Alex Salmond’s opponents and fans alike can’t acknowledge his real influence on modern Scotland, argues David Jamieson. They both endorse his political project and cannot see how it issued in the polarisation and futility of the culture war.
The return of Alex Salmond to grace – at least in the media if not, for now, at the polls – has filled some with disgust, others with joy. Many thought him banished, even after he was acquitted of the charges brought against him. The downfall of his successor, and the slow-motion collapse of the party he built-up from the margins, have shed a kindly light on the man. What a shameful spectacle, what a just reversal of fortunes, etcetera.
Salmond and Sturgeon have been trading barbs via the Edinburgh festival. Given that the pair were, for decades, the nucleic centre of Scottish nationalism, the fallout was always going to be ugly. Factions have duly marshalled to one or the other, and there’s no quarter.
Let me offer this provocation to both sides. Love or hate him, he’s yer da. He is the architect of modern Scottish politics, and he’s deep inside the heads of fans and detractors alike. This is the truth about Salmond that neither his proponents nor opponents want to hear.
Before him, the SNP was everything that fervent liberal Unionists wanted it to be. Nationalist, provincially conservative, suspicious of transnational organisations like the EU (and before that the Common Market) and Nato, and (at least rhetorically) wary of foreign multinational dominance in the Scottish economy.
Today, the SNP is what Salmond made it – a pro-business, socially liberal, globalist party. Inter alia, this is why it isn’t very good at fighting for Scottish independence: the transnationalism of the SNP has made independence, well, dependant. It requires a certificate of approval from a host of institutions that will never grant one. It may be comforting to think everything was going grand until the devious Nicola Sturgeon took over – but it wasn’t. Sturgeon was handed a dodgy prospectus and made it worse. The predicament she handled with efficiency has now been passed to the butter fingers of Humza Yousaf, and everyone can see the problems.
But if this brand of politics is not successful at bringing about an independent nation-state, it has proved wildly popular among the governing classes of devolution era Scotland. Every party at Holyrood follows its broad outlines.
An interesting side question is whether Scotland could ever have made its transition to the modern political condition without doing so in the guise of ‘social democracy’. It’s often noted that Salmond moved the SNP to the left, and into the area occupied by Scottish Labour. But he did so at a time when a silent spring was already taking place. Social democracy was being phased out for a statal, elitist liberalism. It’s no accident that the SNP adopted its ‘Independence in Europe’ stance in 1988 – the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, surrender of social democracy in the west and the rise of left Europhilism all being interlinked elements of the same ‘end of history’ moment.
As this implies Salmond is a product of his historical period. I’m not positing a ‘great man’ theory of Scottish history here – the era of globalisation, transnationalism, and the decline of social democracy and conservatism alike, selects its figureheads. Salmond was successful in Scottish politics – both for himself and in establishing an unimpeachable ideological dominance – because he was able to marry the demands of international capital and US-led global governance with popular appeal.
Once established, the radical narrowing of Scottish politics to this worldview meant differences had to be established elsewhere than in policy and programme. Five liberal parties in a parliament must distinguish themselves. And so, we arrive in culture war Scotland: there are no conservatives, there are no socialists. There are only pro-market liberals in a dysfunctional, near-zero growth market. They keep selling everything and shouting about fascist and communist conspiracies – the senile phase of democracy.
We need a degree of detachment from this phenomenon. Distrust anyone who invites you to the children’s tea party of the culture war, the sub-politics of choosing one’s favourite aesthetic.
This wretched practice is exemplified in the ‘debate’ about whether Scotland’s governing agreement between the SNP and the Greens should be dissolved. How would you like your austerian, anti-working class, slavishly pro-big business politicians? Would you like them a bit stiff, grumpy and faux-Kirkish, in the Fergis Ewing mode? Or would you prefer vegan and pseudo-subversive? Scotland, the choice is yours.
The worse shame in this carnival is on those who realise its futility and plunge on with the culture war regardless. The symbolic struggle between different brandings of the consensus is circular, and benefits only those at the top of the Scottish economy (or more precisely, the foreign capital that increasingly dominates Scotland). You can be the Ewing type of Salmondite or the Slater type, wear the team colours and tell yourself they mean something. This is especially appealing to those who don’t want to confront power anyway. People who, like the mentor they respect or revile, can’t see beyond globalisation, free trade, foreign direct investment and US global power. Who watch their team sell Scotland’s renewables potential to British Petroleum, shrug, and return to fretting about the danger posed by the Free Church of Scotland (or something). Or observe the same bargain-binning of the country for multinational capital and turn white with rage at the hard-left Marxism of it all.
The figure of Alex Salmond stands at the heart of this twilight world. His would-be opponents endorse the substance of his politics. His fans call on him to sweep away the consequences of the Salmond consensus, just as blind to its origins. Those of us who want to move past the consensus altogether should make that our explicit project and avoid, at all costs, its sublimation beneath the politics of symbolism.