The priorities of the ruling SNP have been increasingly defined by Salmond. Foreign affairs and defense remain policy areas reserved to London, but he has boldly pursued his own foreign policy, going on regular trips to some of the emerging financial and economic powers in East Asia and the Middle East in order to lure investment to Scotland. Tapping into the sovereign wealth funds of newly prosperous states has been a core objective that he hopes might convince Scots that it is safe to embrace a post-British future.
Occasionally, his efforts to carve out a role on the world stage appear unsettling. In 2009, he ordered his civil service to badger world statesmen to issue statements supporting his release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. Only a handful of leaders did so. Fifteen years ago, on March 29, 1999, he condemned NATO’s bombing of Serbia after Slobodan Milosevic had attempted to deport much of Kosovo’s Albanian population as “an unpardonable folly,” comparing the action with Luftwaffe raids in wartime Britain. And in an interview this March, he offered qualified praise of Vladimir Putin (which he later refused to retract), describing the Russian leader as an “effective” politician who had “restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing.” Upon being published on April 28, the interview caused an uproar.
Despite what appears at times to be Salmond’s proprietorial approach to national office, parallels with Andreas Papandreou’s Greece or Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela may still appear fanciful in the context of Britain. But evolving social and political trends have lowered inhibitions about a politician behaving in a quasi-regal manner. Populist appeals based on identifying an external foe and a local liberator with a simplified message of change now connect with a sizable number of Scots.
Polls show that a disproportionate number of men warm to the rowdy Salmond. The young were once seen by the SNP as ideal material for an emotion-laden message, and the voting age was duly lowered to sixteen. But it turns out Scots below twenty-five are among the most antipathetic to nationalism. Members of the Facebook generation are international in their outlook or else completely turned off by politics. Women—by a large margin—are also resistant to the SNP’s plans.
Most Scots are still reticent about the SNP’s stated objectives. Salmond, aged fifty-nine, will not be around forever and his successor is likely to be a more prosaic figure. An improving UK economy and recent events demonstrating the appeal of Britishness (such as the 2012 London Olympics) both work against the SNP. So does the dawning realization that the division of the British landmass could have huge economic consequences for a great many Scots. Thus, it will still be an uphill task for the SNP to secure a referendum victory. But such a victory may in fact hardly suit its purpose.
RATHER THAN be thrust into the demanding role of building a new state, many in the SNP would probably prefer an extension of autonomy. Two years of campaigning have enabled Salmond to bathe Scotland in a sense of victimhood and insist that only his party can assuage her grievances. The populist rhetoric against London’s rule and a range of stunts at home and abroad are likely to continue. But what if England cries enough and even marches Scotland to the union exit?
Dissatisfaction has been mounting over the perceived financial advantages Scotland enjoys in the union and the ability of its fifty-nine members of Parliament to influence purely English matters. In some polls, more English than Scottish voters say they would prefer Scotland to secede. The electoral rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been a lightning conductor for British nationalism. At least one-quarter of the electorate is strongly opposed to the pro-European integration and globalization agenda that each of the established parties embraced until very recently. The UKIP promises to take Britain out of the EU, scale back immigration and take back power from an ingrown metropolitan elite that seems to have lost touch with the country beyond London. It favors decentralization and wishes Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. This form of nationalism, driven primarily by politicians with a strong English identity, has risen far more swiftly than Scottish nationalism.
If a surging English national identity obtains a successful political outlet, it is bound to be awkward for the SNP. In many ways, the party is a postnationalist force whose desire for self-determination seems to extend only to curtailing London’s influence and establishing its own local absolutism. In most other respects, it adheres to a one-world philosophy and is comfortable with the globalization agenda that has powered the EU, the environmental movement, and the cause of free movements of people and trade.
If England were shaking off external overlordship and reclaiming its sovereignty, the task of creating a viable state would be immense. Many of its institutions and elites now lack vigor and legitimacy. Too many of its once-dynamic cities only hang together thanks to regular injections of state funding. Absent a booming financial-services industry that is largely dependent on foreigners, Westminster might be facing bankruptcy. Nevertheless, there are forces of improvement capable of harnessing national energies that might even have the resolve to turn England into a tolerably contented and efficient maritime Switzerland.
In Scotland, by contrast, an ambitious “change” party relies on a sprawling bureaucracy and a clutch of progressive interest groups to build a self-reliant nation. These are not exactly forces equipped to give a new state the very best start in life. As a result, at least for now, a majority of Scots (albeit a shrinking one) appear to glimpse the void behind the rousing rhetoric of Alex Salmond and his votaries.
Tom Gallagher is the author, most recently, of Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction & Christian Crisis (Argyll Publishing, 2013).
Image: Scottish Government. CC BY 2.0.