Scottish nationalism and German nationalism – are they more alike than we are ready to accept?

Scottish nationalism and German nationalism – are they more alike than we are ready to accept?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Friday 11, December, 2020

EVEN IN THIS AGE of unpredictable politics, when Boris Johnson embraces Green causes with a fervour perhaps not seen anywhere in Europe since Germany under Hitler, offering comparisons between contemporary politics and the era of peak German extremism of course remains verboten.

So let us not go there but maybe (in a spirit of disinterested enquiry) offer some curious (and no doubt for many, irrelevant) parallels between the man who plunged Germany to Year Zero in 1945 and the woman who thinks that only under her is a Scottish Renaissance possible. The only thing that is perhaps certain about  2021 – when Scottish school children will not be examined  for their abilities for a second consecutive year – is that Nicola Sturgeon will hail the youth of the land as its glorious future. She will proclaim that no achievement is beyond the capabilities of Scots provided of course that they continue to rely on the SNP to guide their every step.  

Perhaps no democratically elected European leader since the 1930s ‘holds untrammeled executive sway over both the party apparatus and the government machine’ to the degree Sturgeon now does.  Like the National Socialists in 1933 her movement never actually won an outright majority, but she has neutered parliament most of the time. When the bolder critics on its benches prove awkward as in the disclosures about how Scotland has become a family political concern, she mounts diversions – public relations ones in her case – as a means of projecting her soft power.

Though historians are still unclear about who was the arsonist responsible for burning down the German Reichstag in Berlin on 27 February 1933, it was an immense boon for the Nazis. Exceptional laws were introduced which cemented their hold on power. 

Sturgeon was driven by similar instincts when the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in Scotland at the end of last winter. She has kept parliament at arms-length throughout the medical emergency and instead has established a direct link with the people through almost daily lengthy televised briefings to a usually compliant media. A stream of consciousness usually flows from these declarations which betrays the fact that Sturgeon finds it hard to be distracted for long by the ravages of this cruel infection. Her instincts are those of a wartime commander in a brutal and inept combat who offers windy rhetoric but is mainly concerned about protecting his own back.

In the ten month-long emergency, her posture throughout has been an authoritarian one. As I write this up, I see she is sternly warning Scots not to develop fancy ideas about booking summer holidays next year. The opinion polls have been good to her for much of 2020 and, even with the first vaccine having been trialed in England, she is clearly reluctant to relax the emergency conditions.

When the  scale of the pandemic first became apparent, her instinct was to create a state of exception that would lead to the curtailment of activities integral to a free society. Although not due until the spring of 2021, serious thought was given to delaying parliamentary elections for perhaps as much as a year beyond that point. A determined bid was made to suspend jury trials but an outcry from the legal world about the impracticality of such a step, prompted a grudging retreat.

But never daunted she sought to scrap the freedom of information laws for the duration of the emergency. These have been one of the few curbs on the SNP’s often unbridled use of power. Having been introduced naturally enough in the distant pre-SNP era in the story of devolved Scotland,  they require the government to make available documents to the public and media within a relatively short period. It might have been hoped that such scrutiny during an emergency would have been welcomed since the spotlight on government actions would enhance greater professionalism. But the government was not keen on its conduct being closely examined and no wonder when Scotland’s dire handling of Covid left the country with a death rate many times higher than any of the other  four European countries with populations hovering around five million.

Having browbeaten a naive Conservative opposition into backing her early measures to combat Covid, sense prevailed in parliament and enough MSPs combined to block her arbitrary instincts in the information sphere. Soon, despite artfully promoting the view that the battle against Covid was the sole priority for her, Sturgeon was increasingly preoccupied with party troubles.  Hitler had been in his turn when absolute power (perhaps unexpectedly) fell into his lap in 1933.  

As he consolidated his power, he rapidly concluded that it would be necessary to permanently remove his chief rival Ernst Roehm, the leader of the Brownshirts. It is best if these deeds are carried out with surgical efficiency as indeed the Night of the Long Knives was at the start of July 1934.  Long into the future Sturgeon will surely regret that her bid to silence her erstwhile partner in the SNP’s rise to power, Alex Salmond, and turn him into a figure as disgraced as Jeremy Thorpe or Cardinal Keith O’Brien, did not enjoy equivalent success.

But at least this abortive exercise in political house-cleaning  enabled her to merge party and state in Scotland more completely than in any other West European country. For this she has to thank Lesley Evans, the head of the Scottish civil service.  She played a central role in introducing retrospective legislation on sexual harassment in the public service which meant that Salmond in early 2020 stood trial on serious charges which would have likely involved a long custodial sentence if found guilty.  This wily politician wrong footed Evans at several key points in the government-led attempt to drive him from active politics. The most notable case was when he successfully sued the government in 2018 over the enquiry into his past conduct which Evans had supervised. She texted, after  actions coordinated by her resulted in the court paying Salmond huge damages, “We may have lost the battle - but we will win the war.”

This was an extraordinary slip which showed the degree to which the civil service – under her – had become  a tool for a powerful individual even when trying to snuff out a party rival. Let us be clear: the civil service code leaves no room for any official to be a faithful adjutant of a ruling politician in such a partisan way.

One clause reads:

‘You must … act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government

You must not … allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions.’ 

Another piece of official advice states: ‘You may have your own political views but these should not influence the professional advice you give to ministers; nor should your own views be publicly known.’

A sign of how obsolete Evans regarded the concept of political neutrality in someone occupying her position was shown by a tweet she posted at the height of the controversy over the murder in Minneapolis on 28 May 2020 of George Floyd which stoked racial controversy on both sides of the Atlantic.  

“I take the knee in solidarity and support of Black Lives Matter”, Evans tweeted on 4 June. In the 48 hours before her tweet, the First Minister tweeted three times about the same issue.

Scotland is approaching the stage which Germany quickly reached  in 1933 whereby bureaucrats and figures in supposedly non-political roles are required to act as comrades flanking the leader. Some will have no hesitation in doing so even when that leader is enmeshed in bitter controversy. During the Covid crisis the public health bureaucrats appointed by Sturgeon have done so too, some with more alacrity than others. Too often  promotion according to loyalty leads to trouble.

Under Hitler, figures were appointed to senior posts not on account of their competence but on their ability to execute the thoughts of the leader however uneven or distorted. Misfits like Rudolf Hess (pictured) became third-in-line to take over on the basis of loyalty alone. It is no doubt unkind to offer a parallel with Derek McKay, minister of finance until Budget Day 2020 when shocking relations about his texting proclivities produced a hasty resignation.  

At least Hitler appointed semi-competent figures to watch over  state money such as Hjalmar Schacht, head of state finance until 1939.  After the war he was seen as a sufficiently smart economic brain to give advice to developing countries into the 1960s.  It is impossible to see anyone who Sturgeon has gathered around her in any area of governance being a credible adviser in the wider international arena.

Her main economic adviser, Andrew Wilson,  former head of corporate relations at the RBS bank – which would have failed in 2008 but for a massive rescue mounted from London – is really an unctuous public relations expert who often insists the laws of economic gravity and financial prudence can be shelved in the case of an independent Scotland.

But  the skills of a PR expert are not to be sneezed at in an age when artful players in global politics use propaganda and schmoozing to try and secure their objectives. Hitler expertly manipulated and courted credulous international correspondents to write bunk about the nature of his regime and its objectives by using soft power.  The fact was that Blood and Soil nationalism at its core until the pogroms against the Jews at Kristalnacht in November 1938 could no longer obscure the horrible truth.   

The World War I victors naively allowed Germany to re-arm under their noses while a complacent London government has done nothing to impede Sturgeon from hiring no less than forty spin doctors who proclaim to the world that the Chief Mammy is at the head of a civic nationalist movement which reaches the gold standard in terms of practicing progressive and humane politics.

The mask has of course a habit of slipping, especially when Sturgeon is under pressure.  On 7 December, while on a visit to frontline workers in Scotland as part of a UK-wide ‘thank you’ trip, Prince William and his spouse Kate were disparaged by Sturgeon whose administration quietly boycotted them. Within days, the chief medical officer Jason Leitch was repeating the canard that  Scotland had been on the verge of eradicating the virus in late summer but for the exposure of Scots to carriers of infection from elsewhere. 

Both fascist and communist regimes have promoted the idea that misfortune invariably comes from outside in order to try and ensure compliance when much of the evidence suggests that the Scottish government’s own error-strewn approach to Covid has been the source of much misery and perhaps unavoidable death.

2020 has been far from a year when solidarity has prevailed at the top of politics in order to try and conquer Covid. Instead, those ‘who support or represent the territorial integrity and unity’ of Britain have come in for denigration, from the top of the SNP to activists who stand at crossing points to England waving banners discouraging cross-border.

The Liberal Democratic politician John Ferry correctly observed earlier this year that:

“We live in a country today where politicians regularly frame opponents as being anti-Scottish, where a nationalist party and the country are held up as being one and the same, where debate is rare but crude attempts to de-legitimise individuals & parties is the norm.” @JohnFerry18

It was Lenin (to whom Hitler acknowledged a debt of gratitude for pioneering the techniques he used to sway the masses), who summed up what needed to be done to try and make an implacable party-state seem invincible:

“We can and must write in a language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, and scorn toward those who disagree with us."

The history taught in schools is invariably one area to which vanguard regimes keen on indoctrinating the generation approaching adulthood, give keen attention. The politicisation of the history curriculum has been proceeding for a long time, depicting England as ‘the other’, playing down the advances of the centuries after the 1707 Act of Union, and insinuating into impressionable minds that the Scottish story is one of a long-drawn-out struggle for national liberation.  This month,  material prepared by a quango hired to influence the future history curriculum, showed how far an insidious process had been taken:

“In the document, there are repeated references to Scots being mistreated by the English, including a debunked myth that Sir Winston Churchill “dispatched English troops and tanks” to Glasgow in 1919 to quell unrest while locking up Scottish troops in barracks over fears they would "precipitate a major revolution".  It claims, “thousands of English troops remained in Scotland for many months”.

Rigorous research has easily debunked such claims. “‘Churchill rolled the tanks into the crowd;’: Mythology and Reality in the Military Deployment to Glasgow in 1919,” Scottish Affairs, 2019, 28.1, p32–62.  

A dispassionate look at how Germany lost the war and what happened after 1918 would have shown that the story was far from simplistic. But the Nazis pushed ‘a stab in the back’ thesis, arguing that its enemies had betrayed the fatherland, as soon as it reached power.

For the discerning observer, it soon became clear that governing Germany was a minor concern for the Nazis. Their key priorities were the transformation of society and the alteration of territorial boundaries so as to project Nazi power far and wide.  

Alistair Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, is one of those who recognises how consumed by propaganda and the need to dominate and control the SNP is. He stated on 9 December in the House of Commons: “The SNP is a campaigning organisation for independence, for separation of the UK, masquerading as a party of government.” 

In order to usher in a new reality for Scotland, a key objective of Sturgeon has been to control thought and language. The Hate Crime Bill being pursued in the teeth of massive opposition, including it has to be said from many in nationalist ranks, seeks to make conversations occurring at home over the private dinner table liable to  prison sentences if they are seen as being hateful to any on the list of groups protected from harsh criticism.

The brainchild of Woke culture warrior and Justice Minister Humza Yousaf,  Liam Harkness commented in Conservative Woman: “it criminalises conduct where there is no intent to break the law and even criminalises conduct where the law is broken unknowingly. It lowers the threshold for criminal conduct so far that even trivial acts by dissenters and ‘wrong thinkers’ can be punished.”.

Writing in ThinkScotland, the academic Stuart Waiton believes: “It is no exaggeration to say the bill, if passed in its current form, will be one of the most – and possibly the most – authoritarian act in any liberal democracy across the world.” 

On the day that academics at Cambridge University overwhelmingly rejected chilling restrictions on free speech, the justice committee at Holyrood scrutinising the bill made it clear on 9 December that it was unlikely to pass unless its illiberal features were removed.  

The triumph of ideology, rancour and fanaticism in any state usually mean that it is badly run and encounters policy failures. The fear of standing up to a provincial agitator like Hitler who was placed in a position of commanding power by a fateful combination of circumstances, meant that his state was probably doomed to defeat in war. The outcome meant misery, humiliation and partition for Germany on top of many millions of its citizens killed. But Hitler’s diaries show he was not overly concerned about the fate of Germans or driven even by German nationalism. It was a kind of vague belief in establishing a cruel and racist Nordic order which drove him.

Today, Sturgeon  shows scant evidence of being focused on making Scotland a successful country in any conventional sense. What her government touches from trying to build ships or promoting a highly-pollutant salmon industry through intensive cultivation, usually ends in costly disaster.  Her project is a transformational one similar to the identity zealots fighting the culture wars in America and elsewhere who wish to be finished with the nation-state and create new power structures based around privileged minority identities. For some years it has been well-known that Sturgeon covets a powerful role at the helm of a world agency rolling out restrictive policies on green energy, requiring major changes in behaviour for billions of people.

In other words Scotland has been a prop for a millenarian politician who has never shown much interest in its particular problems.  Germany was also  simply the means to and end for a far more warped and destructive figure. Neither were, or are, authentic nationalists but instead cult-like figures who use  the tools of control available in their respective societies to try and mould a world in flux in an  authoritarian direction. At least, Sturgeon is far more constrained than Hitler in the extent of her powers and has been tactically more inept at key moments. But she has used much the same techniques of mass persuasion to capture a mass following. People desensitised by crisis, whether it is Covid  or defeat in war or a disastrous economic slump, are ready to blindly follow a leader  however great the scale of his or her flaws. 

Scotland is not that different from societies in central Europe eighty years ago which through ill-luck or bad behaviour, allowed democracy to be replaced by authoritarianism that in its turn spawned runaway conflict.  But if the domination of nationalism does lead to violence, perhaps equivalent to what was seen in Northern Ireland a generation ago, I suspect  the verdict of history will be far harsher towards Scotland than towards Germany. After all, it has been part of one of the world’s most benign and successful unions and the Covid crisis has shown the solidarity that the rest of Britain instinctively shows towards Scotland, still runs deep.

If, despite that, the appeal of nationalist excitement and mayhem is too strong for a majority of people,  how the rest of the world sees Scotland is likely to change out of all recognition and history will struggle to be kind to this generation of Scots.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of Scotland Now, a Warning to the World (2016). His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54

Photo of Rudolf Hess by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0313-507 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5423766

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