Stephen Daisley Stephen Daisley

Why are Scottish nationalists so thin-skinned?

A supporter of Scottish independence (Getty Images)

Scottish nationalists are not happy. What’s new, I hear you ask. Did they lose another leader? Has Sainsbury’s been selling Somerset strawberries in Stornoway supermarkets? Nothing quite so grave, but they are displeased nonetheless. The cause is Rishi Sunak, who has offended them with his Big Serious Speech at Policy Exchange on Monday. It was just a single reference, but that is the most Sunak has done to confront the SNP since he entered No. 10.

In a speech that spoke about rogue states like China and Iran and other ‘extremists’ who are ‘exploiting these global conflicts to divide us’, Sunak said: 

From gender activists hijacking children’s sex education to cancel culture, vocal and aggressive fringe groups are trying to impose their views on the rest of us. They’re trying to make it morally unacceptable to believe something different and undermine people’s confidence and pride in our own history and identity. Scottish nationalists are even trying to tear our United Kingdom apart.

The SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster Mhairi Black called it a ‘desperate attack’. One of her MPs, Angela Crawley, said it was ‘completely irresponsible’ for the Prime Minister to ‘compare half the people in Scotland to extremists’, while another, Steven Bonnar, deemed Sunak’s remarks ‘a disgrace to his office’ and characterised them as ‘dangerous’. Scottish nationalists have become so accustomed to Westminster’s indulgence of secessionism that they consider it a departure from norms when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom cites those who wish to dismantle the United Kingdom as a political threat. 

This is not to suggest that independence advocates are morally comparable to hostile states or terrorist organisations, an implication that has been read into Sunak’s speech by those who want to find it there. But independence is a threat to the UK and anyone who regards that as an inflammatory statement is hopelessly lost in the muddle-headed morass of contemporary constitutional thought. 

We can lay much of the blame for this at the door of devolution, Tony Blair’s biggest mistake and an act of political vandalism which swiftly went from removing the ‘threat of separatism’ to giving separatism a large state apparatus from which to advance the breakup of the United Kingdom. Among the sensibles and the civil servants, the pundits and the professors, Scottish independence is now not extreme, but quite anodyne. Independence is not Bad Nationalism like Brexit; it’s nice and fluffy and virtuous. 

These are not serious people and the sooner we stop listening to them, the better off we’ll all be.

Most importantly of all, independence stands in opposition to the Tories, and since being anti-Tory is the high-status, progressive opinion, it follows that high-status, progressive people must be more sympathetic to Scottish nationalism than they would be to British or English nationalism. Hence why statements of constitutional fact are regarded as frightfully impolite, and none quite so rude as the Prime Minister indicating his opposition to the dismantling of the country. If there is an ideology that unites Britain’s elites, it is the cold-sweat dread that a particular course of action looks bad.

We should not expect better from our incurably London-brained ruling classes. They exist in a state of permanent midwit outrage, their umbrage constantly shifting to the latest indignation served up by Twitter or James O’Brien or PoliticsJoe. These are not serious people and the sooner we stop listening to them, the better off we’ll all be. 

We should, though, expect better of Scottish nationalists, or rather they ought to expect better of themselves. Those clutching their pearls at the most milquetoast spot of rhetoric might wish to consult the attitude towards separatism abroad. More than 80 per cent of countries around the world have an indivisibility clause in their constitution, basic laws or statutes, ranging from an outright prohibition on secession to substantial legal barriers to any attempt by one part of a state to gain independence from that state. 

Perhaps those independence supporters who have broken with the SNP are right. Maybe the party and the Scottish political establishment it sits on have become soft-bellied and too comfortable with devolution. It would certainly explain self-proclaimed nationalists, in the vanguard of a supposed liberation movement, crying into their Irn-Bru this week. What generations of SNP members and leaders gone before would have given for such an acknowledgement from Downing Street. 

Scottish secession would involve the dissolution of the UK’s current constitutional order. It would likely give new wind to the movements for Welsh independence and Dublin sovereignty over Northern Ireland. The rump UK would be destabilised for a sustained period, rendered a diminished force in world affairs, and its independent nuclear deterrent imperilled. There is a reason both Iran and Russia are suspected of having attempted to interfere in the 2014 referendum. Scottish independence would cause incalculable disruption to a P5 country. Nationalists may prefer that it were otherwise, or that a way could be found to achieve their political goals while minimising instability, but they cannot wish away the consequences of the cause they champion. 

And nor should they want to. If you accept as an article of faith that Scotland should be a separate, sovereign state, you work towards that objective whatever the risks and ramifications. This is your country’s right to self-determination we’re talking about. Liberty to choose, to shoulder risk, to accept consequences, and direct destiny. Freedom, come what may. These are matters about which a believer in independence ought to be bold, not sobbing because the man in Downing Street said mean words. 

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