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Post-Nationalism V (I think!): Let’s look at Scotland, the Scottish National Party and all that… April 26, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Scotland, Sinn Féin, Unionism.


An extremely interesting snippet in the Guardian some weeks back, which events have prevented me discussing. Michael White was writing about “Fear and Midlothian” (and isn’t that a tired phrase at this stage?) and the policies of the Scottish National Party in the upcoming Holyrood elections. The SNP is well ahead of Labour and set, if events go well, to become the largest party in the parliament.

According to White “Alex Salmond’s …In his concern to reassure sceptical Scots that independence is a viable option he promises to keep all sorts of things, including the Queen, sterling, and what he calls the “social union” with England.”

Now, this is sort of kind of true. Which means that it’s a little bit in the eye of the beholder whether these are promises to ‘keep’ these things, or instead a promise not to jettison them overboard if Independence is won at a referendum. And there is a small yet distinct difference between those two positions.

In fact if one views the SNPs rather fine website (which by the by says many very nice and complimentary things about Ireland) one will discover that the actual policy positions are as follows.

What will Scotland’s currency be?
The euro may well already be a reality in Scotland at the time of Independence. If not, however, Scotland has three options – entering the euro, setting up her own currency, or remaining within Sterling.

The SNP is favourable to entry into the euro, assuming that economic conditions and entrance requirements at the time are favourable to Scotland’s interests. The currency shall continue to be sterling until such times as the Scottish Parliament decides to change that position. Any move to adopt the euro will require the sanction of the people in a referendum.

It’s that second paragraph which is important. The SNP is itself in favour of entry to the Euro (and I’d be four square behind them on that), but it will

Will the Queen still be Head of State?
The Queen and her successors will remain Head of State, in the way that she is presently Head of State in fifteen other independent Commonwealth countries. If, in the future, the people of Scotland wished to change these arrangements, they would be free to do so by amending the constitution through a referendum, and it is the SNP’s policy that the issue should be tested by such a referendum once Independence is fully in effect. Ultimately, the decision rests with the people of Scotland.

and Alex Salmond said some weeks ago in the Scottish Sunday Herald that:

“That is the argument to transfer full political and economic control to Scotland, not to interfere with either the monarchy or social union between England and Scotland.

“The two countries will be independent but with the same head of state.”

Again, the SNP is largely a Republican party, but it must appeal to a base which is divided on this and many other issues. So this in a sense is the compromise. Through the Commonwealth there is an opportunity to retain a link of significant importance to many Scots while at the same time becoming Independent. Incidentally, intriguing here to see how there is little of the angst and breast beating that accompanies many Republican dissidents regarding issues of sovereignty. Even with the Queen as HoS parliamentary sovereignty is regarded as absolute and the fact that Scotland will be Independent even under such a system is taken as read. Now, this isn’t an argument for reintroducing the monarchy to the Republic (although there is a different argument regarding the Commonwealth which I’d certainly be more than sympathetic to – say as a relationship between the North and the UK under yet further transitional arrangements).

But overall this is an extremely nuanced approach by a party which, of necessity must operate on two quite different political levels. On the one hand it must be a largely left of centre political party operating within Scotland on a range of issues. One can be cynical and propose that this is a means for it to garner the largest possible vote under the circumstances, but on the other hand it’s instincts have throughout it’s history – despite having a more conservative element within it – generally been progressive (or at least since the 1960s). On the one hand it must, as it were, address the constitutional issue of Independence and all that entails. This is quite tricky balancing act. How to push a population in the contemporary period, one where constitutional politics is of diminishing interest? Well, to be honest, I’d argue that they’ve been very fortunate in recent years. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament gave a focus for them to shine in a local setting. Counter-intuitively, or not, Blair despite ceding this measure of self-rule is fairly extensively loathed north of the Scottish border (perhaps less so than the Conservatives, but comparisons on this level are invidious). The Iraq misadventure has only exacerbated this.

So the SNP has managed to present itself both as the recognised opposition at Holyrood, but also an effective and professional one. And it can’t have hurt to have the SSP to it’s left perhaps indicating how moderate the SNP was for those as were worried. Add to this the partial self-immolation of the SSP in recent years and the SNP becomes not merely an alternative, but effectively the default alternative.

In such a context the SNP must acknowledge the realities I’ve mentioned before, of a population that in some parts has a profound attachment to the UK. Hence the talk of ‘open borders’ with the UK following Independence. Such things generally don’t need to be said, unless one has a constituency that wants to hear them. Now this hasn’t gone unchallenged – even within the SNP, and there are those who see this as capitulation. But the clear drive of the SNP to hold referenda, if in power, on these subjects is telling and demonstrates their appetite to put their case before the Scottish people.

And what are the lessons for this island? A number spring to mind. Firstly the curious similarity between aspects of the Sinn Féin project and the SNP. Now first let it be said that there is no comparison on one level. The SNP never attempted to forcibly repeal the Union (although like SF it took on a distinctly left hue unlike many nationalist parties of the last century). But strip away tactics and what are revealed are common problems, most fundamentally the strategic necessity to disengage from one federal entity and establish (or reunite with) a new political entity. The distinctions aren’t minor. It is clearly easier and less contentious for the SNP to operate within a society where the sectarian/political/communal divides while extant are much less sharp edged than in the six counties. Moreover the existence of the Republic of Ireland hinders Sinn Féin and separatist Republicanism much more than aids them (since it provides a half way house to full independence and in doing so mutes the demand for full unity).

But more important is the necessity to grapple with reality. How does a Northern Ireland transitioning towards leaving the UK in ten or fifteen or twenty years retain the aspects that are of significance to Unionists? This isn’t an issue of cosmetic approaches beloved of Republicanism which from Éire Nua onwards has had a sincere (and sincerely wrong) capacity to pretend Unionist national allegiance is colonial, a case of false consciousness, can be erased as if by will or an amalgam of all three (most heartening in recent times has been Alex Maskey’s entirely credible engagement with Unionism on the part of Republicanism).

The SNP seems to have grasped the difference between substance and image. Hence they’re comfortable with talk of a ‘social union’ between the UK and an independent Scotland and with elements of this social union which might make most Irish Republicans balk (and which would be inappropriate in any event in the context of the Republic) but which are not regarded as a significant diminuitions of Scottish sovereignty.

As noted above, this is not meant to be an argument for a shared head of state. As I say, that would be inappropriate (unless they agree to share the President 😉 ), but it is reasonable to consider that within the area of the six counties in the context of further development of the GFA there might be a dual or overlapping aspect to identity even in the context of a ‘near-united’ Ireland or island.

Secondly, it is notable how the psychology of this is developing. The SNP are generous. Remarkably generous in fact in even countenancing a shared head of state. But that generosity isn’t the product of fear of failure, but the possibility of success. This is something Irish Republicans should think about as well. And it requires Republicans to be generous.

Scotland is convinced that there is much to learn from the Irish experience of independence since 1921, and in particular from the specific experience since Irish entry to the EEC. Perhaps we have as much, if not more, to learn from the Scottish experience of dealing with another aspect of British Unionism.


1. franklittle - April 27, 2007

Very interesting article, and I’d like to make three main points.

Firstly, there is a theory that during the time Salmond had stepped down as SNP leader and devolution had begun, that the SNP had been moving away from independence. That it was pushed a little down the agenda, put off a little bit more into the vaguely defined future. The argument is that it was the rise of the SSP, with it’s firm commitment to a referendum, couple with the support among SNP grassroots for the Declaration of Calton Hill, that forced the SNP to reprioritise independence, and a referendum to achieve it. Be curious what you thought about that.

Secondly, I don’t agree that the SSP self-immolated as such. I think there was a very clear political struggle between Tommy Sheridan, who saw the SSP as his personal fifedom, his personal organisation to be used for his personal benefit, and those in the SSP who saw themselves as a political party bigger than any one individual. Obviously, the libel case that Sheridan won was the backdrop to this conflict, but I think it wasn’t just about that, or only about personalities, there was a political issue as well. Are we a party, or are we a Tommy Sheridan support group?

Finally, interesting point on republicanism accommodating to unionism. The Shinners have a Unionist Engagement spokesperson, which seemingly bereft of understanding, is a former IRA prisoner Martina Anderson. It would be interesting to see or hear if anything about accommodating unionism in a republic was being put forward.

In that regard, I remember an interesting discussion that took place in the pub the night of the Nice Treaty rejection, which i was celebrating with a group of Dublin activists, mostly Shinners. A senior party official started, for the sake of debate, posing questions to Ógra Shinn Féin activists about what they would be prepared to change to accommodate unionists. Would they get rid of the tricolour as the national flag? Would they change the national anthem? Would they drop the special status of the Irish language? What about Orange marches on O’Connell St? Would they rejoin the Commonwealth? The last got an extremely negative reaction, but the others less so.

What was interesting to me was that if a party official is raising these issues it might be evidence that some sort of more developed discussion was taking place elsewhere in the party and there was some kite flying taking place. The other was that the concessions that were being talked about were all cultural or symbolic, and had little to do with any real political or economic power.


2. ejh - April 27, 2007

Two points in response to Frank.

1. Is there really anything practical that would make Unionists comfortable with ending the Union? I don’t mean that rhetorically (or I hope I don’t).

2. I don’t really agree with the it’s-all-Tommy’s-fault analysis of the SSP split, though I perhaps prefer it to its opposite. The very rancour of the split tends to suggest deeper fissions within the organisation as it was previously.


3. Andy Newman - April 27, 2007

Scottish independecne would put the cat amongst the pidgeons, becasue if Scotand leaves the Union, then who are the six counties in union with: England and Wales? Do the peoples of England and Wales want to maintain (and pay generously for) the union with the six counties? This could easily become a debate in England.

If scotland joined the Euro, or sought tax convergence with the Irish republic (as they might, as similarly sized economies), then the position of the six counties would become increasingly anachronistic.

BTW, Frank’s more or less correct about the Sheridan v SSP dyanamic, but the split was also informed by a tension between the SWP/CWI who opposed the form of the SSP as a party, and were looking for an exit pretext.


4. Mark P - April 27, 2007

Just to clarify something in Andy’s comment: The International Socialists (the CWI in Scotland) did not oppose the SSP’s party form. The SWP did but the views of the IS were and are quite distinct from that.


5. ejh - April 27, 2007

That should have been fissures, not fissions.

Or maybe not.


6. tosser - April 27, 2007

(Dude, I think you snipped a bit off your paragraph about the euro).


7. Andy Newman - April 27, 2007

Well Mark, the CWI in Scotland are those comrades from Scottish Militant Labour who basically opposed the political basis of the SSP’s formation, as you well know, due to their disagreement with the SML majority about the wisdom of marxists working within a broad party. That is my reading of the dicuments relating to the split in SML.

It is also completely clear that the SP (CWI section in England and Wales) were opposed to the Socialist Alliance deveping towards a party direction. Hence their walk out.


8. Mark P - April 27, 2007

I’m a bit loathe to derail a thread which is essentially about the SNP, Sinn Fein, Scottish nationalism etc with a longer diversion about the grisly explosion in the SSP, but I’ll do it anyway…

Andy, as a former member of the International Socialists and the Scottish Socialist Party, I can tell you that you are completely wrong about the International Socialists attitude towards the SSP being a party. As a former member of the English Socialist Party and the English Socialist Alliance, who incidentally took part in the walk out at the Socialist Alliance conference in 2001 I can tell you that you are also wrong about the English Socialist Party’s reasons for leaving the Socialist Alliance, but that’s for another day.

You are quite correct that the CWI opposed the politics of the SSP leadership and the political basis on which the SSP was launched. However it formed part of, and worked to build and strengthen the SSP from the very beginning until the split with Solidarity.

Whether the SSP was to be a “party” or some other kind of structure was never, at any stage, an issue which the International Socialists were at all concerned with. Their criticisms of the SSP leadership were never about that issue. They were always about what they perceived as a slide towards nationalism and reformism. Later on the SSP’s leadership’s conduct over the Sheridan / News of the World dispute became a significant issue. But again, whether or not the SSP was to be a party was never something they raised or were even remotely concerned with. That kind of thing, judging from your blog, is your obsession. It is not theirs.

The International Socialists, in the end, left the Scottish Socialist Party because they, rightly or wrongly, thought that the SSP leadership had destroyed that organisation as a vehicle for left wing process through their conduct over the Sheridan case. They joined Solidarity: Scotland’s Socialist Movement, not because they thought it was perfect or, like the SWP, thought it was an advance on the old SSP. They joined it because they thought, again rightly or wrongly, that it reprented the only chance to salvage something from the wreck of the Scottish far left. It really is as simple as that.


9. WorldbyStorm - April 28, 2007

A couple of points, firstly franklittle, that’s an interesting point about the SSP prodding the SNP towards a more full-blooded approach to independence although tangential to the thrust of the post. I think – for whatever my opinions worth – you’re correct, and I think it’s instructive as to the importance of smaller parties on larger parties in terms of ability to radicalise in whole or part their agenda. Secondly the SSP is a fascinating construct in itself and worth a full post or two and the further comments above are a great insight into it. The idea of platforms within broader party structures or ‘constructs’ is something I find appealing, but of course it’s down to the context I guess.


10. ejh - April 28, 2007

“the importance of smaller parties on larger parties in terms of ability to radicalise in whole or part their agenda”

In a way the major practical function of smaller left parties is to keep the larger party honest.


11. WorldbyStorm - April 28, 2007

Yes, but it doesn’t seem to work that way in practice all the time.


12. Redking - April 29, 2007

I’m interested in the economic implications of Scottish independence-as this seems to be a neglected area-there is a view for instance that Scotland would need to radically curb welfare spending and adopt a stringent fiscal policy that (in someways mirrored) the Republic’s -with huge tax breaks for foreign firms and relatively low taxation to make a success of independence. This view – that the Scots would have to forego the “generous” welfarism that they enjoy -have any of Scotland ‘s Left parties touched on this area?


13. ejh - April 29, 2007

I suspect that most of the commentariat would indeed respond to independence by saying that there would have to be cutbacks in welfare and a stringent fiscal policy in order to pay for it.

Confronted, however, with the continuation of the Union, they would argue that there would have to be cutbacks in welfare and a stringent fiscal policy in order to pay for it.


14. Ciarán - April 29, 2007

The SNP have stated that they want to scrap the council tax and have held their own fairly well against the British Labour Party’s attacks and scaremongering regarding economic issues. Here’s a few stories I found on the BBC news site..

Brown in economy clash with SNP (BBC News, 19 April 2007)

PM attacks banker’s SNP support (BBC News, 16 March 2007)

SNP planning to scrap council tax (BBC, 14 March 2007)


15. Andy Newman - April 29, 2007

There is an article of the economic impact of Scottish independence, comparing Scotland with the Irish republic in Scottish left review:

Mark, I don’t agree with you, but can’t be arsed to pusue it further.


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