January 19, 2024 - 3:40pm

Do Scottish nationalists believe in nations? Scottish National Party leader Humza Yousaf told the BBC’s Nick Robinson for a podcast released this week that he is not “comfortable” with the word “national” in his own party’s name. Nor is this the first time an SNP leader has expressed a distaste for, well, nationalism: Nicola Sturgeon claimed the same aversion, saying in 2017 that if she could “turn the clock back” she’d choose a different name for the party, as the word “national” could be “hugely problematic”. 

But apparently there’s nationalism and nationalism. Both insist that their version of Scottish independence is not driven by a “far-Right nationalist inclination” but instead a civic one, in which — as Yousaf put it — “it doesn’t matter really where you come from.” In Sturgeon’s 2017 words, “if Scotland is your home and you live here and you feel you have a stake in the country, you are Scottish and you have as much say over the future of the country as I do.” This may come as news to the great many Scots for whom the desire for political independence from England rests upon the idea of two fundamentally different peoples. That is, groups with distinct histories, affinities, political interests, and — yes — ethnic and cultural ties. 

For the political class that has evidently colonised the SNP, as it has colonised every other institution afforded a modicum of political clout, the notion of “peoples” in this sense is, at best, a distasteful connotation that must be disavowed in favour of the morally correct view. At worst it’s “problematic”,  or “far-Right”, which in contemporary parlance means “morally beyond the pale”. 

But in this sense, they are simply echoing a broader shift. Until relatively recently, the idea that “peoples” are real was treated as an unassailable basis for political legitimacy. Indeed, promoting the “national self-determination” of peoples informed American foreign policy for much of the 20th century. But a more recent collective political-class decision appears to have been taken, across the developed world, to dissolve the political legitimacy of peoples, along with the nation-states that convene their interests — all while paying lip service to that framework for the sake of the plebs.

In the wake of this, it’s now unchallengeable dogma in polite society that peoples do not legitimately exist, or have any right to view themselves as politically distinct. Much as respectable liberal feminists are banned from speaking about “women” without at least observing the canard that men can also be women, the assertion that anyone may belong equally anywhere is now obligatory even in articles sceptical of mass immigration: see here and here for this week’s examples. 

Much as Havel’s greengrocer had to parrot slogans about the workers, in order to be admitted into polite society even Right-wing commentators are obliged to disavow the political salience of distinct ethnic or cultural groups. Implicitly: we may only talk about nation-states on the condition we nod along with the idea that they function like gym memberships. Anyone may opt into any of them, at any time, with equal standing.

But what’s the point of seeking political independence, if it’s not for a distinct people? Sturgeon insisted that Scottish independence is still meaningful in this context, as it’s about “running your own affairs and making your own mark in the world”. But it’s difficult to see why any group should go to all the trouble of replicating systems of government for an independent state, if there is no durable or self-constituting basis for the relevant political community. 

The most plausible interpretation for this apparent paradox is not pretty: very simply, the SNP’s leadership is lying to its base. The aim is not achieving independence for the Scottish people. Instead, it is the creation and funding of new institutional infrastructures, for the greater glory of a spreadsheet class which fundamentally doesn’t believe in “peoples”. In other words: a nationalist independence campaign has been hijacked by people who view it as an opportunity to seize power and resources. And their path to victory rests on misleading the mass of Scots who genuinely believe in peoples, about what they are trying to do — and who they are doing it for.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.