First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
at the launch of A National Conversation in 2007. via Wikimedia

I have always been a close observer of the Scottish National Party’s long standing campaign for independence, indeed I was part of it during the 1970s. In those days the SNP’s offer included a detailed vision of the economic future for the country. This included investing the considerable wealth strained from the very healthy oil industry in the economy as a whole to support and modernise existing industries and breed new ones. The idea was that all of Scotland’s assets would be utilised for the benefit of all of Scotland’s people. Incidentally, at that time the party was against Scotland joining the European Economic Community and campaigned for the UK to leave in the 1975 referendum.

Today the SNP seems desperate to find any way for Scotland to remain in the European Union even as the rest of the UK negotiates its departure. At the same time they either cannot or will not put forward any kind of prognosis concerning an independent Scottish economy in the troubled times we now face. Resting in the comfort of the EU seems to be as far as they are prepared to go.

This has got me thinking about the necessary elements that should be deployed by nationalist parties in their campaigns.

Making the ‘nation’ great again

The standard operating procedure adopted by political parties in their communications with the population at large, is as follows. They convince a majority that things are either much worse than they should be, if in opposition, or much better than could reasonably be expected in current circumstances, if in government. Once elected, a stasis sets in. The hope that people were given at the last election is either held in abeyance until the next one, when change will again be forthcoming, or is in the process of being secretly realised. The people, at any given point of an electoral cycle, are therefore continually held hostage to the incumbent’s decaying vision while waiting for a new one to be cooked up by the other guys. The whole process has a rolling and timeless dynamic.

In the case of nationalist parties, however, it’s not that simple.

For them, the obvious solution to most if not all current problems is to reassert the rights of a definable section of a larger population with the goal of creating their own state. Here the composition of a vision with which a majority of the “nation” can be comfortable is more complicated. To be convincing, the narrative must stretch back into the past, in order to prove that the “nation” has historical validity, and then into the future to show that destiny will break the chains of an imprisonment that was always intended to be temporary. The liberated construct can indeed “be the nation again” and should, if possible, become once more “great”.

The mythical past

To reinforce this narrative, the anticipated greatness of this conceptual “past-continuous” must be set against the unremitting awfulness of the present “colonised” reality. Everything done by and in the name of the dominating power must be shown to be not only bad but inimical to the interests of the smaller nation. This is the genesis of grievance, the moment when the question is asked, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”, aided by an ongoing socio-economic crisis to boost the popular sense of fear and anger.

The dynamic of this particular political narrative is finely balanced. The most successful nationalist parties offer a story, at least in the short term, of that perfect relationship between the civilised past, interrupted present, and future redemption and restoration. Mussolini’s Fascists founded their story very successfully on the glories of the Roman Empire. Donald Trump has the legend of the American dream on which to base his re-introduction of enterprise-focused American exceptionalism.

Adolph Hitler masterfully offered the Germans a fabulous vision of the future, in contrast to the post 1919 miseries suffered by the defeated nation, but he struggled to construct a credibly glorious history because before 1871 there was no German nation to speak of. Hence his expropriation of Wagner’s legendary music and the creation of his own vast political theatre. I like to think of the Nuremburg rallies as the national socialist Aida with costumes by Hugo Boss.

Franco was a different case, being almost entirely committed to returning Spain to its Catholic past he seemed to care very little about a vision for the future. After he won the civil war Franco, to paraphrase Trotsky, more or less “shut up shop and went home,” concerned mostly with suppressing opposition and neutering potential trouble-makers on his own side, most notably the Falange. Franco’s vision for Spain after the war had nothing to do with either Hitler or Stalin and he generally kept Spain out of the Cold War. The country only joined NATO in 1982, after his death.

Identifying a villain

The politics of grievance are, by necessity, unremittingly negative. The whole point is to increase the general level of dissatisfaction and anger to the point where political action can be envisioned by a large number of citizens of the revived “nation”. The quickest way to advance grievance is to apportion blame to a third party for everything that is considered wrong, be it the dominant state or an easily identifiable minority within the larger population. Looking around today we can see a number of convenient suspects available to fuel nationalist angst.

In the Celtic parts of the British Isles it’s England and Westminster. In England it’s Brussels in particular and the EU in general. In France, Holland and Scandinavia it’s Muslims in particular and foreigners from Africa and the Middle East in general. In Catalunya and the Spanish Basque country it’s Madrid and the Spanish state. In Donald Trump’s America, Latin America heads the bill joined by pretty much anyone else that can be found to stoke the paranoia. In Sri Lanka it’s the Hindus or the Buddhists, depending on whether you are a Hindu or a Buddhist, and so on and so forth.

Where a nationalist party finds itself in the position of having to focus almost entirely on the grievance side of their political communication strategy over an extended period, perhaps even hundreds of years, we see the emergence of a structural problem. The party leadership, members and supporters simply find it difficult to build a clear vision for the future when the opportunity presents itself.

This is particularly true when considering the economic redevelopment of a prospective reconstituted state. Thus in France, Marine Le Pen’s economic vision stretches no further than “being more French”, in Celtic Britain including Ireland the people are offered a “wait and see” approach much like the Basques and the Catalans. (We may note that ETA in Spain has acknowledged the failure of their campaign by announcing, last week, the surrender of their weapons.) At least Donald Trump campaigned on the repatriation of jobs and re-negotiating the trade deals that had seen the creation of the fly-over states from which most of his support emanates.

Unlearning responsibility

So why does this happen? What has the absence of a vision for the future to do with the politics of grievance?

When you complain all the time, or when you blame someone else for everything that you think has gone and is going wrong, then you give that person enormous power over you. Worse than that, when you devolve responsibility to someone else by blaming them for everything then it becomes a real challenge to take it back. The longer this goes on, the harder it becomes to take responsibility for creating a better future, and taking responsibility is fundamentally what nationalism is all about. If a default culture of grievance is allowed to take hold, the movement loses momentum and effectively dies, quicker that its members realise.

Without the capacity to take responsibility, the boldness to set out a future vision, a nationalist party or movement is left with no end game. The deal with the majority of the people who want stable, secure lives for their families cannot be sealed.

Grievance is an important element of nationalist political communication when dealing with the present. It goes hand-in-hand with a useable (simplified and manipulated) narrative of the past, but it can never be enough to succeed on its own without a credible and realistic presentation of the future.

Ronnie Smith is a British writer. At present he is living in Languedoc, France.