(c) Hat Trick Productions / Channel 4
When, near the end of last week’s Scottish National Party conference, party leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to open a new Scottish trade base in Berlin and so strengthen Scotland’s ties with the European Union, I had a depressing thought.
“Who,” I wondered, “will be first to make a reference to the Nazis?”
You see, Berlin is the capital of Germany. And Germany is where the Nazis used to live. Meanwhile, many anti-Scottish independence, pro-United Kingdom posters on social media would have you believe that the Scottish National Party is where the Nazis live now.
That might seem a bit harsh on the SNP, considering that lately Nicola Sturgeon has gone out of her way to stress her party’s inclusiveness and promote a vision of Scotland that is welcoming to refugees and “progressive, open, outward-looking”. This was in contrast to the recent Conservative Party conference, at which some shockingly xenophobic rhetoric was spouted – none worse than when UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd promised to get British firms to publish lists of their non-British employees. (A promise, incidentally, that was dropped after the backlash it provoked.)
But the SNP, its detractors claim, wants Scotland to be independent of the United Kingdom, which means it doesn’t like English people, which makes it racist. And if you’ve read your history books, you’ll know that racism was one of the Nazis’ main hobbies.
In fact, the first person I saw make that Nazi reference was Mike Elrick, who at various times was an advisor to the late Labour Party leader John Smith, to the former Labour cabinet minister Dr John Reid and to the former Scottish Labour Party leader Wendy Alexander. “To think,” he tweeted two days ago, “75 years ago some Nats were looking forward to permanent trade representation in Berlin too.”
I was surprised to read this comment because only a week earlier Mike Elrick had lambasted the SNP MP Mhairi Black for making another Nazi analogy. Black had described the mood of the aforementioned Conservative Party conference as being “reminiscent of early 1930s Germany.” At the time Elrick tweeted indignantly: “MP Mhairi Black thinks Tory policies like Nazis. Insulting, pathetic, juvenile and just plain wrong on every account.” Obviously, getting one over on your political opponents overrides taking a principled stand on an issue.
(For the record, I should say that I knew Mike Elrick slightly, through a mutual acquaintance, while I lived in London in the early 1990s. We had several furious arguments but overall I thought we were on reasonably friendly terms – at least, when we were talking about films and music and not talking about politics. He may not have felt the same way about me, though.)
But then, in turn, Mhairi Black has had the ‘N’ word directed at her. In February 2015, before she became an MP, she was described in a tweet as “the wee Nazi candidate in Paisley” by Ian Smart, a lawyer, blogger, political pundit and staunch supporter Labour Party supporter. Smart has also called the SNP ‘racist’, ‘fascists’ and ‘fascist scum’ on Twitter. A year-and-a-half before 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence he even tweeted: “Better 100 years of Tory rule than the turn on the Poles and the Pakis that would follow independence failing to deliver.”
Well, in 2014, the Scots voted to stay in the UK, which now looks like it will be ruled by the Tories for a hundred years, especially as Smart’s Labour Party is such a dire shambles. So the Poles will be relieved about that. It meant that nobody turned on them. Oh… Oh wait.
(c) Scottish Political Archive
Fuelling much of Elrick and Smart’s SNP / Nazis invective is the historical case of Arthur Donaldson, who joined the Scottish National Party in 1934 and led it from 1960 to 1969. In May 1941, Donaldson was arrested and imprisoned for six weeks for activities subversive to Britain’s war effort – he argued for Scottish neutrality and opposed conscription. More seriously, an MI5 informant alleged that Donaldson had been earmarked by Nazi Germany to be head of a puppet Scottish government once it’d invaded and conquered the UK. Also, MI5 claimed that it’d unearthed a cache of weapons at Donaldson’s home.
His Wikipedia entry notes that “Donaldson was never charged, and no evidence for the MI5 allegations has ever been produced.” Nonetheless, many of the SNP’s detractors still cry: “Their former leader was in cahoots with the Nazis! He was a Nazi! So all SNP supporters are Nazis now!”
Well, I certainly think Donaldson was stupidly naïve in not, for the sake of the common good, setting aside his political principles and joining the struggle against Hitler. But if Donaldson really had been conspiring with the Germans and hiding weapons at his house, wouldn’t the authorities have kept him banged up for an awful lot longer than six weeks? Actually, wouldn’t they have hung him for treason?
The way Donaldson is still talked about contrasts with the case of Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, whom I’ve written about before on this blog. He was MP for the Scottish town I’m from, Peebles, when it was part of the Peebles and Southern Midlothian constituency. He stood for the Scottish Unionist Party, which was associated with but not properly a part of the Conservative Party in England and Wales. (In 1965 it became a regional branch of the Britain-wide Conservative Party.) During the late 1930s Ramsay was a leading light in various extreme right-wing, anti-Jewish organisations like the United Christian Front, the Nordic League and the Right Club. In May 1940 he was arrested under an emergency statute and he spent the next four years in Brixton Prison alongside other potential pro-Nazi subversives like Oswald Mosley, founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists.
You never hear much about Ramsay these days – certainly not in Peebles, where local historians seem to suffer collective amnesia regarding their town’s old wartime MP. But if you’re going to formulate the equation Arthur Donaldson + Nazis = SNP are Nazis now, you could equally formulate the equation Archibald Maule Ramsay + Nazis = Tories are Nazis now. Actually, you could do something similar with Ramsay’s fellow inmate at Brixton Prison, Oswald Mosley, who prior to leading Britain’s fascists was a Labour MP. Indeed, by the late 1920s, he was a minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s cabinet. So there you go: Oswald Mosley + Fascists = Labour Party are Fascists now.
I’m sure the SNP has attracted its share of bigots over the decades – Scots who genuinely do hate the English and fantasists who believe in the racial superiority of the Celts. But then again, nutters occasionally find their way into the ranks of every political party. And there are other things I could mention in response to the modern-day SNP being called Nazis. Like the fact that extreme right-wing organisations such as the National Front, the British National Party and the English and Scottish Defence Leagues lined up against the SNP and alongside the Labour and Conservative Parties in their opposition to Scottish independence in 2014.
(c) Daily Mirror
Or the fact that the day after the Scottish-independence referendum, independence-supporters in Glasgow’s George Square were attacked by a crowd of ‘no’ supporters who, to quote the Guardian, were “draped in Union flags… chanting the words to Rule Britannia. Some shouted loyalist slogans and racist abuse, and appeared to make Nazi salutes.” Even the Daily Mail – the Daily Mail! – described them as “Nazi-saluting thugs.”
Or the fact that the modern-day Labour Party has been caught in a shit-storm of accusations about that most Nazi-ish of activities, anti-Semitism. No doubt the likes of Mike Elrick and Ian Smart would retort angrily that this was due to crass remarks made by people on the left wing of the party, such as Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker, who certainly don’t represent their Labour Party. But hey, surely the distance between them and Livingstone and Walker is no greater than the distance between Nicola Sturgeon and Arthur Donaldson, who’d stepped down as SNP leader before Sturgeon was even born.
But maybe it’s simply worth recalling Godwin’s law, the observation made by US attorney and author Mike Godwin that “(a)s an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1”; i.e. in any argument, sooner or later, someone will liken his or her opponents to the gang running the Third Reich. Which obviously demeans the memory of the millions of people who were victims of that Third Reich.
Political discourse in Scotland would be a lot saner and more edifying if commentators, politicians and social-media posters were just banned from using the ‘N’ word and from making ‘N’ analogies. I say that not just about Mike Elrick and Ian Smart on the Labour Party side but also Mairi Black on the SNP side – I thought the Conservative Party conference was pretty revolting, but nobody there was proposing the Final Solution.
Mind you, if the people you’re arguing with really are wearing swastikas (and caps with skulls on them)… By all means, go ahead and call them Nazis.