Regular readers will know that in order to generate positive social impact (and to do so at scale) requires a great deal of participation from stakeholders. Discussion, compromise, joint working and communication. To break impasses you have to focus on what different stakeholders have in common, reducing the emphasis on differences in order to push an intervention forward.
This is in stark contrast to the politics of the UK today. While the Johnson brand of optimistic populism reduces everything to a sound bite and slogan that is weaponised in a bitter ‘us-and-them’ war fought on social media and in the press, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) has made a virtue out of emphasising the differences between it and “London” (for which read Whitehall and Parliament) in order to promote the idea of Scottish independence. Both are also bitterly opposed to each other.
Many philosophers, historians, writers, intellectuals, academics, analysts, leaders and politicians have commented on both nationalism and populism. They can mostly be summed up as saying that nationalism and populism are simply elevated forms of tribalism that emphasise that which divides us, not that which unites us. We also see this confirmed in other countries such as the USA, Brazil, Russia, Chechnya and India.
For all his bluff and bluster, Boris and his advisers have exploited a divide and rule approach to government, both in terms of running the Conservative Party and in running the country, in order to press the more unpalatable of his policies through, often using press briefings, social media, distraction and lies to do so. Less overtly, but just as successfully, Nicola Sturgeon has created an independence movement that is framed less on what Scotland could be (in or outside the UK) and more on what Scotland isn’t – England (ignoring when convenient that the Union is made up of four countries, not just two). This was harder when Labour were in power with prominent Scots in government and easier when the Conservatives were in power, the SNP’s traditional foe. More recently, since Boris took over as Prime Minister, I suppose it has been rather easy to make and demonstrate that argument.
The sad reality is that these nationalist and populist concepts have a very limited shelf-life. As we are seeing in the UK today, once you achieve your objective (such as Brexit) there is nowhere to go with the ideology or its arguments except into further division within the community. This has played out in the UK government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the attacks on local governments that do not share the central government’s prevailing world view.
While at the same time Covid-19 has been a gift to the SNP as Nicola Sturgeon has been seen to be more competent than Boris Johnson (an admittedly low baseline to start with), which has fuelled support for independence. Perhaps the First Minister is aware that some of this new found support is less to do with the ideology of independence as she sees it and more to do with communities preferring a competent political class that can govern in their name. But once achieved, where to for all those anti-English, anti-British, anti-London feelings that have stoked the fires of the independence ideology? Setting independence up as “at least we’re not English” enables that sense of division, difference and separation to have a focus. Remove that focus and the sense of division, difference and separation will turn inwards, just as it did in the UK across all four nations in the post-Empire 20th Century. The SNP run the same risk of making Scotland a poorer place to live as the British elite achieved across the UK in the post-war era.
It doesn’t matter that some in the SNP don’t believe “nationalist” should be in the party name. It doesn’t matter that Johnson and his cronies do not see themselves as populists. What matters is the damage that these ideologies have done to the social and environmental fabric of the British Isles. The negative social impact from these two “divide-and-rule” approaches will be felt for generations. Long after Sturgeon and Johnson have gone and long after we have all forgotten just why it is that we hate each other so much…