threat to the British way of life.
Post-nationalism exists all across the world, in Spain, Canada and closer to home, in Ireland and how they addressed the multiple sovereignties and identities of their island. A post-nationalist politics challenges the black and white thinking and doomsayers who say an independent Scotland would be reduced to a better off Byelorussia, thrown out of the EU, and shivering isolated in the corner of Europe. It also throws down a challenge to some of the more romantic, idealist parts of the Scottish nationalist movement, that now is not just a time for dreaming, but nation-state building.
There are numerous antecedents for this path. Scotland has existed in a political union for three hundred years which involved sharing sovereignty which elements of the English political classes with their mistaken belief that the UK was a unitary state had little notion of.
Then there is the experience of Ireland between 1921-48 which took 27 years to become fully independent of the British state, and more contemporaneously, the Nordic Council of five states and three associates which is thinking about pooling parts of foreign diplomacy, and could provide a home for an independent Scotland.
These are exciting times, post-nationalist, post-unionist, entailing that the SNP and pro-independence voices show ambition and radicalism with generosity and pluralism as we engage in a crucial debate about Scotland’s future. What should a Scottish state look like, what do we want it to do, and in what ways will it be different from the present day? These are questions that demand serious work and answers, and over the next few years the detail and vision will have to become explicit for us to have a meaningful choice.