23 May 2013
The no-go area
that modern Scotland
fears to cross
South Uist. Photograph by Islay McLeod
I observed with interest the lively reception accorded to UKIP leader Nigel Farage during his recent visit to Scotland. Although his party attracts little support here, the event could prove to have longer-term significance in the run-up to the referendum vote.
Perhaps his advisers thought that Edinburgh, as the most anglicised of Scottish cities, would prove fertile ground for his particular brand of populist politics. I think it's maybe just as well that Glasgow wasn't his chosen destination, where his message might have encountered even more robust opposition.
Scotland has shown no enthusiasm for the UKIP agenda which has proved so appealing to disenchanted voters in England, unimpressed by both the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and the Labour opposition. Farage's self-satisfied style, despite his attempt to cultivate a 'blokey' bar-room image (pint in hand, desperate for a fag), is not likely to go down well north of the border. It is tempting to conclude from this that the Edinburgh incident will have enhanced the Yes campaign, vividly illustrating just how out of touch English politicians are with Scottish aspirations. Alex Salmond was quick to make that point when questioned about Farage's treatment.
But I wonder if I was alone in detecting in the first minister's body language – when his reaction was televised – that, beneath his easy dismissal of Farage as an irrelevance in Scotland, there was a degree of apprehension about what might be stirred up by the event. Farage claimed that there was an unpleasant element, 'akin to fascism', within parts of the nationalist movement and argued that some of those who accused him and his party of racism were themselves racists (by being so vehemently anti-English).
He further alleged that this was widely known but that few public figures were prepared to acknowledge it. The activities of some of the so-called 'cybernats', who use the internet to launch anonymous attacks on those who do not share their views, could also be cited as evidence of nationalist intolerance towards opponents.
Farage's comments bore some resemblance to the fascinating postscript to the novel 'Dominion' written by the Anglo-Scot, C J Sansom, published last year, which suggested that a study of the history of the nationalist movement in Scotland reveals that there have always been sinister tendencies within it. In order to gain electoral support, and stand a chance of securing independence, the SNP has had to present itself as a mainstream party, unconnected to extremism.
In Sansom's view, however, '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'. Thus it has adopted progressively more 'moderate' positions in relation to policies on currency, defence and the role of the queen. However, the stance of the leadership does not necessarily reflect the views of all supporters of independence, some of whom would certainly wish to pursue a more radical agenda.
It is, of course, not uncommon for parties to contain a wide spectrum of views within its ranks. For many years Labour had to contend with 'hard left' elements whose dogmatic, authoritarian ideology caused the party serious electoral damage. Neil Kinnock's most famous speech was at the party conference in Bournemouth in 1985 when he launched a savage attack on the Militant wing, particularly on the effects its policies were having in Liverpool.
Likewise, there have been times when the Conservatives have had problems with the far right, particularly during the Thatcher years, when they helped to secure a reputation as the 'nasty' party – arrogant, greedy and selfish. I know of one senior figure in the Scottish Tory Reform Group – the 'liberal' wing of the party at that time – who let his membership lapse because of disgust at some of the opinions voiced at party meetings.
The problem facing Alex Salmond, however, is that he cannot repudiate any of those who fall under the nationalist umbrella. When the referendum comes he will need all the votes he can get, whether from traditional party members, revolutionary activists, romantic idealists, economic opportunists, or those who are just fed up with conventional politics and long for change, any change. This last group should not be underestimated. There are many who regard the current political system as a tribal arena in which the exchange of slogans and insults has become more important than serious thinking about policies. They might hope that, at the very least, an independent Scotland would necessitate a reconfiguration of the existing political landscape, with its discredited rules and conventions.
The first minister's unease when faced with questions about the Farage incident may not have arisen solely from irritation at what the UKIP leader said or did: it may also have been motivated by awareness of the risks of drawing attention to supporters of the nationalist cause who are disinclined to adopt a cautious, moderate stance and want to make the case for more fundamental change.
There is one other respect in which Farage's comments may open up uncomfortable territory, and not just for the SNP. I hesitate to attribute to him a greater degree of insight than his remarks actually merit but, as a former boss of mine used to say, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. By suggesting that it is well known that there are unpleasant groups with the nationalist cause, but that nobody wants to admit it, he was in effect saying that it was a 'no go' area.
That made me wonder if there are other 'no go' areas in Scottish politics, subjects about which people are afraid to speak publicly. I considered some possibilities: the 'caste system' of Edinburgh society, about which I wrote last week; allegations of sectarian bias within some local authorities; Scottish government patronage in appointments to public bodies. If it is indeed the case that there are sensitive topics which are 'off limits' to democratic inquiry, what does that tell us about our society, and how might the result of the referendum vote affect the likelihood of opening them up to scrutiny?
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
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