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History of Scottish nationalism

Scottish nationalism is not exactly a hot-button issue in the United States.

Nevertheless, it is an interesting movement (largely unknown to us) that has taken shape north of the English border with the weakening of Tony Blair’s New Labor movement and the nosedive of the Conservative party after Margaret Thatcher’s leadership.

The idea of independence from Britain is certainly nothing new in Scotland; outside of its over-glamorized “Braveheart” context, Scotland has never been conquered (it was contracted into union with Britain through marriage), and basic issues of ethnic/national identity among the Scots have been solved without the term “British.”

With the highly unpopular war in Iraq, and with the failure of Blair’s social and economic agenda, the push for nationalism would seem inevitable.

So, why is it not?

First, a brief history of the modern Scottish national movement: after the decline of the British Empire post-World War II, Scotland sunk into an economic rut far deeper than even the rest of Britain.

The shipbuilding industry on the River Clyde, one of Scotland’s chief industries, ground to a halt.

Elsewhere, the manufacturing base of Glasgow and Aberdeen collapsed, and only through the nationalization of several industries, most notably coal and oil, as well as a strong government social welfare program, did Scotland get by after WWII.

Also created, however, was a baby boomer phenomenon similar to that experienced in the United States, which ignited a move to newly-created, pre-fab suburbs of Scotland’s decaying cities.

As in the U.S., a new bourgeois class was created in Britain.

In Scotland, this led to a struggle for Scottish identity outside of the bubble of the dead hulk of the Empire.

Increasingly dissatisfied with the Anglo-centric parliament of London, the Scottish National Party (SNP) grew to be a viable political force within a Scotland increasingly marginalized by the two major political parties.

With the rise of the Liberal Democratic party during the 1960s, the way was paved for the first election of a Nationalist MP in 1970.

Scotland suffered heavily under the Conservatives in the 1980s, further strengthening the Nationalist cause.

The firebrand Alex Salmond had assumed the mantle of leadership by the 1990s, feeding heavily on the resentment against Thatcher, and further castigating Blair for shifting Labor to the right.

The SNP’s decisive policy, coupled with Blair’s granting of devolution of powers, resulted in the creation of a Scottish parliament in 1999, as well as the SNP’s being on the cusp of its ever-broadening leadership.

Therein began nationalism’s decline. The new Scottish parliament, which had powers over Scottish education, healthcare and other sectors, was a political nightmare further akin to London than anything else, garnering apathy in the Scottish electorate.

Furthermore, Salmond made a political gamble criticizing Blair on the handling of the Kosovo war (even if he was right), necessitating his replacement by John Swinney, who organized the Nationalists into a stronger political machine.

Aside from keeping its insistence on independence, Swinney moved the party into sync with “middle-class” values (i.e. Labor’s economic policies), providing a

watering-down of message.

Whereas Salmond used the Scandinavian model of political neutrality, a strong welfare state and active participation in European Union, Swinney rallied corporate support, emphasizing moderation and cooperation.

However, if independence was seen as furthering an independent economy north of the border, why bother courting multi-national corporations who may fear Scottish competition?

It was a muddled strategy doomed to fail.

In the 2003 parliamentary elections, the SNP lost much of its ground, with Labor and the Liberal Democrats holding on to their governing coalition, and with the insurgent Scottish Socialists and Greens adopting much of the SNP’s old message, the SNP fumbled.

Their bid for political “legitimacy” undermined their core philosophy which spurred interest in the first place.

So, what is the future of Scottish nationalism?

As we have seen in recent months with Blair’s evaporation of popularity, it may indeed be good.

But the number two within Labor is Gordon Brown, a Scottish politician whose ascension in London might subdue nationalist rhetoric (think Jean Chretien in Canada).

However, as basic issues of identity and control remain unsolved within Scotland, we can expect talk of nationalism to continue.

For it to become a reality, however, the political map must be changed to the point where both message and media-savvy meet with a clear articulation as to nationalism’s goals (which go beyond just Scottish independence).

This talk may take a while to be reformulated, but it is indeed a question that Scotland must solve for itself at some point in its near future.


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