Skip to Content

Coffee House

Britain for the British: Theresa May leads a new nationalist government

6 October 2016

8:54 AM

6 October 2016

8:54 AM

Scottish jobs for Scottish workers. We’re going to stop foreigners from coming here and taking jobs Scottish people can do. We are going to make companies declare the nationality of their employees: those that do not employ a sufficiently high percentage of Scots will be ‘named and shamed’. They have a duty to this country; a duty to our people.

If companies wish to employ foreigners they will have to prove they need to and demonstrate that they have tried, but failed, to fill the position with a native-born Scot. We understand the pain felt by those Scots who have lost their jobs to English migrants. We feel your anger too. 

As for those English people currently living in Scotland, let me remind you that you are here under sufferance. You are high-ranking cards to be played as the negotiations over our independence continue. 

We have listened to the people and their message must be heard. Scotland is for the Scots. So English-born doctors, like other foreigners, are free to practice here for the next ten years. We won’t need them after that. 

Scotland is once again a sovereign and independent nation. We are taking back control. 

Well, I invite you to imagine the firestorm that would rage if senior members of the SNP talked like this. It would be spectacular. Typical nationalists! An Anglophobic party for an Anglophobic people! Blood and Soil! Just think of the outrage.

And you know what, many of those accusations would be justified. It would be an ugly mess and a discreditable one at that.

And yet this is precisely the talk we have heard from the Conservative party in Birmingham this week. You may object that the circumstances are different and in no significant way comparable but I would then gently suggest all that shows is you don’t like it when the boot is on the other foot.


How you talk – how you frame a discussion – matters almost as much as what you actually do. Some of this week’s tough talk will amount to less than people presently fear (or hope). But enough of it will happen for it to matter.

In any case, the mood music matters. Theresa May lambasts divisive nationalists and seems extraordinarily unaware that she, and her party, can now be considered that too. Because what was this week’s conference all about if it were not the triumphant assertion of a distinct form of British nationalism?

Yes, nationalism not patriotism for all that there was plenty of flag-waving in Birmingham too. Because, as every nationalist knows, there’s always someone else to blame. Sometimes it’s a specific group, other times it’s just a general suspicion that we would be better off but for them. And that one way of bettering ourselves is by making sure there are fewer of them.

Of course, there are Scottish nationalists who think like this. For some, peering south to Birmingham has been a little like looking in the mirror though I don’t suppose they’d recognise it as such. You do not need to deep very far into the SNP to discover bitter Anglophobia. It exists and it’s foolish to deny it.

But – and this does matter – it is not something openly shouted by the party leadership. That is both a matter of decency and the product of political calculation. Virulent nationalism of the blaming and flag-waving type actually tends to lose votes in Scotland these days. The brightest people in the SNP know this and do their best to keep a lid on the worst excesses of their membership.

Sometimes, it is true, the elected representatives forget themselves but, in general, the modern SNP really is an ecumenical party. This, it should be noted, is to its credit. Just as Scottish football supporters decided it was time to start behaving the better to contrast themselves with revolting English football hooligans, so Scottish nationalists have observed the ugliness apparent in most european nationalist parties and done their best to cleanse themselves of that kind of behaviour. This is important.

Occasionally a mask or two will slip but, whatever else you might say about Nicola Sturgeon or Angus Robertson or plenty of other SNP types, they do espouse an unusually civic form of nationalism. Nationalist, certainly, and open to plenty of criticism but as a general rule they don’t play the race card. At least not overtly. Westminster might substitute for England but the substitution does matter. There is a difference between a dog whistle and a human whistle, after all.

This was apparent in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum. One of the main reasons No prevailed was that English-born voters – of whom there are half a million or so in Scotland – overwhelmingly endorsed the Union. Post-referendum research suggested a narrow majority of Scots-born voters actually voted for independence. A different, nastier, party than the SNP might have exploited this. So it was notable that the SNP leadership did not.

You might think that faint praise or a charitable verdict on what, in the end, is simply doing the decent thing but, as we have seen, politics can easily become an indecent business.

But since I am not altogether in favour of the SNP  – or indeed of any other nationalism – it follows I cannot be altogether in favour of Theresa May’s government either. It is a nationalist government and anyone doubting that is guilty of failing to pay attention.

Labour might, as the Prime Minister said today, be the nasty party but hers is pretty unpleasant too. And with Labour in no position to provide any effective opposition, let alone a government in waiting, Mrs May’s party will have every opportunity to indulge its worst excesses.

Which is one reason why so much of this conference has given the impression that, actually, it was being hosted by Ukip, not the Conservative party. But perhaps the difference between the two is narrower now than once it was.

This doesn’t justify the wilder accusations flying about – the Tories are not Nazis for christ’s sake – but it still seems worth observing that the likes of Marine Le Pen’s supporters have warmly endorsed much of May’s speech today. The Prime Minister cannot help that, I suppose, but she might pause to wonder if that’s really the kind of support she wants or even needs. You cannot choose your followers but you can do something to minimise the likelihood of being liked by the nastier kinds of people.

Plainly many Conservatives are unconcerned by any of this. Immigration is the issue of the day and Brexit means being beastly to foreigners. Or at least making their lives more difficult. But I say only this: think how you might react if the SNP were talking – loudly and clearly and unashamedly – in this fashion. Think how you would react to that. And then apply that thinking to the rhetoric we’ve heard in Birmingham this week. Judge your own by the standards you’d use to judge others. That’s all.

 

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close