Commentary by Christopher Silver
Sovereignty and borders — the great political themes of the current crisis, were a defining feature of both the SNP and Tory party conferences.
The casual observer could be forgiv en for seeing two nationalisms competing on broadly similar terms. But in this tumultuous phase of British politics, such simplistic distinctions won’t suffice.
When Nicola Sturgeon talked of a genuine sense of loss the morning after Brexit she was talking, in a sense, of the end of an easy way not to be British. But if the entire concept of Britishness is being rapidly torn to shreds by the polarities that Brexit has brought to the surface, it is precisely because the role of Europe, from the perspective of the peripheral nations of the British Isles, has done so much to hold things together.
For small nations Europe offers something different. It means access to bigger dreams for a smaller demos and a logical accommodation with the age-old psychological struggle to come to terms with the presence of bigger neighbours next door.
For years, Europe solved the historic problem of Britain. It gave citizens of the strange anomalous entity that Tom Nairn described as “Ukania” a looser way to understand who they were. It was a means to live in a kind of post-Britain, where layered identities, of the kind that Sturgeon and her SNP colleagues did so much to promote at the weekend, were the norm.
As the Tories seek to revive a more militant and singular form of Britishness, the archipelago once again becomes a Pandora’s Box of competing claims and traditions. For both independent Ireland and devolved Scotland, numerous certainties have been cast adrift.
The policy of seeking “independence in Europe,” though never an uncomplicated step for the SNP to take, was a necessary enabler on the road to its 2007 breakthrough. Europe, inevitably, created its own problems and alienations, but above all else it answered a question. Namely: who are we in relation to each other?
The resonant symbolism of the SNP conference, which now has hitherto undreamed-of access to audiences in the south, is built on this outlook. The idea that there is a European norm, a continental mainstream that a large chunk of British opinion has always explicitly rejected.
Perhaps inevitably, this is not about actual policy or really existing European social democracy. Rather, it’s about that added layer of identity, that fuller sense of connectedness and aspiration. For nations like Scotland, with long and traumatic stories of emigration, the idea that there is a continent out there that is open to us holds an inherent appeal.
Those of a scholarly bent might also point to different legal, educational and religious traditions. Ancient Scots Law has always been a hybrid between the European civil law and the English common law systems. A historian might also note that the era of Europe as a place of strictly bordered nation states is still a relatively new phenomena and, in the grand scheme of things, it may not last.
Others might simply say that in a small country answers can rarely been found within. To be influenced and to assimilate that influence, rather than to wield it, is our lot. Something of this approach, perhaps, has never quite disappeared from the Scottish psyche. It has long been stored away: in institutions, in attitudes, in culture and in customs. In recent years, it has re-emerged to illuminate the British twilight.
Against that backdrop, the idea of Scotland as a nation with a state of its own, that never quite obscured option, is growing exponentially. In the current crisis it has allowed Scotland one clear advantage over England – it provides a mechanism to come to terms with what it means to live on a wet island that once held sway over vast swathes of the planet.
We were once the ones who drew borders. A quick look at the glorious artistry of the Victorian map-makers of Edinburgh is a useful reminder that carving up the world into different spaces was once Britain’s vocation. It is a matter of deep historic irony that it is an anxiety around borders that has rattled a post-imperial Britain to the core and that has led it to a place where self-harm is inevitable, and possibly fatal.
Forty years ago, Europe offered a route that could rationalise the post-imperial conundrum. Only two decades after Suez, this was a means to chart a new course within a collaborative club for the old European powers and their former vassals.
But a less imperial Britain was inevitably a less British Britain. Yet it still seemed possible the old power that might just manage to relax into its new role as a place of enormous cultural capital, a bridge across the Atlantic.
That route into the European mainstream always clashed with a significant body of opinion. Brexit was the last hurrah, the last futile charge, of the old Great Britainers.
The roots of that reaction against Europe go deep because sovereignty in British terms has always had a peculiar quality. British sovereignty was built in opposition to the existential threat of continental foes. Unfettered, its instinct is to build boats and project sovereignty outwards.
The essential new Royal Yacht, like many other “necessary” bits of Britishness, (not least those anchored 40 miles from Glasgow with a far more deadly cargo) is just a comfort blanket for the imperial dreamers. In the final act Prospero is refusing to lay aside his cloak and confront his lonely, isolated inheritance.
The course is pursued for the romantic and idiosyncratic reasons that were presciently outlined by de Gaulle all those years ago. British nationalism needs a story that places itself as the centre of the world once again, that offers superiority and exceptionalism.
But this new Tory nativism has an awkward date with reality – wait for the newly-minted trade deal with the EU to be vetoed by Slovenia or a sub-state like Flanders. In a fit of self-regard powered by unmitigated xenophobia, Britain tore up its most significant relationship only to find that, in its isolation, its glory days were for obvious reasons, irretrievable.
With this new British nationalist politics so dominant in the south, Nicola Sturgeon has inverted the terms of 2014, by casting the Tories as the separatists. Bizarrely, the SNP is now the unionist party, struggling with the centrifugal forces that the Tory party have unleashed.
Sturgeon has recognised, along with many others across the UK, that the time has come to salvage what we can from the Great British Crisis. But if she was to find allies in the south, the Scottish National Party could, remarkably, stage the one of the few interventions that might hold the UK together. Its task? To finally persuade Britain that it must reform its concept of sovereignty, to fit with 21st century realities, or perish.