Despite defeat Salmond deserves credit on campaign
Scottish nationalists performed better than most had predicted until recently
Where now? ... First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond at a press conference in Edinburgh after Scotland rejected independence. How will Scottish nationalist claims evolve now? Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
While the proponents of Scottish independence could not persuade enough Scots to take a leap of faith into the unknown, the outgoing SNP leader deserves credit for his leadership of an independence campaign that generated engagement from so many quarters.
Until relatively recently, Alex Salmond’s declarations about Scottish independence were caustically dismissed, including in 2008 by the Scotland office minister David Cairns, who described as “complete balderdash” Salmond’s claim at a speech in Dublin that year that the Scots wanted independence. The Tories accused Salmond after the same speech of “arrogance that knows no national boundaries”.
That last put-down was a play on Salmond’s invoking of the words of 19th century Irish home rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell. Salmond, perhaps inevitably given that he was in Dublin, cited words from Parnell’s famous speech delivered in Cork in January 1885, from which the most quoted line is “no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation”.
It is worth looking more closely, however, at what followed that line in Parnell’s speech: “No man has a right to say to his country: ‘Thus far shalt thou go, and no further’; and we have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra [ultimate point] to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood, and we never shall. But gentlemen, while we leave those things to time, circumstances and the future, we must each one of us resolve in our own hearts that we shall at all times do everything which within us lies to obtain for Ireland the fullest measure of her rights.
“In this way we shall avoid difficulties and contentions amongst each other. In this way we shall not give up anything which the future may put in favour of our country, and while we struggle today for that which may seem possible for us with our combination, we must struggle for it with the proud consciousness, and that we shall not do anything to hinder or prevent better men who may come after us from gaining better things than those for which we now contend.”
It is hardly surprising Salmond picked out the Parnell phrase that seems to lend itself gloriously to the framing of timeless nationalist aspirations. As historians have recognised, however, while Parnell’s words may have appeared admirably idealistic, they were also deliberately vague to fit the politics of his time and the balancing act he was engaged in; “the march of a nation” was not defined, nor was “fullest measure of her rights”, or “better things than those for which we now contend”.
Parnell, however, was seeking home rule in the late 19th century, not the full independence in the 21st century Salmond had sought, and, most importantly, the Scots on Thursday had the right to fix the boundary of their nation. But the nationalists also performed better than most predicted up to very recently because they did a good job in modernising the debate and defining the possibilities.
The debate was tailored to move beyond the confines of a parliamentary elite and did not rest on the idea that, in Parnell’s words, “better men” would finish what contemporary nationalists had started. In that sense, Gordon Brown’s contention that the independence proposed by Scottish nationalists “is a 19th century answer to a 21st century problem” was inaccurate.
A nation once again
The nationalists’ campaign generally eschewed the sort of rhetoric and ambiguities associated with Parnellism, and references to “a nation again” were avoided in favour of Salmond’s declaration that “we don’t need to be a nation once again”.
The debate, while heated, passionate and occasionally aggressive towards its end, was a largely civil and civic one that extended beyond narrow definitions of independence to encompass a focus on social justice and the nature of British and Scottish society and identity, and raised legitimate questions abut the long-term viability of the United Kingdom and the quality and fairness of its governance. The debate also nobly involved young people, with a reduction of the voting age from 18 to 16.
Although the context is radically different, the SNP after Salmond faces a similar dilemma to that faced by Parnell and his party after the defeat of the first Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886: how to keep the momentum going after defeat? How will Scottish nationalist claims evolve now and what do “time, circumstances and the future”, to quote Parnell, hold?
The talk of the advocates of a compromise, advanced Scottish home rule, is that of “interdependence” and “partnership”. But how can such terms be defined to the satisfaction of those in all parts of the UK, and will their definition be further complicated if there is a British referendum on European Union membership in 2017?
It might be contended that with the concession of “devo max”, Salmond had achieved a victory, but an ill-defined home rule solution, as demonstrated by Irish history, is not going to provide a neat solution to a complex problem for either Scottish nationalists or unionists.