Opinion - Politics

2007 - 2022

On Being the Cartographers of a New Scotland

Those of you who have been lurking about here a good while will be familiar with my ideas about Alex Salmond’s speech-making powers. Of his remarks in Aviemore in 2010, and then at the SNP Conference in Perth later that year, I suggested that he performs gallantly enough compared to your average punter or your commonplace politician. However, I’ve never been wholly convinced that delivering formal, buttoned-up addresses is the Maximum Eck’s real forte. For me, his talents are primarily of an extempore character. Here’s an excerpt from my earlier posts which sums up my view…

Whatever his virtues, Salmond is not a natural static orator. A whiff of domesticity always seems to cling to him, that near-half-present jocularity that seems ill-suited to a lecture’s stolid gravity and the unspontaneous nature of  pre-prepared remarks. A harangue, he can do, but it will never been a particularly elegant affair. While he cuffs and clubs his way through First Minister’s Questions, he has the interesting habit of producing compound words in the heat of the phrase. Letters are dropped, syntaxes substituted, he roars and plunders on. The word ‘gusto’ seems to suit the First Minister, ironic mirth shoogling his aubergine-shaped frame, quick with the repartee. All of which contribute to a satisfyingly earthen sort of prowess. It isn’t the Senator, imparting sonorous wisdoms with gravity – or managerial listlessness. I’m not sure if I care for the politics of high inspiration, exactly; folk who clamber up on their soap boxes and then conspire to sound like bishops. It is sufficient to make my point, however, to say that I don’t think Salmond takes to this latter character terribly well. He’s more like one of the venal cardinals of Jacobean tragedy, jovially roving about in his belly-puffed red drapery, clutching a tart and a tankard.
His performance at this weekend’s SNP Spring Conference in Glasgow tended to confirm my existing feelings. The Corbie has picked over the bones of the speech already. To pry a rib or two from her sharp beak, we should probably begin by asking who are conference speeches for? The serried activists in the audience, certainly – and a media whose shell-likes are bent for quotable passages and concrete messages. Your average voter is unlikely, I fancy, to give much of a fig.  Most of the public are likely to catch such snippets as are mentioned in the papers or those snatches  caught on the telly that evening. Their importance, it seems to me, is primarily atmospheric, allowing emphasis to be placed here or there. The speeches allow narratives and counter-narratives to pursued and buttressed by the press – and by party apparatchiks alike. We shouldn’t indulge in a surfeit of poseurish cynicism limiting the good of such gatherings to their instrumental capacity to change public opinion. Conferences ought to be a site for discussion, for the articulation and vindication of collective values, even dare I say, the airing of debates. They’re about diffusely enacted solidarity, or something along those lines. The full text of Salmond’s address can be read here. I just wanted to pick up on a few thoughts provoked by its final section.
“Delegates. We have a rich land, but too many of our people live in poverty. We have a 21st century vision, but are held back by 19th century prejudices and structures. We are ready to play our part in the world, to help from the personal to the universal.If we are to become a crucible of the new society. Then we need the power of independence – we must have these powers. And there is only way of getting those, of making further advance. To vote for Scotland, not because we are better than anywhere else. But because we are the same people as people all over the world.

We seek fairness and justice and responsibility. And we are the lucky nation, rich enough to deliver it all, yet we cannot without power. Our sense of the common weal is strong and should not be denied by the rich elites of elsewhere. A Scotland caught between the universality of hope, and the parochialism of power for power’s sake. And as Labour peddle fear we have led hope.

We live in tough times, but when the decision came to protect family budgets, it was straight forward – the council tax freeze stays because it’s worth more than £300 to the average family since 2007. The NHS budget could have been cut but for us it was a clear decision – the health service protects Scots young and old. Its budget is safe with the SNP. We have made Scotland secure not by the kneejerk nonsense of locking people up for short sentences, but by putting 1,000 extra police on the street and taking crime to a 32 year low. We have the best team on the park and we govern for the whole of Scotland.

But politics is nothing without a bigger vision. In government, much is in the day-to-day. But you must still keep an eye on the horizon. On the big prize. For us that prize is independence. But independence is a means to an end. That end is a society safe, happy, healthy. Confident in its skin. A global citizen acting to help the world where it can.Because the map makers’ ink is becoming smudged on every border. Globalism, the rise of the knowledge economy, the big economic changes, the great environmental challenges. All point to a world where the responsibility of the nation. Is to raise people who are responsible to the world.

And the definition of a nation is a community of people with a shared commitment to their culture and to their children. By having a strong sense of ourselves. That allows our new communities from Asia to know what it meant to be Scottish. And to give them something to join, to be part of. And that sense of self is built on community. On the shared value of helping each other out, lending a hand. On a sense that society should try to be as equal as it can be. That is what we value and what we think is the purpose of government. To the rights of the ordinary to triumph over vested interests.

In our capital city of Edinburgh there stands a monument to Thomas Muir and his fellow friends of the people. His memory should cast a beam across the work of every civil servant in the Scottish Government and every Minister – because the monument to Muir and his fellows revolutionaries spikes out of Calton graveyard like a shaft of stony light across from St Andrews House. And this monument contains Muir’s own vision:

” … “I have devoted myself to the cause of The People. It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph.” …

And his message was not just for this place, but for every place. For his spirit, for Robert Burns’ spirit, Jimmy Reid’s spirit, our spirit. It is for the common weal. The rights of man – and of women. And the legitimacy of the ordinary over the powerful.

This party has travelled a similar path. This movement, this nation, has been patronised, talked down, told it wasn’t good enough. And yet this party has risen from a few MPs and a land without a parliament, to a Scotland with a parliament, and an SNP government.

We never lost the strength of hope – and we fought on to triumph. But we, in our mix of the national and the international, of the personal and the political, we fought not to govern over people. But for the people to govern over themselves. It is for that reason and that reason above all that we are the Friends of the People of Scotland and for that reason we shall prevail.”


One of the things which has always interested me about the story of Thomas Muir is that his is not a Bannockburn story, or a misconstruction of Culloden along English vs Scots lines. Thomas Muir was ruined by Scottish elites – the despotism of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville – which was supported by the Tory “crony state” of its day. Taking the relatively moderate Muir to be its inveterate foe, Muir was crushed by Lord Braxfield and an obeisant Edinburgh jury in the High Court of Justiciary at the instance of the Lord Advocate, Robert Dundas of Arniston.  Along with his fellows, Muir was transported to Australia, then escaping to South America with an intention of heading north. The best laid plans… Muir’s hopes were frustrated, and  his Candidesque journey was to continue. Ill-fortune stalking his footsteps, he was arrested by Spanish authorities and sent to Cuba, there to await sail to take him back to Spain. Having crossed the Atlantic, his ship was waylaid off the Spanish coast. Shrapnel tore into his face in the pitched naval battle with the British navy that ensued. Horribly injured, he was finally freed from Spain under the auspices of French diplomacy, dying in France on the 6th of January 1799, aged only thirty three. But I digress.
On the main thrust of this final peroration, the Maximum Eck’s line from Perth was arguably neater – “I fight not for flags and anthems, but fairness and compassion”. Nicola Sturgeon made the same connection explicitly in her address yesterday. Indeed, so pleased was she with the formulation, like Shakespeare, she said it twice, in case you missed it the first time:
“Fairness, justice and equality – these principles are the very essence of independence and that is why we are determined to win it for our country.”
We may be familiar with these sort of themes, but we shouldn’t forget that it is astonishing to hear nationalism articulated and envisaged in this way. I’ve long found inexplicable that longing one sometimes encounters amongst Labour supporters for the SNP to be a racist party – or the paranoid certainty that the SNP isobjectively” such a party, and that only a conscious PC fraudulence keeps private hatreds from public view. Nationalists frequently find ourselves responding to a snide managerialism that insists that the public don’t care about independence. Annabel Goldie prefers to deploy what I think of as her High Tea rebuttal, which invariably involves “bread and butter” issues, dismissing nationalism as glitter-speckled fairy-cake (or fruitcakery, depending on what Bella’s been baking…)
This is patently an unworthy argument. I’m willing to entertain a vigorous discussion with folk who are pro-Union about the range of values involved. For example, the more thoughtful should be willing to concede that there are areas of policy where the sectional Scottish interest is simply different from some overall assessment of British priorities, refracted through particular ideological lenses. To admit such is hardly fatal for the Union case – for other saving values might be invoked. To put the case most strongly, it is perfectly possible to admit that self-governing Scotland might be better off  economically speaking – but the Union should be maintained. Now, such a position is not necessarily a particularly attractive one to defend – but my point is that it is not necessarily an incoherent view. We’re in the realm of substantial politics here and the managerialist vision simply won’t do.  It shouldn’t satisfy Unionists either. What is an incoherent position, however, is to say that one wants to be independent to transform the character of the Scottish state – potentially to something along more Scandinavian lines – and simultaneously to imagine that ideological questions can be bracketed until after independence. A gradualist independence movement which predicates its political activity on the idea of a better and more virtuous Republic, defined along primarily political rather than ethnic lines – simply doesn’t have the luxury of deferring ideological questions. As responses to this post indicated, some of you disagree. As I understand the position, you see the issue being one of the SNP being a vehicle to deliver independence, which will then afford an opportunity to choose what sort of state to choose to be. I disagree and take heart from the fact that Alex and Nicola are beginning more clearly to emphasise that nationalism is about your bread, your butter and your bacon. It is about the plate of food your neighbour sits down to of an evening, or if your neighbour hae no meat and cannae eat. Significantly, the remarks of both Salmond and Sturgeon undeniably go beyond a case for independence based on a delimited promise of bare autonomy. I have a legal background and a sociological interest. I’m concerned with what actually happens in the world, in detail – rather than the crystalline structure of sovereignty or what was implicitly demurred in Salmond’s speech – independence as an end in itself.  That also entails an interest in the concrete – in justice close to home – not a spangled, flighty goddess, pirouetting across the distant heavens. It is for this reason that the croaking, toad-perspective of Unionist managerialism is so deeply unattractive, soulless, heatless, heartless. I have no doubt that it is manifestly insufficient to cry “It is not too late to seek a newer world!”. One has to man the oars, to haul and “smite the sounding furrows”. However, to borrow an Eckly metaphor, our horizon is lit and our destination chosen according to  our political lights, our conception of justice, our understanding of possibilities and opportunities. Being the cartographers of a new Scotland is vital work, not secondary, not deferrable. I recently channelled Lewis Caroll to have a little fun at the expense of Iain Gray and his brother and sister Labour tribunes, in Punting the Snark. Leap one Fit on, however, and one finds a passable description of the SNP’s political nationalism, if it is shed of ideological politics. Salmond is  much to be credited for not making this Bellman’s Speech. However, our nationalist map-making is anything but complete.

The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies–
Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise,
The moment one looked in his face!
He had bought a large map representing the sea,

Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!”

Comments (10)

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  1. Ray Bell says:

    The big question is if the Unionist David Murrays of this world can sway the SNP away from the independence question. If so, then the party would lose its soul, much as Labour did when it headed right, or the Lib Dems when they capitulated to the Tories.

  2. Ray Bell says:

    p.s. I wish they’d drop the minimum pricing policy, prohibitionism doesn’t work, it just encourages people to make moonshine/potcheen, or to buy it from elsewhere. It has always struck me as a Labour Party policy (probably inspired by the civil service too)

  3. Ian Hamilton says:

    For the first time for ages Alex Salmond was speaking for me too.

  4. Donald Adamson says:

    Impressive reflections LPW. One of the flaws in what we might call Rip Van Winkle nationalism is that it rarely rises above the appeal to national consciousness. The idea that all that counts is getting independence and that, after that, we should have a national conversation on the question. ‘What do we do now?’ is, understandably, not very appealing to the average Scottish voter. In these circumstances, RVWN is never going to seriously challenge British hegemony.

    If, however, your reading of this conference is correct – and I’m not convinced that it is or, at least, I’d like to see more meaningful evidence of this – that it represents an ideological turn in the SNP, this is to be encouraged. It seems to me that this is the best way for the SNP to out-manoeuvre Scottish Labour and, at the same time, connect independence to the shaping of the preferences of the Scottish electorate.

    Counterfactual history may be a political cul-de-sac for aspirational nationalisms but an orientation to the future is different. The British don’t ‘own’ that in the way that they ‘own’ the past. In other words, they can’t use the authority of incumbency to legitimate their authority in the future if that future is seriously contested by the SNP. So far, the SNP hasn’t seriously enough contested that future which is one of the reasons why the SNP does need to make this ideological turn.

    It means, among other things, going beyond the limited horizons of anti-toryism, it means independence with a purpose (a purpose that has to go well beyond beggar-thy-neighbour nationalism, too soft a target for the unionists), it means credible policies not only on the salient issues but on policy areas (in an independent Scotland) like multi-level governance, regeneration of communities and regions, industrial relations and much more. It also means an SNP that exudes ideological substance to the extent that it can credibly set out a vision for an independent Scotland that connects with and appeals to the Scottish electorate, and not only to those Labour central-belters. In my humble opinion, the SNP still has some way to go to get there, in spite of the noble sentiments that you’ve identified.

  5. Vronsky says:

    One of the first things I was told on entry to the SNP was that chattering about a fairer society tended to sound a bit leftist, and while the bulk of the membership probably inclined that way, the hard practical fact was that a lot of the high heid yins were holding seats in what were once, and might be again, naturally Tory areas. To mix metaphors, the established way of keeping the broad kirk afloat was to tone down careless talk about the future and be very cautious with specifics (no republicanism, to give an obvious example).

    But the sort of talk that avoids frightening the horses up in the north east is not the stuff that will ignite the required jaquerie in the central belt – what is comfortingly anodyne in one place is simply irrelevant in the other. Would Alex Salmond pursue a set of policies that would win the country but cost him his job? I don’t know.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, all.


    My own view is that minimum alcohol pricing should be introduced for a set period of time – a sunset clause, to see what it does. By etching review into the legislation itself, we admit that we’re in the realm of complex behaviour here and the consequences would not necessarily be predictable. While there are moments where we must cry “there is not enough evidence”, in others, we’re unlikely ever to generate a meaningfully evidence-based, pre-emptive picture of what a particular social programme will do. I should add, there is more than a cigarette paper separating prohibition and regulating alcohol prices.


    Glad to hear it. For me, independence premised on political values is a far more compelling argument.


    I’d agree with a great deal of what you say. For my part, I’d be modest about the extent to which we might identify the SNP’s Spring Conference of 2011 as some sort of historical moment when the discourse decisively shifted in its terms. Like you, I primarily see this is an opportunity – germinal nationalist seeds to be cultivated – and an opportunity to envisage something much more meaningful and substantive. A much more serious Nationalism, we might say.


    You raise an important issue there – and remind us of the poised politics of it all, in all of its complexity. As is perhaps clear from this post, I’m trying to make up my own mind about many of these questions myself. Discussions like this are very helpful on that score.

    1. Ray Bell says:

      Sorry to sidetrack the conversation… we only need to look at Scandinavia to see drinks policy there has failed, and yet the SNP hasn’t done that. Dispatches the other day came out with the “shocking” revelation that a huge amount of cigarettes in the UK are smuggled in. Not a shock to me. Prohibitionism and price hiking doesn’t work. Expect to see a huge rise in home brew (and resultant health problems), Scots bringing in booze from elsewhere (England? Or further afield) etc and selling it. That stuff won’t be taxed.

      The SNP’s pursuing a Labour policy here. The kind of guff Cathy Jamieson comes out with.

      If there is a drinks policy, I believe it should be about the quality of beer and cider. It should be illegal to sell anything as cider (or perry/”pear cider”) which has never seen a fruit in its life. Beer should be above a certain quality. Other European countries do this, even the Isle of Man does it. I think that would rid us of White Lightning etc at a shot.

      Better to ask, why folk are drinking so much, and provide them with other things to do, particularly if they’re youngsters. A lot of folk drink and cause trouble because their lives are so miserable.

  7. voiceofourown says:

    A few initial thoughts:

    The SNP can never be the cartographers of an independent Scotland. They can, however, hand the people the sextant, compass and a blank sheet of paper.

    So, why should we pursue this nebulous notion of independence?
    Quite simply, it’s not a nebulous notion.

    This pristine, national tabula rasa, untouched by ink as it may be, is still charged with meaning. Part of that, and an entirely legitimate part, is what we are rejecting – leaving behind: things that the UK is and represents that an independent Scotland could never be or represent. A new constitutional entity created in the pin-sharp light of the 21st century will be on an entirely different foundation to one foisted on the people at the beginning of the 18th C.
    I’ll stop at this point as my knee-jerk is in danger of becoming a breenge into an ad hoc essay.
    I’ll spend some time to see if I can articulate my thoughts to my satisfaction.

  8. Vronsky says:

    “the poised politics of it all”

    Just a thought, would welcome other reactions, but I felt that the demise of the SSP was a setback for the SNP. The SSP generated policies (e.g. free school meals) which the SNP could support (and challenge Labour to oppose) but as the SNP were not the originators of the thought they were less open to accusations from Labour of being – er – socialist. SNP support for radical policies could be presented as just voting for othe rpeople’s ideas on an issue by issue basis (little bit of PR talk there). A kite flying out on the left is a very useful thing and we don’t have it any more.

    Whatever, the shit is now so deep that solutions are unlikely to be found within the apparatus of party politics. Western politics looks like an analogue of the Fukushima incident, with voices of authority assuring us that in spite of the toxins being spewed everywhere, it’s really all under control.

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