“Stop the world,” proclaimed Winnie Ewing half a century ago, “Scotland wants to get on.”
The dream then, given a fillip by Mrs Ewing’s by-election victory in Hamilton, was of an independent Scotland taking its seat at the United Nations between Saudi Arabia and Senegal.
A few days ago, Nicola Sturgeon actually got to speak at the UN, addressing diplomats as part of her week-long tour of the United States. Unlike some, I don’t begrudge the First Minister this sort of globetrotting; it seems a perfectly reasonable use of the Easter recess.
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What’s more interesting is that the SNP’s world view is yet to move beyond the platitudinous. Drawing on much the same script as her predecessor, Ms Sturgeon hailed Scotland as a “good global citizen” and stressed that despite its size it could have a “big, positive and powerful voice”.
But what would that voice, once liberated by independence, actually say? It still isn’t very clear. All the First Minister could offer in New York last week was a prediction that “well within” her lifetime Scotland would take its place at the UN “alongside all the other independent countries of the world, large and small”.
There was some bafflement at this essentially existential aim. As one attendee remarked to their Scottish visitor: “This is the United Nations – your mission appears to be the breaking of nations.” Scotland is a nation, responded the First Minister, adding: “I am a nationalist not in the sense that is often ascribed to the word ‘nationalist’.” The swift retreat of “utilitarian” nationalism continues.
In her speech at Stanford University in California – which again read pretty much like Salmond-era perorations – Ms Sturgeon also spoke of independence giving Scotland the “freedom to be an equal partner with the other nations of the UK and Europe and with countries across the world”.
It’s an interesting definition of “equal”, but not a very realistic one. Just as the UK doesn’t parlay on equal terms with the US, nor would an independent Scotland. Sure, members of the UN are “equal” in that they’re all sovereign nations, but the notion that they therefore interact on an “equal” is quixotic in the extreme. Some countries are more equal than others.
In the context of globalisation, the notion of “equality” between nations becomes even more confused. Here, the SNP is continuing to ride two horses at once, what the writer David Goodhart calls the “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”, essentially a distinction based upon identity, between the mobile “achieved” identity of people from Anywhere, and the increasingly marginalized, roots-based identity of those from Somewhere.
Goodhart, in “The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics”, argues that the Somewhere backlash of Trump, Brexit et al is a democratic response to the dominance of Anywhere interests, in everything from mass higher education to mass immigration. Basically, the Somewheres are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more.
Goodhart argues for a new settlement, and indeed the First Minister’s Stanford speech also dwelled on the divide between the Somewheres and Anywheres (without using that terminology). Billed as a “defence” of globalisation, Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that while policies like free trade and free movement of people can bring benefits to the whole economy, they also had the “potential to disadvantage – or be seen as disadvantaging – particular areas and particular groups in society”.
The sustainability of those policies, therefore, would “increasingly” be dependent upon the Anywheres’ “ability to ensure they benefit not just the few, but the many in our society”. So believers in the “benefits of globalisation” have to ensure the benefits “outweigh the costs”. Here the SNP leader fell back on a sort of McBlairism, sustaining support for “a dynamic and open economy” by building “a fairer and inclusive society”.
To be fair, the First Minister did not pretend Scotland had all the answers, but she believed it was “at least asking some of the right questions”, which presumably included another shot at “self-determination”, a term once again being conflated with independence, in spite of a majority of Scots having self-determined in favour of the Union two and a half years ago.
Ms Sturgeon also argued that Scotland was perhaps more pro-EU than the rest of the UK because her government had mitigated some of the “very brutal” cuts to social security provision emanating from Westminster. “There was maybe less of a sense”, she suggested, “of people being left behind and disenfranchised.” Now that’s possible, I guess, although it doesn’t really explain the mildly Eurosceptic findings of recent research by Professor John Curtice, nor the few hundred thousand Yes-Leavers.
As Goodhart observes in “The Road to Somewhere”, the SNP is a party, a bit like the Liberal Democrats, with “strongly Anywhere leaderships that claim to represent Somewhere interests”. Of course, all parties have to do this to some degree simply because there are so many Somewheres, but the rhetoric of Scottish nationalism, such as “take control” and the othering of Westminster, does rather imply a rejection of the Anywheres.
And as I’ve often written in this column, it’s not clear how independence would solve any of the Somewheres’ general concerns, i.e. educational inequality, lack of social mobility and yes, even immigration. Urging Scots to “take control” only then to cede sovereignty to the Bank of England (assuming the currency union policy survives) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) doesn’t make much sense, while fighting poverty will be much harder without £15 billion of fiscal transfers each year.
At least the SNP is guilty of vagueness rather than the imperialist nostalgia like the Brexiters, or indecision like President Trump, but the lack of any clear guiding philosophy leads to what the Americans call flip-flopping. Take the First Minister’s approach to US relations, which fluctuates between idealism (I’ll stand up to Trump!) and realism (Of course I’ll meet him!).
Ms Sturgeon talks about Scotland’s voice in the world, but that voice will be quieter if it’s part of EFTA rather than the EU, while at some point the SNP will have to decide what sort of world, to quote Mrs Ewing again, it wants to get on.