Under Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has shifted from pragmatic embrace of NATO, to full-blown, uncritical Atlanticism, argues James Foley.
With a celebrity cast, big budget and doomy soundtrack, the BBC was pitching submarine drama Vigil as this year’s Line of Duty. But after a promising start, the show descended – forgive the pun – into the depths of neo-imperial kitsch, and Vigil’s conclusion was both preachy and empty of subversive potential: inordinately empty, even by BBC standards. Naturally, this being 2021, the show’s Anglo-American police, security agents and naval officers had to be achingly intersectional. But this only added to the air of aesthetic and political conformity. There is nothing new about cops and spooks, the repressive state apparatus, standing in for “justice”, but the peculiarity of contemporary ideology is that we are spoon-fed “social justice” morality with our helping of “realist” imperial bromides.
It goes without saying that the Russian agent was a grubby bully straight out of central casting. More galling was the SNP politician. Presented as an ambitious darling of the party faithful, his role in this drama was as a staggeringly useless useful idiot, risking his career to make deals with nefarious Russian officers. Eventually (forgive the spoiler), he sees the error of his ways and makes uneasy peace with Britain’s naval high command. But, the show seems to ask, has this meddler truly changed? Or will buffoonish pacifism get the better of him again?
Poetic license is one thing. But unless there is a minimum reality effect, drama quickly turns to comedy. And anyone with the mildest acquaintance with Scottish politics can spot the anachronism here. This useful idiot is a world away from actually existing Scottish nationalism. Far from striking deals with Russia, the SNP’s Young Turks are, if anything, over-eager Russophobes, studious adherents to North Atlantic orthodoxy and all its platitudes.
Thus Stewart McDonald MP, the party’s defence spokesperson, has tweeted of “the growing aggression and challenge to open societies presented by authoritarian states such as China and Russia”. “This is something that all liberal societies – not least in the EU – are struggling, and at times failing, to deal with robustly.” In a series of tweets replete with buzzwords and jargon – one must be “robust” in one’s “posture” and adopt “an evolving threat picture” – he sets out the “key pillars” of foreign policy for an independent Scotland. This includes “1. A North Atlantic neighbour; 2. A good global citizen; 3. Multilateral institutionalise [sic]; 4. A modern armed forces; 5. A resilient state”.
McDonald’s security-babble is the reverse of Vigil’s meddling idealist (who is intended, remember, as a dramatic stand-in for the new breed of Scottish nationalism). As the actually existing face of the SNP, McDonald is not contemplating deals with Putin’s cronies: not unless we read his babbling as a cunning ploy. Rhetorically, at least, the SNP are fully on board with the New Cold War. Indeed, McDonald’s message is that Britain’s “posture” is insufficiently “robust”, and that Britain, not Scottish nationalism, poses the real danger to Atlantic security by its deference to Sino-Russian ambitions.
This zeal doubtless has an element of over-compensation. Because in its older incarnation, the SNP did have an anti-imperialist and even “anti-American” streak. To fringe elements, myself included, this was one of their more attractive features, partly because a slew of Anglo-American “interventions” ended disastrously, but mostly because it was a rare sign of principle in mainstream politics: the Old SNP took hard positions that brought them nothing but flack. Of course, to conventional liberals, it appeared as endorsement of the world’s “baddies”, the Husseins, Milosevics and Gadaffis. Much of the press corps found the SNP’s conscious anti-imperialism unappealing, bordering on scandalous.
We can debate the merits of these positions. But what cannot be doubted is that this era of Scottish nationalism is a thing of history. It is about as relevant to today’s SNP as Bennism is to the “Labour leftism” of Angela Rayner. Formally, the SNP remain committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, and any move away from this – prior to independence – might be too inflammatory for the party membership to contemplate. What remains of the SNP Left will tolerate virtually anything – except a formalised break with CND. But underneath, in ideology, the break has happened already. Any hints of post-Cold War nonconformity have been vaporised. McDonald is openly apologetic for the SNP’s earlier incarnation. “If the next referendum is to be won then it must look, sound and feel different to the last one”.
Sturgeon’s own Atlanticist inclinations are never far from the surface. Under Salmond, the SNP embraced NATO in practice; under Sturgeon, the party has embraced NATOism as a worldview, with little critique from the leftist commentariat, who nowadays admit no distinction between internationalism and “multilateralism”.
Sturgeon’s recent “Irn Bru selfie” with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thus meant the opposite of what many excitable activists imagined. AOC’s draw had nothing to do with her status as a dissident. Indeed, the real question is not what links AOC to Sturgeon, but what links AOC to the slew of other American political figures that have drawn praise from Sturgeon: a list that includes such establishment Hawks as Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, John McCain and Nancy Pelosi. Outside of America, AOC’s currency is not her leftism but her status as a political celebrity. Specifically, an American political celebrity, in a world where “American” almost always equals respectable (Trump being a rare exception).
It is sometimes hard to get a grip on Sturgeon’s “real” personality. She permits little enquiry into her private life, and her public appearances are inscrutably focus grouped, opinion polled, and stage managed. But if anything does shine through, it is an unfeigned, unironic desire for acceptance in Anglo-American chat shows and literary zines: her goofiest, sincerest and most tragically Scottish vice.
But a world away, in any case, from Vigil’s Scottish nationalist, who is less a stereotype than an anachronism. Formally, unilateral nuclear disarmament remains SNP policy. But the cultural and intellectual backdrop is long gone. NATOist platitudes are high fashion. Ultimately only independence itself can test the SNP’s rival commitments, but under the current leadership, “realism” has the upper hand.