The continued rise of the SNP has led to increased metropolitan suspicion and a growing backlash. What is the content of the SNP’s nationalism?

In an article in the Scottish Daily Mail on the 4th December, in response to four SNP councillors ostentatiously burning a copy of the Smith Commission Report, John McTernan evoked the words of the German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine to plead that “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

It’s come to something when a political figure as central to the Scottish and UK Labour parties as McTernan can imply a genocidal trajectory for Scottish Nationalism and for there to be no outcry: not even a response from the Scottish National Party nor the growing army of journalists and commentators that follow its cause.

More remarkable still given that McTernan, as one of the architects of the Iraq War, knows more than most about the practice of burning people. But none are so ignored as those who have long been deemed ridiculous. We have been subjected to a stream of this hyperbole since 2011, all of which refuses to countenance nationalism (or at least an enemy nationalism) as anything separable from oppression, dictatorship and mass murder.

For their part many Scottish Nationalists play dead, announcing that Scottish Nationalism is an inherent and sub-ideological position, and that those who deny it, and its various overtly political claims, are deceivers and perhaps traitors. Popular nationalist commentator Derek Bateman couldn’t be more direct or explicit: “You’re a nationalist…accept that if you feel you belong in a country and owe some loyalty, it means you are essentially a nationalist. Get used to it.”

Meanwhile Iain McWhirter has felt it necessary to assert Scottish Nationalism against the left, which has “…turned as one towards nationalism, setting aside the traditional Marxist view of it as divisive and bourgeois. The surge of support for Yes in working-class areas of Glasgow, Dundee and other traditional Labour areas changed minds.” There is here, more than a measure of glee attached to the idea that the left has been forced by circumstance to abandon its cosmopolitan pretensions and embrace the brute virtues of the soil.

McWhirter doesn’t know what Marxism has to say about nationalism (though to be fair neither do many self-described Marxists), and he seems to ignore the fact that the bulk of the socialist left in Scotland has been in favour of independence for the better part of two decades. But to argue the latter is to concede the point – being in favour of independence makes one a nationalist, being opposed to independence makes one not a nationalist, or at least not a Scottish Nationalist.

But there are in these positions a distinct inconsistency in what nationalism is and what it means. The purpose of this article is to clarify what Scotland’s new “nationalist” politics portents for the country.

What Constitutes Scottish Nationalism

“Nationalism Studies” in general and its attempts to categorise “nationalism” in particular is a vexed subject. No entirely functional definition for nations and nationalism exists– and all our three approaches to nationalism surveyed above have this ambiguity at their heart.

Without going into some of the rather dry debates, we can probably agree that nationalism in the Scottish context can be at least three things:

  • First, identity. This is the sense in which Scottish Nationalism is least directly political. A feeling of “national belonging” is mainly unintended and unavoidable, though this sense of attachment is likely to vary according to circumstances.
  • Second, patriotism. A feeling of affection for and belief in a “national interest” and even a “national mission” or destiny. Though very often linked to a feeling of identity, this is a far more distinctly political nationalism.
  • Thirdly, an explicitly political project most consistently represented by the insurgent Scottish National Party. We might call this “Constitutional Nationalism”, since it prominently involves an avowed commitment to Scottish Independence.


For whatever reasons of socialisation, most people gain in their lifetimes a sense “national belonging”. You’ve experienced it every time you’ve witnessed a stereotyped misrepresentation of your nationality in say The Simpsons and felt yourself in some little way personally slighted or embarrassed.

Of course people can have multiple national identities competing for space, and feelings of belonging can change over time. Many members of migrant communities have reported a growing feeling of association with Scotland in the course of the referendum, for instance.

A now famous set of statistics from the 2011 census shows that a large majority of Scots (62.4%) now feel exclusively Scottish. A further 18.3% feel a mixture of British and Scottish and only 8.4% feel exclusively British.

This tells us that 91.6 percent of the census population are Scottish Nationalists, at least by the criteria of Derek Bateman. Of course, Bateman and the avowed Scottish Nationalists who he informs have an interest in obfuscating any difference between national identity and more expressly political forms of Nationalism.

And there we might leave it were it not for the fact that commentators on both sides of the Yes/No divide regularly cite a rise in the intensity of Scottish national identity as the reason for the advent of the referendum (and sometimes also the dominance of the SNP), often reproducing the census figures above as evidence.

Since this is a common practice, and since we cannot reasonably entirely de-couple national sentiment from political nationalism, we must take seriously the idea that a majority of Scottish Nationalists voted No, a point to which we will return.


Many people associate a feeling of political allegiance to the nation, and to attendant notions of national interest and purpose as a linear relationship with national identity, where an increased feeling of identity leads to an increased feeling of allegiance.

No necessary relationship can be easily established. As is very well recognised in both historical examples and contemporary literature, reactionary nationalists very often feel alienated by traditional national culture and institutions. It was historically the case that Fascism and other radical nationalisms were utterly dismissive of nationally established churches and monarchies as well as the official apparatus of state, borders, traditional economies and historic ethnic groups living within the area of the nation.

It is often the case that patriots themselves are foreign to the nation they elect as their particular “Patri”. Hitler was an Austrian, and though he viewed the separation of Austria and Weimar Germany as an injustice (one he would eventually make good with the “Anschluss”), he was generally contemptuous of Austrian society – a “Babylon of the races” which he left for the “real Germany” of Bavaria.

Pietro di Brazzà was the Italian explorer who naturalised to France and made himself the mission of French greatness in Africa. He tore out an enormous swathe of French territory during Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” – often against the wishes of the French state itself, which he viewed as insufficiently patriotic. His nationalist fervour would secure France’s great power status with African resources.

In more recent times Christopher Hitchens, born British, and for a while a semi-patriotic Englishman, or at least one with a strong sense of English national identity, naturalised to the more dynamic United States, where he took up citizenship and agitated for a series of aggressive wars in the Middle East, quickly becoming ensconced within elite policy circles.

Last and certainly least of an infamous bunch, Bob Geldof naturalised from Ireland to the UK, and couldn’t but help himself to the subject matter of this article when, in a pro-Union rally in Trafalgar Square he said “…Scotland is a feeling, England is a feeling, Wales is a feeling, Ireland(sic) is a feeling, but the United Kingdom is one of the greatest ideas ever invented for the modern age.”

The exemplars are limitless. But for the purposes of this part of the article let’s accept that patriotism is a form of political nationalism without a necessary relationship to other forms of nationalism.

Constitutional Nationalism

The Scottish National Party was formed by amalgamation of nationalist outfits whose own origin had been the tumultuous years of the late twenties and early thirties. It maintained a hyper-marginal existence as a political force, becoming effectively defunct at several points in its development. At its nadir membership fell to a little over a thousand during the post-war years of bonanza for membership organisation, when the Labour and Conservative parties could boast millions of members U.K wide. It is also worth noting that for the bulk of this period the SNP could not even agree a pro-independence position, such was the unpopularity of independence in the country, and settled instead for a Home-Rule position.

It wasn’t until 1974, with the post-war welfare settlement in deep crisis that the party’s fortunes began to improve, and not until the victory of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 that the idea of independence started to encroach upon mainstream political thought in Scotland.

This is all to say that for the better part of its existence, the SNP and its (latterly) signature policy of Scottish Independence were eccentricities. The growth in support for Scottish Independence cannot simply be tied to the growth of any kind of nationalism. That this growth is far more obviously related to Britain’s various economic and social agonies from the late 60’s onwards as well as the sharp decline in traditional working class politics and organisation is an argument for another time.

Some Conclusions

The SNP has very surely arrived as Scotland’s dominant political force – and the content of its nationalism deserves scrutiny. Let’s first remind ourselves that the SNP aren’t about to go genocidal. It’s only worth repeating McTernan and others’ silliness to remind ourselves that the Labour party has ruined itself as an effective bulwark against Scottish Nationalism, and has thoroughly drenched the powder of those of us who think a critique of that nationalism is worthwhile.

There is not yet a thorough data-set for the explosion of new SNP members, and their ideological convictions can be assumed to go far beyond Scottish Nationalism into various strains of “anti-political” and left populism. But the content of the SNP’s prevailing nationalism might be said to be an admixture of national identity and patriotism. The former certainly, since a large majority of Scots nationally identify with Scotland. The latter more in a sense of national grievance than any sense of national destiny. Interestingly, despite the obvious fact that the Yes campaign out-did itself by achieving 45% of the vote, and that there were almost no circumstances under which Yes might possibly have won the referendum, it is clear that ‘we was robbed’ is going to become the refrain for 2014 and may prove to be the real lasting contribution of ‘the vow’ to nationalist mythology.

To the extent that any form of nationalism posits a national interest, a national will, a national purpose – it is objectively reactionary. There can possibly be no national interest when there are competing class interest within the nation – except if we assume the national interest is ultimately the interest of the rich. None of this changes the fact that national sentiment of both softer and harder varieties has undoubtedly become a cipher for misplaced class sentiment.

That said, we need to return to the notion made earlier in this article that a majority of Scottish Nationalists voted No. It is further the case, of course, that the only parts of the country won outright by Yes were traditional Labour areas, ditto the most marginal areas. Dundee aside, the Yes vote concentrated heavily in the Clyde basin – those areas most associated with the Labour movement and a working class consciousness. The heartlands of parliamentary Scottish Nationalism in the North East voted a thumping No.

The Scottish National Party’s leading element and absolutely no doubt, recent influx of members, are earnestly committed to the goal of Scottish Independence. That doesn’t change the fact that Scottish Nationalism is ultimately ambivalent about national independence. There is nothing in the nature of identity or patriotism which leads necessarily to the demand for an independent country. When Better Together honchos pleaded they loved Scotland just as much as Yes voters they were certainly telling the truth. Indeed, Scottish patriotism is a sincere item of British Nationalism, at least for British Scots (or Scottish Brits).

David Jamieson

David Jamieson is a politics graduate, RIC activist and member of the International Socialist Group based in Glasgow

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