David McCrone speaks at The St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference

Photo by British Academy.
Photo by British Academy.
Photo by British Academy.

This is the second part of a four-part series, analyzing each of the four respective speakers from The St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference, “Nationalism in the New Era: Scottish Independence and Similar Movements.”  The review can be found on The Saint’s Events page.

Professor David McCrone began talking about the negative connotations of nationalism.  “It’s a bit wearing,” he said, “because there’s much more to it than that.”  Defining nationalism can be split in two halves: nationalism and neo-nationalism.  When Prof. McCrone founded the first postgraduate course on nationalism at the University of Edinburgh, “[that] upset some politicians,” because it was seen as “subverting young minds,” and “creating nationalists.”  In the wake of Fascism and two World Wars, nationalism was considered wearily as a potentially dangerous force.  The end of the Cold War, like it did with most theories of international relations, shook notions of nationalism to the core.  The paradox of globalization, Prof. McCrone explained, brought the increasing feasibility of small states, and the decline, or total elimination, of autarky.  Coupled with layering and power-sharing enabled by the likes of the E.U., this is where Prof. McCrone’s conception of “neo-nationalism” began.  Globalization presents a paradox of modern interconnectedness with parts of the past left over from of the old international system.  Nationalist movements like Scotland’s “are not back-to-the-future movements,” he said, they are progressive while in part wanting to go back.  They are modern incarnations of historical nationalism.

Unionists, who want to see Scotland remain in the U.K., claim the Treaty of Union in 1707 eliminated Scotland when it united England and Scotland; Prof. McCrone said, “[the Treaty] did not wipe Scotland out, but it was a kind of deal,” with “something in it for both states of the day.”  Even though “corruption was endemic” at the time, he said, little is different in today’s politics.  Scotland got access to English markets, and it solved the problem of a Scottish-French alliance for the English.  Scotland’s civil society and many of its institutions — including those for law, religion, and education — were left to Scotland.  There was always administrative devolution, but not political devolution, Prof. McCrone said.  The U.K. transitioned, begrudgingly, to democracy and became more centralized; with 85% of the U.K. population in England, Scotland naturally became marginalized.  Despite the “aggrandizing of power” to the Scottish Office, it was always controlled by the dominant U.K. party.  In the 1950s, Scots began not voting for that party, which marked the “beginning of the Scottish anomaly.”  Following the end of World War II, the vote in Scotland split from England, leaving a conservative gap “[that] doesn’t go back together again,” Prof. McCrone said.

Starting in the 1970s, with the discovery of North Sea oil, the Scottish National Party (SNP) “shot-up” in seats fought in the “late lamented Scottish Assembly,” said Prof. McCrone.  But defeat in the 1979 referendum on devolution and the election of a conservative U.K. government in Westminster left the SNP with a “slow climb back.”  Prof. McCrone pointed out that the popularity of the three main options for Scotland’s status in the U.K. — devolution, independence, and no parliament — have remained very clearly separated: one-third or less of Scots are for independence, 50-70% for devolution, and 10% for no parliament, respectively.  “Why are we having a referendum if that’s what is going to happen?” Prof. McCrone asked, referring to the eventuality of more devolution.  Since the Scottish Parliament was introduced in 1999, Scottish Social Attitudes and parliamentary surveys consistently show support for more (unspecified) devolved powers.  “Even when the thing [Scottish Parliament] had hardly been introduced,” Prof. McCrone said, the statistics have “been boringly consistent.”  Scots want “more powerful devolution,” he explained, which is “what makes it interesting for us folk.”

Health is devolved, schools are devolved, welfare benefits are not; taxation, defense, and foreign affairs are left to Westminster as well.  People want devolution as it currently is, but adding welfare benefits and taxation, while leaving defense and foreign affairs behind, and “everything else devolved to the Scottish Parliament,” Prof. McCrone said.  “Scottish public opinion is not confused, its remarkably consistent,” he reiterated.  “It’s the political class that struggles to make sense of that.”  After the Edinburgh Agreement signed last October, the referendum next year will ask whether Scots want independence or to maintain the status-quo, but not an option for the type of devolution most people want.

Prof. McCrone predicted, “[the] referendum will be decided on how devomax people vote,” devomax being the option for more devolved power, with foreign affairs and defense reserved to the U.K.  If devomax supporters jump two-to-one for independence, then the “game is on.”  “No predictions,” he said, “but that’s where one would look,” if you were to make sense of this.

Prof. McCrone explored the complex identity issues involved with nationalism and Scottish separatism, particularly the contrasting and overlapping allegiances in the modern-day.  “National identity is a discourse…a personal attribute,” not a badge or tattoo you’re born with, he said.  “Who do you say you are?”  Its a multifaceted question in the U.K.: do you feel Scottish, British, Scottish and not British, British and not Scottish, one more than the other, or both equally?  If you put ‘British’ or ‘more British’ as the answer, the question becomes a separatist, political question.  “You don’t get the politics until you cross the line,” Prof. McCrone said, then it’s about nationalists with a capital ‘N.’  Similarly to opinions regarding more autonomy, the statistics here are consistent, even down right boring, he said: 65% of Scots feel they are either Scottish and not British or more Scottish than British, 25% think of themselves as Scottish and British equally, and 9% think they are either British and not Scottish or more British than Scottish.  In a survey which compared Scots’ preferences for being identified as a parent, spouse, working class, or by their gender, Scottishness ranked just below being a parent (unlike Britishness, which overall mattered least), Prof. McCrone explained.

Why did the SNP win a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2011?  Prof. McCrone provided “some margins.”  The average SNP voter was a young male, in semi or unskilled manual work, with limited educational qualifications; but what does that really explain? Prof. McCrone asked.  Although there are some variations, age, sex, and the effects of class are not significant — leaving, by and large, national identity as the deciding factor.  The difference compared to 2007, when the SNP achieved only a minority government, can be explained in part because “they [the SNP] worked really hard at convincing” the ‘more Scottish than British’ vote, Prof. McCrone said, in addition to the ‘Scottish and not British’ vote, where they would be expected to do well.

Despite the clarity of what most Scots want, party identification and support for independence “is not at all straight forward,” Prof. McCrone said, especially among Labour and Liberal Democrats.  Independence supporters split their vote in earlier elections between the SNP and Labour.  He showed a Venn diagram highlighting that independence supporters, SNP supporters, and people who associate themselves as ‘Scottish and not British’ barely overlap.  He concluded that context matters: “exogenous factors matter hugely” in the independence movement, he said.  “[This is] not a debate unique to Scotland, and as the politics unfold, particularly over the next year or so, we shouldn’t be simply looking for endogenous explanations.”


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