It’s quiet up in Scotland at the minute. We’ve not tried to secede in a few months, some MSPs are away pursuing reality TV careers, and Nicola Sturgeon is still deciding the best punishment for parents that smack their recalcitrant offspring. The downside is that when things are quiet, some geyser of nationalist lunacy inevitably explodes. Step forward, Eddi Reader — folk musician, celebrity separatist, and the first of what are bound to be countless victims of the burgeoning police state. She announced to her Twitter followers:
‘When I was stopped in Glasgow two days ago (MOT ran out) the sight of the policeman and the Union Jack on his jacket made me fear he was an anti-indy man and if he recognised me I didn’t feel okay about that.’
As the Rodney King of the concertina was tended to by indignant cybernats, it occurred to me that maybe she had a point. What was a Police Scotland officer doing wearing a Union Flag? Helpfully, the National – the Breitbart to Nicola Sturgeon’s Donald Trump – which has been running a name-and-shame campaign to rid Scotland of Union Flags, had the answer. Over the weekend, a reader popped up on its letters page to point out that some Police Scotland officers had been seen sporting a black Union Flag with a thin blue line, representing a charity for fallen officers and their families. Perfectly benign to most of us but to nationalists this represents ‘the thin end of the wedge’ and undermines the political neutrality of the police.
Nicola Sturgeon is the softly made-up face of Scottish nationalism, the acceptable front for London TV studios, but the National and its unhinged foot soldiers are what it’s really all about. And because they are the SNP’s grassroots, their pathologies must be fed. The Scottish government is pressing ahead with plans to annex the British Transport Police into Police Scotland, despite the objections of officers and unions. The project to expunge all things British from Scottish public life is illustrative of how dogmatic the SNP is – and how tentative they believe their grip to be.
Its belligerence grants nationalism the illusion of strength but it is the most fragile of inclinations. The Marxist wrestles with history on the virtues of proletarian revolution and the conservative resists the future in defence of tradition but only the nationalist busies himself with the small and the symbolic. His worldview is at once dominant and under siege, imperilled by something as simple as a food label or a charity badge. The SNP is in government at Holyrood, the third party at Westminster, dominant in local government, and still its supporters are angry and afraid. That is the pharmacology of the drug: nationalism appeals to primitive fears and feeds them at the same time.
There are probably only three ways of breaking the dependency: war, prosperity or the emergence of a rival ‘ism’. Happily, war is off the cards; unhappily, prosperity is too. Outrage politics, however, is a growth industry and a new product hits the market almost every day. Scottish Nationalists fear that an unexpectedly popular Jeremy Corbyn could establish itself as the brand leader among enough Scots to hamstring the SNP and hinder progress to a second referendum on independence. Nothing underscores this more than the reception doled out to new Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.
Robin McAlpine, an intellectual giant in a nation of small thinkers, wrote a broadside against Leonard’s ‘weakness’ as Scottish Labour leader. This performance review seemed somewhat premature, coming as it did before Leonard had been a full week in the job and after his solid debut at First Minister’s Questions. But Yorkshire-born Leonard had also told a radio interviewer that he would support England over Scotland in a football fixture. McAlpine muttered that the Scottish Labour leader was ‘cheering on Scotland’s ‘auld enemy” and added, darkly, that a US politician doing the same ‘would need an enhanced security detail’. What is it about Richard Leonard’s cradle-to-grave socialism that so offends this cradle-to-grave establishment fixture? Well, just that: that it’s socialism and not the faux-progressive insularism of independence.
Since the opening of Holyrood, and, in particular, the arrival in government of the SNP, ‘civic Scotland’ has been fixated by the necessity of expanding its scope. Devolution is the socialism of the Scottish middle class, redistributing powers more mushily consensual than redistributing wealth. The danger for nationalists is that Richard Leonard, and by extension Jeremy Corbyn, will be a disruptive force who reorients Scottish politics from the constitution to economics. Until now, the SNP’s success has been built on convincing low-income Scots that they have more in common with a barrister in Bearsden than a bar worker in Burnley.
If Leonard can revive the idea of solidarity across the UK, the impetus for independence will grow weaker still. This is why McAlpine, forgoing a dog whistle in favour of a plain old whistle, pronounces that Leonard ‘see[s] Scotland as a second-order nation to the UK’ and will prompt voters to think, ‘The guy doesn’t even back Scotland over England on the football field, now I’m not sure he backs us over them in the corridors of power’.
In the mind of the nationalist, Richard Leonard is a walking, talking Union Jack stamped on Scottish politics, no different from an unpatriotic policeman wearing the flag of the colonial power. He is a reminder that Scotland and England are inseparably linked and home to fluid identities and complex, even contradictory, loyalties. That Scots would vote for a Yorkshireman or buy Brit-branded strawberries from Sainsbury’s is insignificant to most of us but to nationalists it is a fearful omen.