If there is one imperative that practically all politicians can agree on across time, geography, and wildly divergent political ideologies, it is the national interest. It is a concept that permeates the national politics of states worldwide, democratic or authoritarian. Leaders deploy it to justify political decisions from Washington to Beijing, London to New Delhi.

And it is no stranger to us in Scotland. How often have we heard our politicians claim to be standing up for Scotland or Scotland’s interests? To some readers, this may sound like exclusively nationalist language, but you can find references to Scottish interest in the speeches and campaigning literature of all major parties.

One would expect the SNP to use the rhetoric of the Scottish national interest heavily. Not discounting those who, like social security and local government minister Ben Macpherson, reasonably push back on “nationalist” as a narrow and oversimplifying label, the SNP is a broadly nationalist party. Its constitution commits it to “the furtherance of all Scottish interests”.

It is also a key strength of the SNP’s political brand. When Ipsos asked Scots in May this year which of our parties they trusted most in various areas, the SNP’s lead was largest on standing up for Scotland’s interests: 46% of Scots said they trusted the SNP most, compared to 18% for Labour and 13% for the Conservatives. That 28-point lead far exceeded their next-largest lead of 16 points on growing Scotland’s economy.

More surprisingly, perhaps, the Scottish Conservatives have extensively used national interest rhetoric in recent years. In the introduction to their 2021 manifesto, Douglas Ross MSP wrote of a “Scottish Parliament working in the national interest”. That same manifesto claimed that the SNP would “hold a referendum and put their political obsession ahead of our national interest”.

Indeed, every party with MSPs elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2021 referenced the notion of a Scottish national interest in their manifesto. Just like the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives, they diverge significantly in what they consider our national interest to be.

Are income tax rises for higher earners in the Scottish national interest? Is the Rosebank oil and gas field, or new oil and gas exploration generally? What about rent freezes, or for that matter, Humza Yousaf’s recently announced council tax freeze?

Whether these policies are in the Scottish national interest depends on who you ask. Most SNP elected members will tell you they are. Their political opposition will beg to disagree on at least one, if not all, of these issues.

It would be tempting to conclude that this is a question of competing visions of the national interest presented at regular elections in which voters pick a given vision and set the nation’s course for the next five or so years.

But the problems with the concept of a Scottish national interest are more profound than that. Our politicians’ tendency to dress up their policies and political priorities as representing the Scottish

national interest masks the fact that those policies and priorities are shaped by sectional interests far more than they are by carefully considering the population’s interests.

A popular argument favouring Scottish independence is that we would escape the effect of the narrow self-interest of the UK’s London-centric political, economic, and media elites on Westminster policymaking.

But we have our own elites in Scotland. Thanks to their access to resources, decision-making power, and social capital, they can shape how the Scottish national interest is defined and, therefore, affect how policy forms far beyond that of Scots without their economic, social, and cultural power.

In turn, the concerns of less powerful groups are marginalised if they do not fit the government’s agenda, reinforcing existing hierarchies and inequalities in our society.

To govern is to choose, and by framing their policies as pursuing Scottish interests, our politicians mask those choices. Consider the council tax freeze, a cross-party policy presented as being in the interests of the people of Scotland because it eases pressure on households amid a cost-of-living crisis.

The reality is that it is only in the interests of Scotland’s better-off. Council tax is regressive, and a freeze benefits households more the wealthier they are. The Scottish Government will offset it to the tune of hundreds of millions that could be spent mitigating the two-child benefits limit or increasing the Scottish Child Payment.

Characterising a council tax freeze as in the interests of the Scottish people masks a regressive choice to prioritise the sectional and short-term interests of middle-class Scottish voters over those of Scots experiencing poverty.

The national interest may be a handy rhetorical device for politicians that helps generate support and mask their choices, but it is an atrocious lodestar for policy formation, never mind a political project.

That is something the SNP is discovering as it tries to adjust to the new chapter in Scottish politics we are opening. With independence on the back burner, even the SNP’s sense of the Scottish national interest is beginning to decohere.

“The SNP is not an ordinary party,” Fergus Ewing stated after SNP MSPs voted to suspend him from their parliamentary party for a week. “We are a party that has always put Scotland first, and that means, to me, putting the interests of the people of Scotland first. But in good conscience, and it aggrieves me to say this, I don’t believe that is any longer the case.”

In truth, Mr Ewing merely disagrees with his colleagues over which interests the Scottish Government should prioritise, as he regularly has in the past – but in the absence of the unifying goal of independence, this suddenly means that the SNP is no longer “putting the interests of the people of Scotland first”, exposing how empty that rhetoric always was.

As Scotland faces the significant policy challenges of our time, from climate change to demographic decline and the impacts of these challenges on how we govern our society, our governments will have to make difficult choices between competing Scottish interests. Furthering “all Scottish interests”, as the SNP’s constitution puts it, will not be an option.

It is time for politicians of all parties to bin the rhetoric of the Scottish national interest and start having honest discussions with the Scottish people about the difficult choices and trade-offs we face.