Scottish politics and binary fundamentalism

Last Sunday, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale gave what I considered to be a rather unremarkable interview in which she confirmed that Labour would seek to represent people in Scotland who had voted either Yes or No in last year’s independence referendum.  The horror.

Not content with that bombshell, she also said “I’m not going to shut down my party’s renewal and debate because people hold a different position around independence.  We should have a democratic debate within our party over the big issues of the day.”

Interviewed the following day and quizzed on the same topic, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie was equally open-minded:

We’re liberals – if we can’t be tolerant about people taking different views on the constitution, what can we be tolerant about?

We’ve always adopted that approach – if members want to speak up for independence in our party, they’ve always been perfectly entitled to do so.

In fact many of them do and I congratulate them for sticking to their principles on that.

Bizarrely, much has been made of these two interviews with both the SNP and Tories, together again, seizing on the quotes as contrived evidence that Labour and the LibDems have abandoned their constitutional position.  Ruth Davidson was busy telling people that she no longer knew whether the other two parties could be trusted with their unionist stance and the Tories were the only avowedly pro-UK party; whilst SNP windbag-in-chief Pete Wishart felt it necessary to articulate the 5-year old’s conclusion.


In 2015 Scotland, you see, only the constitution matters.  Every single debate is overshadowed by the spectre of a second referendum and framed in terms of independence.  Nothing matters except whether you “are” Yes or No; nothing matters except your answer’s reflection on a case for or against the union.  And it’s bloody embarrassing.

If your only goal is an independent Scotland or the continuance of the United Kingdom then you are a nationalist, pure and simple. For the rest of us, the constitutional settlement is the means to an end – the most likely arrangement to see the kind of society we want to live in.

The SNP are obviously very much the former.  They don’t care what happens before or after independence so long as Scotland is “free”.  This is why they need to keep the political argument in Scotland firmly focused on a second referendum.  The SNP says to voters “it doesn’t matter what policies you believe in so long as you vote Yes”.  This is why it can unite those who believe in a carbon-free world and those who want to bleed the North Sea dry.  Why it can count on the support of those who foresee a socialist utopia whilst simultaneously courting big business with a 3% corporation tax cut.  And it’s why that support didn’t waver when the proposal was dropped by Sturgeon only for that self-same tax to be cut by 2% by the dreaded “we’re-not-like-them-really” Westminster Tories.

All decisions made by the SNP are predicated not by principle but  by one question – how will it help The Cause?  It’s what their former Justice Secretary termed “making the wrong decisions for the right reasons” when justifying his inaction over prisoners’ voting rights.  Doing what Kenny MacAskill considered to be the right thing might have harmed a Yes vote and so was dismissed.  How many more “right decisions” have been blocked to foster nationalism?  How many more times have “bad decisions” been postponed until after votes the nationalists needed to win?  Might the Scottish Government’s current side-stepping on fracking be just one more example?

In contrast, Labour and the LibDems are promising to make the right decisions for the right reasons; saying “it doesn’t matter what your view on the constitution is, as long as you share our values”.  This is entirely the right approach to take.  Only nationalists, be they Scottish or British, are defined by their stance on independence.  The rest of us are defined by our values, by what we believe in.

There is no party that could profess to represent me simply by hoisting a flag and declaring to be more committed to that flag than anyone else.  That’s because I, like most people, don’t believe in the United Kingdom or an independent Scotland for the sake of the flag; we believe that it’s the best option because of what we believe that constitutional arrangement enables.

Many commentators, notably Alex Massie, may think it naïve to hope that politics in Scotland will return to a place where flags are less important than facts but I see little alternative.  To simply take a hardline unionist stance in response to the SNP’s hardline nationalist stance, regardless of policy, plays into the latter’s hands and allows them to continue to frame the debate in Scotland as an endless binary choice on the constitutional settlement.

Any opposition to SNP policies will be written off as “unionist” and dismissed as anti-independence, perennially negative, never standing *for* anything.  They will be able to galvanise their support on the basis that the opposition parties are united simply by their opposition to the SNP, by their opposition to independence.  When pro-independence voters see the other parties as representing nothing but unionism, they will never vote for them.

Naturally, both Labour and the LibDems want to be known as more than just a unionist party.  And for reasons that are blindingly obvious to any moron in Scotland, as evidenced by Mr Wishart’s tweet above, the SNP will want to now cast the independence question as the SNP versus the Tories.  Anyone who falls for that really needs to question their capacity to cast a vote.

If the Tories want to portray themselves as the British nationalist party and seek to attract votes by virtue of a flag rather than policies, well that’s up to them.  But there are a growing number of us in Scotland who are frankly sick of the fundamentalism inherent in the independence question, sick of the binary tribalism that the referendum has engendered and sick of the policies that affect people taking a back seat to a constitutional question we decided last year.

For many of us, a return to policy debate and trying to make a positive difference under the circumstances the people of Scotland chose would be very welcome indeed.  Unlikely?  Wishful thinking?  Naïve?  Perhaps.  But that doesn’t mean we should tell half the electorate we have no interest in their vote.  It’s about giving them a reason to vote for us, rather than hoping they just give up on the SNP.

And it’s better than endlessly allowing the SNP to dictate the debate on their own terms.


9 thoughts on “Scottish politics and binary fundamentalism

  1. Hello Fraser, and thanks for posting this.

    I came into this debate as an American who thinks highly of the UK, and did not wish to see it dissolved. Yes, it was partly about the Union Flag, God Save the Queen, Rule Britannia, and all that. However, it was also about the sense of shared cultures, values, history, and economic prosperity, and social solidarity. I did not doubt that Scotland and England were different places, but also had no doubt that they were better together as part of the UK for the reasons stated above (and the same can be said about the 50 states of the US, IMO).

    That said, I also know that being pro-Union alone isn’t enough to win an election, and I believe Dugdale and Rennie – although taking a very high risk – are trying to break the unionist-nationalist divide that has all but paralyzed and polarized politics north of the Tweed.

    On my blog, I’ve also written about the need to shift the political debate away from the SNP’s terms, and how all three pro-Union parties must offer a viable alternative to the SNP government, which as much to answer for after eight years in power. The sooner this happens, the better it will be for all who wish to move on and prevent Scotland from becoming Northern Ireland 2.0.

    My support for the UK will not waver, but I also recognize the need for pragmatism, and to get beyond the current debate and to actually discuss policies that can make life better for people in Scotland and throughout the whole of Britain.

    After all, the SNP didn’t get to where it is today by just banging on about independence.


  2. Hello Fraser, and thanks for posting this.

    I came into this debate as an American with a high opinion of the UK, and I did not wish to see it be dissolved. Yes, it was partly because of the Union Flag, God Save the Queen, Rule Britannia, and all that. But it was also because believe in that sense of shared cultures, values, history, prosperity, and social solidarity (and the same can be said about the 50 states of the US).

    However, I also realize that being pro-Union isn’t enough to win elections. I believe that Dugdale and Rennie – despite the very high risks – are trying to diffuse the unionist-nationalist divide, which has paralyzed and polarized politics north of the Tweed.

    There is a need to push aside the constitutional questions for people who truly wish to move on, and prevent Scotland from becoming Northern Ireland 2.0.

    I have written on my blog (“Are Labour and the LibDems Still Committed to the Union?”) about the need to shift the political debate away from the SNP’s terms, and for all three pro-Union parties to offer a viable alternative to the SNP government, which needs much scuntiny after eight years in power.

    My support for the UK will not waiver, but I recognize the need for pragmatism and the reality of the current politics on the ground. The sooner that we can get away from this debate on the SNP’s terms, the better it will be for those who wish to discuss how to make people’s lives better in Scotland and throughout Britain as a whole.

    After all, the SNP did not get to where it is today by just banging on about independence.


    1. Hi Wesley,

      First of all, thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. I started reading your article a few days ago and decided to stop after a few paragraphs as I didn’t want to prejudice my own thoughts on it before I had time to write this blog. I will certainly go back and finish reading your piece shortly.

      I really do think there is traction in highlighting that the SNP is “all about the whinge”. Particularly since May’s election, their message seems to have gone off-kilter somewhat and there have been a few PR gaffs – not to mention the recent sleaze allegations with potential criminal consequences.

      I absolutely agree that the opposition parties need to concentrate on offering a viable alternative to the SNP. Much of the SNP’s success, I feel, is down to the feeling that there just isn’t any other option available. Perhaps for the moment it would be enough to be seen as a viable opposition – I don’t think anyone in their right mind believes there will be anything other than an SNP majority next year.

      Again, thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Fraser,

        Firstly, I must apologize for making a response to this. I’m relatively new to WordPress and don’t my settings set to alert me to notifications when people respond directly to be comments. I was logging on to my account (for something totally unrelated) and came across your reply.

        Anyway, thanks for reading my blog, and I really appreciate that. Indeed, as the past few months, I do feel as though the SNP is showing signs that it is politically vulnerable. The accusations of “sleaze”, bridge chaos, and its continued grievance peddling (as opposed to using what powers it has – and will soon have) are at the very least causing wavering voters to think twice. These are the voters who want competent government, and see the SNP as providing that, but if the SNP appears to be losing the narrative does not offer solutions outside of independence, then it provides an opening for the other parties.

        Of course, it would be absurd to say that anything other than an SNP government is going to be the outcome in May, but I am starting to wonder if they’ll have a majority. If an effective campaign is mounted by the other parties, and if troubles for the SNP are unearthed, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that they could become a minority government. If that happens, and if the Greens don’t surge as much as predicted, at the very least, it prevents another referendum and opens up the committee system to having opposition chairpersons, and therefore more scrutiny of the government – especially with the new powers coming into force.

        But for now, we ought to assume that there will be an SNP majority government, and with it, the possibility of another referendum. Even then however, the longer the SNP remains in government, the harder it will be for them to press the “Blame Westminster” button.

        Anyway, thanks again for reading my blog, and I very much enjoy yours. Your work on Police Scotland and VAT was especially outstanding, and I look forward to more such articles in the next few months.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you’re correct in the main in that we need to move our politics away from this alternative spectrum that the SNP has us fixed on. Politics should be about how power, wealth and influence is distributed throughout society – i,e functioning on the traditional left to right spectrum. The SNP (and UKIP) move the field of play onto a different spectrum, which you could classify as a vertical spectrum, with nationalism on one extreme, and internationalism, or supra-national interdependence, on another. They’re fixated not on how power, wealth and influence are distributed throughout society, but rather on re-defining the political society itself in a more exclusive way (in the SNP’s case, in line with the ancient nation of Scotland).

    But while I think it’s correct to say that’s not our politics, and while opposition parties to the SNP should of course welcome Yes voters with open arms who see themselves as liberals or social democrats etc, I do think it’s fair enough for a liberal party to stand firm in a belief that in the context of an established democracy nationalism is fundamentally illiberal, because in that context a nationalist factional movement ultimately comes down to the rejection of people on some level. It’s about political exclusion. A liberal will instinctively want to reach out and pull people close, not push them away, whether that’s adopting a liberal attitude to respecting the long journey of democracy we’ve been on with our British compatriots, the important journey of supra-nationhood with our European neighbours, or a tolerant and welcoming attitude to refugees and migrants.

    Another way to think about this is that while a liberal can be a utilitarian devolutionist (seeking for example a more federal like UK), it’s not possible to be a utilitarian nationalist (to go from devolutionist to nationalist requires the emotive flag element, which is non-pragmatic), and it’s not possible to reconcile pragmatic utilitarian devolutionary politics (which is liberal) with nationalism (which is illiberal).

    Similarly, in it’s rejection of people nationalism in the context of an established democracy is non-social democratic. In May Scotland sent 56 SNP MPs to the UK parliament with a mandate from their party to put the welfare and interests of a millionaire from Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen before the welfare and interests of a poor child living in poverty in Newcastle or Liverpool, or just across that ancient border in Berwick. For one group of MPs in a parliament representing the interests of all the people of the UK, a poor child in Newcastle has the ‘wrong’ sub-nationality within the UK to warrant even equality of compassion from them. When an MP in a liberal democracy decides that one group of people in particular should be singled out as special, who’s interests alone will be advanced, then there’s only one liberal justification for demarcating that group, and that is socio-economic need – i.e, stand in the UK parliament and be stronger for the poor, those left behind, rather than stronger for the Scots. As soon as you go down the route of singling out people based on their race, religion, national or sub-national status within a democracy, then I think you’re on dodgy moral ground, and certainly not engaged in liberal democratic politics.

    So I think it’s fair to say, as a Liberal: ‘If you backed the nationalist cause, for whatever reason, then you are welcome, we want you in our party, but you have to know that we fundamentally believe nationalism in the context of an established democracy is not a progressive political force. We want to hear your voice, but we will seek to persuade you that nationalism, whether it’s the SNP wholesale rejecting the compatriotism of the people of the UK outside of Scotland, UKIP rejecting our European neighbours, or right-wing Conservatives rejecting the humanitarian needs of refugees, is non-progressive, and we will oppose nationalism in all its forms.’


    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and for leaving such a thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it.

      I would certainly agree with most of what you’ve said regarding liberalism and it’s seemingly logical approach to the question of nationalism, your response encapsulates some of what governed by own decision to vote No last year and, incidentally, some of what is driving me to vote Remain in the EU Referendum.

      I would say, however, that I also think it’s inherent in liberalism that we don’t force our own logic on others or assume that others should follow our own thought-process. I can’t see anyone sensible thinking that there are absolutely no potential advantages to independence, even if we agree that, taking everything into account, the arguments for the union are stronger. It is entirely plausible that a liberal could have voted Yes to independence not based on “the nationalist cause”, as you’ve put it, but on liberal principles. I’m not sure how that thought-process would manifest itself but I’m open to the idea of it existing; perhaps a Yes-voting LibDem could let me know.

      Anyway, I really appreciate your fantastic comment. Thanks again.


      1. I can easily see how a liberal could create an argument that a Yes vote was a vote for a more liberal society, or a socialist could make the case they were voting for a socialist society, a green for a green society etc. But at the end of the day, the only thing that was being voted for was the re-modelling of Scottish political structures and culture to move it fully in line with the ancient nation, which is the very definition of nationalism. Everything else was simply supposition.

        Does that mean those liberals, socialists, greens etc were deluded in voting Yes? No, not at all. It’s clear that a Yes vote would have shaken the kaleidoscope, giving at least an opportunity to try to create something, anything, different. But to get to that point did mean backing an explicitly nationalist cause, and we shouldn’t shy away from pointing that out, and pointing out the moral difficulties many of us had with it.

        Still, I would certainly like to see an attempt at a liberal defence of nationalism that accepts the context of an established liberal democracy and a free society, where by definition that movement can’t be one of emancipation, and makes its case from there – you can’t be freed from a free society nor liberated from a liberal democracy; you can only separate out and insulate one group of democratic participants from another on the basis that co-mingling of those people in the same polity is somehow illegitimate.

        Anyway, you can get too deep with this stuff. Good blog! I’ll look forward to reading more from you.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The SNP have managed to unite Independence supporters while their opponents are divided between three main opposition parties and therefore completely conquered. For that reason they can rule unopposed, and unless something changes very significantly that situation will continue for the forseeable future.

    As long as Labour, Tory and Liberal supporters simply debate economic, welfare and social issues, nothing will change. The SNP can keep the topic of a 2nd referendum alive whenever they want, and as long as their supporters (i.e. almost half of Scottish voters) believe another referendum is coming, nothing else matters. The SNP want it to remain a battle of this policy over that policy because their supporters don’t care about policies and so they can never lose such a battle as long as they’re seen to be working towards another referendum.

    I therefore believe the only way SNP rule will be defeated is if the opposition parties do two things:

    1) show some sort of unity and start working together (the only time the SNP have lost in the last decade was when this happened in 2014)
    2) start attacking the SNP not for their policies, not by trying to persuade people that we’re subsidised by the rest of the UK, but by exposing Nationalism for what it really is: nothing more than tribalism where membership of the tribe is defined by which side of a line on a map you live.

    Dividing and categorising people based on a line on a map is no more acceptable than doing it by religion, race, sexual preference or any other measure. It really shouldn’t be too hard to make being a member of the SNP seem as acceptable to most as being a member of the BNP. Of course this means we need to also attack British Nationalism. However as a bonus it would allow us to show that UKIP are fundamentally the same as the SNP and BNP, while helping to argue the case for keeping the UK in the EU.

    Scottish politics has changed completely. It is most certainly binary whether you like it or not. If the SNP’s opponents don’t respond to this change and simply debate the same old issues they did before the SNP came to power in the absurd hope that people can be distracted from the subject of a 2nd referendum long enough to lose interest in it, then the SNP will indeed win. However if we can respond to the changed state of politics by actually working together to fight Nationalism itself, and turning the fight away from policies into a battle of Unity over Division, Sharing over Selfishness, and indeed Love over Hate, then and only then I believe the SNP can be defeated.


    1. Hi Allan, thanks for your comment. Even if we disagree, I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond.

      I think uniting to fight against the SNP under the auspices of a unionist banner would be counterproductive. I think it’d be too easily written off as being anti SNP for the sake of being anti SNP, whereas a party which sticks to its individual principles and backs the continuation of the union because of those principles would have more sway – or at least they would with me.

      Joining together would leave Lab and the LibDems too open to the old shite about “getting in bed with the Tories”.

      Maybe you’re right and that people are now entrenched too deeply in their opposite views on this one topic but I don’t see a united “unionist” approach having any traction whatsoever. In fact, I think it’d be counter productive


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