Wither nationalism… ?






So the election is over. Leaving aside the overall picture, it can be said that this was good election for Unionists.

For nationalism, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the big issues of Brexit and Independence failed to enable continued momentum towards new polls on departing the UK. In Wales it rumbles along, but with Welsh Labour benefiting from undrelying dissent rather than Plaid Cymru, by running a very Welsh campaign distinct from Corbyn’s Labour.

Greatest focus has been on Scotland and the SNP’s performance. For the SNP it seemed that Brexit was the ideal opportunity to keep the pot stirred – hoping to trigger a second referendum on independence.

What the SNP  seems to have missed is that, having become a Party of Government, and having had its chance to take the issue of independence to the electorate already, the issue of independence became intricately bound into its ability to govern.

It is notable that as soon as the “indyref1” was over, the Holyrood opposition, and in particular the Conservatives, switched focus onto issues that could be summarized as “What about the day job?”, Nicola.

The change of tack away from independence onto day-to-day service delivery was most particularly striking (and successful) in the area of education, though not exclusively. This was unfamiliar territory, with every indication the SNP simply not being able to respond to an opposition, the SNP tacked back to independence; but by then questions around the SNP performance in Government and independence had become entwined.

Losing seats in local government elections in May created space for wider questions for the SNP:

“The SNP’s success has depended on momentum. Once that momentum is not only halted but reversed, the jig is up. The headline “SNP losses” is fatal to public perception of a supposedly irresistible surge towards independence.”

upon which criticism of service delivery is even more cutting;

“Nicola Sturgeon is about to be called to account for her neglect of the day job, as evidenced by the decline of Scotland’s public services. If the SNP cannot govern Scotland under devolution, what hope is there of its governing well under independence, with a deficit of 10.1 per cent of GDP – by far the largest in the developed world?”

Credit needs to be given to the leadership of the Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson who has slowly and steadily been picking over policy failures, and in the election was generous to both Labour and LibDems in focusing on the ‘unionist’ challenge rather than a selfish focus on the Conservatives – not that this seemed to hurt the Conservatives result.

Of course, it was only possible to challenge the SNP in this way because of the SNP failure to generate a coherent policy framework outside ‘Independence’:

“They’ve assured us this election is both about Scotland deciding when to hold a second referendum and nothing whatsoever to do with Indyref2. They’ve had more positions on the EU than the EU has member states. Their message changes day by day, their lines of attack hour by hour. Good governments run on their record. Bad governments run from their record. This government can’t work out what its record is.”


“The SNP has nothing left and so it is falling back on that old classic, The Tories Are Coming To Get You…”; “…Scots are fed up with a government that has the power to do almost anything but the will to do almost nothing.”

Comparison with the rise (and demise) of New Labour has also been made:

“The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different.”


“…, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.”

Like New Labour there is a faultline:

“The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.”

Sounds like another Party just across the Irish Sea.

Had it not been for the Renewable Heat Initiative debacle that gave Sinn Fein the excuse to bring the Stormont House down, pressure on delivery of public services generally had been building. Following the Stormont Assembly election in June 2016 it had passed on Education were problems were gathering, to take on Health where waiting lists seemed to keep rising inexorably.

Focus on the potential for a Border Poll post Brexit referendum seemed to be a useful opportunity to ditch the difficulties in the day job to jump at the opportunity to get back to the sort of sectarian division on which the movement had been built. Much easier.

That was central to the collapse of Stormont earlier in the year, followed by an aggressive Sinn Fein campaign to get out its vote in the subsequent Assembly election.

Yet the upshot of seeking to poke Unionism in the eye hasn’t been very successful. The Sinn Fein effort to put manners on Unionists (the bastards), has not only seen the DUP increase its number of seats and overall vote but abstentionist Sinn Fein gains have been at the cannibalisation of a nationalist voice in Westminster.

Unionism has gained because nationalism has been found wanting and because nationalism ‘campaign’ focus, a very singular focus, does not sustain it in Government it would seem. Slogans and historic baggage of socialist revolutionary momentum does not translate into a coherent programme for Government – just like the SNP.

That said, moving forward, however, Unionists must be able to show that the alternative works. It must make the case and be seen to understand the necessities of ‘good government’.

Brexit is perhaps the opportunity not simply to leave the EU but to define the Union going forward, and the idea of a forward thinking, outward looking, free trading nation that is comfortable with itself and where the sum of its parts is so much greater than the whole.