Writer, Journalist and Broadcaster

Christopher Hitchens on the SNP (New Statesman 6 June 1975)

Chameleon on a Tartan Rug

Christopher Hitchens

The referendum produced some fairly extraordinary campaign slogans, from the egregious ‘Leave the Market and Join the World’ to the Young Tories’ tasteful evocation of Belsen victims. But the most unusual so far, and surely the hardest to chant at a rally, is: ‘No to the EEC. On anybody else’s terms.’ Some will recognise, in the deliberate ambiguity of this effort, the hand of the Scottish National Party.

During the course of their annual conference in Perth last weekend, this nuance both annoyed and escaped Mr Donald Stewart, leader of the SNP Parliamentary Party and MP for the Western Isles. ‘Why should the position of the Nationalists be anything other than an uncomplicated “no”?’ he demanded. ‘Has the Scottish National Party been fighting for 50 years to return decision-making to the Scottish people only to hand it on a plate to the Brussels conspiracy?’ Stewart is famous as a fundamentalist and uncomplicated man himself, but it is an open secret that many members of his party leadership are quite happy with any result. The ideal, of course, would be for a Scottish ‘no’ and a UK ‘yes’, because then they could claim Scotland had been shanghaied by Sassenach votes.

True, opinion polls showed a narrow ‘yes’ north of the border, with only Lothians deciding against. But at the very least there will be a very respectable ‘no’ vote in Scotland, where the Establishment does not command the awe which it does among English voters. In any case many SNP leaders have long since decided that they would rather negotiate with Brussels over the head of Westminster than spend any more time asking for ‘London concessions’. They even plan to ask for seating at the Council of Ministers and a veto in its proceedings, which while far-fetched at least sustains the impetus which other Market forces will probably have lost.

In Scotland the Labour and Tory parties are in great disarray, with the Conservatives running third to SNP in total votes, and Labour only 150,000 votes ahead of it. Every crack and creak in the British economy strengthens the Nationalist view that they should ‘quit the sinking ship’. There were ironic jeers and cheers last weekend when a conference speaker pointed out that the Government White Paper had assured voters that ‘English common law will not be affected’ by the EEC.

It does not really matter to them which way the referendum goes: they will still have the initiative. Of course they are wildly opportunist, with a ‘something for everyone’ strategy that reminds one of a chameleon trying to blend itself into a tartan rug. But the disagreements are carefully handled and concealed. Their leading contact in the business community, Douglas Crawford MP, was unwise enough to leak a document drawn up by merchant bankers and businessmen which virtually described an independent Scotland as a tax-haven tied to the English pound. This overt affirmation of petty-bourgeois aspirations was too much for delegates who roundly condemned such frankness. They also condemned the small but significant group who had gone for trial a few weeks before under the title ‘Army of the Provisional Government’. But the readiness of even a tiny few Scots to use violence in pursuit of nationhood is a straw in the wind.

The clear hope of the anti-devolutionists is that the political differences among Nationalists will make themselves felt before independence can be achieved, rather than after, as the SNP envisage. The Assembly concession has this possibility partly in mind. But past experience suggests that, as in the case of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, expectations once raised are hard to defuse. Which is why the Left in Scotland has been forced to look to its laurels. A recent ‘Red Paper’ on every subject from literature to oil, and including devolution and land, uses ‘Scotland’ as its term of reference and tried to give a socialist character to the nationalist upsurge. Numerous radical journals, from community efforts like the West Highland and For William Free Presses to Calgacus and Scottish Marxist are also attempting to cut with the grain.

Recently, one of the more right-wing SNP leaders was given the job of organising the annual Bannockburn commemoration. Addressing a meeting, he appealed for funds and efforts in order to ‘make this the best Bannockburn ever’. A dour silence was ended by one delegate saying: ‘Second best, ye mean.’ The referendum is only a hiccup in the rapid transformation of Scottish politics.


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