Scottish nationalism (by an Englishman)

GREG WILLIAMS warns that there’s no point in Labour trying to ‘out-nat’ the Nats


When I moved to Scotland a couple of years ago, I was pretty ignorant about Scottish nationalism. At that point it was simple to me. I was convinced of the economic arguments that an independent Scotland would fail. So for Scots to actually choose to be worse off, the only explanation was they must really hate the English.

That view was only compounded during the 2010 football World Cup, when I was surprised to find so many Germans, complete with replica shirts, watching England play them in a bar in the west end of Aberdeen. Of course England were thoroughly and deservedly beaten, and the experience culminated in one of the ‘German’ supporters getting right up to the projector screen and passionately entreating the image of a crying eight year old with three lions on his chest to ‘fake orf yee Ing-laish [Jeremy Hunt].’

I later saw some of those same football fans on the doorstep in the Scottish election campaign. We’ve all met this sort of voter, what I would call an identity nationalist:

‘Why are you voting SNP?’

‘Because I’m Scottish.’

‘But we’re the Scottish Labour party!’

‘I’m Scottish. I’m voting SNP.’

‘But what do you think of the SNP’s record in government?’

‘Alex Salmond stands up for Scotland.’

And so the conversation continues circularly until you trudge back to the Voter ID board and report your ‘N’. To win over such Scottish identity voters, the temptation for Labour is to try and out-Scot the SNP. I don’t think this is very wise. Where would we start? Drape our literature in the Saltire even more? Start copying their pin badges? Do we think that voters won’t see through that?

There are party structural changes that we can make to put the issue to bed for the various columnists who are in touch with the job description of the Scottish Labour leader, but this will be largely irrelevant to the person on the street.

Reaching for rebranding suggests we’re missing the point. As a candidate I had geared myself up for a pretty hostile reception from the SNP on account of being English. Yet at the hustings and the count their candidates and activists were polite and talkative; much more so than any other party. Maybe that was magnanimity. But it was telling that in the whole campaign the only person, hundreds of voters included, who asked me why someone born in England was standing for election to the Scottish Parliament was a Labour member during the selections. This just epitomises the problem – we as the Labour party are still grappling how to deal with Scottish Nationalism, whilst SNP have captured the movement and moved way beyond it.

This year, we’ve learned their brand of nationalism has much broader appeal than to just your identity nationalists. The SNP picked up huge swathes of voters who embraced a positive vision for Scotland and a party that talked about a prosperous and exciting future. Their relentless positive rhetoric may have been mocked elsewhere on this website, but we must acknowledge that it appealed to hundreds of thousands of voters who, quite frankly, ‘believed in better.’ I would term this demographic aspirational nationalists, or more accurately, just aspirationalists.

They’re proud to be Scottish, but not blinded by this to the extent your identity nationalist is. Labour just didn’t have an articulate political vision let alone the policies to win over such aspirationalists. Also, when your best unique policy is the popular but arguably negative ‘carry a knife, go to jail’, we were always going to be in trouble.

Whilst I remain convinced that the best thing for Scotland economically is to stay in the Union, we must realise that Labour won’t win another Scottish Parliament election unless we present a unique and positive vision for Scotland to the aspirational electorate. The need to find this vision and policies that embody it is even more pressing considering the way Salmond’s push for independence gives him a blank cheque to spend on headline grabbing electoral freebies.

Towards the end of this parliament, the £4bn black hole in Scotland’s finances will become even more exposed. Yet he’ll just blame this on Westminster, and use the shortfall to strengthen his case for independence. Given how we struggled to land effective blows on Salmond and his unfunded electioneering in the third parliament, we should not bank on being able to do so this time around, especially with largely the same team line-ups on both sides of the chamber.

So this leads me back to the need for an alternative, positive, Labour vision for Scotland to win over these aspirational voters who, not completely blinded by nationalism, will embrace a party that is visionary yet realistic, and doesn’t take them for Saltire waving football supporters.

I learned a lot this year and was pretty humbled by the whole experience. Trouble is I wonder if the heads of the unionist parties in London, tempted to run the independence campaign themselves in light of their Scottish colleagues’ difficulties, have been through the same learning curve.

Greg Williams was Scottish Labour’s candidate in Aberdeen South and North Kincardine in May.

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23 thoughts on “Scottish nationalism (by an Englishman)

  1. You must have a very good memory for faces if you can remember the same people you saw in the pub last year are exactly the same people that you spoke to on the doorstep in the election campaign this year.

  2. Personally my take on the snp election win is due to the Cynical opportunism of Scottish voters.
    Whereby many voted for the snp due to the fact they just ask for more and more from Westminster and it dont cost nothing to vote in a demanding trouble maker I mean if they get you a better return from London for your vote why not.
    Whether the Scottish people would follow the snp elite down the economic plughole to become another Eire who knows.
    My belief is (and most reputable polling agrees) they wont its a bit like in the usa whereby many vote for one party in the presidential election and another for the congress.

    My belief is the Cynical opportunism of Scottish voters means they vote for the person they deem can get them more but against them to stop Scotland leaving the Union.

    In other words a house divided but a house divided in the end will not stand
    Scotland is going to have to become all one or all the other the alternative is this constant negative undermining bellyaching from the nats.

    Oh the Vision thing aint that one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

    An Englishman trying to get elected to a Scottish parliament would not usually get a ‘pretty hostile reception’ on account everybody probably had you down as a mad man and would keep an eye on you as you wandered aimlessly about to ensure you didn’t hurt yourself

    1. So you’re saying when things go wrong for Labour then blame the voters? Keep going on like that and Scotland will be independent sooner than you think.

      “Its a bit like in the usa whereby many vote for one party in the presidential election and another for the congress” – that perhaps made sense in 2007 when there was a Labour government in Westminster at the time, but doesn’t really explain the situation now, with Scotland hardly ever likely to vote Tory in any big numbers.

      On the subject of English people being elected to the Scottish Parliament, have you asked Nigel Don, Christine Grahame, Mike Russell or Shona Robison, all English born MSPs, about what kind of issues they encountered trying to get elected?

  3. I was convinced of the economic arguments that an independent Scotland would fail. So for Scots to actually choose to be worse off, the only explanation was they must really hate the English..

    What total arrogant rubbish. You might be better looking at the insolvency of UKplc before looking at a particular ‘region’ on its own to make a proper honest comparison.

  4. Strathclyde University’s study of the 2011 Holyrood election highlights a number of points germane to the debate. SES indicated that SNP supporters were much more likely to vote than Labour supporters; most respondents felt that the Labour campaign was poor; Independence was a minority preoccupation even with SNP voters; voters’ perceptions were that the SNP government had been competent, united and offered real leadership; groups recently perceived as fairly solid for Labour like women and Catholics were switching to the SNP.

    It will be a tall order to arrest Labour’s decline in Scotland but not impossible. Two things strike me as priorities in the Scottish Labour ‘to do’ list. First, they cannot afford to appoint an uninspiring leader even if this means widening the pool of candidates. (Salmond may be a strange, swaggering creature but he is a vote-winner.) Secondly, and I agree with Greg, we cannot match the SNP in a heedrum-hoddrum, shortbread tin contest but we must develop a distinctive narrative for Scotland and not an SNP-lite one. And this narrative must be radical. We went into the last election as a status quo party and got a doing. Scottish Labour must be once more the party of change.

    1. I think you’re right about the leader being key Martin. When the Salmond brand carries so many swing voters, our choice of the next leader after Iain is incredibly important. And it’s a decision that we shouldn’t rush either.

      The SES give us some hope – the effectiveness of campiagning and the quality of policies can both be improved. More worrying is the perception of competence. It’s worrying for Labour that a government which presided over, for example, a fall teacher numbers and education standards was still seen as competent. As well as better, more positive policies, we have to ask why some of the more justifiable attacks on the SNP’s record didn’t stick.

  5. Sadly, there is anti-English feeling in Scotland. Just as there is anti-Scottish & anti-Irish feeling in England. It’s not a nice thing,but it happens. I wouldn’t however relate it to politics.

    You give the game away by your assumption that Scotland would be worse off outside the union & that therefore anti-English feeling must be the driver. That means you are a newbie in Scottish politics. That isn’t the narrative.

    1. Not really much of a game to give away…the first line says I moved to Scotland a couple of years ago! Politics, and Labour especially, needs newbies. And despite being a newbie, we had a positive swing to Labour in Aberdeen South and North Kicardine.

      Anyway the whole gist of this article is that whilst there is anti-English sentiment in Scotland, it’s clear that a lot of the SNP’s support is unrelated to national identity. And that should give Labour hope.

  6. Immediately after the election I received a text from an 18 year old SNP voter saying that it was the proudest day of his life because”the only party committed to benefitting Scotland had won.”
    A recognisable, positive vision, a sense of belonging, a hunger for success – all this can be seen in this comment. All this is what Labour urgently needs to develop. And in particular, amongst such young voters.
    Your article does indeed highlight all this. Big question remains – how?
    Talking is going on rather too long…

    1. You know I have a lot of ideas Alison, as do a lot of members, you included! But I accept the gaunlet thrown down – next article needs to start presenting that positive vision we know is required.

  7. Hi Greg,

    Very happy to see you enjoyed the election and it atmosphere. I am working abroad in Dubai, but hail from Aberdeen.
    Let’s see what the Unionist camps have to achieve…my opinion that is! But I am open to other ideas. Firstly I would point you to an article by Iain MacWhirter on his blog site where he discusses the impact by a group of expats on the formation of Quebec and inparticular Montreal. He particularly makes the point about Glasgow being the producer half the worlds shipping when Montreal was nothing but a Beaver hunting lodge. Today it is one of the best cities on the planet. Whereas Glasgow citizens are currently dying from wholly preventable diseases, and I suspect the psychologically induced disease of low expectations. These I am aware are the result of the political ruling class is Scotland since the first or second World War, take you pick.

    My mother is half German and came to the UK in 1946 as an eleven year old. Her overiding impression of Scotland was just how backward society was in all areas when compared to Germany. Her firm opinion was the Scottish quality of life was 40 years behind central europe!

    I aspire to be better because it is in our capability as a country. Nothing to do with any misgiving about England or the English, but Westminster, now that is a wholly different perspective. The “union dividend” is just so much “scotch mist”. I say this because no one has been able to articulate a coherent argument that didn’t include the conclusion that this is as good as it gets. Or as good as the Unionist camp will allow. Mainly I suspect because it entails loss of political control of Scotland and, lets be plain about this, her resources, both current and future.

    1. I think it’s positive people such as yourself, Dubai Scot, that we need to win over. Well, if you’ll come back to Aberdeen to vote at least!

      Your comment about expectations and aspirations reminds me of someone who used to speak powerfully about the ‘poverty of aspiration’. Gordon Brown.

      1. Would that be Gordon Brown of ‘I live in North Britain’ fame. He couldn’t even say that he was born and bred in Scotland – Independent or not.

        1. Could you please provide me with a reference to where Gordon Brown has denied being born and bred in Scotland?

          He was of course being accurate if he described himself as living in North Britain – Britain of course stretching from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

  8. “Sadly, there is anti-English feeling in Scotland. Just as there is anti-Scottish & anti-Irish feeling in England. It’s not a nice thing,but it happens. I wouldn’t however relate it to politics” – Observer

    You give the game away by your assumption that Scotland would be worse off outside the union & that therefore anti-English feeling must be the driver. That means you are a newbie in Scottish politics. That isn’t the narrative.

    True – I would not argue that there is no anti-Scottishness in England, but it would be an exaggeration to peg it at the levels that exist within Scotland. I find much of the vile hatred toward ‘the English’ disgusting (whoever they are seeing as many a Scot is closely related to our counterparts South of the Border). I have experienced very little anti-Scottishness from people in England.

    1. I must be living in the wrong part of England then as I’m faced with anti-Scottish behaviour and comments on a regular basis and you just can’t wash it away as banter.

      The South East is rife with anti-Scottishness whether it’s in the form of party political material put through my door from the far right through to comments posted on a daily basis in any of the English national dailies. Add to that the “banter” you get at work or in the pub which, in any other country, would be classed as blatant racism then you begin to understand the problem.

      It’s about time people stopped trying to sweep under the carpet the racism that the Scots face in England.

    2. Yes but when I lived down south I did not experience a great deal of anti-Scottishness. It may be worse now but I didn’t find it bad about twenty years ago. However many people were routinely abusive about the French and the Germans. Have you never listened to some of the English football songs about the Germans? There is a fine line when we are looking at these kinds of rivalries, which exist everywhere. When is it banter and when does it become something more offensive and racist?

      1. That annecdote from the world cup is offensive and racist. But it’s interesting that in exactly the same pub for the six nations the chanting and cheering was completely banter and not offensive at all. But look, football behvaiour has been debated at length elsewhere.

        I don’t want to discredit or demean the SNP though pointing out how they hoover up the votes of the football / identity nationalist. They’re much smarter than that, and the point of this article is that as a party they’ve moved beyond that core vote and now also appeal to a huge swathe of the population that is asiprational, and doesn’t actually care about things like share of net debt and spending versus tax generated.

  9. It is wrong to suggest the SNP is ‘anti English’ but Salmond does appear too adverserial in stoking out differences between Scotland and England for the sake of it IMO. I’m not necessarily against a newly designed confederal union but I don’t want an unbalanced scenario which sours relations between Scotland and England.

    I think Labour has to steer a very careful path here. Labour needs a forward thinking vision with ideas and policies which enhance devolution and finding consensus with the SNP where possible but not go too far and appear ‘SNP lite’.

  10. The only ‘differences’ Alex salmond ‘stokes’ is the fact that England is run by predominantly right-wing parties : Labour, Tory and LibDem and Scotland is run by a predominantly left-wing government (albeit within a limited budget).

    Anything else is made up in your imagination.

  11. Thank you Greg for acknowledging that as a candidate you received a different reception from us than you previously thought for someone born in England. I hope that the Scottish Labour Party will select you as a candidate after independence, they need more people like you.

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