Existential versus Utilitarian Nationalism

Image by Daniel Seex (http://thejoyofseex.blogspot.co.uk)

Image by Daniel Seex (http://thejoyofseex.blogspot.co.uk)

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.

Comments (17)

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  1. David Williams says:

    “The solution to the financial hole in her plans” – as you put it – is independence. You’re putting the cart before the horse by expecting us to grow Scotland’s economy without the powers we need to do so, as if by magic or by hoping that London government will somehow fix it for us. Independence is the starting point towards a more successful economy and a fairer society, not the other way round.

    1. Neil says:

      Despite the church-mouse voices of the scatter-gun fringe campaigns, the feeling I got was that the principle thrust of both the yes and no campaigns was an unedifying display of financial greed-based bickering about how richer individuals would be depending on sharing vs. not sharing. I got the feeling that in reality very little of it was actually about a fairer society outwith meaningless PR soundbites and some people’s personal opinions. I could even go as far as to say that a lot of it was quite the reverse.

  2. Elgoldave says:

    So wish Alex Bell popped up more than odd bit on radio/TV or in rare articles. Not on Twitter as far as I can see.
    Don’t under the reference to predecessor familiarity/just causes though. Good piece though. Thanks.

  3. Saor Alba says:

    Thank you Alex for another thought-provoking article.

    As for the solution to the financial hole, it would seem that the economic policies of the SNP are extremely sound.

    In an excellent article by Greg Russell in this morning’s National, one of the top economists in the UK, the award winning Global financial expert, Professor Steve Keen (head of the school of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University in London) writes that the austerity politics of Labour, Tory and the Lib Dems is “naive and childish”. These parties talk about having to run a surplus, which means imposing taxes on the public which are greater than the spending on the public. Running a surplus for a sustained period forces borrowing from the banks, with rising public debt and relatively constant GDP. Failing to invest in growth would not generate a sustainable recovery. It is a recipe for future economic crisis. Greece, Spain, Italy and France are in the state they are in just now, because of such childish economics. In other words, we have a “Kindergarten understanding of Economics”. Unfortunately, many of the public have a similar lack of understanding of economics.

    Professor Keen, however, praises the approach of the SNP and the Greens, whose policies are focused on investing in growth and would lead to a sustainable recovery. He states that the Greens and the SNP “are the only ones close to a sensible policy”, They see the bankers as the cause of the problem, rather than a potential solution. He goes on to say that Westminster-focused parties have underestimated the vital impact of public-sector investment into the economy that would enhance growth by creating jobs and new revenues. His remarks have been welcomed by Business for Scotland and Gordon Kemp has sated that “Westminster’s I’ll-considered austerity consensus represents full financial irresponsibility.

    In his article, Russell States that The Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman has called the case for cuts “a lie”, while the think tank N-56 and Business for Scotland have already called for an end to austerity in order to create economic growth. This article is worth a full read.

    This is why so many of us are confident in the SNP, who have the economic vision necessary to make for a fairer Scotland. Their vision is also stated clearly, truthfully, positively and with compassion and understanding. I will say exactly the same about the Greens.

    This is in stark contrast to the negative and nihilistic approach of others who slag off the opposition at every opportunity and fail to answer questions put to them on live TV. This is a General Election and our Scottish Party, the SNP are putting forward good, sound economic policies for Scotland and the rUK. Meanwhile, Murphy et al are obsessed with not having another referendum and talk about little else.

    Me? I’m for the grown ups, who actually do understand the principles of economic growth.
    This is why Nicola Sturgeon is highly positively rated, not only in Scotland, but also in England and Wales. Her personality and speeches won her many friends down in London, early in the campaign, when she spoke in London and receive, not merely polite, but enthusiastic applause. We have a leader of great merit and quality in Scotland and an extremely excellent body of people in her benches.

    I thoroughly recommend Greg Rusell’s article, if you have not already per used it.

    1. Saor Alba says:

      Last line, second last word should be ‘perused’.
      Third last line in penultimate paragraph – ‘should be received’, not receive.


  4. Dennis Smith says:

    “Scots want change, but in the interests of social justice before arcane constitutional matters”. You are posing a false antithesis here between social justice and constitutional reform. You can’t understand the meaning and potential of social justice unless you understand the way society works, including the factors which currently restrict social change. And many of these limiting factors are tied up with the way the state operates. The state has huge powers to change society, for better or worse (think how the bedroom tax affects individual lives) and it also has the entrenched ability to resist social demands (think of the Iraq war).

    Our only hope of achieving social justice is to redefine the powers of the state, and that means constitutional reform in a broad sense. Social justice and constitutional reform are two sides of the same coin.
    If “the SNP is not a progressive party” this has nothing to do with the pursuit of independence as such – it has to do with outdated ideas in some quarters about the kind of state that will emerge after independence.(These outdated ideas might even be called pre-MacCormick ideas).

    Fortunately, there are indications (e.g. in the SNP’s new enthusiasm for land reform) that the party is willing to think seriously about the relations between society and state.

  5. broadbield says:

    Nicely put Saor Alba – we are stuck in the group-think of the nation as a grocer’s shop, or Thatcher’s housewife running the household finances. Paul Krugman’s article is the latest contribution from many of the more sensible economists who are now challenging the neoliberal consensus. Unfortunately, none of the UK politicians are interested. They despise evidence and prefer political dogma.

    I agree a lot with Dennis. We need independence to achieve social justice as we are never going to get it as part of the UK where the main parties have no interest in achieving social justice. The challenge for the SNP after independence will be to define themselves as a left of centre, socialist party – or not. We certainly need a socialist party if Scotland is to become a fairer society.

    1. May I suggest readers of this thread read the letter sent to the Independent from a formidable list of distinguished economists, including past Monetary Policy Committee members, arguing robustly that the next government must not make the mistake of returning to austerity.

      You will find the letter on:


      For some reason the letter does not seem to be on the Independent website.

      Professor Steve Keen’s video on everyinvestor.co.uk that is also highly critical of Conservative and Labour’s austerity policy should also not be missed.

      1. Saor Alba says:

        Thanks John. I’ll follow your lead up.

    2. Saor Alba says:

      I agree wholeheartedly broadbield and it is heartening that prominent economists are now challenging neoliberalism. This message is beginning to get through. Many fall for the lies of the main Unionist parties, but the political dogma suits them, for it means they maintain their privileged positions. As you say, they are not interested in social justice.

      Our society does need to become much fairer, but we need the tools and freedom to allow this to happen. It does not look as if Westminster want us to have the tools for anything, populated by buffoons estranged from reality.

      However, change is coming and one can almost smell the sweaty fear from the establishment. I believe that the SNP will define itself and after independence should see the Green vote rising and possibly the emergence of a party consisting of those who are no longer with labour, out of moral objection to New Labour’s corruption and lack of moral compass.

      Thank you for your kind comment and I hope we are both feeling good on Friday, with a sense of hope.

    3. Deasun says:

      Agree with practically everything expressed in this forum. And a great informative article. About a consummate and sincere politician. However it would be also be good to have the downsides of existential nationalism clearly pointed out – they are certainly there. By extension of course it may also be interesting to point out some of the cultural upsides to such existentialism. Possibly a distancing from the colonial inheritance of Britishness/militarism – which still appears to be a sacred cow for many erstwhile B Scottish Nationalists.

  6. muttley79 says:

    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.

    Alex, this is nonsense. People did not join the SNP to become merely a Westminster based social democratic lite political party. You are kidding yourself. I joined the SNP after the referendum, and I am a gradualist on independence, but the above that I have highlighted is garbage of the first order. Nicola Sturgeon supports independence, that is clear from her political history. You really do yourself no good whatsoever by evoking the FM in this article. Sturgeon has a demonstrable, and real record of support for independence.

    I assume this talk of ‘Britishing’ the SNP is code for neutering the party of any radical aims, such as independence or even Devo max? If the SNP take your advice on ‘Britishing’ then they will soon end up like the British Labour Party, a shell of an establishment party, and run from London. I will have nothing to do with the SNP if they follow your advice, and sell out on independence and/or Devo max/FFA. The SNP exist to fight for Scottish autonomy, and now independence is off the agenda for now, then we have to push for significantly greater powers. Austerity means that we should be campaigning more than ever for control over our own economy and welfare system.

    1. Saor Alba says:

      Well said muttley79

  7. billramsay says:

    Alex takes a pop at late 20th Century economics , though I think he actually refers to mid 20th century “old labour/ new deal” economics which of course delivered the up tick in equality in the developed world referenced by Picketty recently and by Proff Tony Aitkinson ( see his LSE website for his public lecture of last week) in his new book.

    However maybe I have misunderstood and Alex can clarify.

    On policy formulation within the pre Nicola SNP in my view Alex is on firmer ground. As I have said before, policy formulation under AS was more akin to court politics, a bit like the Court of Louis XIV without the sex, extraordinarily successful until the flatlining during year one of the Indy Ref campaign.

  8. florian albert says:

    Alex Bell was one of the most thoughtful supporters of a Yes vote in the referendum. Since then, he has written little (that I have seen), while many others with much less to say have written screeds.

    He writes that Scots want ‘change … in the interests of social justice.’ This is very questionable. Scots proclaim their support for a ‘fairer, more equal Scotland’ but too many assume this can be done by taxing somebody else, bankers, landowners or corporations, and with the overwhelming majority of Scots retaining what they have in our unequal society.

    The statement that the SNP is concerned with ‘making things work’ reveals its weakness. In education, it took over SLAB’s utopian Curriculum for Excellence. The results of this huge mistake became clear last week when it was revealed that standards of literacy, already inadequate, have declined further.
    At the heart of this failure, is a lack of ideas, leading to the SNP endorsing a bad Labour one. Already, the SNP is seen by many as a putting new paint on old failures.

    The reference to the ‘solution to the financial hole’ is further evidence of this. If the SNP lacks a coherent economic policy it will continue to fail, as it did on September 18th last. Tonight’s celebrations will not alter that.

  9. Jude says:

    The link to Ian Jack’s Guardian piece directs to the wrong article.
    The quoted text actually come from this article (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/23/the-triumph-of-nicola-sturgeon)

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