NICOLA Sturgeon was in Brussels this week – no thanks to the Foreign Office. In a decision the SNP condemned as pathetic and childish, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would not provide any support for Ms Sturgeon’s trip because of concerns she would use it to promote Scottish independence, which, to be fair to Mr Hunt, is exactly what she did. What worries me more, though, is how she did it, and the words she used – two complicated, confusing and infuriating words in particular: “Scottish values”.

What, do you suppose, might those two words actually mean, because there wasn’t much indication in Ms Sturgeon’s speech. What she did say was that Brexit was a threat to Scotland’s democracy and prosperity, which is where the word “values” came in. “The deadlock at Westminster over Brexit,” she said, “is going to lead to a world view even more at odds with Scotland’s values and even more damaging to our future.”

Now, you may think big speeches like this one don’t matter as much as they once did and I can understand that – besides, tweets don’t take as long to write. But a speech like Ms Sturgeon’s is a good opportunity to hear what a leader says they’re thinking, as well as a chance to work out what they’re actually doing. Ms Sturgeon’s speech was promoted in advance as a statement of support for EU membership and shared European values. There’s the V word again.

However, there are several problems with the concept of values in politics – all of which were on display in Ms Sturgeon’s speech. The first is the definition: what on earth does “Scottish values” mean? But more worrying is what happens when you promote one set of values over another. By definition, if “our values” exist then so must “their values”; in other words, while purporting to promote similarity, the V word actually emphasises the difference. It isn’t a kind of glue, it’s a wedge.

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So, did we get an indication from Ms Sturgeon about what she thinks “Scottish values” means? Well, there was some talk about fairness and internationalism, but the First Minister might as well have said that Scotland’s values were all kinds of everything: sailboats and fishermen, wishing wells and wedding bells. That, at least, would have been closer to the truth because when many people talk about Scottish values, what they really seem to be talking about is symbols: hills and glens and flags.

The idea that Scottish people have “values” also fails to understand how a country – or humanity for that matter – works. I was brought up in a family of four, in the same way, in the same country, but my siblings and I have different views on most issues – in other words, we have different “values” and the same differences occur outside of families. I share some ideas with some Scots, but I self-evidently don’t with others. My Scottishness, and your Scottishness, is irrelevant.

If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to tell me what Scotland’s values are. Perhaps it’s a sense that we should all be equal, but, if so, in what way is believing in equality uniquely Scottish? And the truth is many Scots do not believe in equality – those opposed to gay marriage for example. Or perhaps you think our supposed openness to immigration is a Scottish value, but why, in that case, did so many Scots vote for Brexit? In fact, Brexit is not an English value just as pro-Europeanism is not a Scottish value and to say anything else is political vulgarity.

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And yet Ms Sturgeon appears to believe Scottish values do exist and there’s a good reason for that. Nationalists, of the Brexit and Scottish variety, like to talk about values because they like to promote the idea of national identity. This can then be used to justify referendums or independence on the basis that “our values” are incompatible with the UK Government (in the case of Scottish nationalists) or the European Union (in the case of Brexiters). To do anything else, and acknowledge similarities rather than differences, undermines the case for separateness.

This is exactly what Ms Sturgeon was up to in her speech and it happened again on Thursday when it was announced that Boris Johnson had topped the Tory leadership vote and the SNP reacted by publishing a mock ballot paper showing a choice between Mr Johnson and independence. No doubt, the First Minister would also say Mr Johnson is contrary to “Scotland’s values” when, in fact, Brexit is merely a policy and Mr Johnson a politician, just as independence and Ms Sturgeon are, and it can all be changed. Scotland and the UK don’t have values, we have governments with policies that will be superseded by governments with different policies.

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And don’t we also have to ask where the concept of national values might take us next? A few years ago, Michael Gove (is he included in “Scotland’s values” I wonder?) decreed that “British values” should be taught in English schools, and who was to define those values do you think? Mr Gove, of course, because that’s what happens with values – they are always defined by politicians, usually nationalistic ones, rather than parliament or the public. Values are an instrument of nationalism and of the state.

Scottish nationalists would argue, of course, that they are different, that their values are civic rather than nationalistic, but it’s easy to imagine the future government of an independent Scotland insisting on Scottish values being taught in classrooms in the way Mr Gove did with British values. Indeed, I think some nationalists might insist on it to weed out unionists at an early age.

Sadly, I can also imagine a Scottish government insisting on the teaching of national pride, another of the consequences of value politics. In her speech in Brussels, Ms Sturgeon spoke about pride in being a European, and perhaps some Scots would say pride in being Scottish should be one of our values too. But shouldn’t we be proud of the things we achieve rather than the things we are? To be proud of a fact you cannot change is fatuous. In fact, I think I can say that is one of my rules for life. It is one of my values.