The Nationalist Alternative: Nation and Class in Scotland


In this chapter we consider the relation between nation and class in Scotland, with a specific focus on the Scottish independence referendum and support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the period 2014-2015. In doing so it will be necessary to introduce a territorial dimension to our analysis. In the context of discussions of nationalism, this is sometimes expressed in the distinction between a ‘centre’ region within a state which is economically and politically dominant and a ‘periphery’ which, whilst relatively underprivileged, is also recognised as a distinct nation and potential state. According to the classic theories of Hechter (1975) and Nairn (1977)i the uneven incorporation of peripheral territories within the capitalist economy of the state produces a hierarchical and segmented division of labour in which class relations intersect with ethno-national categories (e.g. ‘Welsh’ industrial workers and ‘English’ factory owners). These arguments provide some important insights into how economic grievances, when combined with a distinct national identity, can promote nationalism at the periphery against the © The Author(s) 2017

R. Mann, S. Fenton, Nation, Class and Resentment, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-46674-7_5

centre. At the same, it is not only in disadvantaged regions that we find nationalist mobilisations against the state. Thus in Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain we have two examples where it is amongst the wealthiest and most privileged parts of the state that nationalist mobilisation is strongest. This also suggests the need to distinguish elites from non-elites, middle and working classes, within the substate territory itself. In the case of Scotland, it is important to acknowledge both the distinct role and interests of the Scottish middle classes in sustaining Scottish nationhood as well as a working class whose support for a British Labour Party has changed significantly as a consequence of deindustrialisation.

The way these relations between nation and class map onto territorial boundaries provides a possible framework for understanding the surge in support for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum and for the SNP in the 2015 general election. The referendum result was a 55 % vote in favour of remaining in the Union, but the preceding campaign saw Scottish people supporting independence in increasing numbers. Several commentaries described the growing support for independence as a ‘class issue’ and as a way to defend social welfare values (Dunt 2014; Mooney and Scott 2015). The political expression of support for independence is embodied almost entirely by a single political party, the SNP; but the referendum also saw a number of left-wing activists and groups, not affiliated with the SNP, lending their support to the independence campaign. In the 2015 general election the SNP gained an unprecedented 53 % of the Scottish vote, winning 56 of 59 seats at Westminster. Scottish nationalist elites were able to capitalise on what was a growing interconnection between Scottish nationalist sentiments and support for social justice and welfare by promoting the idea of Scotland as a naturally social democratic country and in contrast to an increasingly neoliberal England. This idea, combined with the declining Labour and Liberal Democratic parties in Scotland, underpinned the significant increase in support for the SNP in 2015 from working-class socio-economic groups. In what follows we aim to show how contemporary Scottish nationalist sentiments can be related to transformations in economic and social structures and the particular effect these changes have had on the political identities and values of a Scottish working class, whose livelihoods, up to the latter part of the twentieth century, were intimately connected to a ‘British’ industrial economy and welfare state. But before turning to these economic and political changes, we must first provide some historical context for how the idea of Scottish national autonomy developed within the context of the British state.

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