Why the Nazis and 1930s are alive and kicking in the independence debate

Ever more attempts to link the SNP to fascism and Nazism are a ludicrous sign of desperation.

Gerry Hassan
16 June 2014
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The Nazis are on the rise everywhere. They are cited on both sides of the bitter Ukrainian conflict, in places such as Greece and Hungary with neo-Nazi and fascist parties, and in some of the outrageous comments of the French Front National and even Ukip’s more extreme fringe.

The spectre of the Nazis and fascism have become increasingly omnipotent over the last twenty years to become a defining set of historical and cultural references in the UK, and England in particular. This was aided by Pier Morgan, as editor of the ‘Daily Mirror’, and his use of German caricatures in the Euro football championship of 1996, running front-page headlines declaring ‘Achtung! Surrender’, ‘Krauts’ and ‘Huns’. And now there is the emergence of the Nazis and fascism in the Scottish independence debate.

It is meant to be an irrefutable rule that mentioning the Nazis in an argument is proof that someone is desperate and has lost it. It even has a name – Godwin’s law – but if so it does not seem to translate to large parts of Scotland.

Leave aside whether or not Alistair Darling actually used the term ‘blood and soil nationalism’ in his ‘New Statesman’ interview last week when he dismissed the SNP’s ‘civic nationalism’. At the minimum, Jason Cowley, editor of the ‘Statesman’ thought it an appropriate term of reference to use with regard to the SNP.

A couple of years ago historian and general trouble maker David Starkey called Alex Salmond a ‘Caledonian Hitler’ and then went on at a Bow Group meeting, to gasps and shocks from the audience, saying that he believed the First Minister thought that ‘the English, like the Jews, are everywhere’.

Then there is the fascination with what various SNP figures did in the 1930s and 1940s. Composer James Macmillan wrote a column on Hugh MacDiarmid and his fascist sympathies in the 1930s. Similarly Labour blogger Ian Smart focused upon the Nationalist leading light Arthur Donaldson and his alleged Nazi sympathies; Donaldson was SNP leader from 1960-69 and has an annual lecture at party conference named after him. Smart has taken to a one-man campaign on the issue, tweeting the day before D-Day, ‘Are we really going to go through the entire D-Day weekend without anybody pointing out the SNP were on the Nazi side?’

Neither Macmillan or Smart can claim to be historians or experts on the nationalist tradition, but others have less of an excuse. Simon Winder, a historian of the Habsburg Empire wrote a couple of months ago in ‘Standpoint’ a piece entitled ‘Scottish Nationalism is built on a Big Lie’. In it he categorically stated that ‘Salmond’s rhetoric … could be seen as effectively fascist in its mix of flag-waving mysticism allied to socioeconomic gestures to the left …’

Academic Tom Gallagher, once a pro-Salmond supporter and admirer, and now a vociferous critic, has compared Salmond’s style of politics to Mussolini’s ‘march on Rome’ in 1922 which began the fascist dictatorship writing that, ‘Scotland could still confront its 1922 moment if the challenge of governing the nation alone proves beyond the SNP’s capabilities’.

What are the above comments about and why do a range of people feel justified in making them, nearly always motivated not by historical curiosity, but a sense of anger and indignation?

First, it has to be openly acknowledged that there were unattractive and even sinister elements in Scottish Nationalist circles in the 1930s and 1940s. The SNP was a tiny fringe force over this period, full of all kinds of characters and idiosyncratic opinions.

It seems strange to judge the SNP of the present day by the outlook of some of its members then, because no one demands such standards from the mainstream Westminster political parties. No one defines today’s Conservatives by the pro-Nazi opinions of some leading members then, or Labour by the fact that Oswald Mosley was a Labour MP before he became leader of the British fascists. Imagine the political stramash there would be today in some quarters if Oswald Mosley had been an SNP MP before he decided to become leader of Britain’s fascists? For some of the above opinion it would be the defining fact of the independence debate.

Second, the British political classes in their near-entirety bent and warped themselves out of shape in response to the rise of Nazism and fascism. There was the British Government’s non-intervention in the Spanish civil war when General Franco (with German and Italian military support) overthrew the democratically elected Republican government. The British and French colluded with Mussolini when he invaded Abyssinia, being happy to consider a carve-up of the territory. And Western politicians while initially taking action against the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 then tried to do a deal with the aggressors.

Even Munich, the apotheosis of British and French appeasement of Hitler is not completely straightforward. Myth now has it that Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary, resigned over Munich, when he actually did several months before - over the government’s Italian policy.

Churchill, who found himself on the Tory backbenches due to his opposition to Indian home rule from 1931 onwards, even felt in the Munich debate before Chamberlain flew out to meet Hitler in Berchtesgaden, that there was no point in speaking in the Commons, such was the parliamentary and national mood.

Only Communist MP Willie Gallagher spoke out in the debate against appeasement; and no one can claim that the Communist Party of Great Britain was consistent. Once the outline of the Munich agreement became clear, with the British-French selling out of Czechoslovakia, Churchill, Eden and a small band of Tories opposed it, but abstained in the Commons debate, leaving Labour to vote against it.

Thus, we have a decade of political intrigue, compromise and accommodation with Nazism, fascism and its military expansionism. A sordid tale of British and French high politics, of thinking they could ‘do business’ with Hitler and reach an understanding. Out of all this, from which no British politician, Churchill included, has a completely unblemished record, who do many people turn on in scorn and fury, but the tiny Scottish Nationalists of the 1930s.

It does not make any sense, until we recognise that some people regard today’s Scottish Nationalist tradition as close to illegitimate in mainstream politics and as an existential threat to the continuation of the world as they see it and the future of the UK.

Then there is the incontrovertible fact that the Nazis have become the ultimate villains of the modern age, to what has become an almost pantomime nature, made more real and menacing by the fact that they did exist and do horrendous things. Alex Salmond did call BBC chief political advisor Ric Bailey a ‘Gauleiter’, and many years ago Alex Neil dismissed Labour’s George Robertson as ‘Lord Haw Haw’, which are offensive terms. But the frequency and vitriol is skewed towards the Nationalists and getting worse.

Historian John Ramsden in his book, ‘Don’t Mention the War’, addressing British attitudes towards Germany, argues that what is the mostly English obsession with Germany over the post-1945 era is clearly linked to the decline of the UK economically relative to Germany, and in footballing terms of England versus Germany. It is not an accident that up to and including the point England won the World Cup in 1966 against West Germany they had never lost a football match against the Germans; from 1970 onwards England were much more often than not beaten by the Germans, hence Piers Morgan’s outlandish headlines.

In Scotland, we do not have these historical and sociological, or even football excuses. Some people are referencing the Nazis because they feel anger, indignation and fury at the presence and threat of the SNP and the independence debate.

Isn’t it time such people looked at their motivations and feelings about why they feel so incandescent with rage about the SNP and independence, and finally and once and for all, dropped the Nazi and fascist references? Scotland’s referendum is not about what Arthur Donaldson or Hugh MacDiarmid did or did not do in the distant past, but about Scotland now and in the future.

Wanting to create phantom Nazis and adjudicate the political minefields of the 1930s from the comfort of today may be appealing to some, but it shows a desperation about the independent debate which is alarming and rather revealing.

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