Existential versus Utilitarian Nationalism
By Alex Bell
Ian Jack’s profile of Nicola Sturgeon in the Guardian said her 2012 speech in Glasgow can be seen as ‘significant, and in hindsight even more so’ for explaining the politics of the SNP leader. As the creator of that speech I have some insight into her popularity and find the current reading of Scotland’s First Minister woefully off the mark.
The 2012 speech uses Sir Neil McCormick’s distinction between existential and utilitarian nationalists – the first believe in an independent Scotland no matter, the second that political control is allied to social change. I wrote that utilitarian nationalism was the aim of the SNP, and that the social conditions of Scotland were the battleground for the referendum.
A young girl called Kirsty was invoked as a symbol of what growing up in Scotland was like, and what it could be like. It continued a theme begun in Salmond’s spring conference speech of 2011, which referenced Thomas Muir, and the phrase ‘progressive beacon’ inserted into his speech of early 2012.
Jack is probably right that Nicola’s speech would go on to shape the Yes campaign and much of the current progressive surge in Scotland. The address to an audience in Strathclyde University worked because it was true. True to the person – Nicola Sturgeon is not faking her commitment to equality and change. True to the nation – Scots want change, but in the interests of social justice before arcane constitutional matters. True to the moment – British politics had lost its sense purpose, and here was a cause worth fighting for. These things remain true.
Despite John Major saying Nicola is a socialist while the Labour party say she’s faking it, she is finding her way as a progressive leader of an evolving party. Of course there are contradictions at the moment – tax freezes in Scotland while services are cut – but her intentions are sincere. It is true that Scots likes the idea of a fair society, even if they hold views on immigration or tax virtually identical to those elsewhere in the UK. We are way more comfortable with the SNP under Nicola than her predecessor because we feel the familiarity of old and just causes. As her popularity across the UK has shown, there remains a gap of leadership in UK politics. After five years of being prime minister, it is still possible to ask why Cameron wanted the job. While Ed Miliband has had a good election, it is legitimate to despair at his lack of oomph.
The UK lacks a moral purpose, unsure of what the state is meant to do for its citizens and what the nation’s role is globally. Sturgeon cannot be accused of lacking purpose. The charge that she will be a chaotic force in Westminster does not have the ring of truth. Over eight years in office in Edinburgh she and her party have simply been interested in making things work. Far from being obsessed with the constitution they were devoted to the idea of competent government. Nor is it credible to suggest that new MPs will run riot. The evidence suggests they will do what they are told – the SNP has had an outright majority in Holyrood for four years and passed nothing of significance nor witnessed any maverick thinking. To the idea that the progressive surge and Nicola’s victory all amount to a second referendum seems the worst misreading of all. More likely is that she ditches a second referendum in the foreseeable future, and for that matter full fiscal autonomy. The fascinating story of this election is how the SNP is ‘Britishing’ itself, gently playing down the big constitutional stuff in favour of real power over the austerity agenda.
No doubt there are people in the party who see everything in terms of independence, but that’s not Nicola. There is a problem with this ‘progressive’ surge, namely the SNP is not a progressive party. Some see constitutional change as either a path to a small state or a means of conserving a late 20th view of society and economics. Both are profoundly conservative ideas. Thus Nicola’s biggest challenge is to revise the policy book while keeping the party united – not an easy task, but again she seems the woman for the job. Her second task is to find a solution to the financial hole in her plans. That may prove trickier. If, after an undecisive election result, your money is on the SNP refusing to play coalition games unless there is another referendum or at least full fiscal autonomy, then think again. Go back and read the 2012 speech – the strategy is to be kind, just and constructive. I’d say its working so far.