A few days ago I was struck by how much Scotland has changed in the last decade. I had this revelation while watching the 1:50pm train from Kilmarnock to Dumfries approach me. As the train gently moved near the platform, I realised that I was about to board a giant blue saltire. All four corners of the carriage had white circles, arranged in a sharp triangular pattern, pointing to the middle of the train. The rest of the carriages were clearly in the deep blue of the Scottish flag. How long had they been like this? When did it happen? Why was it even necessary? I’m well aware that I live in Scotland, I didn’t need this train to remind me of it. I had a vague memory that they used to be painted in a dark brown livery at some point but I couldn’t remember when.
I appreciate that I’m travelling with Scotrail, but isn’t this a bit much? I would be horrified and slightly embarrassed to see a train completely covered with the Union flag, despite considering myself to be British. I could understand if it was a special ceremonial train, but just a normal one? Even the Royal Train is adorned with more subtle symbols.
Unfortunately, this is the more insidious face of Scottish nationalism at the moment. Something very slow and deliberate, but that slowly reinforces the sense of difference with the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly England. Scottish nationalism is slowly turning politics in Scotland into a form of entertainment with the space for debate and discussion gradually being sidelined and where symbols of Scottish nationalism are given increasing prominence. Even more worrying for the long-term, its tendrils are also encroaching on every aspect of society, including previously sacred, civic spaces.
Wherever you live, in Scotland, you will probably see Scottish saltires on poles, windows, cars, wheelie bins, clothing, and upper torsos. Graffiti with a nationalist bent can now be witnessed along train lines and roads. There’s a particularity prominent “END LONDON RULE” scrawled on an underpass between Gretna Green and Carlisle. I have seen a “RED TORIES OUT” in New Cumnock and someone even took time to get a ladder, drag it out of their house, set it up and write “Yes” on the dirt and grime on a “Welcome to Maybole” sign along the A77 in South Ayrshire.
In a similar vein, I witnessed a lengthy procession of cars on the Sunday before the 2015 and 2017 general election, driven by me with saltires and SNP flags fluttering from the windows and radio antenna. The spirit of Scotia certainly reigned fearless and free that morning as it went by me at 30mph, stuck to the window of an H plate Ford Focus. All I could do was to smile serenely and be as firm as my native rock as the nationalist onslaught motored by.
Even the former First Minister of Scotland, Alec Salmond, indulged in crass and vulgar nationalist sentiment. Remember when he unfurled the saltire behind Andy Murray at Wimbledon? This was the First Minister of Scotland and he ought to have been above such behaviour. Luckily, this is something that I have yet to see his predecessor do to the same extent, but neither is she totally innocent. Nicola Sturgeon was the only First Minister not to display the British Flag when she met ‘foreign’ leader, Prime Minister Theresa May in Edinburgh and pictures of scowling at Boris Johnson also spoke volumes.
This petty nationalistic sentiment isn’t an entirely new phenomenon either. During the Festival of Britain in 1951, there was a related exhibition at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, which the nationalists stole the sign from, as they believed it to be another example of “English colonialism” rather than an attempt to recognise cultural differences within the United Kingdom. Other attempts at mischief include the now infamous attempt at ‘rescuing’ the Stone of Scone (Stane o Scuin, for those Scots speakers amongst you) from Westminster in 1950.
New phenomena or not, when you’re out and about in Scotland, count how many houses, cars and other vehicles have an SNP sticker on them. It might surprise you. Where I live, there is an entire camper van festooned with ‘Yes’ stickers and saltires. I have also seen a few ‘Don’t blame me I voted ‘Yes’ stickers on the back windows of cars. I could counter this by putting a ‘Thank me later, I voted No’ over it, thus saving this particular car owner an estimated £2000 a year, decades of political, social and economic upheaval and from living in a small nation with no armed forces and representation on global institutions. During the election to the Scottish Parliament in 2016, I saw numerous ‘I’m with Nicola’ window stickers appear all over the place. It appeared that no one was with Ruth, Kezia, Willie or Patrick.
This extends from the top of the party, to local councillors and to ordinary members. I have been present at community meetings where some of the representatives, elected officials and ordinary board members, have had small saltire badges and the SNP logo pinned onto their person. These are just regular meetings where the minutiae of community affairs such as potholes, proposed asset transfers and Christmas lights were discussed. I saw a woman with her nails painted with the SNP logo. I know that, somewhere, there is a jeweller that is manufacturing the SNP logo in earring form. I know this because I saw a woman wearing them. Now imagine if you saw someone wearing the Labour rose, the Lib-Dem torch or the Conservative oak tree. Aesthetically pleasing adornment it may be, but you’d think they had gone mad or that they were an ideological zealot.
You can see this political culture starting a major, and worrying incursion into civil society as well. Where I live, a local pro-independence community group organised the Christmas Street Party and operates a food bank donation scheme. I in no way wish to disparage their charitable efforts but I would question the need for the ‘independence’ to be part of the tag line during the promotion of their endeavours. Why not just do it without the politics?
My feeling is that this allows pro-independence sentiment to be associated with philanthropic and charitable objectives. This makes it extremely difficult to counter effectively. By attacking it you’re seen as extremely poor-spirited and spiteful. At best, it would be seen as curmudgeonly. It allows the political ideology behind the efforts a totally free and unhindered rein over the political and social culture in Scotland.
I have no problem with people supporting any political party they want, even the more extreme and fringe parties. It’s their right to express their opinion (within reason, obviously) even if it makes us uncomfortable, but whatever happened to keeping your political affiliation private, at least in public?
In education, teachers now have to teach all events from the ‘Scottish perspective’. In some cases, this might make sense, as long as it is still viewed in the wider context. For example, Scotland’s efforts during World War One and Two were Herculean. But the problem is that these events are not being taught within a wider context and the idea of teaching about one nation, in a union of nations, is patently absurd. However, the SNP have controlled education for a decade now. There has been a noticeable and recordable lowering of standards and attainment, but as a bonus to Scottish nationalism, there is now a generation of young voters who believe that Scotland could be a land of ‘milk and honey’ if only it wasn’t for the Act of Union.
The SNP have tapped into this new wave of nationalism across the globe and the rise of social-media-driven, extroverted politics very well. Every-time I see an SNP politician, they either/and have a saltire or SNP logo pinned to their lapel, much like the ordinary members of their party.
We don’t need to be constantly reminded of where you come from and what party you represent. Whether you like it or not Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom even though you don’t think it should be. I respect you as a democratically elected official, you can at least accept that the majority of the Scottish people probably don’t want nationalist symbols constantly flaunted by you.
The style of politics that the SNP want to create is similar to what you see gaining increasing prominence in the United States. Noisily exuberant, grievance based and constantly based on the vilification of the “other”, be they political or national. The First Ministers standard response to most questions during any and all debates is to blame “tory austerity” regardless of what was asked. I haven’t had the benefit of a long political career but is this the only issue that is causing all of the economic, social and cultural issues in Scotland?
After the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, there was a massive SNP conference/event hybrid with over 12,000 supporters in attendance, with saltires aplenty and the majority of the participants waving giant yellow SNP foam fingers. Guest appearances by the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Blank Canvas and a rapper called Stanley Odd waxing lyrical about “I don’t know, but I didn’t vote No!”, “When I say bed tax, you say nae chance!” and that “British values need a respirator!”. The highlight of his repertoire was the amazing rap, “Son, I voted Yes”. A heartfelt lament of a parent telling their son that they voted yes because “a yes vote provided hope” with “a witch at Westminster” starring as the central villain and also mentioning that they “stopped our free will” as well. Quite an achievement for any government.
I would encourage anyone reading this to watch on social media, even if you voted Yes or for the SNP. Of course, the main event of this strange and incongruous event, at least in Scottish political history, was the appearance of Nicola Sturgeon wearing a pink tartan blouse, without this, I wouldn’t have been able to tell what nation she belonged to. It was also the subtle sartorial clues (Hint: blue and white with a splash of SNP yellow) from the audience and the worrying lack of any other accent or nationality apart from Scottish that eventfully gave it a way for me.
This event was organised by the party in power in Scotland since 2007. They control almost every political lever. They are the government. This event was something that actually happened in 2014 and is a terrifying dystopian vision of Scotland’s future where politics, extroverted nationalism, vapid entertainment and an electorate unwilling to delve deeper into issues all combine to force out debate, opposing views and any evidence that might counter the nationalist cause, even if it would be to Scotland’s benefit.
I might be wrong, but I don’t see other political parties embarking on such a display as this, even during election times or at their party conference. No doubt the Scottish nationalists could argue that the last night of the Proms features more patriotic flag-waving and fervour. They may be right, but the Proms is a celebration of British history and culture with a slightly more internationalist leaning with foreign performers and composers and non-British pieces of music. Far more importantly it doesn’t touch on contemporary grievance politics and isn’t organised by the party in office.
In my relativity short life, I have witnessed Scotland going from a stoic, sensible nation, where politics was based on the traditional left-right ideology and people made decisions based on economic evidence and social circumstance, to a place where large swathes of the population would vote for a party that’s primary aim would cause them grave, long-lasting, deep economic harm and social uncertainty, but yet would happily dismiss anything that counters this view. Any contrary evidence is just debunked as the work of the “establishment” or “Wastemonster” or “quisling politicians”. The First Minister even joins the fray and claims that independence, ‘ultimately transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends.’ In other words, you’ll probably be poorer, less secure, and we don’t really know what the consequences will be, but vote for us anyway.
In my experience, Scotland is not turning into a healthy nation. We have trains with the livery of our national flag. Swathes of the population will now not even consider voting for a party other than the SNP despite mounting evidence that they haven’t really been “Stronger for Scotland” (certainly louder though) and that independence would have been a Darien scheme for the 21st century. A man can rap about the death of British values in Glaswegian Scots at an event sponsored by the main political party in Scotland and the one in power for a decade. The First Minister herself uses the endless rhetoric of “Tory austerity” as a totem to rally her supporters around, giving them something to blame all of Scotland’s issues on rather than deftly examining other reasons such as globalisation or the growing lack of personal responsibility or using her government’s own powers to alleviate some of these issues. The Scottish saltire not only flutters above public buildings but also in private gardens. Indeed, when not travelling in Edinburgh, you could forget you were still living in the United Kingdom.
Individually these isolated events would not bother me and would be barely perceptible. Just typical political ‘static’. Taken in their entirety they result in a deafening cacophony of nationalism that is getting increasingly belligerent in its endless pursuit of the promotion of difference with the rest of the United Kingdom.