By Jason Michael

“TO LEARN WHO RULES over you,” as the quote often misattributed to Voltaire goes, “simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.” Try criticising the Scottish National Party in Scotland and you will soon realise that the party has attracted to itself a significant following of pro-independence supporters who will tolerate no dissent or criticism of any kind of Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister and leader of the SNP, and the party itself. It is not my belief, however, that this is an atmosphere of conformity the SNP has created or encouraged – there is certainly no evidence to support this, but this does not take from the fact that it has gained for itself a cult-like following. In many ways, let me begin by saying, this is understandable. The campaign for independence has polarised Scotland, creating two very distinct camps; those for and those against independence. As the party in government and the largest pro-independence party in the country, the SNP has come to be seen as the only political vehicle capable of delivering independence. Naturally, many people who prize Scottish independence over all other political goals see any challenge to the SNP as a threat to independence.

What we are looking at in this section of the party’s support is populism, a style of politics which attempts, without empirical evidence, to speak for and on behalf of ‘the people.’ It makes the assumption that this one party is the only means by which the political will of the Scottish people, or the people who support independence, can be voiced. By doing this it constructs around the party and its leaders an aura of divinity; that in some way the SNP and its leadership are functioning to bring about some class of sacred and preordained destiny of the Scottish people. It is a dangerous form of political messianism which is deeply corrosive to democracy and the principles of freedom and parliamentary representation for which the Scottish National Party stands.

In its project of seeking a majority for independence, the SNP is demonstrating that it is not a populist party. As a ‘party,’ it realises that it represents only a constituency of the Scottish people – it is a political faction among other factions of the body politic, some of which support independence while others do not. It does not pretend to speak for the whole of Scotland and is certainly not in a position to speak for and on behalf of the totality of the nation or even the whole of the independence movement. As one pro-independence faction or party among others, the leadership of the SNP is the leadership of the SNP – and only of the SNP. In government, it represents the opinion of the majority or the near-majority of the Scottish electorate – a political reality which is always, in a healthy democracy, subject to change and negotiation. To think of the SNP or any political party as the sole legitimate voice of the people is, by definition, populism – a concept not to be confused with ‘popular.’

Regularly on social media I and others are called fifth-columnists for openly criticising the SNP, for having the audacity to air our disagreement with ‘Nicola.’ The suggestion is that by doing this we are undermining independence, the implication being that we are traitors or British government ‘plants’ sowing seeds of discord. Certainly, this has made my own commitment to independence one of the most frustrating and painful political experiences of my life – but it has not shaken my resolve. I believe independence is the best thing for Scotland and for the people of Scotland, and I will continue to work to that end. But I will not put my intellect on ice. I will not suspend my duty as a thinking person and as a democrat to hold those in leadership to account – these are our representatives, and when they fail to represent my interests and political preferences I will speak out. To see this treated as an act of treason is upsetting, but it tells me that something is going seriously wrong at the heart of the independence movement, and something the SNP would do well to recognise and address.

If it is the will of the clear majority of Scots – that the case has been made – that independence is the best route forward for Scotland, then a political vehicle will form organically from this constituency; be that the SNP or some other pro-independence party. The party is formed from the will of a constituency and not the other way around. It is absurd, then, to think that the SNP or any party is the only political vehicle to any given political end (Antonio Gramsci 101).

Perhaps some Apologia is required. It might help readers if I explain my thinking on this ‘duty to dissent.’ It is a genuine concern of mine that a not insignificant number of Scottish independentistas are putting the cart before the horse on the question of independence, that they seek independence first – by any means possible – and then hope to iron out the details of the shape an independent Scotland will take after the fact. In essence, this is an argument to the suspension of reason and democracy not entirely unlike what Boris Johnson and his ilk are trying to achieve with their Anglo-British nationalist project south of the border. It forces a fiction of the nation as a tabula rasa – a blank slate – on which to write statehood. It imagines a break between what Scotland is today and what we will inscribe upon it after independence. But this is bonkers. It is utterly naïve and entirely dangerous. Independence is not a moment of magic. It is not a break, but a transition. Scotland will progress from where it is now to independent statehood – as a democracy.

There will never be a moment in this process where Scotland is not a democracy and subject to the duty of every Scot to that democracy – the duty to hold those in elected office to account. In the very act of deprioritising democracy to the project of independence we shackle the entire future of our nation and its future statehood to something less than democracy; to an unfettered popular sovereignty – to populism. As I see it, my entire political thinking hinges on this paradox: That the will of the majority must be unavoidably encumbered by something quite authoritarian – the primacy and non-negotiable principles of democracy and the rule of law. Without such, popular sovereignty rapidly descends into mob rule, where minority opinion is ignored and the rights and freedoms of minorities endangered. This is not the Scotland we want, or, at least, I hope this is not the Scotland we want. If indeed we want independence and we want that independence to take the form of an open and democratic state, then that begins now; it begins with a commitment to democracy and openness – even when that means criticism of the SNP and its leadership from those who support independence. If this is not the Scotland the majority wants, if democracy and the right to dissent are to be subjected to ‘the cause,’ then this is not the ‘independence’ I want.


The Rise of Populism – A Threat to Europe?

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One thought on “Populism and Democracy in Scotland

  1. I trully agree with you and it is not just me who thinks this.
    There will be challenge at the SNP conference. It is like big trade unions, only those in the know get to speak.
    However there are plebty who can influence and redirect a speaker.
    They either stay the route for Independence or its taken from them.
    Many groups on the political fringes may then politicise.


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