The question above is inspired by the following quote from Iain Macwhirter’s Sunday Herald column last week:

But then I’ve never really understood the point of having a referendum on independence anyway because no-one really knows what independence means any more. Flags and armies? Hardly. Border posts and a separate currency? Definitely not. The minimalist definition of independence would be the Scottish Parliament plus tax powers – and that’s likely to happen anyway. Scotland already is a nation. It is a question of acquiring the lost accoutrements of a state, and that process is already under way.

Conspiracy theorists suspect that this is what Salmond has been up to all along: muddying the pure waters of nationhood by adulterating it with devolution while distracting the SNP membership with an over-the-rainbow referendum that is never going to happen. The fact that we didn’t hear any accusations of this last week suggests that the SNP may already be on the way to becoming a post-nationalist party, accepting that independence is a process not an event. (I’d better say here that nothing Salmond has ever said publicly or privately suggests that this is his view. He insists that independence remains his only ambition and that he really wants a referendum, even though the polls indicate he would lose it).

Now, I don’t agree with his title – “They shelved independence and got away with it. Nice work, Alex”, nor do I agree that there were “precious few mourners” regarding the decision.  The SNP members that I’ve spoken too – and some of them are elected members – cannot fathom the strategy.  Yet I do take his point – whatever the SNP are saying in private, they are not saying it in public if it contradicts the Maximum Eck’s diktat.  But that’s an aside.  What this post is really about is Iain Macwhirter’s conception of independence “as a process not an event” and the SNP as a “post-nationalist party”.  Both deserve further study.

When I started the proposal for my PhD thesis, my original research question asked what it meant to be a nationalist in the twenty-first century.  So I have given some thought to this previously.  But the question Macwhirter asks – what does independence actually mean – is an important one for the SNP.  But like the previous question I asked for the Greens, it is probably one they would prefer not to answer.  Muddying the terminology of independence, thinking about the movement towards some form of fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament – that may well constitute independence in all but name.  And indeed, in the modern world, that may well be what is meant by independence – though there would be plenty dissent within the SNP’s membership if that became an accepted version of what the party saw as its ultimate goal.

Nevertheless, I come back to his conceptualisation of the SNP as a ‘post-nationalist party’.  Whenever I hear something described using the prefix ‘post’ I do have concerns – namely that whatever it is they are supposed to have become is nothing like what they were previously (see ‘post-feminist, post-structuralist’).  The fact is, the terminology is used badly – generally speaking what has happened is a party or person has been a feminist (for example) in the past but has found some things with that ideology that they disagree with and doesn’t quite fit in the bracket, and so they are described as ‘post-feminist’.  And so, the ‘post-‘ prefix should be understood with caution.

And yet, for some reason, I think the post-nationalist terminology works for the SNP – especially is you accept the Macwhirter conceptualisation of independence.  Obviously, the traditional view of independence is one of borders, sovereignty and control of currency.  Now those three things would not be fully under the control of the Scottish Parliament under this new conceptualisation, especially when you consider the interdependency of the EU and the fact that Scottish currency would either continue to be Pound Sterling or the Euro, neither of which would be controlled by Edinburgh.  And yet other, larger, European nations (Germany, Belgium, Malta) work within this contstricted view of independence, this post-post-Westphalian understanding of sovereignty.  So while the SNP still stand for independence, what independence itself stands for has changed.  And that is key to understanding the SNP in government.

Last week I think we talked enough about the SNP’s dropping of the referendum bill, but this conception of the SNP and independence is something to think about further.  I’d be interested (I guess, from an academic perspective as much as anything) in people’s thoughts on this.