The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh University Press, edited by Gerry Hassan.

Michael Gardiner

Perspectives, Winter 2011

This collection is conceived in large part as a response to a perceived need to advance on the only major previous history of the Scottish National Party, Peter Lynch’s solo-written 2002 book. And although the comparison is made unfair by rapid advances in the field during devolution, this is an incomparably more comprehensive and sophisticated account. Somewhat interdisciplinary, it mixes Institute of Governance-style tabulated sociological breakdowns with the kind of critical analysis which Hassan rightly claims has been missing from accounts over-reliant on Party sources. The ambition is bold, and, despite some contradiction between chapters and a slight absence of cultural-theoretical input, this ambition is fulfilled abundantly. The editor has long been at the forefront of this competitive field of commentary, and here has collected some of the most celebrated and interesting specialists in the field. Every contribution is erudite, some rivetingly so; all are highly historically informed and politically subtle, and the whole points to a groundbreaking understanding of the implications of the SNP’s various phases of presence.

This type of publication is always time-sensitive, and this collection arrives at a particularly tricky time after the 2007 SNP minority victory but before the election of the 2010 UK coalition, and also shows a slight gap between chapters in terms of how much account they take of the 2008 financial crisis – though this is editorially well evened out by Hassan and the historical sophistication of the book is untainted. Avoiding becoming sucked in to a British history in which Thatcherism is central, the collection is more even, eloquent for example on the party’s parliamentary golden era, the 1974–79 period – and James Mitchell in particular debunks the idea that this was primarily oil-driven. Rather, there is more of a sense of Labour’s mixed record on addressing (and managing) the urban Scottish working class, and the fading fortunes of the UK.

The Crisis of British State

Hassan’s own introduction shows a strong sense of how the fortunes and stances of the SNP have been tied to the international standing of the UK, and sets up a historical framework for the book: “[t]he road from Wilson’s humiliation with the November 1967 devaluation, two weeks after Winnie Ewing’s victory, takes us directly to the 1976 IMF crisis, the final burial of Croslandite social democracy, the ascendancy of Thatcherism and the creation of Blair’s New Labour … The emergence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism were a product of the crisis of the British state and economy and the UK’s place in the global economy” (p2). Analysing the relationship between emotional and political nationalism, Hassan also persuasively describes how the Party have used the failures of New Labour as in a previous era they did with Thatcherism. He charts, as do others here, the movement from amateur group to pragmatic political party, and a rise to power despite the lack of a mass membership and a difficult relationship with its intellectual supporters such as Tom Nairn and Neal Ascherson. Indeed there is some debate here about how intellectual SNP supporters are – they tend to be highly educated, but as Stephen Maxwell and others point out, historically the party has had an aversion to debate. However, flagging up another general theme of the collection, Hassan shows how the effects of Party’s growth are linked to a rise in a culture of democracy in general. And as he has done elsewhere, he predicts the constitutional fallout accompanying the end of devolutionary “joined-upness”, in which a (New) Labour administration in Westminster deals with (New) Labour administration in Holyrood. From a civic-national stance that defines the collection, Hassan calls for a “national project” which reconstructs civic society from the ground up.

After this, the collection proper begins with straight political history, Richard Finlay’s highly-informed chapter accounting for the period to Winnie Ewing’s 1967 Hamilton victory, an account which is inevitably stretched yet ultimately well-balanced in the context of the collection, given the democratic importance of more recent changes, and the need for space for other kinds of analysis. James Mitchell then takes up the political history from 1967 to the 2000s, and dates the rise of modern Scottish politics as such from this period, again setting a tone in which Nationalism’s constitutional challenge utterly reconfigures the nature of political representation. Like others here, Mitchell charts the SNP’s pragmatism as well as its ideology, as it moves from amateur organisation to political player, and historicises the problem of balancing the stress between the “national” angle versus the “left” angle – largely dismissing the radicalism of the leftist ’79 Group as a somewhat ineffectual exercise in student politics.

The Gendering of the SNP

Fiona Mackay and Meryl Kenny then present a complex picture of the gendering of the Party, beginning with a sociological breakdown of membership and support, with women often being prominent at the top but under-represented in the body of the Party, then persuasively criticise a candidate selection process which often fails to get women into winnable seats, and the favouring of “soft” measures such as managerial courses and rebranding over “hard” measures such as zipping candidate lists. In all, the Party presents a gender paradox, having “a long and impressive record of recruiting and promoting women, including Nordic-levels of female MSPs in the first Scottish Parliament, and women have held high-profile leadership positions in both opposition and government. However, the transition to a major party has, after the first elections, been accompanied by an overall decline in women’s representation. Furthermore, the party at grassroots level is disproportionately male” (p51).

John Curtice, these days a UK-wide renowned political commentator, describes the SNP’s historical struggle with the first-past-the-post electoral system – showing how “devolution not only saw the advent of a new parliament but also a new electoral system … the introduction of the new electoral system is one key reason why the advent of devolution has provided an electoral lifeline to the SNP” (p59). Again, structural electoral changes can be linked to Party history – and the rise and fall of devolution movements within the Labour Party has, ironically, been instrumental. Like other contributors, Curtice shows how although voting in the Scottish Parliament is a way to concentrate on national issues, the SNP do not have a monopoly on “national” feeling. There is an increasing institutional split between Scottish and British identity – though Curtice’s casual use of “identity” here shows how some cultural theory might be needed to finesse the political situation to fulfil even further Hassan’s “analysis” promise. Colin Mackay also describes the complex link between desire for constitutional changes and SNP votes, and how devolution in a sense is the beginning of the SNP – as it moves towards stressing personalities, pragmatism and professionalism, and comes to control the terms of the devolution debate. Mitchell, Johns and Bennie look at the demography of SNP members, traditionally older and male but now less so, and including those born outside of Scotland, and shows how the SNP has also historically been highly socially liberal – the social analogue of the “Scandinavian economic model”.


One emerging critical theme of the book, stressed by many contributors, is how although the SNP have demonised Thatcherism and New Labour, they have also embraced many aspects of their neo-liberalist doctrine. Jim and Margaret Cuthbert provide an excellent description of this (though not fully accounting for the fall-out of the 2008 crash), while Stephen Maxwell, representing a left position for which he has been known since the 1970s, argues that nevertheless the actual performance of the SNP in government has typically been left-leaning. In particular, Maxwell historicises long-term SNP thinking on social policy; despite neo-liberal temptations and gender problems, the ethical contest with the big Westminster parties has crystallised a particular social policy position, albeit sometimes open to accusation of idealist populism. For Maxwell, the SNP’s attitude to inequality is “one of the most radical commitments to redistribution made by any UK political party since the founding of the welfare state … [and i]n government the SNP has strengthened rather than diluted its commitment to social democracy” (p127). Maxwell’s is clearly a “Nordic” position – “early intervention to support and engage the most vulnerable from a baseline of high-quality universal services” (p129) rather than an “Irish” low-tax one. Nevertheless, he provides a wonderfully concise statement of the SNP’s social-economic bind, which has not been properly acknowledged by the Party leadership: “Over the last decade as the SNP’s social heart has become more attached to social democracy, its economic head has inclined to neo-liberalism” (p131). Of course, the 2008 crisis goes a long way towards vindicating the Swedish social democratic model over the Irish neo-liberal one – and ironically the Edinburgh financial sector which has created problems for the SNP actually arose from a unionist cultural moment, and British imperial investment. Philip Schlesinger’s contribution is a very highly-informed description of public funding and the growth of the (actually anti-creative) idea of an entrepreneurial “creative economy”, another neo-liberal conception, filtered, again, largely through New Labour. He also stresses that one result of devolution has been an “Englishing” of British TV, though the SNP have pledged to increase the proportion of UK-wide broadcasting – a particularly important issue since “broadcasting devolution” is closely tied to control of the news agenda. The merging of arts institutions into Creative Scotland, Schlesinger shows, is a bureaucratic attempt to kill this debate, and “[t]he neo-liberal assumptions embedded in the New Labour project live on in the SNP’s proposed cultural lead body, just as they have been challenged by our profound financial and economic crisis” (p144).

Labour Insecurity

Hassan’s own chapter describes a battle for the heart of Scottish social democracy, drawing on wide and deep historical research, and showing how after 1968 onwards Labour attempted to smear the SNP as “Tartan Tories” – which often backfired in suggesting a degree of Labour insecurity – while the SNP learned to use fearful epithets like “London” and “British”. There has been a danger, as Hassan shows, especially during Winnie Ewing’s post-1967 era, of a clumsiness in addressing the Scottish working class and by extension the labour movement in general. Labour then blamed the SNP for its aid in the 1979 vote of no-confidence which it claimed led to Thatcherism, while the SNP never trusted Labour to deliver devolution. Hassan also makes the vital point that the New Left enabled nationalists, for example through CND and direct action, and arrestingly describes the intellectual weakness of a certain strain of anti-separatist thought: “[New Labour policy] stressed the supposed unique success story of the multi-cultural, multi-national nature of the Union that is the UK … There was an element of vagueness in this, selective memory and a Whig-like sense of history as the forward March of British progress” (p158).

David Torrance accounts for the story of the leftist ’79 Group, of which Stephen Maxwell was a lynchpin, and which diagnosed the 1979 devolution referendum failure as a class problem, feeling vindicated with the UK electoral success of Thatcher two months later. Torrance describes the group’s vague but radical social and economic policy and traces a history which saw the group’s claiming victory in 1981 then seeing the resignation or expulsion of key members in 1982, adeptly handled by leader Gordon Wilson. Nevertheless, in many ways the Group did eventually force a cultural leftward shift within the Party, as well as a move towards gradualism rather than independence-fundamentalism. Isobel Lindsay tackles the question of negotiation with a Westminster Parliament that is by definition unwanted, a form of exertion of pressure, returning to the 1974–79 era, and describing tensions between party members in and out of power, as well as between Westminster MPs and the rest of the party, concluding that, despite and through the drift towards neo-liberalism and professionalism, during devolution the Party has helped bring Westminster and Holyrood more in touch. This is a conclusion slightly at odds with Alex Wright here, who outlines the growing potential for conflict, misunderstanding and confidentiality issues between Westminster and Holyrood, detailing the changing and sometimes confusing shape of “autonomy” via shifting formal arrangements. Wright historicises the SNP’s sense of responsibility towards the UK and the empire, and examines current possibilities and desires for a “federal” United Kingdom, as well as other arrangements.

Eve Hepburn begins to focus the end of the collection on a theme of “negotiated sovereignty” by describing how the desire for independence is actually quite unusual amongst nationalist movements. In Scotland the desire to “detach” has got stronger but also more complicated, and she confirms the move from independence fundamentalism to gradualism. Hepburn discusses the possibility of a pooled sovereignty which nevertheless retains negotiated control (an impossibility in Anglo-British tradition), concretised in a certain understanding of the European Union, with which the SNP is usually keen to engage. This also raises the question of “how much” sovereignty is desired by the SNP; devolution has indeed in some senses acted as a palliative against independence, and strongly “negotiated sovereignty”, or “devolution max”, has commanded much public support in the context of globally weakening states.

Changing Nationalism

This has for years been the area of emphasis of the collection’s final contributor, Michael Keating, who here provides an extremely detailed and intelligent comparative study of the forms and desires of nationalisms (though since his comparison concentrates on Western and Central Europe and North America, it is slightly less global than he implies). Keating shows how anti-nationalism is often misguided since it fails to see how the national inevitably returns as “a continual argument over the locus and meaning of political authority that has no end as long as history itself has no end” (p204). Scotland is moreover now sometimes considered as having a “state” (for example by the second, 2001 edition of David McCrone’s celebrated 1992 account). Keating stresses how nations are historically and contextually constructed and reconstructed, as well as, like Hassan, grasping how the late 1960s, the New Left and decolonisation made nationalism respectable, and constituted a real ideological shift: “[f]rom the 1960s, [fundamentalism and ethnocentrism] began to change under the ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy, disillusion with centralisation, and all the libertarian leftism of the 1968 generation. Peripheral nationalism and regionalism moved to the left, incorporating new social movements, notably in environmentalism and pacifism” (p212). Nationalism also became bound up with “human rights” issues, leading to an anti-state undertone and the “negotiated sovereignty” which now prevails. Like Hepburn, Keating describes the EU in terms of both extending and limiting autonomy, though clearly sees the pro-EU negotiated model as the legitimate civic form of nationalism. And yet, he argues, the “post-sovereignty” model has yet to be publicly accepted as political realism – seen in a relative lack of public debate on this in Scotland. He ends optimistically by suggesting that the civic tends to win out – though the SNP has yet to take advantage of this new model, neglecting “nation building and fail[ing] to develop a narrative around identity, collective action, economic development and social solidarity” (p217). But the tone on which the collection ends is very like the one on which it opens – critical yet optimistic, subtly connecting SNP history and changes in democratic form, and working highly intelligently towards new, ground-up civic definitions.

This collection’s importance can hardly be overstated for these reasons, and for its consistent erudition and historical awareness. As a study of civic society’s relationship to the national, as well as an account of a political history, it should find a large readership both inside and outside of Scotland.

Michael Gardiner is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick and author of The Cultural Roots of British Devolution (EUP, 2004) and Scottish Critical Theory Since 1960 (2006).