Scottish nationalism is on the rise, but what is it exactly?

On September 1st, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, announced that the Scottish National Party (SNP) will unveil plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence within the next six months. This news comes just weeks after the results of the most recent YouGov poll revealed 53% of Scots now support independence. This result is no fluke: seven out of the ten polls on independence since December 2019 have put ‘Yes’ in the lead; of the three that didn’t, one was a tie and the remaining two had ‘No’ ahead by just 1%. 

So now independence is once again on the cards, it’s worth asking just what Scottish nationalism is exactly, and whether it’s justified. 

Despite the mainstream nature of pro-independence views, whenever I’ve expressed support for Scottish nationalism at university, I’ve been met with a mixture of dismay, disbelief, and even discomfort from English and international friends – especially those who are politically left-leaning. 

Nationalism, it’s true, is a dirty (or rather, dirtied) word, especially in Europe. The phrase ‘English nationalism’ tends to evoke the image of a middle-aged, red-faced man in a white, beer-stained wife beater shouting, “they’re stealing our jobs!” and slapping the St George’s cross he’s just had inked on his almost unfathomably hairy chest. As a French student, ‘European nationalism’ is for me synonymous with the icy glare of Marine Le Pen in her stiff-ironed blazers spouting this and that about how one must ‘earn’ or be born with the right to be a French citizen. But of course engendering (or perhaps simply harnessing) nationalistic sentiment was also a key strategy of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, and it empowered them to commit some of the most heinous crimes in recent human history. 

However, identification with a nationalist movement by no means necessitates such moral depravity. Much like the related term ‘patriotism’, or the unrelated term ‘crisps’, nationalism comes in a variety of flavours and not all of them are so unsavoury. 

To understand what motivates Scottish nationalism in particular, and why it’s growing in popularity now, you have to understand the significant ways in which the political ideology driving the ‘Yes’ movement differs from that which fuels the antagonistic, exclusionary, and often ultimately racist nationalism that festers in England, central Europe, and further afield. 

For one thing, mainstream nationalism in Scotland is primarily a leftist movement. The SNP are a self-described progressive, socialist party who have previously entered into coalition with the pro-independence Scottish Greens. Nicola Sturgeon has said she would capitalize on the greater borrowing powers that would be afforded to her government in an independent Scotland by creating a Universal Basic Income and investing further in public services and renewable energy. These policies are a far cry from the tax cuts, ‘crack down’ on benefit fraud, investment in fracking, and scrapping of wind and solar power subsidies all promised by UKIP during what was arguably the height of their popularity in the lead up to, and the year following, the 2015 general election.

It’s undeniable that, like the English variety, Scottish nationalism has the potential to be an emotional as well as a political issue. As with any matter of identity, nationality is personal and people feel all kinds of ways about their own scottishness: proud, ashamed, apathetic, amused… 

However, many of the most prominent arguments for Scottish independence are divorced from any appeal to patriotism or national pride. For example, the recent surge in nationalist sentiment (by which I mean simply the desire for independence) has been broadly attributed to a nation-wide satisfaction with Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to managing Covid-19. According to a YouGov survey, 52% of Scots think the Scottish government handled the pandemic better than Westminster (a figure that bears a striking correlation to the percentage of those who now support an independent Scotland) while 24% saw no difference and only 10% preferred Johnson’s approach. 

Arguments of this kind, concerning a divergence between Scottish interests and the will or actions of Westminster, are known as those based on the ‘democracy deficit’. And of course, there is a long record of Westminster failing to reflect Scottish opinion. 

Let’s take a dive into Scotland’s recent political history (beware, many stats ahead). Following a relatively slim 55% majority ‘No’ result in the 2014 independence referendum, the SNP won an unprecedented 56 out of 59 available seats in the 2015 general election, leaving the Conservatives, the LibDems, and Labour with just one each. Meanwhile, Westminster was majority Conservative. In 2016, Scotland voted to stay in the European Union with 62% voting ‘Remain’. The UK, however, voted to leave. In the 2017 snap election, the Scottish Conservatives won a total of 13 seats to the SNP’s 35. While this was undeniably a considerable increase from 2015, the Tories still made up only 22% of Scotland’s MPs while the left-leaning parties, SNP and Labour, collectively held 71% of seats. Yet again, Westminster was majority Conservative. Finally, in the 2019 snap election, the Scottish Conservatives lost more than half the seats they’d gained in 2017, leading many political commentators to chalk the previous election up to one big Ruth Davidson-shaped break, as they were left with just 6 seats to the SNP’s 48. Once again, Westminster was majority Conservative. 

So Scotland consistently and overwhelmingly rejects the right wing, conservative values held by the majority of Westminster representatives. Furthermore, with the fall of Scottish Labour over the past five years, it’s clear that Scotland also does not identify with what is currently the only party with enough UK-wide support to oust them. You don’t need to be patriotic to see how that bolsters the case for independence. 

Finally, and in my view most importantly, the ‘Yes’ movement is based on strict principles of inclusivity and optimism rather than the exclusionary fear-mongering that characterises many other forms of nationalism, such as that of UKIP or the Rassemblement National (formerly Le Front National) for example. The SNP are staunchly pro-immigration and have been working, for years, to make it cheaper, easier, and more attractive for people from other countries to live and work in Scotland. They are also pro-Remain. In 2014, the concern that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for EU membership was a potent argument for the ‘Better Together’ campaign. In the wake of Brexit, however, IndyRef2 seems like the only way to regain that membership. 

These inclusive values provide an explanation for why there is increasing support for an independent Scotland among Scottish people of colour. Graham Campbell, SNP Councillor and BAME Convener to the party, speaks of independence as an opportunity for Scotland, not to simply abdicate (to England) the responsibility for the systemic racism which still plagues our country today, but rather, in establishing a new start, ‘define the nation differently, on non-racist lines, and non-colonialist and imperialist lines’. Kaukab Stewart, who recently announced she will be running for a seat in the Scottish Parliament next year, is a long-time SNP activist who also describes independence as an opportunity for people of colour, and especially women of colour, to ‘build a better Scotland which works for all of us.’ 

So there it is. Perhaps you still believe that independence is not financially viable, or that Scotland just needs to get some perspective and realise it’s a small piece of a much larger United Kingdom-shaped pie of which compromise is a necessary feature. Maybe you’re even wondering why we don’t simply make the more modest demand for increased devolved powers – spoiler alert, we were promised that by ‘The Vow’ in 2014 and look how that turned out. (Interestingly, Murray Foote, the ‘architect’ of The Vow, is now pro-independence). It has not been my aim to convince you to join the ‘Yes’ movement or even to vote SNP. All I hope is that you understand the nature of mainstream Scottish nationalism and why it is not a minority, unmotivated, or bigoted movement – so at the very least, you know what it is you’re disagreeing with. 

Mhairi Tait

Mhairi (she/her) studies Philosophy and French at Exeter College and is in her third year, but is currently living in the south of France for her year abroad. She has published works in The Oxford Student and the Exon magazine and loves writing shorter entries for her travel blog.

About the Author

Mhairi Tait
Mhairi Tait
Mhairi (she/her) studies Philosophy and French at Exeter College and is in her third year, but is currently living in the south of France for her year abroad. She has published works in The Oxford Student and the Exon magazine and loves writing shorter entries for her travel blog.