6 December 2012
Will the SNP
pragmatists split from
the SNP populists?
C J Sansom
C J Sansom is an Anglo-Scottish writer who has achieved great success with a series of historical novels set in the Tudor period. They feature a crippled lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, who has to negotiate his way through the dangerous religious and political landscape of the times.
The appeal of the novels is that they offer compelling narratives set against a well-researched background that depicts not only the manipulations and betrayals of church and state, but also the rough texture of life for ordinary people.
Sansom's most recent novel, 'Dominion', is also historical, but in a different sense. It provides an alternative scenario to the events of the second world war. In Sansom's version, Churchill has lost to the appeasers and Britain has surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. A progressively authoritarian regime runs the country, controlling the media and suppressing dissent. The story focuses on the efforts of a resistance movement, the risks its members run and their mission to restore democracy to a nation suffering under a warped and oppressive ideology.
In a fascinating historical note at the end of the book, Sansom says that he has always been intrigued by the notion of alternative history. An example he does not cite (though, as we shall see, he does have trenchant things to say about the current Scottish political scene) could be: 'What might have happened if Scots had voted in sufficient numbers in favour of a Scottish Assembly in the 1979 referendum?'. It is safe to predict that a major collision with the Thatcher government would have followed but it is much less clear how this would have worked out in the longer term. Would it have accelerated the drive for independence or would the forces of neo-liberalism have proved more powerful than nationalist aspirations?
What Sansom does say about Scotland has provoked hostile reactions from SNP supporters. Tracing the history of the nationalist movement, he argues that in the early days elements within it were sympathetic to fascism and that it peddled the dream 'that the expression of nationhood would release some sort of "mystical spirit" that would somehow resolve all problems'. He goes on to suggest that even today 'the SNP are a party without politics in the conventional sense, willing to tack to the political right (as in the 70s) or the left (as in the 80s and 90s) or the centre (as today) if they think it will help them win independence'.
In Sansom's view, SNP leaders present themselves as 'competent, progressive democrats', but if independence is achieved (with the help of some dubious financial and media backers) the 'mystic glories of independence' will take priority over practical policies to deal with the pressing issues that affect people's lives: the SNP cares 'about the ideal of a nation, not the people who live in it'. Alex Salmond asks Scots 'to turn their backs on real social and economic questions and seek comfort in a romanticised past and shared – often imagined – grievances'.
SNP activists 'want a people drugged on historical legend, replete with holy national sites (such as Bannockburn) and myths. These things are the dead, empty heart of nationalism, always said to be unique in every country, always drearily similar'. Sansom concludes by suggesting that anyone who takes the trouble to study the history of nationalism in Europe will realise the dangers it represents.
Unsurprisingly, his comments have provoked a backlash. That fine Scottish writer, James Robertson, has stated that, contrary to Sansom's view, the SNP's history 'shows them to be one of the mildest-mannered of "national movement"'. Moreover, 'the SNP are avowedly and demonstrably non-racist, and as socially inclusive and progressive as, say, Labour or the Liberal Democrats'. Any suggestion that a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum 'will usher in an era of one-party rule...is particularly far-fetched'.
Quite a few of Scotland's leading literary figures have come out in favour of independence and the late Edwin Morgan left a bequest of £1m to the SNP. However, the record of Scottish writers as political pundits is not particularly impressive (Hugh MacDiarmid is a good example) and we are now at the point where what is needed is not more appeals to Scottish 'identity' but hard-headed appraisals of the possibilities and problems of alternative futures.
Among the questions that need to be considered are the following: What would be a realistic time-scale for resolving the legal and constitutional issues that would arise if Scots vote in favour of independence? How much bureaucratic restructuring of existing institutions would be involved and how much would the exercise cost? What are the implications for legal processes if appeals to the UK Supreme Court are no longer an option (the reputation of the Scottish legal profession is not as impressive as its practitioners would like to claim)? What guarantees of democratic freedoms can be assured if distinctively Scottish regulatory mechanisms are put in place for broadcasting and journalism? Add to these the familiar questions about defence, border control, economic prospects and currency and we have a substantial agenda that needs to be addressed.
Of course, opinion polls currently suggest that the most likely outcome of the referendum will be a No vote. If that turns out to be the case, there are other possible futures that come into play. Would it lead to a split within the SNP between pragmatists, who would accept the devolution settlement for the foreseeable future, and fundamentalists, who would proclaim a form of populist, cultural nationalism? And would Scottish voters continue to elect an SNP government in Holyrood to act as a counterweight to whatever party is in power at Westminster? Sansom's analysis may make uncomfortable reading but his encouragement to imagine 'what might be' opens up some interesting territory. The decision we face requires the engagement of heads as well as hearts.
Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor
of education at the University of Stirling