SNP numbers at Westminster

The SNP: A Party of Union?

Published: 21 October 2019

The SNP’s opponents portray it as separatist and divisive.  Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, has described the SNP’s politics as ‘narrow, angry nationalism’  akin to extremist movements in Europe. The leader of Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, is fond of comparing the Scottish independence debate with that of Brexit, arguing that ‘people are being divided on the basis of nationality’. These accounts are misrepresentations which fail to recognise why the SNP has been such a successful electoral force.  Indeed, these attitudes play into the hands of the SNP. To imply or assume that SNP voters are being swept along by narrow nationalism is a mistake.  As Rory Scothorne of the New Statesman recently argued, Scottish Labour should ‘stop treating nationalism like a virus to be cured’. Rather, SNP opponents should attempt to understand why the party has been so successful.

Few parties – of any ideological persuasion – enjoy uninterrupted governing power for a decade or more.  And there is little sign of the SNP being toppled from its position of electoral dominance.  In a forthcoming contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics (edited by Keating and McAngus) Craig McAngus and I argue that the SNP’s electoral success was founded on an ability to adapt to devolution, a process of professionalisation in the party, and a clear social democratic vision (being comfortable with a moderate amount of state intervention but at the same time business-friendly). 

Perhaps even more important, the SNP’s success derives from its inclusive, open form of nationalism – something that is underestimated (or wantonly misrepresented) by the party’s adversaries.  The SNP promotes a model of civic nationalism; nationalism for the many not the few, so to speak.  This nationalism is inclusive and liberal, based on residence and open citizenship. It can be compared with exclusive forms of nationalism which rest on the belief that citizenship is determined by place of birth and ancestry. The SNP talks of a shared sense of community of those living in Scotland, rather than any specific characteristics like religion or ethnicity.  All residents of the civic nation qualify as citizens. 

There have been concerted attempts by the party’s leadership to challenge any suggestion that the SNP’s nationalism is anti-English.  Nicola Sturgeon has been quick to criticise any such ‘extremism’ in SNP ranks.  While these debates often descend into simplistic, polarised arguments suggesting that nationalism has positive and negative forms, the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism endures in Scottish political discourse, influencing the SNP and the wider pro-independence movement.  And the SNP passes the test as outward-looking and welcoming on immigration, communicating that Scotland is open to refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants.  The approach has been more inclusive than that of the UK government, also recognising the needs of Scotland’s economy. 

The modern SNP emphasises the importance of interdependence; cooperating with rather than separating from others. This approach sees Scotland as part of an international community and considers alternative forms of ‘union’ to which Scotland might belong - economic, monetary, social and cultural.  The SNP’s message is that Scottish independence does not mean being cut adrift or isolated, illustrated by the party’s approach to the EU.  Since the 1980s, the SNP has aspired to position Scotland within the EU as an independent member state.  This was a prominent theme of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, although it was less than certain that an independent Scotland would easily gain entry to the EU. 

In the 2014 campaign, the SNP set out a plan to maintain links with the UK, declaring a desire to preserve the extensive social and familial bonds that exist between Scotland and the rest of the UK.  The party wanted to remain connected to the UK monarchy, currency and various UK-wide agencies (Scottish Government 2013). This desire for ‘connectedness’ led some in the wider Yes movement to argue that the SNP’s vision was not really independence at all. 

Events since have changed the flavour but not the essence of these debates. On Brexit, the SNP’s ‘Remain’ position has conveyed that it values international collaboration, and alternative ‘unions’ are being discussed.  The Sustainable Growth Commission (2018) suggested that an independent Scotland would retain the pound for a lengthy transition period. This could involve Scotland subscribing to the monetary policy of the Bank of England and moving to a separate currency only when some stringent economic tests were met.  The emphasis has been on caution, stability and continuity in economic relationships. 

Assuming Brexit does take place, the SNP’s model of Scottish independence will have to adapt, but for sure it will involve maintaining international links and some aspects of the ‘British Union’.  Scotland might remain in a ‘British Union’ and join a European single market. However, a ‘rainbow’ of political and economic arrangements are possible, not unlike the range of hard and soft Brexit options, as noted by economist Professor John McLaren.  

However these events are interpreted, it is safe to conclude that the SNP is not isolationist.  This independence-seeking party is not an example of ‘narrow, angry nationalism’.  Strategically and politically, the SNP has also shown willingness to work with others.  This was not always the case, but the party now recognises that it must cooperate with others to achieve the aims of challenging Brexit, securing the passage of legislation through the Scottish Parliament, and campaigning for Scottish independence. 

In this way, the SNP can be associated with cooperation and interdependence, challenging the myth that the party’s goals are narrowly separatist and inward-looking.  It is more a straightforward vision of a small state in an interdependent world, involving cooperation with Scotland’s geographical neighbours.  Whether this model amounts to independence for Scotland is another debate.  

Dr Lynn Bennie is a Reader in Politics at University of Aberdeen. 

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